Friday, November 16, 2012

What Can You Learn From Games?

There are a lot of resources available to you in this world, but there's one that every human has access to, one that is limited, and one most people aren't very good at using well, and that resource is time.  We never seem to have enough of it.  We waste our time until we don't have anymore, then wonder where it went.  We actively look for ways to kill time while waiting for other things to happen, then get upset with how busy we always are.

Most people think they should be trying to do valuable things with their time.  And there are probably plenty of people out there who don't think that you should be spending them playing video games.  Why not?  Because you could be making art or friends, reading books or helping the homeless or saving lives or smoking crack.  Why play games?

Well, like I spent about two weeks discussing before, games are simulations designed to develop skills.  Games are also ways to enjoy yourself, and potentially act as ways to cultivate relationships.  Spending time doing things you like with people you like and learning things that help you do stuff better; all in all, it sounds like a sweet deal, and pretty much answers the above question.  Playing games can let you have a good time and become a better human being.

What kind of skills can you develop?

--Games can teach people how to read maps and establish direction sense; play an RPG or an FPS without being able to learn a new environment, and prepare yourself for a world of pain as you run around in blind circles.  This will also help you navigate using landmarks as guides, reorient yourself with regards to absolute direction, and basically not get lost every time you blink.

--They can teach you how to prioritize objectives and create efficient action paths.  If you play an adventure game or RPG or something, where you need to talk to one NPC, turn in a fetch quest, buy some items with the money you just earned, and make it back to your airship/horse/dune-buggy/travel thing, you can use those scenarios to become more efficient with your time.  You can plot out paths that will get the most done with the least travel, or learn to perform actions that accomplish multiple goals at once.  Speedrunners who try to create their own paths through a game will probably push this kind of skill even further.

--Team-based games can help you practice teamwork and communication skills.  You share objectives with others, learn how to manage around others' failures or capitalize on their successes, and can also find ways to deal with different personality types effectively.

--Games can help you cultivate rapid pattern-recognition skills.  From platformers and action games with boss AIs to understand, to puzzle games where you must find problem-solving patterns that you can chunk and combine, to competitive multiplayer games where you must exploit an opponent's tendencies to win, games help hone the pattern-recognition software in your brain.

--Games can teach you how to better mentally focus on important moments; I've had numerous friends react quickly and instantly to dangerous situations and I've even impressed people with my average reflexes.  By learning how to focus on a cue (like a boss' startup animation) and having a plan in place to deal with it, I can sometimes react instantly to new situations while other people don't even know they need to be doing something.

--Here is an interesting one that's never talked about: games can teach you "fake" depth perception.  In 3D games, sometimes you have to judge distance "away" from you/your character.  The problem is, you're judging it on a two-dimensional plane.  Your brain uses both of your eyes to create depth perception, but a 3D game only lets you use one "eye," the camera.  Playing these games can help you learn to judge depth perception by using a combination of environmental cues without relying on having two eyes.  Interesting!

--Games can get you in the habit of doing quick mental arithmetic.  I don't even know where to start on this, since games are all about numbers, but quickly doing math in your head is unbelievably useful and games give you a chance to practice constantly.

--I bet there's more I haven't even mentioned.  So if your games are giving you a chance to have fun AND develop these auxiliary skills that you can apply elsewhere, they can be pretty efficient ways to spend your time!

There's a catch to all of this though.  Games are just like books and movies and classrooms which is that you can only develop skills that you actually practice; just showing up doesn't cut it.  Just as there are a lot of ignorant people with high-school diplomas, there's not inherent reason to try and play games well.  Lots of people use them the same way they use every other form of media; to kill time.  To passively trigger and satisfy the dopamine circuitry in the brain so they feel like they did something without learning or achieving anything.

Games can also teach you bad habits.  Games can teach you to find excuses for failure (lag or a bad controller or a crappy teammate or a stupid design element) so you never have to question your performance.  Games can teach you that mindlessly grinding away your time will help you achieve goals.  Games might teach you any number of lessons.  You might learn to lose gracefully and respect an opponent's prowess or you might learn to complain that he's a cheater if he dares ruin your killstreak.

There's a hidden moral and life lesson here, which is that what you learn and develop in the time you have available is almost completely separate from the thing you're doing.  The only things you learn and the only skills you develop are the things you choose to practice.  Play mindlessly, and you will live mindlessly.  Play thoughtfully with the intent to develop new skills, and you will have new skills no matter what you do.

And possibly the final and most important point is, it does not matter what the hell you learn from games, if all you do with that knowledge is keep playing the games.  If the simulation does nothing but make you better at the simulation, you might as well not learn anything.

Thanks for reading.


  1. I'd like to point out one more thing Rob:

    As young gamers, you and I played all the Final Fantasy games from the time we were five. We both also excelled in vocabulary and spelling at school due to reading the text in these games like books from a young age.

    I'm reminded of a time when in second grade, we were reading a book aloud in class, and the teacher read the word "summoned" aloud. When she asked the class what it meant, thanks to dear old Final Fantasy II (or IV, depending on what console you're looking at) mine was the only hand that went up. Although not even close to a particularly advanced word for people our own age, as a young child, my teacher was actually a little blown away that I had quick and easy access to a word not regularly used in our daily lives.

    Just another benefit from our friend the RPG wouldn't you say?

  2. Maybe the biggest lesson I have ever gained from playing video games is how to be patient and persevere. Spend enough time grinding away at a boss you can't beat, or a section you can't get through, or even a person you can't beat, and you start to get a tolerance for not succeeding while plugging away toward a goal you've yet to accomplish. Suddenly in real life when things don't go as planed, failure doesn't seem as daunting, and it turns more into just another obstacle than a brick wall.

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