Isn’t our capacity to learn when we are having fun amazing! 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, purely imaginary games, board games, card games and off into the virtual worlds of video games. There is a lot you can learn from games. I don’t think I appreciated at the time just how impressively brains are wired to learn and are quite capable of applying the knowledge and skills learned in one activity to many other situations.
Systems and rules
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 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.
It is these complex rules systems which 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 is an indicator that the system has been internalised and the player has developed a mental model of the system, the rules, of the game.
While developing an understanding of one game’s rules probably isn’t going to drastically alter the way you see the world, people rarely play only a single game. 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 in situations outside of the games they play.
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 enjoyed 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 we 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 designs 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, 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!
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 to 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 to address this.
This article was originally published in April, 2016.
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