Six Wonderful Things About Games

by Jon on December 8, 2009

Games are a wonderful medium. Like music, literature, film and theatre, games do a great deal to help make life worth living. In Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde said, “All art is quite useless.” He said this to illustrate that yes, art has little to no practical value. That does not mean that art is of no benefit to anyone of course! For me, the same argument can be applied to games, as their entertainment value is enough to justify their existence.

Critics of games however are full of concerns about violence, addiction and distractions from what the establishment regards as “more meaningful” pursuits. These being reading, watching films or punching someone in the face in a bar…

Satirical side swipes aside, perhaps you’re reading this because you’re bewildered over this new form of entertainment yourself; or maybe you are someone who enjoys games and would like to explain some of their benefits—beyond entertainment—to a parent, a teacher, a friend or even a reader of the Daily Mail/avid viewer of Fox News. The purpose of this article is to inform you about some of things that are wonderful about games.

#1: Games can make you smarter

Is it a coincidence that “nerds” often possess an interest in computer games, as well as have an aptitude for subjects like maths and science?

Is it a coincidence that “nerds” often possess an interest in computer games, as well as have an aptitude for subjects like maths and science?

Nicholas_Negroponte has spoken about how everyone learns through discovery and exploration until they are about age six.  It is at this point we begin being “taught” as opposed to using the basic rule of not putting your hands in a fire, because it tends to hurt a lot.   Exploration is a more effective and engaging way to learn. At the 2009 MI6 conference, he pointed out that games engage the same brain machinery that’s used when one is learning. The Scottish government funded research into how games can support learning, and sums it up best:

When engaged with a game, players must rely upon inference rather than direct questioning.

Research is mounting that playing games can make you smarter.  This is not isolated to the purely education titles, either!  In Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, Steven Johnson presents a large amount of information on how the mind explores games the same way one conducts science experiments.  This is done by exploring rules and determining what works.   To illustrate further, you don’t put your hand in the aforementioned fire anymore because you know from experience that it results in third-degree burns.  It’s that type of thinking that teaches people to think about the world in better ways (especially when it comes to the incompatibility between one’s own hand and a fire).

#2: Games can excite people for high-paying careers

I first became interested in programming computers because I wanted to program my own games. This is hardly unique, of course.  A huge number of engineers, designers and artists have taken up their careers because of the excitement they gained from their exposure to games. Games challenge the imagination, and designing them is a fun and rewarding experience.

The joys of making video games and and the skills one gains when creating them can be used in a wide range of places.  The game industry itself is a large and growing marketplace for these skills—but the same skills can also be applied across the even larger software engineering, Internet and media-based industries.

This hasn’t been lost on the Obama Administration, which is including educational games in a $260mm program to support science, technology, engineering and math education. Part of this includes challenging kids to design games, which involves problem solving within art design, user interaction, mathematics and computer science.

It is often said that playing video games improves one’s hand-eye coordination.  This is a very important skill to have outside the realm of video games, as more and more tools and equipment are controlled remotely.  By way of example, Dr. Rosser is an MD who conducted research on whether playing games could help someone become a better surgeon (it does—a lot).  He’s since found that the immersive and engaging nature of games could also help get kids interested in math and science.

#3 Games Inspire Tangential Learning

Greek Mythology. The Roman Empire. Astronomy. Mathematics. Spreadsheets. The history of technology and how not to speak ye-olde-Englishe.

These are just a few well-known examples where games have gotten people excited about learning something new.  I’m not just talking about educational games, either!  I’m citing what some would regard as purely entertaining games like Age of Empires, Civilization and World of Warcraft (WoW). These games don’t make education their core purpose.  Nevertheless, there is evidence that people do learn new things they might never have, just by playing these games.

James Portnow has written about the subject of tangential learning:

Simply by presenting the player with opportunities to discover interesting ideas that they may not have otherwise come across you are setting the groundwork for learning.

Another example can be found at ElitistJerks.com, where the “nerdiness” (I use the term in the spirit of camaraderie!) of playing WoW directly intersects with the study of applied mathematics. Nearly a million people per month converge on ElitistJerks to read about and debate the mathematics behind WoW.  They often apply sophisticated spreadsheets and statistical models to reach their conclusions. For many people, it’s their first exposure to formal applied mathematics. Scan their analysis of Rogue Damage Per Second, with its well-researched tables, proofs and statistics. If only my gradeschool teachers had come up with something this engaging to get me interested in in the almost impenetrable world of mathematics!  From the above studies it becomes clear now how mathematics are essential to the study of vast, complex systems.  For this is exactly what the people behind ElitistJerks are trying to fathom; patterns in a game.

#4 Games can enhance creativity

Academic research has shown that games can increase the feelings that lead to creativity. From a paper by Elizabeth Hutton and Shyam Sundar titled “Can Video Games Enhance Creativity? An Experimental Investigation of Emotion Generated by Dance Dance Revolution“:

Our findings suggest that the emotions generated when interacting in [video and computer games…and on social spaces like YouTube, Facebook and Second Life] can be quite influential in fostering creative expression, as has already been noted on several shared online spaces such as blogs and other online applications designed to showcase one’s creative work.

Furthermore, games themselves are becoming an increasingly creative medium. Take a look at LittleBigPlanet, where you can design your own levels, or Spore, where you can design your own creatures. Many games also feature active modding communities, where people use sophisticated tools to design their own levels in first-person shooters like the Battlefield series or in fantasy-roleplaying games like Neverwinter Nights.

Games even inspire creativity outside of the game. Fan fiction, fan art — even the organization of guilds and clans — are all examples of games as creative catalysts. Machinima is another new and emerging art form which depends on games and 3D worlds to provide the environment for animation.  MIT Professor Henry Jenkins has written about how games provide a venue for expression that does not exist in other types of art and media–we’re still at the very beginning of games as a means of artistic and creative expression.

#5 Games can foster advanced social skills

Multiplayer games require people to coordinate activities in ways that exist in armies and businesses, and there’s evidence that the social and management skills one learns from these experiences are helping in the real world. Marc Prensky has studied how children learn to cooperate in multiplayer games. His analysis is validated in research such as the investigation of the social and civics interests of teen videogame players funded by the MacArthur Foundation:

Our findings conflict with a commonly held perspective that youth who play video games are socially isolated and often antisocial. We also found no evidence to support scholars’ concerns that young people involved in the Internet (in this case by playing video games) are less civically engaged.

Furthermore, the study found that teens who are exposed to civics within games (e.g., city-simulators like SimCity, or running a guild/clan in other games) are more likely than other teens to be interested in political and civics activities.

Eve Online is another game where players are learning real economics and business skills, and Nick Yee found that many younger players report becoming more comfortable with face-to-face communication after playing MMORPGs.

The politics, organization and coordination of multiplayer games are complex. The ability to apply these skills at a young age often lay the groundwork for one’s success later in life, and for many people their first and most-compelling exposure to these skills is multiplayer gaming.

#6 Games could help end war

Games are often accused of promoting violence.  Such claims have been repeatedly debunked after extensive research, so it is an irony that games could actually lead to an end to war. [2011 edit: here's another more up-to-date research paper: Evidence for publication bias in video game violence effects literature.]

The Olympics were originally conceived of as a way to end war. However, it’s really about the skills of elite athletes, and it’s rife with nationalism.   Despite this, the original thinking behind the Olympics was sound.  It was and is an effort to bring together people from different cultures, and allow them to learn about each other.

Unlike any other medium, games gets different people from different countries, political views and religions all playing together. Not because they are elite; not because they’re spectators, but because you must work together to solve problems.

I’m convinced that the more we play together, the more we’ll learn to live with each other. It’s something I’ve spoken about in the past:

Conclusion

Games are fun, and that’s enough for me. Maybe it isn’t enough for you—or for your friends or for your family. I hope you the information I’ve presented is helpful to you in explaining many of the other positives about games.  Not only are games fun, but they’re also healthy, and can promote positive brain development, career opportunity and social behavior.

I’m on a mission. These are stories that the game industry hasn’t been good at explaining. If you agree, please share with your friends. Tweet about this on Twitter and start conversations; link to it from your blog and provide your own thoughts; or start discussions here or elsewhere.

(Note from Jon: I’d like to thank the many, many Twitter followers who contributed thoughts and suggestions for this article.  In particle, I’d also like to acknowledge Chris “Kropotkin” O’Regan of the SuperHappyFunTimeShow for his excellent edits!)

Thank you for reading this article. Please follow me on Twitter to hear more from me on innovation, games and entrepreneurship. If you'd like to learn how games can transform your business, also check out my book, Game On: Energize Your Business with Social Media Games.

{ 16 trackbacks }

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

David FisherNo Gravatar December 8, 2009 at 2:50 pm

Gaming taught me so much and #3 rings especially true.

Things I learned through gaming:

- Cardinal Directions
- A large amount of my early reading skills came from Nintendo Power and playing J-RPGs
- Typing (had a C64 when I was 3. ‘LOAD “*”, 8, 1′)
- A great deal about sailing, history, and politics
- Computer programming
- HTML (my first website was a UO guild site pre-alpha)
- Photoshop (for the website)
- Music (some of the first melodies I figured out were from Zelda and Final Fantasy. Hacking MIDI files for UO was fun).
- Driving concepts
- Computer networking (needed to get into BBS’s and MUDs)
and the list goes on.

CollinNo Gravatar December 8, 2009 at 3:43 pm

Great article!
As an avid gamer I can say that #1-5 all hit the mark quite hard for me.

At a very early stage in my life I remember having some of the most fun learning from games like Oregon Trail (US history / Diseases), Where in the US/World is Carmen Sandiego (Geography/History), Math Blaster (Math), Leap Frog (Math), and quite a number of other games. All varying in the amount and type of learning, but they all made me interested in learning, even beyond playing the game.

Continue on in my life and I found myself getting into programming, web design, and art in general all as a result of video games. I wanted to make a fan site for Nintendo (Ole’ N64, I miss you!) and to do that I had to learn… and so I taught myself all I needed to know. Who would have guessed at the time it would lead to my current career path. Not me…that’s for sure. All I cared about at the time (good old middle-school) was having fun and if learning was a consequence, so be it.

I can also attest to the social and management aspect of online/multiplayer gaming. Multiplayer games are by far the games that interest me the most. From Starcraft to Battlefield 2 to just about any RTS or FPS game, they require strategy, tactics, and above all else communication. Any great RTS /FPS (Real-time Strategy / First-person Shooter) player will tell you that teamwork is the most effective method of winning just about any game. This is likely to be something they learned by playing…or at the least, something that is constantly reinforced.

I think it is also important to note that many (if not most) RTS/FPS games are violent…at least the ones I play are. Yet out of playing all of these violent games, violence is the one things I have NOT learned or absorbed. What I have taken away from it is all the good aspects, such as teamwork, strategy, and social interaction.

Ethan KNo Gravatar December 8, 2009 at 4:19 pm

Good article.

I agree with much of what was written, and as a mostly retired hardcore gamer, I have a decent perspective of the life in and outside of games. This article discusses the possible positive benefits of gaming–but not necessarily the probable benefits of gaming.

If I were to take issue with a single point, I would say #5. Gaming is generally a physically solitary, isolating, venture. I don’t believe there is a parallel between online interpersonal abilities and physical interpersonal abilities. In my experience, the most socially awkward people have been those who have little physical interaction with people, particularly reclusive gamers.

Now, I’ve gained some valuable real-life skills from my gaming history, and while the same amount of time invested could probably make me a rich man, still, it’s not wasted time.

1. Critical thinking
From the endless challenges games have provided me, I apply in real life the rational process of problem solving. I am very efficient and effective in how I approach all problems in my life, and I honestly attribute that to gaming. To be able to see a problem, analyze it, and tackle it, takes a practiced mind, and the thousands of obstacles I’ve run into in gaming have trained me to approach life’s problems in a similar fashion.

2. Spatial Ability
Recently I took a dental aptitude test and part of it is a Spacial Ability test–the hardest part of the test– and I scored in the 93rd percentile the first time I took it. After understanding how it works, the second time in the 99th percentile. For some reason I can visualize objects in 3d at an exceptional level. That ability, I believe is almost entirely trained from video games. Even from when I was 13-14 I was mapping a 3d dungeon in my head, visualizing where I was in 3 dimensions. To this day I can go into any building and always have my bearing on orientation, and can always tell you which way is north.

I’ve never seen a study saying as much, but I’m willing to bet gamers would, on average, have greatly higher spatial reasoning abilities than non gamers.

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Josh DaleNo Gravatar December 8, 2009 at 5:54 pm

Great article.

Games have always been a medium for me to learn new things and to keep sharpening my skills. Classic board games, video games, card games, etc., have allowed me to understand at an early age strategy, vocabulary, logic, compromise, history, problem solving, and the list goes on.

Excellent read…thank you!!!

paulNo Gravatar December 8, 2009 at 6:08 pm

SEE MOM, GAMES ARENT BAD FOR ME!

JeremyNo Gravatar December 8, 2009 at 8:11 pm

all very good reasons #6 was confusing till i read it but all in all there all valid.
You could aslo add in great stories, as we all know kids today read less and less but role playing games such as final fantasy or action games like uncharted are great stories and get my attention and hold it

r4i softwareNo Gravatar December 9, 2009 at 12:37 am

Hi..

I like to play the games and mostly find some info about gaming…

Because i am fond of gaming so this article is really helpful for me…

PeanutNo Gravatar December 9, 2009 at 9:12 am

i absolutly agree with this article, I study business, and am soon studying marketing at university, and i find videogames, to stimulate creativity, not only through playing the games but also by the way the companys advertise.

Toby RowlandNo Gravatar December 9, 2009 at 11:46 am

Great article, and agree 100%
Edu-game believers, pls check out our math games. They will make you smarter and entertain you.

Toby RowlandNo Gravatar December 9, 2009 at 11:46 am

Oh, and the link is http://www.mangahigh.com. Pls let this thru, mr. Editor – it’s absolutely relevant!

Jonathan BeilinNo Gravatar December 11, 2009 at 1:08 pm

Hi Jon,

Your article does a great job of summarizing the potential good that comes from games. I appreciate your optimism, but I think we’re patting ourselves on the back prematurely. I’ve posted a gentle rebuttal to my blog:

http://www.jonbeilin.net/2009/12/request-for-an-honest-interrogation-of-games/

JonNo Gravatar December 11, 2009 at 1:41 pm

@Jonathan, I’m pleased that the essay inspired you to write a reaction. My article was not about future benefits of games, but attempted to compile a subset of the research we’re aware of that points to current (not simply “potential”) benefits of games. Nevertheless, the point is well-taken that there’s probably room for even more growth within these (and other) benefits. Perhaps some game designers will find inspiration here.

DaveNo Gravatar December 13, 2009 at 10:39 pm

I also greatly enjoyed the article, and wrote a blog post about it:

http://davebuttoned.blogspot.com/2009/12/can-video-games-actually-be-gasp-good.html

Not sure why it didn’t trackback to your article, but I’m kind of new at this and I’m not sure how trackbacks work. Anyway, thanks for posting it!

JueNo Gravatar December 15, 2009 at 11:59 am

Hi Jon, great writeup, especially the links to outside research and commentary on games.

I have to admit, though, that the first thing I thought of when I read each of the 6 points is “Correlation is not causation.” What’s to rule out the possibility that people who are already creative, curious, and/or peace-loving simply tend to like games? Most of the studies cited do not establish that gaming caused some improvement in gamers, only that the two are correlated. (For the same reason it’s also nonsense to use studies to claim that games cause negative things, like violent behavior.)

I realize you’re not advancing a scientific point here, but if I didn’t already love games, I wouldn’t be swayed. I’m definitely with you in that I play because games are “just fun,” and sometimes deeply meaningful. I’m not sure if this has been explained in a persuasive or compelling enough way to casual or non-gamers. To me, THAT’S the mission we should be on. In the meantime, I’ll be tweeting this wholeheartedly.

JonNo Gravatar December 15, 2009 at 1:57 pm

@Jue, some of the papers I linked to demonstrate a causal link. You’re right though — it may simply be that highly creative/intelligent people are disproportionately attracted to games. There’s a number of intuitive reasons one might expect that to be the case. It would be an interesting area to study. Speaking from a non-scientific, subjective standpoint–I know that games shaped a lot of interests I’ve had in a range of topics (history, mathematics, computer science). Some of the other comments here appear to have observed the same.

Isolating causation from correlation is a hard problem in much of social science. However, evidence of correlation often provides a good reason to probe deeper and look for whether causitive links also exist. Perhaps this article will inspire someone to do exactly that. I’d love to see a lot more work in this area.

Given a preponderance of all the evidence available, I’d argue that the potential and observable benefits of games significantly outweighs the negatives that critics have claims–and that’s before we even get to the philosophical point of whether the “good life” (which includes entertainment, such as games) is also a good unto itself.

Gamer417No Gravatar September 29, 2010 at 8:37 am

Some great pointers but I guess the real question is do the benefits outweigh the negative effects of games.

danielNo Gravatar October 19, 2011 at 5:49 pm

I agreed with most of the points but then I saw this point;

” Games could help end war”

Wtf? Really? Only an utter wide eyed, out of touch optimist or a man being paid by video game publishers would have the audacity (and stupidty) to claim that.

JonNo Gravatar October 30, 2011 at 9:20 am

Daniel, the idea of international gaming as a promoter of peace is certainly not a new idea. As I noted, this was a goal of the Olympics. If I’m audacious and/or “stupid” as the visionaries of the Olympics, then I accept your accusation!

kymNo Gravatar November 9, 2011 at 11:22 pm

I am a firm believer that social gaming is breaking down geographical barriers. humans are developing loyalties to and kinship with groups based on common interests, rather than country.

XenNo Gravatar December 14, 2011 at 8:08 am

“Games are often accused of promoting violence. Such claims have been repeatedly debunked after extensive research, so it is an irony that games could actually lead to an end to war.”

The document you link does certainly not debunk the link between media violence and real violence, and what debunking it does is to show that conclusive findings in this area based on research are very difficult due to the pervasive nature of violent behavioral modeling in entertainment. You cannot isolate and you cannot use any control groups. You’d have to compare current violent attitudes to those of a century ago, and then account for other factors.

I’m a World of Warcraft player. It is a fact that 99% of problems in WoW that the player faces are solved through violence. It is also a fact that there is much verbal aggression and overall assholeness in the game. Although I link the latter more to the nature of a competition-based, achievement-oriented game in which there are winners and losers and game enjoyment is considered less important than being the best or having the most. Such attitudes produce feelings of superiority which result in “noob bashing” and the like. And a lot of intolerance and impatience.

I don’t really see how a game like WoW can put an end to war. Sure there is a lot of socializing going on and you can meet people from all over Europe (in my case). But the WoW player base is a sorry reflection of real world attitudes. If WoW can put an end to war, it better start showing that it can put an end to meanness, intolerance and assholeness within its own realm of influence. Thus far, it has produced the opposite.

Whether that has to do with modeling violence as a potent problem solver… I believe those effects are more pervasive throughout society. It is not only the media that teaches this, but also our governments and our businesses. Governments use military violence and businesses use legal violence when they are at war with each other. Still, these are controlled forms of violence. Only the entertainment industry can teach you that regular uncontrolled violence is a good way to solve problems, as well as bombard you with those messages day in and day out.

JonNo Gravatar December 23, 2011 at 6:21 am

@Xen – it is obvious that the content of games is violent. And violent content certainly can result in violent thoughts. The question is whether that translates into *violent behavior.* That’s where the arguments about violence provoked by games tend to break down considerably. I stand by my argument that getting people playing, cooperating and competing with each other in a game–while the content may be violent, is a *behaviorally* nonviolent activity that does plenty of good.

For a more up-to-date paper on the poor nature of much of the media-violence research on video games, here’s a meta-analysis that’s worth checking out: http://www.sfu.ca/media-lab/archive/2010/320/320%20readings/Ferguson%20violence.pdf

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