Talking Points: Play, inclusion, and community-building

I’ve already covered this topic to some degree in the post on games, sharing culture, and connecting people: games, by providing a framework for interaction, enable a connection between people that requires no other common experience – there’s no need to share an age, class, culture, occupation, or anything else; even a common language can be optional.

What I didn’t do in that post was call out the fact that this means games and play can not only strengthen bonds that are already there, but work to break down the barriers that artificially divide us – or, if you prefer, to regrow the bonds of our common humanity that have been artificially severed.

They can do this in two ways, which we might label the “active” and “passive” modes.

The active mode is by using the stakes-free experimentation of play and the many tools at games’ disposal to explore and undermine the false rationales that justify the mistreatment and exclusion of individuals for things other than the actual consequences of their behaviour.

For instance, games can abstract the systems and dynamics that foster bigotry and division from the specifics of their circumstances. Done well, this can not only give us a certain critical distance and a chance to see them from outside, just as well-written fiction can do, but even to inhabit other positions in those pecking orders. Jane Elliot’s “Blue Eyed” sessions can be taken as a relatively extreme, intentionally highly emotional, and not entirely unproblematic example of this.[1]

(Two notes: First, to the extent that calling Elliot’s necessarily unfun sessions of behaviour-according-to-arbitrary-rules “games” is a fair description – and before accusing me of trivialising them, bear in mind that I do not consider games any more inherently trivial, or slaves to entertainment, than books are – I would point out that they constitute another example of games tackling vital subjects in ways other media simply cannot.

Second, just as with fiction and other poetic ways to instil empathy or vicarious experience, there are limits on how much insight can be offered. After all, even if for the duration of the work the experience of persecution is simulated perfectly, the simple fact of knowing that it will end – and that you probably have control of when it will end – utterly transforms the experience. It’s similar with any draining experience. Being a carer for an abusive invalid, having water drip on your forehead at irregular intervals, even the mild tedium of involuntary social isolation can drive you insane if you don’t know when it will end. One of the strengths of Elliot’s approach is that just as her blue-eyed audience are starting to refuse to take it any more, she takes that point – that they want to opt out of this arbitrary BS, but you don’t get to do that with real-world oppression – and drills it home, by inviting people who have experienced ongoing racism to tell those stories at a time when their audience are primed to be receptive.)

Other games exist that seek to consciously explore these issues: Steal Away Jordan, dys4ia, Dog Eat Dog, Freedom: The Underground Railroad, and many more.[2] While all these work in different and fascinating ways, and are worth your time and attention, I’d actually argue that besides the value of addressing these divisions consciously and intellectually, play and games do a great job of overcoming them experientially.

This is what I mean by the “passive” mode. Whether or not a game sets out to make us think about these issues, simply by giving us a chance to spend time in the company of those different from us on a somewhat more equal footing – because a game doesn’t care who’s playing it – we start to break down those barriers. Having to rely on ideas and stereotypes for our understanding of whole groups of people inevitably results in us thinking of them, and relating to them, in those terms. Having experience of a range of specific individuals from those groups means we can relate to them as people, and start to see what they have in common with other people in our life, lessening the power of the group identifier in our reflexive, emotional thinking, and bringing individual humans back into focus.

Again, I’m not asserting that just having a good time together is a substitute for actually reflecting on and consciously attempting to dismantle the systems, symbols and generalisations that shape our lives. The bigot who sincerely thinks that <almost all X are terrible people, just not the X he happens to know, who are actually really lovely (for X), which proves he’s not a bigot> is a genuine phenomenon, as well as a joke.

But that experience of the humanity of others is an indispensible complement to that more analytic approach: we are emotional, instinctive creatures as well as intellectual ones, and moment-to-moment most of us live in (and react from) our emotions at least as much as we do our intellects. Just as much of a joke (and just as tragic a joke) as the bigot-despite-his-own-experience is the idealist who understands intellectually that we’re all equal and decries discrimination in principle, but who somehow still can’t quite get comfortable with Those People – or help them feel comfortable around her.

It’s possible to change ourselves at those primitive levels by sheer force of reason, but it’s extraordinarily hard and almost never produces any kind of social ease. The best and fastest way to shift those basic, primal levels of our thought is by direct experience: by simply spending time enjoying ourselves in the company of people who are in some way unlike us. And games and play give us a framework for doing exactly that: somewhere to bond together over shared effort and experience, where nothing is really at stake to prime our fear and anxiety responses.

It’s possible that these sorts of positive shared experiences could be provided ancillary to other media (book clubs, art appreciation societies, or what have you), and that’s certainly not to be discouraged, but only in games and similar playful experiences are they innate – and indeed beneficial, because arbitrary social barriers restrict the pool of possible fellow-players – to the form. Games and play give us an inherent incentive to open up to others as they really are, not as we think of them. That’s pretty amazing stuff.

(Click here to read the next post in the series: Play, courage, and resilience.)

Talking points: Games, systems, and systems literacy

[First posted on the IGD blog on October 14, 2013]

Welcome to the fifth and final entry in that series of more detailed talking points we mentioned! (Click here to start from the beginning.) I hope you’ve found them interesting and informative – or at least useful in making the case for games as having a place among the many modes of culture the library supports. I would be very interested to hear feedback in the comments! Anyway, here’s the summary of this final Talking Point from the original post:

Games are systems, and fostering intelligent literacy about systems is an important educational goal on par with fostering intelligent literacy about words.

As we’ve discussed, games are culture that creates connections between people; they force us to exercise our capacity for mindfulness; and they are as capable of seriousness and at least as capable of fun as any other medium. But we have not yet talked about perhaps the single most important aspect of games: their existence as systems of rules. (And in some cases nothing more – no physical components at all!)

The world we live in is full of systems. Many of these are natural systems, such as the immensely complex system of air and water circulation that moves heat around the planet and (for instance) allows the west coast of Ireland to be far warmer than it has any right to be out there in the Atlantic with nothing between it and the Arctic. Or the migration patterns of birds and insects, or the dance of subatomic particles within every atom of matter, or the myriad physiological systems (nervous, digestive, circulatory, immune, endocrine…) whose interactions enable the individual existences of every complex living organism on the planet – including us.

Then there are the hybrid natural-human systems on which we depend, such as agriculture, water storage and distribution, various forms of power generation and resource gathering, shipping, fermentation, various medical interventions, and many more.

And lastly, of course, there are the entirely anthropogenic systems – languages (and for that matter language as a whole); the high technology of the internet and its billions of electronic components (including the computer on which I write this and the device on which you read it) which of course are themselves systems; government, the military, cities and towns; economies, corporations, production systems, workplaces; architecture, narratives, music, culture… We have always been surrounded and pervaded by systems of tremendous complexity, but increasingly and for an increasing number of us, the systems with which we interact are either heavily influenced by human intervention, or human-created.

(And we ignore to our peril the inescapable reality that all these systems which can so easily engross and consume our attention are themselves embedded in and emergent from the larger natural systems which surround us, supplying their raw materials, enabling and/or constraining their processes, and being affected by their outputs.)

One of the many extraordinary things about humanity is its capacity to perceive not just the moment-to-moment flow of phenomena, but – indirectly – the systems which underlie the endless tumble of events. It’s like trying to work out the inner workings of a tremendous factory by peering through the windows – only the factory is the size of the universe, some of its machines are smaller than atoms, and each of us only gets one window a few centimetres across.

It is my firm belief – and I am far from alone in this; Plato, Einstein, and many other great minds agree – that this capacity is intimately linked to our capacity for play. Play is about consequence and experimentation, about if-this-then-that and what-if-this-happens? It is hard to imagine a behaviour better adapted to learning and responding to the parameters of a system.

Games, as codified play, are themselves systems. Some are incredibly simple systems – Tic-Tac-Toe or Snap – while some are tremendously complex systems which attempt to approximate reality (or some imaginary version thereof) – particularly the “crunchier” or more rules-heavy end of the tabletop roleplaying genre and the wargames from which it evolved, which have their roots in genuine military attempts to simulate various actual battle – and economic and ecological – conditions, and which typically by their nature need to be able to respond to player actions outside a rigorously predefined set of possibilities.

I am not an especially good Chess player, and barely know Go, but in both cases I know enough to see that one of the keys to successful play is the ability to successfully visualise the myriad interactions of a single move both on the board at the time and in the branching possibilities that arise from the new game state – the way it shifts the interfering patterns of support and protection. If I move my rook here, it protects my king, but leaves my bishop vulnerable, and if that goes my queen has nothing to protect it either. Of course, this is just one aspect of play; the ability to use the shift of pieces to manipulate your opponent into making key mistakes is another (and according to some, though I personally disagree, even more important) dimension – playing on your opponent through your play on the board.

Clearly these are skills which are worth cultivating – as our ancestors have known for millennia, as evidenced by the prestige rightly accorded excellence at Go, Chess, and similar games by cultures all around the world. This same ability to visualise and anticipate multiple interlocking influences and consequences is vital to biology, medicine, climate science, economics, physics, engineering, advanced manufacturing and informational workflows – pretty much any advanced discipline, and especially cross-disciplinary work and even advanced generalisation. (If you’re interested in further reading, the pioneering work in systems thinking – the art of understanding system dynamics – done by Donella Meadows and others is an excellent place to start developing the general skill of analysing systems.)

So that’s one aspect of this topic: the inherent merits of games as practice for life in the same way that fiction is – as a playful practice of necessary analytical skills with very real applications. But as we discussed last month, games aren’t just systems, they’re poetic systems – systems which are designed to express and/or induce particular emotions, ideas, or other responses.

And this is for me perhaps the most valuable aspect of games as culture: they teach us that systems are not neutral, that they can and do embody particular values and weight themselves towards particular outcomes, and that these outcomes are expressive of the way the system is designed at least as much as they are of the qualities of particular participants in or elements of the system. Given that many of the systems which are most negatively impacting most of us at this point in time are human-created, and many of the natural systems affecting us negatively are human-influenced, this is an essential lesson for us to learn – and apply.

This concludes our Talking Points series! I hope it has helped to persuade those who need persuading that there is substantial value to be found in games, and that they have the capacity to be the active, dynamic complement to the pensive, contemplative cultural mode that books foster. We need both reflection and decision in our lives; I would argue that we need both games and books as ways to keep those parts of our psyches in good health without being overloaded in reality.

There is a great deal more to say about games – the lessons they teach us (through game theory) about mutual support, competition, community, and more; the mental health benefits; the extraordinary range of social and technological innovations they have driven; the fact that gaming culture, although (somewhat deservedly) having a reputation for being riddled with nasty online behaviour, is in many ways ahead of the mainstream in identifying and constructively attempting to address bigotry and discrimination. But those posts are for later.

[EDIT: Follow this link to read those later posts.]

Talking points: Games, seriousness, poetry, and fun

[First posted on the IGD blog on September 10, 2013]

Welcome to the fourth, and penultimate, entry in that series of more detailed talking points we mentioned. Here’s the summary from the original post:

Games can be serious, poetic and expressive – or trivial, silly and fun – and be so brilliantly or leadenly, just the way other forms of culture can. (Does anyone seriously dispute that, fluff though P.G. Wodehouse’s work is, it’s completely brilliant fluff?)

We’ve seen that games are culture that creates connections between people, and forces us to exercise our capacity for mindfulness. All of these points were made to show that the assumption that games are mere bits of fun not worth being taken seriously by libraries is an ill-considered kneejerk reaction, and hopefully that point has been made.

So now I want to take a step back and reflect on that notion of “mere fun” – the idea that something fun inherently has less value or meaning, and should be treated dismissively – especially in reference to games.

Contrary to that common assumption, the fact that games are fun is not, in fact, a mark of triviality. On the contrary, it is a sign that they speak to something deeply embedded in what it is to be human. When music evokes strong emotional reactions, that is understood to be a mark of its quality; visual arts likewise. Prose or poetry that move us are recognised as being important for that reason. That games typically evoke different emotions, emotions more suited to active engagement rather than reflection, does not mean that we are less obliged to attempt to understand why and how they do so, or that we will be less rewarded by the attempt.

Part of the problem seems to come from the assumption that fun and seriousness are somehow opposites. Nothing could be further from the truth. “Fun”, the spirit of play, is a distinguishing characteristic of humanity at its most fully engaged, as pioneering psychological thinker Mihalyi Csiksentmihalyi explores in his seminal work Flow. The flow-state he describes in this book is attained by finding a sweet spot where the mind is focused and highly but not overwhelmingly challenged, much like the best physical exercise. Flow, unsurprisingly, is highly conducive to happiness and mental health. Notably for libraries, Csiksentmihalyi’s work on flow is also deeply concerned with its relationship to learning.

It is no coincidence that one of the communities where his work is most widely known is in the game design community, with pioneering indie game development company thatgamecompany actually naming one of their earlier games (or possibly two) after it. Fun and seriousness can be inextricably intertwined – if you’ve ever fallen in (requited) love, or played with a child to whom you have a close bond, odds are that you’ve experienced this firsthand.

Even in less intensely intimate interactions, people engrossed in play may be laughing their heads off, but still be taking the experience very seriously; conversely, players maybe concentrating intently, and even to outward appearances grimly, and inwardly having an exhilarating, even transcendentally joyous experience.

Outside the context of formal play, encountering truly poetic works in any medium (“poetic” here used in the broader sense of “beautifully made for its moment”, as in “poetic justice”) also inspires this same mixture of an upwelling of joy and exhilaration with a state of profound awareness and reflection. That games more often approach this intersection from the side of fun rather than seriousness does not mean they cannot reach it. And given that they can, surely we should be cultivating the medium – as we do others – to assist them to do so as often as possible.

Even if “fun” and “serious” were opposites, there is nothing saying that they are synonymous with “insignificant” and “important” respectively. We all know people who are both deadly serious and deathly dull, and conversely people who are alight not only with fun but with intelligence, wisdom and wit as well. In fact, I would say that being serious without a sense of fun is more likely to be a dangerous quality than having a sense of fun untempered by seriousness, and that combining both fun and seriousness is significantly preferable to either alone.

This has been recognised by thinkers throughout history. James P. Carse wrote a book called Finite and Infinite Games which is well worth reading (and not only in this connection). And it’s no coincidence that the quote chosen to start off the world’s first Global Gossip Game was from no less a figure than Playto: “Life must be lived as play.” (Technically this is a translated paraphrase, but it’s widely quoted in this form. I mention this point because it’s important to be accurate, lest distortions creep into our communication and we end up with “He bites snails.”)

Now, none of this is to say that anything that gives someone a giggle or whiles away an hour is noble and enduring and should be in our collections. LOLCats.com isn’t A Comedy of Errors. (Ah, the power of italicization.) But we stock Mills & Boon novels, and I’m pretty sure not all of those are classics to be preserved for the ages, and I’m also pretty sure that the people reading them are already about as literate as they’re going to get from reading Mills & Boon. None of this is to say that we should stop stocking those books; I’m just pointing out that this does suggest that we recognise the value of sharing culture purely for the sake of the pleasure it affords. So even if we decide that games by their nature cannot be serious or improving, that still would not be a sufficient basis on which to ignore them. And we cannot in good faith decide any such thing when examples and evidence to the contrary abound.

Given that, as we’ve previously discussed, games can be powerful cultural experiences, that they exercise the brain, that they improve our capacity to analyse systems and to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, that they are well-suited to the library, and that the library is well-suited to them – and that on top of all that, they’re fun – surely it’s time we started engaging with them more rigorously, bringing the best of the intelligent, widely cultured library perspective to games, and bringing the best of games to the library experience.

(Click here for our last Talking Points post – “Games, systems, and systems literacy”.)

Talking points: Games, sharing culture, and connecting people

[First posted on the IGD blog on July 5, 2013]

Hello folks! This is the second of that series of more detailed talking points we mentioned. Here’s the summary from that original post:

If we’re talking about sharing culture, games are the form of culture that you (usually) have to share to experience. For that reason, games foster socialisation and allow members of the community to connect across demographic barriers like age, gender, ethnic background – even language.

We’ve previously established that games are culture. And it’s in the nature of games that most of them require playing with other people, and reward engaging attentively with the people with whom you’re playing.

When it comes to sports – i.e. body-games – these benefits are undisputed, or even (somewhat self-fulfillingly) exaggerated. There are undeniable bonding effects to exercising together for a common purpose, as anyone who’s ever undertaken strenuous physical labour with others can attest. But it seems likely to me that a considerable part of the bonding effects of sports (and especially where that bonding occurs across team lines, where time spent exercising in close proximity is not a factor) is about the intensity with which you are having to anticipate the actions of others – to imagine yourself in their position.

Everyone from mixed martial arts fighters and football players to poker and go players (or practitioners of both, such as chessboxers) speaks of the importance of understanding your opponent. And in a team context, knowing the actions (and temperaments) of your team is just as important. Clearly, any game which involves more than one player is going to reward an ability to put oneself in another’s shoes.

(And even a single-player game can reward the same kind of engagement with its creators, and analysis of their themes and arguments, as a book; but as with books, it’s a much more serial relationship, with the creator thinking about the audience only at the time of creation, and the audience thinking about the creator only after publication. Game players are interacting more simultaneously and – especially if they’re playing over a common tabletop – immediately.)

And when that understanding is paired with an activity which one finds inherently pleasurable – such as the brainwork of a game – it’s no surprise that friendships are formed at least as often as rivalries. And because games are fundamentally informational in nature, the point of commonality has no inherent link to any characteristic such as fitness, gender, age (barring the very young, because of their lack of neurological development), race… meaning games can be the basis of friendship between wildly disparate people.  Think of the intense relationships formed over the chessboards of World Championships, where there may not even be a common language, and you can see how this might work.

In fact, there is a long history of games being consciously used as bonding exercises. The modern obsession with sports, which has its roots in the character-building (and in more cynical cases, army-building) ambitions of the Victorian-era educators, is just the most recent incarnation. It’s mentioned as early as Book One of the first work of Western history, Herodotus’s Histories: the ancient Lydians, faced with a famine, used games to keep their community together through 18 years of grinding hunger, eating only every second day, and playing games on the days they didn’t eat. And in the context of a starving populace, it seems hard to believe that this was Olympic-style athletic games; the games here were probably something like modern tabletop games.

This is very much applicable to the library, if we choose to use them this way. It’s a recurring theme in the comments about past IGDs. It was also an ongoing motif in the study trip I took from Australia to the States, where I spoke to people from over a dozen library services about the uses of games. Games were used to provide constructive channels for socialisation, especially for teens; but targeted appropriately, they were just as effective for adults and indeed for groups of mixed ages. (The lack of links here is because this was not regarded as worth documenting: the games were not catalogued, their use was not recorded, patron feedback was not monitored, and no metrics were captured. After all, it’s only games…)

So if you have stories about games encouraging people to socialise across demographic boundaries, share them below!

(Click here for our third Talking Points post – “Games and theory of mind”.)

Talking points: Why games in libraries?

Hi folks! I’m going to repost a series I wrote for the International Games Day @ your library blog during my 2013 editorship thereof, both because I am happy enough with the way they state the case that I want them to find more readers, and because I am reasonably likely to refer to them a fair bit and it is easier to link content on my own blog 🙂

I’ll post the introduction today and then an additional entry each following day.

Talking points: Why games in libraries?

[First posted on the IGD blog on May 22, 2013]

Hey everyone! So one of the things we’re planning on doing is offering you some talking points for those conversations about why games are even happening in libraries. This first post will give the overview, and then we’ll go into more detail on each point as we go along.

Before we begin, it’s important to recognise that libraries are about books. It’s right there in the name, after all – “Library” is closely derived from the Latin word for “[place] of books”.

But libraries have always been about more than books being in a place. They have been about storing them, yes, but also about making them accessible. Hence the physical care of books is only part of a library’s job – we also catalogue them.

Even that is just a means to an end, though, and it’s important to recognise this as the familiar physical medium of books – the bound codex – moves into the electronic realm. Ultimately what a library is about is providing a place where a community can share culture, information, ideas, beauty – where human thought can be made accessible for people to engage in self-directed study and exploration. And the community is an equally important part of the equation.

Take the iconic library, the Library of Alexandria. It’s estimated it held half a million scrolls. (Note: scrolls. Not codices, not books as we know them. Physical form is not the point.) In addition to shelves, chairs, tables and study spaces, it also held lecture theatres and even dissection rooms. Again, the community of self-directed learners was as much the point as the works they studied (and in turn produced – which leads us onto a whole fascinating tangent for another time).

So that’s great and all, but what relevance does it have to games in libraries? Well:

  • Games are a form of culture that is as old as culture. Every known culture (pretty much) has some sort of games. If libraries can support movies and music and other forms of culture, games have a place at the table too – especially since, unlike most other forms of art, the closest thing we have to a public institution dedicated to playing games is usually a casino. [Full post up here.]
  • If we’re talking about sharing culture, games are the form of culture that you (usually) have to share to experience. For that reason, games foster socialisation and allow members of the community to connect across demographic barriers like age, gender, ethnic background – even language. [Full post up here.]
  • Further, games develop and reward theory of mind – the mental models we each have of what other people are thinking. [Full post up here.]
  • Games can be serious, poetic and expressive – or trivial, silly and fun – and be so brilliantly or leadenly, just the way other forms of culture can. (Does anyone seriously dispute that, fluff though P.G. Wodehouse’s work is, it’s completely brilliant fluff?) [Full post up here.]
  • Games are systems, and fostering intelligent literacy about systems is an important educational goal on par with fostering intelligent literacy about words. [Full post up here.]

We’ll come back to each of these points over the coming months, but hopefully that will get some ideas flowing. Let us know what you think!

(Click here to start reading the series in order.)

Bonus TED video: Your brain on video games (because who doesn’t enjoy the occasional TED talk?)