I’m Chris, and I’m a gamer.
Gaming is a thing that I really like to do, and I’m not ashamed of that in the slightest. I’d say that it’s a hobby of mine, in fact; I had a pretty interesting discussion on Twitter the other day with NekoJonez, among others, about the spectrum of gamer ‘seriousness’, and I think we decided that somewhere between ‘casual’ and ‘pro’ or ‘speedrunner’ lie the ‘hobbyists’. Well, there you have it. I play games as a hobby. I’m a hobbyist.
I’ve written before about whether there’s a ‘right way to play’ games, in which I talked at a bit more length about how different kinds of gamers (speedrunners, primarily) approach gaming, and I don’t think I have much left to say on how I as a (recently) self-professed hobbyist actually undertake the endeavour of playing a game. I think gaming can definitely be classed as a hobby or pastime, though, in the same way that reading or watching movies can be; it’s just a newer medium for the same sort of entertainment.
So here’s something interesting about hobbies: generally, people do hobbies for some reason beyond just simple enjoyment. That might sound weird if you haven’t thought about it, but if you think about a hobby of yours, something you actually invest time in and take seriously, you probably get something out of it. Sure, rock climbers and jazz trumpeters and taxidermists enjoy what they do, but they also benefit from the activity: the rock climber gets fit, the trumpeter gets a creative outlet and probably some social fulfillment, and the taxidermist… also benefits somehow. These things also teach the hobbyist something about themselves, about their own ability to overcome obstacles or improvise or create art. I think there’s something about this endeavour of self-improvement that lends legitimacy of a kind to the hobby, and perhaps the reason that some still see gaming as a bit of a waste of time is just because nobody’s pointed out how it can actually further the gamer as an individual.
So let’s talk about what we can learn from games, gaming, and gaminess. I’m talking about each of us as gamers and individuals, by the way, rather than what other professions can learn from the craft of game design (which, again, I’ve briefly discussed in the past, but I might return to the topic at some point). I put the question of ‘what have you learned from playing games?’ out to a few friends, and they had some really interesting things to say, (including, from Teri Mae of Sheikah Plate, ‘how much time do we have?!’) so we’ll try to cover as much as we can, and as many people’s individual experiences of self-betterment via gaming, as possible.
Quick diversion, though, to cover what games don’t do. We know that people don’t get fit from playing games, outside of a couple of select platforms like the Wii and VR. Gaming is a largely sedentary hobby, but then again, so is reading. So’s chess. Nobody tries to claim that those aren’t legitimate and worthwhile ways of spending time purely because they’re generally done sitting down. The only advantage they have over gaming is that they’re older, and therefore more respectable somehow. NekoJonez points out, however, that even this isn’t a valid criticism any more!
‘Let’s not forget about the impact of things like the Wii on the elderly. There are studies showing that games like Wii Sports can help the elderly to exercise without leaving the home too much. I’d love to link you some articles, but they’re all in Dutch and Google Translate doesn’t do Dutch to English too well…’
There are, of course, a few aspects to what games involve. Lots of people play games for the stories, and I really do think that gaming stories can be powerful. TheAlbumWeb says: ‘the smallest details in narrative have taught me not to overlook the little things. Helps me become a better writer and pay better attention.‘ Jonez said something to the same effect, and I too feel that some games tell stories so expertly that I can’t help but learn a bit about storytelling from them. More than this, though, let’s consider what gaming stories usually involve. Almost inevitably, there’ll be some sort of obstacle to overcome, some mission to complete, and – outside of a couple of extremely harsh games that only divulge from the norm to make some sort of point – they’re always possible. You get the chance to at first not succeed, then try, try again, learning each time and developing skills to apply to the problem until you finally overcome it. Much was made of how Dark Souls employed difficulty and respawning mechanics as part of its story, giving the player even more of a feeling of surmounting seemingly impossible odds and overcoming hopelessness and despair.
A few people commented on this aspect, and I think the only way to do their answers justice is to set them out in full, so let’s have a look at some. Athena of AmbiGaming (who’s just one of the smartest people I’ve met – well, not met, but y’know – and you really should go and check out her blog) had this to say:
‘I think the most important thing I’ve learned from video games is that there isn’t any obstacle that’s impossible to overcome. Sometimes it takes a lot of time, perseverance, asking questions and getting help from others, and/ or a touch of creative thinking, but there’s no problem you’re given that you can’t solve. Otherwise, I’ve gained a lot of perspective about other people and new ways of thinking about things as I’m presented with people and situations I wouldn’t otherwise have met. Oh, and I also learned from Zelda that running around in a circle a lot before darting in and hitting an enemy is a very effective way of fighting.’
I hope Athena hasn’t had to use her fighting lessons in practice too much, but she makes some good points. It can take different skills, different approaches, to be able to overcome the variety of problems that a game – and, by extension, life – might present you with, but there’s always a way. Some games teach us specific skills, like puzzle-solving or parkour (yeah, I played Mirror’s Edge and now I totally know how to do the parkour) – or, as Jonez says, Tetris can even teach us how to stack things for maximum space efficiency, as can the legendary inventory management of Resident Evil 4 – and some teach us more general things about how to look at a problem. Shelby of Falcon Game Reviews says, along similar lines:
‘Personally, I think gaming has helped make me a softer-hearted person. There have been a number of games that I’ve played that I’ve found wonderful, uplifting moments in, or just contemplative ones. Games that challenge my thinking. I think I wrote a post about that before.’
Indeed you did, Shelby, and I even managed to find it here!
As I think I’ve said before, games can help us to change the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, because we truly live the lives of the characters we play as; we feel ourselves in the shoes of heroes like Link or Noctis, their incredible achievements becoming our own. It’s a powerful thing.
James, who’s a member of a Facebook group of bloggers that I’m very honoured to be a part of, and – I feel absolutely terrible about this – whose blog I’ve forgotten, says:
‘I don’t think games have taught me specific lessons per se, but they’ve certainly helped me think about how I approach problems and solutions. I guess you’d call it ‘lateral thinking’ or something, but I think the fact that they give you plenty of room for experimentation, re-assessment, re-evaluation etc has helped me to generally think about things in a different kind of way, if that makes sense. Oh, and they taught me how to survive the inevitable zombie apocalypse, obviously.’
‘Try everything in your inventory with everything else in your inventory, and eventually you’ll come across the answer! There’s a solution for every problem, no matter how insurmountable it seems. Sometimes you just need a bit of patience and perseverance to see you through… and a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle.’
I’m not sure whether I’m surprised or not by how many people’s answers have had this common theme about how gaming’s taught them that nothing is impossible. I think the idea of escaping into a game world as a sort of fantasy or wish fulfillment lends itself to this, and it’s probably a big part of why many people pick up a controller in the first place.
Let’s also remember the smaller things that we can learn from gaming: those with physical disadvantages might be able to develop their motor skills through engaging with a world they enjoy and feel motivated to interact with, while individuals who struggle to solve problems in their daily lives could even learn to become more self-sufficient through levelling up their puzzling skills. These are important things! I’m pretty sure I read that some classrooms now even use Minecraft to promote creativity while also potentially imparting some lessons about geography, geometry, and how to survive in a world full of skeletons and exploding green willies. Jonez even mentioned that games were what got him into studying computer science, now one of his biggest interests, and helped him to learn about fixing computers indirectly through having to make games run properly!
One final bit of community input: my other half Hannah says, in response to the question of ‘what we can learn from games’ is ‘that they’re a priority over people’s girlfriends’. Hm.
The point is, gaming is more than just mindless entertainment, lazily escaping from a real world we’re too antisocial to interact with in order to shoot at things. It’s just a new way of telling and retelling stories, something we humans have had a fascination with since just slightly after time immemorial, and stories have always been one of our best ways of passing on knowledge and exploring our own nature. Playing games teaches us something about who we are, and about how to explore infinite worlds. We learn to dream, and to overthrow our nightmares.
TL;DR: Games are, or at least can be, really cool. But then, if you’re reading this, you probably already thought that, and if you thought otherwise then trying to change your mind was probably about as pointless as giving a foot rub to a slug. Still, I tried.