Talking Points: Play, analysis, and action

If you’ve read my bio, or simply paid attention to the way I’ve espoused the virtues of games, 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, 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.

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 truck that had to brake and swerve into my lane.)

But in fact this is another core value of play, and games especially (since it’s possible to play without firm goals): 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. 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 (this is probably a post for another day, but briefly: while there are broadly or even universally applicable principles which you can and should apply in making your call, actual enacted good is always localised, because in any situation the best thing to do – and best manner in which to do it – is always dependent on the specific circumstances), 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 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 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.

(Click here to read the next post in the series: Play, inclusion, and community-building.)

Talking Points: Play and learning

This point is already part-argued: play’s close links to innovation – and the fact that, as quoted in that post, the drive to play arises from its nature as “training for the unexpected” – make its equally close links to learning obvious. (I’m making this point briefly, but it’s a crucially important one.)

Then there’s the clear implications of the well-known “10,000 hours theory” – the idea that excellence in any field is achieved in large part by spending 10,000 hours doing it with constant feedback. Play implies a degree of interaction with and varying response to the outcomes of the various objects of play and actions being tried; it isn’t play if it’s monotonous repetition! It also motivates this kind of persistence in a task.

But, again, common sense tells us that play is a powerful tool for learning. The old adage “show, don’t tell” is true as far as it goes, and not all lessons can be learned hands-on (at least without a degree of preparation… and in some cases, warning!), but for learning how to actually do something, for any actual application of  information to real-world conduct, and even in many cases for a better understanding of abstract properties, “play with” will always trump “look at”.

This is why young children are such sensovores: they are trying to learn all the different qualities of things (including, of course, their own bodies and senses). They play with things by looking, listening, feeling, smelling and tasting – and shaking, throwing, hitting and otherwise manipulating with all the precision they can muster while they are still just starting to learn precision. Given that very few people have conscious memories of life at this age, and even if they did these memories would almost certainly be sense-memories not informed by conscious strategic/analytic thought, it’s harder for us now as socialised and enculturated beings to recall the pressing experimental drive that underpins this profound encounter with reality on its own terms, but given what we know of brain development at the ages where play is most prevalent (I could say “unadulterated”) it seems safe to say that the smartest period of our lives – not the most knowledgeable, but the smartest, the time when we work the most stuff out the fastest – is the most playful.

There are also the fascinating parallels between the psychological state of “flow” – discussed in this post; what Csiksentmihalyi calls “optimal experience”, but is often (though not always) experienced as transcendent fun – and the needs of learning. Indeed, if you look at the way that flow is defined – roughly, staying in a zone where you are challenged but not overwhelmed as you improve your skill in the action you are undertaking – and compare that to educational theories around presenting students with material that will keep them stretching to learn (I’m thinking here of Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” and the notion of “scaffolding”) the links between play and learning become even more apparent.

Even setting aside these considerations, the most rote and informational of learning (which on first glance would seem not to lend itself to play) benefits from external incentives – and not just gamification-style motivational incentives, though those can certainly work, but concrete external links onto which to scaffold the learning and ground it into the real. The basics of logic or mathematics or system dynamics or the laws of physics make far more sense to those still learning them if manifested in a form that students can manipulate to experience the interactions for themselves. Yes, at some point they need to stop playing with the props and start playing in their imaginations if they are going to develop new understandings of their material, especially the more complex or counterintuitive parts. But it’s impossible to deny that play is a highly effective hack for uploading those abstract principles (at escalating levels of abstraction) into a brain designed first and foremost to engage with the concrete physical world… and playfulness doesn’t stop being a useful tool once those less-evident truths have been so uploaded.

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

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”.)