My charming (and tall) friend Lennart turned me onto Raph Koster's book "Theory of Fun for Game Design" and I must say it was a delightful read. This book fills the 'game apologist' niche in my bookshelf. Every game designers, at some point in his career, feels the urge to justify his work to the broader community. We need more such writing that talks about what is good in games.
Games as learning activities
Koster discusses the concept of games as learning activities. This ties in remarkably well with the idea of psychological risk / reward systems that underlies many of my essays. The question must be asked, "What are these systems?" We know they have a risk activity that the player must perform and we know that they have a reward system. We even know some aspects of what makes an 'elegant' risk activity.
Koster claims that these risk activities tie into the natural learning systems of the brain. When a player first encounters an activity, they try to understand it and grok it so completely that it can be turned into a simple rote pattern. If the pattern is too difficult to understand, we dismiss it as noise. If it is too simple, we immediately understand it and file it away as a solved problem.
Dance, Dance, Revolution
Great stuff and it makes me want to measure brain activity when someone is learning a task vs. when they are playing a game. However, though it may be nice to go to sleep thinking of our profession as 'teachers of the future' we are not completely off the hook. I can buy that there exist primitive structures inside our brains to encourage mastering patterns of activities in the presence of rewards. However, what we learn (and Koster makes a similar point), may not always be useful.
In effect, game designers are hijacking the learning systems of the brain. Think of it as the same as when a doctor hits your knee with a little rubber mallet and your leg jumps. A talented doctor can make a person dance by hitting them in the correct spots or jolting certain nerves with electricity. A macabre image to say the least. Often times, the same thing occurs with games. Designers are applying carefully constructed stimuli to our learning systems and getting people to react in a desired fashion.
With Simon (or any fighting / dancing game for that matter) I can train you to become delightfully skilled at pushing a set of buttons in an intricate pattern. The pure game apologist would claim that this activity trains general timing skills, a clearly valuable evolutionary skill. I share this view. But I am also struck the obvious thought that what specifically is happening is that user is being trained on timing within the context of the game. Do those timing skills translate to other activities? What are factors involved that make them transfer more easily? I am curious.
Where all this become really quite fascinating is when you start applying it to Serious Games. Military trainers claim that the shooting ability of kids trained on video games is on average higher than people who have not trained on video games. Even such a broad statement opens a can of worms both good and bad.
As game designers, we are just beginning to tap the practical and theoretical implications of games as learning devices. As the traditional game industry moves towards consolidation, many decry the stagnation of innovation. Poppycock. We are at the beginning of a new stage of modern gaming's remarkable market explosion: the application of game design beyond entertainment to real world problems. Exciting times. :-)