Here is an post written by my husband, Jim Keir, in response to trying to persuade to me to play some computer games. It goes into great depth….
“Me? Play games? Hah! I’m too old for that”
That’s a real shame, if that’s your first thought. Play, imagination and games are very important to both physical and mental development and it would be a bit worrying if you thought you had nothing more to learn after your mid-teens.
The young of intelligent animals all play. Puppies, kittens, apes, dolphins, they all play. So do humans, of course, but at some point humans start being told “stop that and grow up”. Fair enough, you need to learn that life isn’t all play, it’s just that “stop” is maybe going a bit far.
Play is all about learning life skills in a relatively safe environment. Kittens play at stalking, puppies play at fighting and chasing, chimps play at fighting, climbing and caring. If you go back a generation or so, what were the traditional gender-based toys and games for humans? Boys played at soldiers (fighting, so tribal social skills, as well as teamwork and command), physical dares like jumping and climbing ever further (strength, agility, tribal social positioning again), cowboys and Indians (tracking, hunting), bows and arrows (hunting and co-ordination). Girls played with baby-dolls (childcare), tea-parties (food use), doll-houses and household appliance toys (nesting) etc. These days of course, these stereotypes are outdated but the fact that they were stereotypes will tell you something if you think about the traditional gender roles and the skills imparted by their respective toys and games. If you’re not convinced, there’s evidence for the same kind of gender split in games played by juvenile chimps and monkeys.
The thing is, the size of the skillset needed by an average adult dog or cat is pretty limited. Fairly straightforward social skills, hunting or foraging skills, learn your food sources and predators, and you’re about done. That kind of training can be 80% done quite quickly, with the other 20% coming as refinements over a longer period. Once that initial learning is done, these animals can get on with some moderately competent adulting very quickly. Humans are… let’s say a bit trickier.
The range of things that a modern human needs to learn is vast. Even going back 100 years or so, children were maybe doing basic utility tasks – cleaning, carrying – at a much earlier age but still weren’t expected to be fully independent and self-sustaining until late teens. The skills required to get by in modern society are way more complex, so you’d naturally expect the learning process to take correspondingly longer, but it really hasn’t grown much at all. Society has expanded from “village” to “planet”. Social norms are much more intricate. Work skills are also much more demanding, as are the time constraints and the penalties for not being good enough to get the task done right, first time, quickly. All of the daily-use tools we have now require very complex skills – cars, mobile apps, computers and so on.
It’s possible to go back a tad further than 100 years, too. The Vikings played chess in between other more vigorous pastimes in the 12th century, and they got the idea from the Persians who had it in the 7th century who in turn adapted it from the Indians – or possibly Chinese – around 200BC. Dice have been found both physically and in literature dating back to about 2000BC (quick aside: The oldest D20, beloved of tabletop Dungeons and Dragons players worldwide, is dated to 300BC. That’s two thousand, three hundred years ago). Roman legions played dice and board games, and some matches were the subjects of famous authors. Board games were found in Pharaonic tombs at about 3100BC. Other, unknown gaming pieces from Turkey are dated to about the same period, along with something like backgammon. Games for adults have been a part of human culture pretty much since there’s been human culture.
So how come it’s slightly taboo to be playing – safely practicing skills in a zero-impact environment – as a modern “adult”, whatever that means?
This taboo seems to be a new thing. Again, think back 100 years or so and it doesn’t seem to have been the case. Before TV and radio, people – adults – had parlour games, card games, lawn games, pub games, guessing games. In the evening you might be doing crafts, or reading, but were just as likely to be in a group playing a game. Learning life skills safely and having a bit of fun while you were at it.
Card games – anything more demanding than ‘snap’, anyway – would teach you to understand and follow a complex set of rules. You’d also learn to think ahead – to plan and execute a strategy. To calculate probability and risk. To try and get into someone else’s mind and see the world from their perspective (what cards are they likely to play next?). To work in a team, for some card games.
Lawn games? Let’s say tennis. Physical health, hand-eye co-ordination, very rapid decision-making, understanding your opponent’s mind.
Guessing games, like charades? Again, seeing the world through someone else’s eyes if you want to understand what their frantic gesticulating is supposed to be. Putting together very abstract clues and coming up with a best-fit theory, using your imagination.
Any non-solitary game will give you the ability to win and lose gracefully (social skills). Any co-operative team game will teach you how to see the bigger picture and work for the greater good, possibly against your own individual preferences or interest. Solitary games will still teach you to accept losing and to learn and adapt from that experience, how to be satisfied with your own success rather than beating somebody else, plus whatever skills the game itself requires.
All of these would be massively useful as general life skills in many situations. So how, if modern people are socially pressured to stop playing in their mid-to-late teens, are you supposed to gain all of these abilities, except by doing it for real where the stakes are far higher? All of these benefits of play during non-work time seem to have been replaced by TV, a non-interactive supply of soap operas and “reality” humiliation shows designed to make you feel that at least somebody else’s life is more shit than yours.
Is it any wonder that fear of failure is seen as such a big problem now? By not learning safely, the likelihood of failure is much higher, and by not being exposed to failure – losing games where losing doesn’t really matter – the impact of it is hugely overestimated. It would be easy to understand people being too scared to change their lives for the better, and without the imagination to see the change in the first place.
A more complex society with more complex skills has naturally also given rise to more complex games and, as with so many other aspects of life, they’ve been computerised. Modern video games, though, seem to have picked up a fairly major stigma – they’re just for solitary teenage boys in darkened bedrooms, right? Well, yeah, but not since about forty years ago.
Back then if you had a computer at all, which was very rare, it was because you wanted to write code on it. The proper name for this is ‘software engineering’ – it’s a creative but non-physical engineering process – so (given the educational gender bias back then) tended to draw in more boys than girls. So, to be fair to the misconception, it did gather a certain type of person. Once somebody found they could get a computer to do fun stuff too, it didn’t take long until somebody else decided to sell the fun stuff rather than expect people to write it themselves. Hey presto, the modern multi-billion dollar games industry was born.
Things are very different now. Depending on which study you read, roughly 45% of people playing games are female; 70% of American under-18s played video games – and 68% of adults, ranging through to their 70s. The gaming industry’s revenue is bigger than movies and music combined, and has been for some time. This isn’t driven by a minority group of semi-outcast geeky boys.
Another common misconception is that video games are all about violence, guns and smack-talk between aggressive teenagers. Understandable, given the average news coverage, but very misleading. Yes, a certain segment is like that and that’s the segment that tends to hit the news for all the wrong reasons, but just as the Victorians and Edwardians had a huge range of different games, there’s a huge variety today as well covering a wide range of genres. And, given the flexibility of modern computers, the flexibility, range and depth of the games can be much greater as well. All this additional scope means, of course, that the range of learning opportunities is correspondingly greater as is the potential for emotional involvement. Video games have recently even been shown to be effective in slowing and preventing cognitive decline in the elderly.
These days practically everyone has something that plays video games. Xbox? Playstation? Nintendo Switch? Windows PC? Mac? Chromebook? Still no, huh? Okay, take this one: a smartphone!
So, let’s start with the elephant in the room: the ones you’ve probably heard about on the news, the likes of Fortnite and Overwatch. These are the classic negative posterboys, the ones that drag in teenagers and cause behavioural issues and addiction. They’re also massively popular and a multi-billion dollar industry. Once the whole games industry became… well… an industry, it had a lot of money thrown at it. A lot of money. Nowadays most games are intended for a specific market and are designed very carefully for that market, with the help of behaviourists and psychologists.
These two titles in particular are so popular with teenagers, and particularly boys, because they cater very specifically for them. They focus carefully on the kind of competitive, combative behaviour that young males of any social species use for determining their position in the tribal hierarchy. Young males – think of chimps, for example – will be fighting, forming small cliques, pushing boundaries, doing anything to make sure that they end up towards the top of the social structure and therefore have power and breeding rights later in life. Better that adolescent humans do this in a video game than for real – think about city gangs, for example – but because this behaviour is such a deep-seated animal instinct, it can become an addiction and that’s why it hits the news.
Now for the fun ones. I want to show that there’s more, a lot more, to it than just the negative headlines. I’m going to list a few and give a brief description of what they are, and then go into how they might help you in real life.
So, having dispensed with the negative, violent image, let’s start with a fast-action violent shooter…
The name says it all. Doom has been around in one form or another since the ‘90s and it pretty much defined a genre that’s generally about just shooting monsters. Demons in this particular case, but as a quick aside, it’s a socially-acceptable way of shooting things inna face. Monsters, demons, Nazis, zombies, Nazi zombies and so on are a bit of a cliché, but they’re used specifically because they’re very clearly The Bad Guy and there’s no real moral qualms about offing them.
Doesn’t sound too likely a place to start talking about real-world benefits, does it?
And yet… despite not normally going for that kind of thing, I loved the 2017 version of this. It was like ballet with guns, on Mars. You might rightfully point out that this is not something that’s likely to be of direct relevance to most people’s skillsets. What this does give you though, is immediate and complete immersion. It’s not possible to play this without being 100% focussed and if you achieve that, there’s a level of detachment from day-to-day problems that you don’t normally find. It gets the adrenaline going and makes you utterly forget your day’s problems, and is beautifully designed to inspire a fluid, graceful motion that’s incredibly satisfying when you get it right. In other words, it has a definite feel-good element to it.
Think of it as a cardio workout combined with mindfulness and yoga elements. And a chainsaw. You’ll emerge the other end calm, relaxed and grinning like a loon. Maybe not so much a way of learning life skills (although coordination, perception, reflexes and very rapid decision-making aren’t exactly useless), but it’s certainly a fantastic way of de-stressing.
The Civilization series – or ‘Civ’ to friends – has also been around since the ‘90s. You have a world map, of which you only see a tiny part at the start, and a couple of people you can move around. The idea is that you start with nothing and create a civilisation using the resources around you, but the devil’s in the detail. Come the end of the game you’re able to manage everything, from the actions of individual workers up to global organisations, religion, politics, arts, the military, research, trade, culture, environmental impacts, city zoning…
You and the other players – usually the computer but it can be played against humans too – take turns to move so it’s initially quite relaxed and slow. The catch is that there’s always so many different slow-burning things going on that you have a very high involvement, and a very high mental load, to deal with on each turn once the game’s really got going. Civ had a catchphrase of “Just… one… more… turn…” and it was well deserved. You could continue playing – and very often did – after you had already won. Or lost. Either way, really, just anything so that you could see what happened once that building project completed, and by then two or three other things were so close to completing that you’d be silly to stop now…
Again, there may not be an obvious parallel with real-life skills so let’s look a little closer.
You’re continually being pulled in several different directions at once, and will learn to deal with this very effectively. You’ll learn to balance short-term and long-term demands though the continual decisions you’re making. The other civilisations will, of course, be trying to win as well and trying to stop you, take your land, sabotage your missionaries and so on, so you’ll learn to deal with random, uncontrollable setbacks. If you want to win, you’ll learn to start predicting them and then preventing them. You’ll learn to evaluate different paths to a desired goal – it’s possible to win through science, religion, financial, political or military means.
This is just one of many games that work along the same lines, putting you in a high-demand, varied situation that needs a thorough understanding and ability to assimilate lots of incoming information quickly and effectively. You’ll learn to instinctively isolate just the relevant information for making the decision at hand, without losing sight of where that decision sits in the bigger picture. If you’ve ever felt like a bunny in headlights, overwhelmed by a mass of conflicting and urgent demands, this is the cure. You’ll learn that while you might not make the best decision under pressure, you’ll make an acceptable one and be able to change course if needed later on, once you’ve had time to think things through.
And, of course, you’ll be having fun at the same time. It scratches a deep-seated human urge for organisation and control.
Is it maybe sounding a bit more useful now?
You’ve probably heard of ‘steampunk’ – this game has a steampunky atmosphere in a post-apocalyptic scenario where there’s been a global disaster and temperatures have plummeted. You are the leader of a small group of survivors struggling to scratch an existence in a near-hopeless world. This brings the scope down from the global, multi-millenial politics of Civilisation to a tiny settlement with a few dozen individuals.
This time you’re making both practical and moral decisions. Resources are extremely tight and you continually have to choose between two terrible outcomes. Do you play to the long-term and concentrate on researching ways of getting more from less, or do you assign those people away from research to build shelters without which others will die? Do the children have to carry scavenged firewood in near-fatal temperatures to fuel the one heat-source you have, or do they get educated and get soft work inside while their parents have to work until they drop and freeze to death? Do you look for other survivors in the wasteland to expand your dwindling, exhausted, injured workforce? If you do, who builds the homes they’ll need to not die within the first few days after arriving?
It’s bleak, cruel and relentless. And that’s before you’re told the temperature’s going to drop to -70 for a week. It’s also involving and compelling and emotionally draining – and incredibly satisfying. Every tiny achievement, every bit of good news, is seized and savoured. It gets so that the decisions you’re forced to make are genuinely painful. You’ll agonize over these tiny digital people and when – if – you manage to get your tiny settlement through the incoming storm the feeling of relief and achievement is quite stunning.
Again, on the face of things, you’re unlikely to end up shepherding a band of survivors through a snap glaciation in real world. Take the specific situation out of the picture though, and you’re learning to evaluate and make very emotionally challenging choices. Balancing emotional and practical concerns, being in a hopeless situation and not just not giving in, but being able to give hope to others. You’re not just optimising a supply chain, you’re doing that while at the same time balancing against very human fears, and if your struggling survivors lose faith in you, in your ability to do the right thing to keep them alive even if that right thing is sub-optimal for production, they’ll turn you out.
You’re rehearsing how, in other words, to be a leader.
This, and many others, are almost entirely story-based. The game – that is, what you do – isn’t demanding at all, it’s just a way of getting you from one part of the story to the next. They’re sometimes collectively called ‘walking simulators’ because you usually just need to walk from here to there and solve a trivial puzzle to trigger the next bit of narration. They’re generally chill, slow-moving, undemanding, and an emotional rollercoaster.
You might think it’s just the same as watching TV, but there’s a key difference. In a game, especially one that’s a person’s narrative, you are the center of the story. It doesn’t take long for you to forget your own problems and identify with the storyteller. That’s great escapism right there, but that’s not the point. By making you the subject of the story, you’re exposed to all the highs and lows of the story as if they were your own.
So, it’s not just mental and organisation skills you can learn, you can get emotional training as well. These will drag you in and teach you empathy, to actually feel other people’s joy and pain. Once you’ve not just seen, but experienced, a shadow of the storytellers’ journey you may well find that your own lows aren’t quite so bad as you thought, and that your own highs are more valued.
The stories are endlessly varied. Firewatch; The Last of Us; The Last Days of June; That Dragon, Cancer; What Remains of Edith Finch; Gone Home; Heaven’s Vault; A Plague Tale; Senua’s Sacrifice. All beautiful but hard-hitting stories with minimal ‘games’ attached. At the other end of the cheerfulness scale are things like 80 Days; Burly Men at Sea; Kena : Bridge of Spirits; Never Alone. Light, visually appealing, heartwarming stories that share a real joy in the world.
Whether you choose to dip into someone’s grief and redemption, or stay at the lighter end and share in someone else’s joy and sense of wonder, the fact that it’s happening to you – or your proxy, at least – rather than an actor that you have no connection with makes all the difference.
Whatever deep-seated instinctive need tickles your particular fancy, there’s something to cater for it which will in one way or another expose you to a fun, safe learning environment. It can connect you with others, either sat beside you or in a different continent, and give you shared, positive memories. If nothing else, it will provide a way of de-stressing and doing something that requires you to think instead of getting in, putting your brain back in its jar, turning on Netflix and waiting ‘til bedtime.
There are card games that are much more immersive than actual playing cards (Slay the Spire, Darkest Dungeon); simple feelgood games (Pokemon, TemTem); exploration games (Zelda, Assassins Creed Origins); building games (Cities:Skylines, Planet Coaster); construction and automation games (Factorio, Satisfactory); gentle digital toys (Townscaper, Dorfromantik); sandbox games which only provide a play area and you add the story (Elite:Dangerous, No Man’s Sky); puzzle games (Portal, The Witness); epic stories (The Witcher 3, Red Dead Redemption 2); resource management games (Rimworld; Dyson Sphere Program); grand strategy games (Crusader Kings 3, Total War:Three Kingdoms); learn to fly a fully realistic plane (X-Plane) or even understand orbital mechanics (Kerbal Space Program). All of them will give you something, and maybe someone, to interact with that will rehearse general skills that you will find yourself using daily as well as giving you a safe space to de-stress without taking it out on real people who probably don’t deserve it.
So what have we got out of all this, apart from a load of enjoyment? Where, for those who might still think playing to be a waste of time, is the benefit?
How about these: Observation; perception; pattern recognition; mindfulness; flow; planning; balancing short- and long-term goals; rapid evaluation of information; the ability to both succeed and fail and take it in your stride; determination; evaluating, choosing and executing paths to a goal; making effective decisions under pressure; balancing conflicting needs and personalities; hope; leadership; remaining effective in an emotionally-charged situation; empathy; lateral thinking; emotional maturity; problem-solving; continued experience and skill at learning; ability to apply knowledge in novel situations; exposure to and tolerance of unusual situations; seeing others’ perspectives; efficiently sequence interdependent tasks; management of limited resources; employ both strategy and tactics; ability to focus on a task while surrounded by distractions; the ability to decide when to change focus based on immediate, significant needs; the difference between urgent and important.
You also get to de-stress; laugh; cry; succeed at something after a depressing day; build happy shared memories; name a character after your manager and then open the gates to the T-Rex enclosure; shoot Hitler in the testicles; be a member of a community – yes, although almost everything I’ve listed is single-player, many games now support or even require online play with others and outside of a small but vocal group of toxic yoof, most gamers are open-minded, tolerant, helpful individuals. Check out Many a True Nerd’s Sunday and Wednesday evening livestreams for an example of a positive, welcoming, fun community or, if you want a new “TV” series to watch, his 12-part playthrough of The Last of Us.
Most importantly, games let you practice all of these skills and more in a safe, repeatable and above all enjoyable environment. Not bad for something you thought was a waste of time for socially-awkward kids.