Why Games?

June 8, 2016

I’m sure some of you out there, some of you who are friends and some of you who are not, are looking at the kind of person I am and wondering why games are so important to me. Not just a hobby I’m invested in, not just a cultural zeitgeist I count myself a part of, but something that I think represents and important philosophical and emotional technology to humanity. A very important element of culture that, I think, is currently being treated like no more than a toy. Games, I believe, are the cousin of narrative and storytelling that teach us empathy from the opposite direction. They inform our mechanisms for understanding empathy. Rules allow us to step into another person’s life and understand their motivations because the mechanisms tell us what we can and cannot do – that is, what decisions we would never make and which we would always make if we were the person we’re playing as.

To explain why in detail, come with me while I explore the very idea of what a game can be with you.

Games have been a part of the human condition for as long as we have evidence. I mean this in two ways; one, we’ve used mechanical structures to tell stories in particular ways (such as rituals to honor gods or spirits), and two, we’ve used dice, boards, game pieces, and rules to enjoy ourselves since as far ago as at least 2,600 BCE. Those early games, like Senet, were race games for the most part. Racing toward, usually, a good afterlife. In this fashion, the oldest games have both been about a religious teaching; one is a set of rules on how to honor the spirits that control life properly, and the other is a harmless system that allows us to make mistakes while learning those rules. Games, from this perspective, have been as sacred as storytelling for humanity. Games allow us to learn how to be better people without punishing us when we fail.

In modern America, we have a few divergent opinions about games though.

The first largely held point of view about “games” is rooted in the board games of the American consumer boom of the 50s and 60s. These are the decades where Monopoly, Operation, Scrabble, and Clue became staples in the American experience. Those same board games can be attributed to a modern perception of board games being tiring, random affairs or tests of dexterity with little pay off other than frustrating friends. They’re games that are meant purely to be diversions and do not really respect the players in most cases. Some few, like Scrabble, have international competitions that rely on player skill but they are not the example of most board games that inform the American “background radiation” opinion on board games.

The second, an opinion born near when I was, is that “games” now refers to video games almost absolutely. These are the mechanical, toy-market driven diversions for children. Games being a fancy version of toy soldiers or dolls that are meant only to entertain privileged children until they have responsibilities. As if the crass consumerism that drove board games when these people were children are what drives video games through to this day.

The third is the kind of modern consumerist opinion. Games are just diversions, but they can be driving, entertaining diversions. This is the root of not only Call of Duty fans but also fans of basketball and football the world over. Games don’t have anything important to teach us, necessarily, by themselves but they can inspire things like sportsmanship, companionship, and glory. These games, though, are still not really important. They’re “just” games.

The next that, I think, is most prevalent is the polar opposite of all of these. It’s a view that games are so important that they can warp the minds of those that play them. This is the rooted opinion of both crusaders against tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons but also laws against the sale of “violent” games to minors. Both of these ideas believe that the simple act of representation in a game (such as pushing a button to fire a gun, or describing the use of magic) are exactly like the represented idea to the brain, thus encouraging the use of guns or magic in real life. The (obvious) fallacy to this, especially the laws versus the extensive scientific literature on this not being the case vis a vis violence, pushes the above dismissive opinions of games as toys.

Personally, I’m part of a growing force of one last opinion-holders; games as transformational storytelling. We’re the people that see the lessons within games themselves. We’re the people who have increasingly pointed out that football is mock-warfare, that Settlers of Catan teaches resource management, and that Monopoly isn’t fun because it was never supposed to be. We insist that there are important lessons that can be learned through the act of playing, and that games aren’t about having fun, they’re about telling a story through rules. Stories that can teach us things, help us feel emotions, or simply be the equivalent to a popcorn movie or a trashy novel.

Games, in my opinion, are the best way to teach empathy. Everyone’s life has rules. Whether we’re the architect of a great wonder, the owner of a railroad just starting in the American West, a college student from a middle class background, or a recently disabled homeless man struggling to live on the street of a suburb. Each of these lives has decisions that can be weighted with pros and cons, based on the context of their environment and their experiences. When you can take these decisions, put them in a structured environment, and provide the rules before hand, you have a game that can teach these experiences. While no single game, much like how no single story, can tell the experience of any group of people or any single event in history, a game provides a unique method of telling stories that normal narratives cannot accomplish. What it does, in essence, is force us to understand the mind of someone else by restricting both our decisions and our experiences to the mechanics and the rules.

So why games? Because games tell stories, and I adore telling stories.

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