Games

Human beings only play when they are in the full sense of the word human and they are only fully human when they play.

Friedrich Shiller

Games seem frivolous. They can stand as metaphors for life, but typically, the outcome of games doesn’t really matter. I wanted Collingwood to win it’s last game this year, but it didn’t and that’s that. Doesn’t matter. Still as I gradually realised when working on the Government 2.0 work in 2009, the element of play is critically important and not just to high level ‘brainstorming’ activity, but to seizing the opportunities for innovation of all kinds from major disruptive innovation to the most minor improvised improvements in the way things are being done. That’s why I thought things like mashups were so wonderful – they are low cost ways of breaking things up, and inviting others into play with one’s assets (or copies of them while the ‘real’ ones remain on the official website or otherwise in the system somewhere).

And with games becoming so much more prominent in young people’s use of their time, it’s not surprising that educators are arguing that games teach a new kind of literacy. Gamification is all the rage in Silicon Valley. As Wikipedia explains, gamification is

The use of game design techniques[1] and mechanics to solve problems and engage audiences. Typically gamification applies to non-game applications and processes (also known as “funware“)[2], in order to encourage people to adopt them. Gamification works by making technology more engaging[3], by encouraging users to engage in desired behaviors[4], by showing a path to mastery and autonomy, and by taking advantage of humans’ psychological predisposition to engage in gaming.[5] The technique can encourage people to perform chores that they ordinarily consider boring, such as completing surveys, shopping, filling out tax forms, or reading web sites.[3]

Michael Neilsen’s new book on Reinventing Discovery has this to say about Foldit, a very clever gamification of the arduous task of figuring out how proteins fold  which has generated new scientific insights about the formation of proteins.

I was skeptical when I first heard of Foldit. it sounded like the dull educational computer cames I saw in school when I was growing up in the 1980s. But I downloaded the game and spent hours playing it over several days. . . . . People play the game because it’s good.  It has the compelling, addictive quality all good computer games have: a task that’s challenging but not impossible, instant feedback on how well you’re doing, and the sense that you’re always just one step away from improvement.” (p. 146.)

But you can argue that games are more important than that. Much more important.Game theory tries to look more deeply into complex situations than simpler assumptions in economic models. The idea is to look for deep structures that replicate themselves through time and/or impose a logic on a situation which enables us to discover tendencies about it. He doesn’t use the term but the mechanism that Adam Smith uses to explain how humans are socialised has the interactive quality of a multi-player game. Each player both observes and also wonders what others see when they observe them. As (I discovered last week on Twitter that) HL Mencken said, “Conscience is that inner voice that tells you someone might be watching.”

And evolutionary theory is about ‘games’ which might explain why various traits confer survival advantages on certain individuals or groups. But perhaps games are more important still. Wittgenstein famously built a part of his latter philosophy on the idea of games being at the heart of how we communicate and interact.

And here’s a thought. The break between reptiles, fish and amphibians and ‘higher’ forms of life like birds and mammals is that the latter play. Birds do it. (Bees don’t do it by the way.) And mammals do it. They do it much more when young than when old, because play is their main means of learning. I often think that humour and irony amongst humans must have their evolutionary origin in the step up from reptiles to the higher animals. When a lion or wolf cub plays with another cub or its mother, it might chase them and bite them, but this is the bite that’s not a bite. A bracketed or ‘ironic’ bite if you will.

And here’s the thing: Most of the things on which our species has built its extraordinary power and productive capabilities are things that are not just themselves. Language is a bunch of sounds, but they stand for other things. Written language is a bunch of scribblings and signs which stand for other things (sounds) which stand for other things. Algebra is a very high form of this idea of things standing for other things and as a result it usually takes kids a while to get it at school. If x stands for any number, when I was being taught algebra I wanted to know what that number was.

This is, in an old economic terminology, roundabout production. In a simple sense mammals are less efficient than reptiles or amphibians which just get on with their lives without wasting energy mucking around. But like sexual reproduction – round about production if ever there was an example – it leads to a richer outcome. Like sexual reproduction, its evolutionary function is to allow diversity and to prepare the way for novelty. In so doing games enable the imagination to be trained, creating scope for cultural learning  which then opens a whole world ‘above’ that of genetically coded behaviour.

Postscript: This post of mine on Nietzschean evolutionary psychology is of some interest in this context.

 

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FDB
FDB
10 years ago

I’m not sure those kitties are playing a game per se.

conrad
conrad
10 years ago

I think the problem with electronic games is the same as that with TV — kids are sitting down for hours and hours and the machine becomes their supervisor and not their parents, and most games they play tend to be quite similar and reptitious (especially games for older kids). They also tend to be structured in ways that allow them to be solved relatively simply and with intermediate rewards (try looking through a list of the top games). You might like to compare this with what you and your friends would have done as kids — Even kids going into electrical engineering and stuff like that these days often haven’t used a soldering iron. And, for that matter, why learn to play an instrument when you have Guitar Hero? Or what about games with no solution like looking at weird stuff on the beach?

So I guess a good question arises as to what the trade-off is between what kids are learning now compared to previously. I think the answer to this is pretty unknown (maybe someone else has a stronger opinion than me :). Alternatively, the Flynn effect is over in many places so we’re probably getting stupider again, so something’s going wrong somewhere, but who knows what role games have in that. Alternatively, if kids are playing with them for hours and hours a day, it’s worth thinking about.

Pedro
Pedro
10 years ago

“This is roundabout production. In a simple sense mammals are less efficient than reptiles or amphibians which just get on with their lives without wasting energy mucking around.”

Is that a quote from Friedrich von Dawkins? ;-)

Dan
Dan
10 years ago

Conrad@2:

“And, for that matter, why learn to play an instrument when you have Guitar Hero?”

Cheifly, because the real thing invites significant attention from potential partners :)

Persse
Persse
10 years ago

‘I often think that humour and irony amongst humans must have their evolutionary origin in the step up from reptiles to the higher genuses’

Finding it very hard to argue against that insight.

‘Gamification’ -Mangling words in a recursive manner to attract interest, and a little superficial cachet, in an otherwise banal concept that could be better expressed in plain English.

Steve X
Steve X
10 years ago

You have to wonder when edutainment became gamification.

Perhaps it was after edutainment got a bad name after it was involved in a remarkable bit of dot com madness and overvalue when The Learning Company was bought by Mattel for 3.7 Bn and later sold for 27 million.

Gamification and ‘serious games’ seems to be a way for people to get money to make games. Games are rarely funded by government bodies but education and other things are so coming up with ways to avoid the indifference of the market.

FDB
FDB
10 years ago

“FDB – trust me the kitties are playing. There’d be blood all over the shop if they were not.”

You may think of sex as a game Nicholas, but that says more about you than it does about me or the poor kitties whose intimate pics you have posted without permission.

Patrick
Patrick
10 years ago

Wittgenstein would have loved you, FDB! So on what grounds is sex not a game? :)

PS: I am pretty much certain they are not having sex.

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