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. 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 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: 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?)

Game review: Hanabi as metaphor for intelligent life

It has taken me a shamefully long time to crack open the copy of Hanabi I picked up after hearing it recommended in a podcast by the Three Donkeys crew. Despite playing it first on January 4, I knew within a few games it was going to be a near-certain personal Game of the Year for 2014. I’ve since played it for hours with my partner, chasing a perfect game (so far our best score is 23, 4 actions short of perfecting all 5 fireworks – so close!), and that opinion has only been cemented.

Hanabi‘s core conceit is simple: players are working together to try and play cards in various colours in sequence, but each player cannot see their own hand, instead relying on information from other players which is controlled by a very strict economy. In other words, the only person who can actually do anything with a card (play it or discard it) is the person who can’t see it.

Hidden information in games is nothing new – it can more or less carry an entire game, as is pretty much the case with poker. What’s so ingenious about Hanabi is that it not only forces us to confront the unyielding reality that we can never really know what’s going on in other people’s heads, as any such games do, but to do so in the framework of having to collaborate with those people.

Emotionally, it is far easier to engage with the problem of other people’s unknowability in a competitive or even hostile framework – the resentment that our more basic natures reflexively feel towards the things that make us exert ourselves meshes well with a goal that involves somehow triumphing over them. (One could argue that this is at the root of many modern socio-politico-economic ills.) This is part of the pleasure of competitive play: expressing that basic egoistic subjective sense of the self’s defiance against the world, but doing so in a consensual context where that hostility is licensed, constrained into forms that contain the possible harm, and channeled in ways that mean that even the journey to defeat can still be a pleasurable experience.

But real life – especially a good life – is much more about getting inside other people’s heads in order to help them, whether because doing so helps us too, or simply because we love them. And that’s what Hanabi is all about.

The puzzle that you are collaborating to solve – sort cards drawn randomly into sequences of 1-5 in 5 different colours – is childishly simple. But the fact that you know nothing of the cards you hold except what your partners tell you – and vice versa – plus what you can see of cards that have been played or discarded, and what you can deduce from all that information, makes other people not only a crucial part of the puzzle but utterly indispensible to the solution. Feeling antagonistic towards them only distracts you – and probably them – from the problem at hand.

This forces the higher functions of the brain not only to engage with the intellectual problem at hand, but to examine and control those resentful lizard-brain “how dare you make me work” impulses. In other words, you are not only practicing being smart but being good; blaming other people for not automatically conforming to internal expectations is at the root of evils ranging all the way from petty to genocidal.

The way the information economy works is also ingenious, but I would rather leave the review at this point than further explain the rules or focus overmuch on the technical. They are simple to learn, and I hope the mystery will encourage you to pick up the game.

So let me simply conclude by saying that I highly recommend that you play Hanabi, and take care to honour the spirit of the rules about communication, not just the letter. It thoroughly deserves the Spiel des Jahres[1] it won, but more importantly, it is not only deeply pleasurable: it is rewarding.