Talking points: Games and theory of mind

[First posted on the IGD blog on August 12, 2013]

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

Further, games develop and reward theory of mind – the mental models we each have of what other people are thinking.

Games are culture that you have to share, and which reward intense engagement with other people. That in and of itself fosters the ability to model what other people know, might be thinking, and are more or less likely to do – known as “theory of mind”. (Because the key capacity is the ability to theorise about other minds… Which, when you think about it, is a truly extraordinary achievement: to be able to model something as complex as a human mind inside another human mind. Yes, the process is fallible and we resort to all sorts of cheaty shorthands, formalised conventions and external encodings. But that it’s possible at all is pretty incredible.)

Two things make games uniquely good at fostering this crucial (perhaps most crucial) aspect of intelligence.

First, as alluded to in the last Talking Point post, games license a closeness of attention that is often inappropriate and even uncomfortable outside the magic circle of a game.

Second, and relatedly, games like Werewolf and poker explicitly require bluffing, misdirection and outright lying. Not only do these acts require the exercise of theory of mind (you can’t lie convincingly without an idea of what others might find plausible) in and of themselves, but because they are built into the structure of the game, they also require you to be able to spot them – which requires even more active reading of your opponent, because you’re not even sure what their goals are. Are they trying to persuade you to fold, or to increase your bet? Are they trying to persuade you to eliminate that person because they sincerely believe that their target is a Werewolf? Because they know? Or because they’re a Werewolf themselves?

Speaking purely personally for a moment, my own ongoing fascination with Werewolf and similar social deception games lies in precisely this learning about lying, and even practising it. This isn’t because I am comfortable with falsehood – quite the contrary; though I’m quietly spoken, if anything I’m slightly too honest when I speak outside games (though thankfully the people I’m close to value that quality too), and my engagement with the wider world has always been through organisations that have strong commitments to independent, objective and rigorously verified truth-telling (particularly Amnesty International). But engaging with deception, understanding how it works and how it develops a consuming momentum that can entrap you, has made me both less susceptible to, and more understanding of, liars – and thereby improved the quality of my honesty, because what I’m saying is less likely to derive from ignorance or other people’s false statements. In other words, lying for fun has made me a more truthful person.

(Or is that just what I want you to think?)

It makes sense: there are few things more interesting than people. If games let us think about people, what they’re thinking and feeling, what they might do, and the entanglement of all those things, maybe they’re not entirely frivolous cultural pursuits after all…?

(Click here for our fourth Talking Points post – “Games, seriousness, poetry and fun”.)

(P.S. This being a relatively short Talking Points post, I don’t want anyone to feel shortchanged. So here – have another bonus TED talk, this time on the neuroscience of making moral judgments about intentions. You come across such interesting stuff when you start taking games seriously…)

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: Games as culture

[First posted on the IGD blog on June 6, 2013]

Hello folks! This week, the first of that series of more detailed talking points we mentioned. (Normally we’d be doing these in the second week of the month, but… well, you’ll see.) Here’s the summary from that original post:

Games are a form of culture that is as old as culture. Every known culture 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.

Play is one of the foundational human activities: so much so that in 1938, Dutch historian, cultural theorist and philosopher Prof. Johan Huizinga wrote a book called Homo ludens, arguing that not only was play an important part in culture but that it was a necessary (though not sufficient) precondition for culture. I am not sufficiently well-read to make a definitive statement on the subject, but based on the reading I have done I am prepared to state with some confidence that there have been very few societies in the entire history of humanity that have not featured some kind of more-or-less formalised or ritualised play – which is to say, games.

That ritual or sacred dimension to play is worth noting. Just as theatre and literature have roots in the mystical, games also have similar links. The ancient Egyptians played a game called Senet as a meditation on the soul’s journey. Snakes & Ladders was based on an Indian game with a strong element of moral teachings (which was copied in at least some Victorian boards, with prideful behaviour at the head of a snake leading to a downfall at its tail; some modern boards still feature these little parables). Even modern playing cards are based on the cards of the tarot.

And the importance of games even in our own modern culture is hard to deny: even setting aside the crass indicators of the recent incredible surges in money being spent on games (they say videogames are now making more money than movies, and tabletop games are also undergoing a sharp growth in popularity and public interest), consider the incredible importance placed on the Spassky-Fischer chess matches in the Cold War – or the ubiquity and importance of poker in US culture – or the deep respect accorded to go masters in Japan, China and Korea. Skill at all these games is meaningful beyond the pleasure of winning, showing that it is possible for a game to demand, and therefore symbolise, qualities which a culture considers emblematic of the virtues it holds dear. (And of course the language reflects this ubiquity, with game terminology well-represented in everyday turns of phrase and cliches, such as “playing the hand you’re dealt”.)

Some scoff at the idea of games as art, a prominent recent example being film critic Roger Ebert (he specifically spoke against videogames but his argument applies equally well – or rather poorly – to non-electronic forms). Such people claim that games cannot be art because the outcome is determined not by the artist but by the player(s), denying any chance of the work expressing any meaningful authorial intent.

This ignores the reality that many forms of art are not experienced in a strictly linear, artist-defined fashion – architecture, sculpture, improvisational performances, procedural art and more all allow the audience to control the pace and/or content of their experience to some degree, and are no less artful for that. (And it is no less possible for them to express a particular sensibility, or for audiences to read design intent from them.) Art can be made of anything (when you know what has gone into paints and pigments throughout history, you know this to be indisputably true), and that includes arrangements of rules and decisions and restrictions and consequences, let alone the other art (in writing, in the design of boards/cards/pieces, or in the design of models, animation, audio, music and so on) that a game may incorporate.

Ebert’s error, understandably enough, was to look at the artfulness of games and judge it in terms of the artfulness of movies. Each artform has its strengths and weaknesses, and it’s certainly true that the game will probably never be as good at showing a coherent, tightly-controlled piece of audiovisual narrative or exposition as film can, or as good at describing the inner psychology of its protagonists as prose. But games have their own extraordinary ability: they may not be great at describing subjectivities, but they are amazing at inducing them, and/or allowing people to explore decision and consequence. Brenda Romero’s* discussion of her The Mechanic is the Message series in this video is well worth viewing if you have any doubts about whether this can produce meaningful capital-A Art.
* Her name at the time was Brenda Brathwaite; you may find more of her work under both names.

So, OK, games are culture and they might even be worth taking seriously. But what has that got to do with libraries?

Libraries are the place where a community comes to share information and ideas and culture. In most libraries that have any kind of recreational/cultural component to their collections, we have already expanded our holdings to include other media, such as movies, TV series, and music.

Games, as stated above, are a form of culture which it is (in most cases) simply not possible to experience without sharing that experience with other people. They are, if anything, the single form of culture which most requires the sharing-focused community that a library supports, fosters and houses. (Further, games are one of the single best ways to create ties between community members, as we’ll discuss in a later Talking Points post.)

And if you were to design an institution to support games, it would probably look a lot like a library. It would have places people could sit together and engage in cultural pursuits. In order to maximise the pool of potential players, it would be open to all the members of a given community, subject to appropriate behaviour. It would probably even have some books, since getting good at any game requires you to get smart at thinking about probability and systems and psychology, plus reading up on the history of the game and notable past matches, plus other specific knowledge that may be useful (or just interesting) to players of a given game.

So games and libraries are already a great fit. But there is a further impetus to inclusion of games in libraries.

There currently are no public institutions dedicated to supporting the actual playing of games. There are local game stores, but those have none of the public profile of the kind of institution I mean; those are book stores rather than libraries. Then there’s the (fast-vanishing) games arcade, the economics of which almost mandate nickel-and-diming and heavily favour electronic games, and therefore rule out huge swathes of gaming possibilities. The only real high-profile venue for games in most cities is the deeply-exploitative casino, most of whose “games” are closer to Skinner boxes operating on a variable-ratio schedule, designed that way to maximise their addictive qualities.

Regardless of the intentions of their owners and staff, neither of these institutions has any kind of inherent interest in getting people to engage critically and creatively with systems and human psychology – in fact they have a vested interest in not doing so. But fostering that kind of well-read, reflective, creative mindset in the citizens we serve is what libraries are all about – and games, especially integrated into our existing activities, give us an excellent opportunity to do just that.

(Click here for our second Talking Points post – “Games, sharing culture, and connecting people”.)