What Do We Learn Through Play?

Long hiatus, back now. A thing about me: it’s an effort for me to talk when I don’t feel like I have something to say (often, even when I do). I usually default to listening. I’ve spent a lot of the last year listening.

When it comes to games, we talk around some topics a lot. An example: games are art. This isn’t really refutable. It honestly wasn’t, ever, but for a solid couple of decades there was a big question mark around that. We’ve moved past that in a big way, and we’re seeing more and more amazing, beautiful, moving things in our games that simply aren’t possible unless it’s widely understood that games are art.

That understanding is important, it unlocks things, it makes people think and inspires them. Modern graffiti wasn’t viewed as an artistic medium for decades, and wasn’t widely accepted for even longer. Now we have Banksy, and massive outdoor city murals, and street art. The frame of expression widened as acceptance did. We’re seeing the same things in games.

This gets me to my original thought– listening and talking around topics. Games are art, indisputably. Games also teach, indisputably. We have an ever-expanding body of research that concludes that games are one of if not the best mechanisms for teaching. We’ve known that games are great for teaching for centuries– Go and Chess are old war games, used to teach strategy. The question becomes not “*can* games teach?” but instead “what are games teaching?”

It’s a thing we talk around a lot. We’ll talk about how well the game teaches us how to play it, how good the tutorial is and whether the progression curve teaches you the skills necessary to keep progressing. We talk about games teaching resource management, and strategy. We’ll laud games that use smaller versions of boss mechanics to prepare you for the boss itself.

What doesn’t come up much is the other stuff games teach us. Assassin’s Creed taught quite a few people how to appreciate classic art. Guitar Hero and Rock Band taught people about classic rock. These aren’t a core part of the game, they don’t help you beat the game, but they’re the parts that can stick with you. In school, no one cares that you’re good at completing worksheets or homework– what those things do is give you skills that stick with you for when you need them. Math class teaches you how to finish math class, but it also teaches you how to balance a budget, how to make estimates, how to think about problems logically, and a variety of other handy life skills. It teaches you how to use a calculator, so you can solve complex problems with one, and teaches you how NOT to use a calculator, so you can tell if the answer the calculator is giving you is likely to be correct or if you’ve put in some errors.

Games teach us all kinds of ancillary things, but we don’t really talk about them much (outside of some flavors of game scholars, hi2y’all if you’re reading this). It’s certainly not a discussion that comes up in the design process. There’s rarely enough space in the usual games-industry development cycle to have those kinds of discussions, much less act on them.

It means that a lot of stuff gets unintentionally taught, lessons that sink in that weren’t ever part of a plan. There’s an parallel to parenting here– the parents I know talk about the things they teach their children, and then the things their children “pick up”. These are the unintentionally taught parts, and games do the same thing.

I want to spend some time over the next few posts trying to put words to the unintentional things I’ve learned from games. It’s a conversation I find interesting, and (as mentioned) not one that comes up a lot. It’s a hard thing to think about, because it forces me to not just read between the lines of the game but also self-analyze and see how I’ve changed.

Might be an interesting experiment, we’ll see!

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