Monday, October 5, 2009

Why Study Games?

The past few posts have been about video games and this naturally leads to the question - why study video games? I would like to break this down into two questions: 1) why study games?; and 2) why study video games? These are really two quite different questions and need to be addressed separately. In this post I will take on the first one.

In his book The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia Bernard Suits points out that in a utopian world, where work was not required for survival, most people would busy themselves with games. There is something fundamentally satisfying about games and it is one of the few activities that people pursue for its own sake. That is, we work so we can play. But we play because we like to play.

There is an important message in that observation. If work were more like play then we would want to work for its own sake. Or, if work were more like a game, then it would be more inherently satisfying. Same thing goes for education. If school were more like play we would want to go to school for its own sake. And if school were more like a game, it would be more inherently satisfying.

Unfortunately, people like to think that work and school should be hard. They should be unpleasant. So any attempts to make them more like play or more like games would only diminish their value. But, I believe, that this perspective is merely a rationalization. It is an attempt to make the best of or deal with a bad situation. Believing that work is supposed to be unpleasant allows us to accept our fate if we are doing work that we find as unpleasant. However, history does not support this view.

Work in the industrial age was far more unpleasant than it is today. In fact, it was not only unpleasant, it was dangerous, tedious, and detrimental to one's health. In the past century and a half great strides have been made in making the workplace safer, more pleasant and more satisfying. You would be hard pressed to find anyone who beleives that work was somehow better in the factories of Victorian England.

Education wasn't much better. At the dawn of the twentieth century most education was some form of recitation. Students would memorize materials, then stand up in class and recite what they had mastered. It wasn't until the mid 20 century that schools began to focus on problem solving skills and greater student engagement. Needless to say, school became much more interesting and today we look back distainfully on those days of 'rote memorization'.

The question is, with all the improvements that we have seen in the workplace and in education, is this as good as it gets? I don't think so. As we gain more and more insight into the nature of games and why they are so inherently satisfying, we can apply that understanding to the workplace and to schooling. Imagine what would happen to the economy if people preferred to lean new skills and apply them than anything else. If all those unproductive hours spent in front the the boob tube could be put to productive use, we might see another major improvement in quality of life.

No comments: