We have an amazing 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.
My childhood involved playing a lot of games, ranging from landscapes existing solely in my imagination, to cards, and off into the virtual worlds of video games. There is a lot you can learn from games. I don't think I realised it at the time.
Brains are clearly wired to learn and are quite capable of applying the knowledge and skills learned in one thing to many other situations.
A powerful medium
Video games are a particularly powerful medium in this way as they are able to encode very complex systems of rules, all of which are made accessible through the visual and auditory experience we've grown to associate with them. While you might enjoy a game's beautiful sound design or play a game because you like the visuals, they are not the components which are challenging; they are the representation of the rules with we engage.
It is these complex rules systems that, although we don't always realise it, we are learning as we start to play the game. As we progress we gain an increasingly nuanced understanding of the rules, we start to be able to predict the outcome of certain plays and are able to rapidly approximate the strength of our own position in comparison to others in the game.
This ability to predict results and perform rapid comparisons indicates the system has been internalised and the player has developed a mental model of the system of the game.
While it is all well and good to develop an understanding of one game's rules it probably isn't the most helpful. People rarely play only a single game; 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 through these games that players develop externally; games that are the most useful represent a high level of abstraction and, as such, are broadly applicable to problem they are faced with.
It is important to remember that our brains are often rather lazy. While we loathe 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. While I enjoyed being handed victories as the game offered me complete power; I didn't become any better at playing the game. Leave those cheat codes alone!
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 best to direct you to at least some more information on the subject. I recommend starting with this video series on the subject: Extra Credits: Game addiction.
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 game provides an excellent example.
I recently played 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 said 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 you still engage with concepts like heat and orbits and the challenge of solving a problem within a set of affordances.
I'm sure there is much more which we could do with games 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!
Sam Gillespie is a postgraduate research student at the University of New South Wales.
Sam Gillespie's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/sam-gillespie.html