Welcome to the last of our series on the powers of play (which starts here for those just coming in). In some ways we've saved the best to last - not in terms of writing, that's hardly for me to say, but in terms of the importance of the point being made. Hope you agree - and whether or not you do, hope you've found the series thought-provoking, and that it's inspired you to grant play the respect it deserves as a fundamental aspect of human intelligence and culture!
If you're familiar with my work outside IGD, or you’ve been paying attention to the way I’ve espoused the virtues of games and play, you’ll have gathered that I have a fairly cerebral approach to things. Playing helps us learn better, think more creatively, be mindful of others, broaden our cultural horizons, make better decisions… you might be forgiven for thinking that thinking’s all I’m concerned about!
In fact, this is a long way from the truth; I’m interested in thinking because it informs what we actually do. Getting your thinking right means you’re infinitely more likely to get your doing right. But in the process of dwelling on those aspects of learning, I’ve neglected to point out that games are also the most active of artforms. So it’s time to make this point properly.
To begin with, I’ve touched on the fact that play and games actively improve skills, not just knowledge and intelligence, but I haven’t really dwelt on it, despite the fact that I’m pretty sure it’s saved my life at least once.
(Short version: driving in rural Australia, sharpened reflexes and improved threat anticipation allowed me to avoid being sideswiped by a semitrailer that had to brake and swerve into my lane.)
But in fact this is another core value of play, and games especially (but not exclusively, since it’s possible to play without the defined objectives of most games): they teach us that to achieve our goals, understanding of one’s decisions and the context in which one makes them are vitally important – but so is actually turning understanding into decisions and decisions into actions.
It’s inherent to the nature of games: while they can incorporate other artforms (language, static and moving visual forms, music and audio elements, tactile elements…), the distinctive markers of this medium (or rather, these media: games are incredibly varied) are that they include the poetic arrangement of decisions, actions, and tests of skill for the audience. In other words, if you’re not actively doing something, it’s not much of a game. You have to be playing it: “you” being the subject of that sentence means the action is coming from you.
What this means is that while games encourage and improve our capacity for analysis and reflection, they do so within a context of that thought having to inform action. That action can include decisive inaction, i.e. not doing something because that is the most intelligent option; but there is a world of difference between that and defaulting to inactivity. (As an example of this, read the section headed “Identify What Matters Most” in Live Like a Gamer, an article by Mark Rosewater, the Head Designer of one of the world’s most popular tabletop games, Magic: the Gathering. The whole article is worth a read, in fact, since its whole point is to catalogue some of the often non-obvious ways in which games teach important life-skills.)
This has two major positive effects.
First, it creates what you might call an “implementation bias”. It’s one thing to come to a good judgment; it’s another entirely to enact one. But games drive home the fact that even the most perfect understanding means nothing without action. What’s more, having the inbuilt assumption that any conclusions you come to will have to be implemented gives you a stronger incentive to make decisions which are actually good, because they give you a much stronger incentive to be engaged with reality than decisions where you are (unconsciously or otherwise) letting yourself off the hook of having to make them work in the real world.
Second, linking analysis to enactment works both ways, building an iterative, error-checking propensity into our actions. Nobody ever has perfect information; while you can be more or less confident, you can’t know when you formulate a plan how it will turn out. A good game trains us for this, because it creates plenty of room for surprises, whether from random elements, from cunning AI, or from competing players. Not only do you learn to try to anticipate what might be coming, but you learn to expect that you will have to deal with things you failed to anticipate, that you may need to revise your specific tactics to achieve your strategic objectives, that strategies may need to be revised or discarded in order to achieve your goal, and even that goals may be conflicting and you may need to prioritise or choose between them. The only way you can know that you have reached this point is if you are continuing to pay attention to your environment as you roll out your plan, and constantly thinking about what you are learning.
I call this capacity to maintain mindfulness while in the thick of things “reflection-in-action”. Closely related to Csiksentmihalyi’s “flow”, it layers on top of that close engagement with immediate circumstances the detached analysis of the planning stage, allowing the mind to draw insight from both bigger-picture, abstract or systemic understandings and the minutiae of the actual unfolding of events. At its most extreme, it feels like a literally mind-expanding experience (yes, I know it’s hard to be literal about the intangible, but that’s the subjective sensation): as you watch developments with which you are this closely engaged, you feel as though your mind is extending itself both outside the boundaries of your ego-self into the abstract and conceptual truths that reflect wider reality, and also out of your skull into that actual reality.
This isn’t isolated to play – the act of creation can also induce this experience, which to me highlights the connection between play and creation. But given that elsewhere it’s a hallmark of humanity’s most exceptional achievements, and it’s a useful capacity either way, it’s yet another reason to reconsider our false assumptions – and realise that just because the overt outcomes of play are typically of little value outside the context of the game, play itself is far from trivial.