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, 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.]