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See spot game…

When you first tell someone that you’re a gamer, one of the questions that usually seems to pop into people’s heads soon after is “why do you waste your time playing games?”  I don’t think I have to explain that to anyone who found this blog on their own… most of you probably get it.  However, in the event that someone stumbles in here and doesn’t understand, I thought it would be appropriate to start off with a few thoughts about not just why I enjoy games, but what I feel I’ve gotten from them over the years.

The short version is that games taught, teach, and continue to teach me to solve problems.  Too often, the act of playing a video game is lumped in with activities like watching T.V. and eating junk food.  While it’s true that plenty of gamers do also watch T.V. and eat junk food, I find the grouping a bit naive because even the most basic games designed only for entertainment can impart some  educational benefit on the player.   Unlike watching T.V. r even a movie where you are just the passive recipient of a stream of information, games require complex interaction that can teach lessons.   These lessons will rarely be the same between games, but if the player is observant enough and internalizes what he or she is doing, very often those experiences can help solve real problems outside of virtual space.   There are very few “healthy” pastimes that I can think of offer anywhere near that level of potential positive impact.

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying you can learn anything you ever need to know from a healthy sampling of various video games.  There is no substitute for real experience.  In the absence of real situations to learn from, however, games provide a laboratory of scenarios that teach a host of problem solving tools.  Social games can teach group dynamics.  Puzzle games can teach problem solving.  Word games teach language.  Difficult games teach trial and error and perseverance.   Many games combine lots of these lessons to provide fairly complex lessons.   As a personal example, massively multi-player online role playing games taught me leadership.

Towards the end of college, I was charge of two organizations.  The first was the Air Force Reserve Officer training program at my school – a formal leadership training pipeline approved by the U.S. military.  I was responsible for designing and executing a training program over the course of a semester for 50+ cadets.   Once a week we met as a group to execute our training, usually performing some kind of prescripted exercise as a group; during the rest of the week, my peers and I worked on the upcoming weeks.  Shadowing my real world leadership training, I was also gaining virtual leadership experience as a raid leader in a guild of players for World of Warcraft, a massively multi-player online role-playing game.  Our guild had to bring together 40+ people from around the world multiple nights a week to a single location in the game and then coordinate their activities to defeat challenges presented in the game.   I had to get very comfortable not only solving the problem presented by the computer game opponents themselves, but also the problems created by having over forty personalities all competing for very scarce rewards following sometimes fruitless nights of “work.”    Toss in a bit of complexity in that we could only use chat tools and voice-software to communicate and it gets even harder.

After graduation, I commissioned into the Air Force and was put into a variety of leadership positions.  I also went onto  additional leadership schools.   I performed very highly, often ranked in the top 10% of my peers.   But throughout my time in the Air Force, when faced with new problems, more often than not, it wasn’t my AFROTC experiences that I leaned on.  Instead, I found that the experiences I had leading World of Warcraft raids offered me the answers for how to diffuse conflict, solve problems related to resources, manpower, and time, and generally keep organized in the face of a changing work environment.  It’s not fair to say that WoW was my only source of experience… but it certainly augmented and framed my experience in  ways I  found — and continue to find —  useful as a metaphor and template for real-world scenarios.

In an increasingly digital and networked age, many of the problems we face on a day to day basis start to move into virtual space and the lessons games teach become even closer to real life.  Where I had to use voice-software to communicate with friends in WoW, companies now have to organize virtual conference calls with partners all over the world.   Simulators are used to teach people real skills to do important jobs (which may make for an interesting future topic).   As long as games continue to become more complex, I see myself always playing them because I think they will always have something to teach me.   And if someday I have to choose between letting my kids play a game or watch T.V, you can bet there’s going to be a controller, keyboard, or mouse in their hands and not a remote.

  1. The Grand Inquisitor
    February 16, 2012 at 12:56 am

    What I would like to know is how the same game continues to teach you new lessons (I’m not doubting you, I am just looking for you to expound). While I know you play several games, you go back to WoW consistently as if going “home” to it. Of course, you also find it to be entertainment. But is it the changing content which teaches you new lessons, or the changing makeup of your guild over time? Does content take a backseat in the “teaching” realm to guild dynamics? Or is there another factor I haven’t even touched on here? Examples. go. 🙂

    • Cavernshark
      February 21, 2012 at 2:36 am

      One of the things that always attracted me to MMOs was the fact that they provide a dynamic environment… if not in the game itself, then in the community and people involved in it. The “lessons” are new even years later as a result. As long as new game content is on the horizon, that’s usually enough to keep the game interesting for me..

      Further, as MuzykMann pointed out below, even when a game exhausts the content-based lessons it can provide, it still offers some raw entertainment just for entertainments sake. Toss in those personal dynamics you mention and it keeps me playing.

      I’m planning on doing a slightly longer post on the topic of MMO loyalty down the line, but I want to throw some research into it.

  2. thatmarlerguy
    February 16, 2012 at 11:29 am

    Speaking of video games, “the popular criticisms have as much scientific basis as the old warnings about the dastardly perils of comic books, according to Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl Olson. These Harvard researchers, after reviewing the literature and conducting their own study of middle school children, concluded that most children aren’t being hurt by playing video games, and that they can derive some of the same benefits from the games as from practicing music, playing sports, or pursuing other passions that require discipline. To succeed at a complex computer game, you need to focus your attention, learn intricate rules, and follow precise steps to reach a goal. It takes much more discipline than watching television.”

    Baumeister, Roy F.; Tierney, John (2011-09-01). Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (Kindle Locations 3098-3103). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.

  3. MuzykMann
    February 19, 2012 at 5:28 pm

    I think everyone has made valid points here, but they all seem to be based on the assumption that games need to somehow be productive to be worthwhile. While you’ve presented good evidence as to why they are, why do games uniquely have to live up to this standard?

    Even just coming at it from an entertainment perspective, most modern games provide characters, a setting, and some form of a plot. This would also be true of movies, books, television series, and even those old time weekly radio shows. All of these things are socially acceptable ways for people to kick back, put their feet up, and get away from their day to day lives for a few hours. Why must games live up to the higher standard of being productive, as opposed to just being entertaining?

    When questioned about my game habits, I typically just shrug and say “yeah, it’s my relax time. I don’t watch tv, I don’t watch movies, I play games instead”. This usually is enough to make people think of all the time they spend watching TV, and they get it. If only my game related collectibles were so easy to justify…

    • Cavernshark
      February 20, 2012 at 11:13 pm

      I don’t know that I necessarily made the argument that games have to make you a better person to have value. Like you, I also play them as a form of relaxation. Playing the game burns mental energy that otherwise leaves me restless.
      That said, the fact is that even games designed to entertain are more interactive than T.V. or movies. The most cinematic of games on the market still require you to make choices, even if superficial ones. You may not pick it up off the shelf to learn something, but you’re probably getting that side benefit regardless.
      That’s my take anyway.

    • thatmarlerguy
      February 21, 2012 at 3:19 am

      I agree! Why is it more socially acceptable to watch a 4 hour baseball game or daytime soap opera’s but gaming is looked down upon? How can it be cool to spend every single weekend morning golfing but an afternoon of gaming makes you a nerd?

      I am glad I’m married to a woman who understands what MusykMann has said, that gaming is just another fun hobby like so many others.

  4. The Girlfriend
    February 21, 2012 at 11:02 am

    I have to pipe in a little – I think the argument from the ladies is less that the hobby is nerdy and more that it (often) tends to take up so very much of a person’s life, leaving little room for anything else. We’ve all seen relationships fall apart because the guy can’t get off WoW… admit it. Those relationships are usually between 20 years olds who haven’t figured out how to balance their lives a bit, though. A girlfriend/wife would have the same problem if her spouse were spending all his time watching sports, too. That being said, as long as you have a true balance in your life there’s absolutely nothing wrong with gaming or any hobby, and even better if you can get your lady to game with you so she notices less if you’re on there a little more than her 😉

    I actually love that Drew is a gamer. It’s exposed me to a lot of games and genres that I love that I might not have known about. It also shows through in his personality as a puzzle solver and that’s pretty awesome. Also, extra thumb strength for opening jelly jars.

  5. leonfei
    April 6, 2012 at 6:09 am

    I totally agree with all the points you made here. People tend to lump playing games together with watching TV, but I personally see TV as a much more mindless pursuit, due to the lack of interaction and thought required compared with a good game. You can rarely just switch off while playing a game, you’re always challenging and bettering yourself, and I myself find that to be much more relaxing than watching TV. On the topic of skills gained from video games, I fully believe that I wouldn’t be as good a driver as I am if my reflexes hadn’t been honed and sharpened through playing video games.

  6. April 12, 2012 at 6:33 am

    Interesting article that I totally agree with. I’ve read a few books on how games are able to educate people and it’s a really interesting subject. One such book is ‘Don’t bother me mom – I’m learning’ – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dont-Bother-Me-Mom-Learning/dp/1557788588/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1334226292&sr=8-1, in which it states that the brains of people who grow up playing games develop differently (allowing them to be better at multitasking and processing information.) I get tired of having to defend myself on crossing paths with non-gamers (which happens quite often.) If it wasn’t for games I’d probably be a completely different person; I may not have even developed such an interest in computing or taught myself how to program. I dislike how games are grouped with things like TV (even in some cases treated with less respect than TV), when there is a key difference in that games engage your mind more. I also dislike how people think gamers are all fat and lazy (when a good deal of them are also capable of enjoying sport or other physical activities.) I don’t think you can claim all games to be healthy, educational or beneficial to life, but there are definitely a good deal of examples where they are. As well as the educational benefits I think it’s also good for adults to still remember how to play and have fun.

  7. April 15, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    Thanks for sharing that link! I’ll have to check out the book. Most of my assertions on this front are based only on anecdote and personal experience, so if there have been some empirical studies on the topic, I’d definitely love to see them.

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