I first penned someone along these lines in 2016 and am now looking over it for some updating. Isn’t it amazing, our capacity to learn when we are having fun! Video games are often rolled out when this subject comes up and I think it is for good reason.
Time well spent
My childhood involved playing a lot of games, some purely imaginary games, board games, card games and also off into the virtual world of video games. There’s a lot you can learn from games. I don’t think I appreciated just how impressive the brain is in learning and applying the knowledge and skills from one activity to many other situations. Yet many video games rely on this capacity to ensure the game experience is novel and challenging for a player.
Systems and rules
Video games are a powerful medium in the way they are able to encode very complex systems of rules. All of the rules and systems are communicated to the player through the visual and auditory interactive experience of play. While you might enjoy a game’s beautiful sound design or play a game because you like how vivid the visuals look, they are not the components which are challenging, they are in part the representation of the rules with which we engage when we play.
It is these complex rule systems which we learn as we start to play a game. As a player progresses in a game they gain an increasingly nuanced understanding of the rules, they start to be able to predict the outcome of certain plays and are able to rapidly approximate the strength of their own position in comparison to others in the game. This ability to predict results and perform rapid comparisons are indicators that the system has been internalised and the player has developed a mental model of the system, the rules, of the game. All while they were having fun!
While developing an understanding of one game’s rules probably isn’t going to drastically alter the way someone sees the world. People rarely play only a single game, in my experience. Therefore as they change games they carry some base level aptitude from game to game but they also develop internalised strategies for learning new games.
It is these models which players develop externally to games that are the most useful as a high level abstraction over a number of problems. As such these thinking strategies are broadly applicable to problems they are faced with both in game and in life more generally.
Challenge is important
Our brains are often rather lazy. While we loath boredom we also shy away from taxing work. There are many psychological factors at work in our experience of games and while we can learn a lot, it is important that we keep ourselves challenged. I can remember as a child finding cheat codes for some of the games I was playing and while I was enjoying being handed victories as the game offered me complete power,
I didn’t become any better at playing the game. Those cheat codes removed the benefit of engaging with the challenges in the game, discarding my opportunity to learn. Leave those cheat codes alone!
Learning from mechanics
I’d like to finish on another aspect I haven’t yet covered; Learning through doing. I can remember when I was growing up running, mining operations on alien planets and planning interstellar trade routes but one recent example I think provides an excellent example. I had the chance to play a game I’d been hearing about for a while, Kerbal Space Program (Squad 2015).
In this game you “run” the space program of a fictional alien race, I say “run” as most of your time is spent designing spaceships and if you are lucky enough, getting at least some of your spaceship into space. While by no means a perfect representation of physics, the game does a surprisingly good job and has left me with a brand new appreciation for aerospace engineers.
Hence this is a great example of learning through doing, although so much is abstracted away I was still engaging with concepts like heat, orbits and the challenge of solving a problem within a set of affordances.
Games are still a young media and as such we can look forward to new and exciting applications in the future. But what we have so far is already shaping the way we think and learn (and think about learning). So next time you are looking for a relaxing activity why not consider a game. Learn something and have fun while you’re at it!
N.B. - It is worth taking a moment to consider video game addiction and escapist behaviour. While I feel it’s beyond the scope of this article I feel it is a subject which shouldn’t be ignored. Like so much in creation, playing isn’t perfect and video games are designed to be engaging. This Aspect can lead spending too much time on an activity for ourselves, neglecting other important parts of life. If you or someone you know is struggling with a video game addiction there are a number of services available internationally and likely at a local level.
Sam Gillespie is a composer, programmer and PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales.Sam Gillespie's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/sam-gillespie.html