Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

How playing computer games makes you smarter

Occasionally I have the pleasure of spending time with people who are not internet-savvy. People who are not tech-savvy. People who are certainly not geeks. I think I’ve spotted a symptom of non-gameness…

Those people, when presented with information they do not immediately have, for example ‘how to turn this on’ or ‘how do you change the channel on this?’ or similar, will, if at all possible, ask the nearest ‘tech savvy’ person. They will not, under any circumstances, unless the situation is desperate, try to solve the mystery themselves. They definitely will not press a button to see what happens, or go with a hunch.

In short, they are wary of experimenting and exploring.

Gamers, I suspect are not like this. Games are safe environments in which you can explore, investigate, and try out new ideas. With console games, it’s even more true. You can’t accidentally format your console by pressing wrong buttons. You can blindly press things and see what they do. Often, you will guess correctly, and get a nice dose of dopamine for doing so. Hurrah, you learn to associate experimentation with success, and reward.

Compare that with earlier, passive forms of entertainment, such as books, movies and the theater, where there is nothing expected from the audience. They are certainly not encouraged to participate. In fact, any sort of noise from a theater audience can result in anger. Non tech-savvy friends often express barely contained fear that they might press the wrong button and a gadget may explode, possible resulting in the death of millions. Maybe that’s also a generational thing. Health and safety obsessions mean me live in a world that practically has corks on forks. It was not always so.

I think these different approaches lead to different mindsets. The passive entertainment form is great for factory workers, the military, or any career where you are supposed to follow orders, and not step out of line. The interactive form is far better for careers that involve experimentation, creativity, critical thinking, design and originality. As technology marches on, less and less people will be doing simple, assembly line jobs. If your kids are 14 today, they are much more likely to have creative and expressive jobs than people from 50 years ago.

In summary, encourage your kids to play computer games. It’s good for them :D

9 thoughts on How playing computer games makes you smarter

  1. [quote]passive forms of entertainment, such as books, movies and the theater, where there is nothing expected from the audience.[/quote]

    IMO that’s very untrue and in general, I feel you are mischaracterizing several of these forms of entertainment quite significantly. Reading prose is not passive; it interacts with your fantasy at a deep level. Watching a theater play is not passive; it (can) challenge you on many different levels.

    Now, watching TV, yeah, that’s a pretty passive thing.

    Also, you’re attributing quite a lot here to games. Playing games fosters creativity? Maybe, not sure. Developing games does. :)

  2. I believe that computer games are useful in that they can get some players interested in being creators, whether through scripting, modding or actual programming. This leads to learning programming and math skills, which are important life skills. On the other hand, they can be massive time-wasters, and lead to a life of inactivity. I wish I knew what lead me to want to learn the programming and math skills while some of my fellow gamers never left the arcade or finished high school. I ended up with a great career, but many ended up with nothing but wasted time. If I knew how to use games as a tool to steer kids, I’d be more comfortable encouraging my kids to play them.

    Any ideas?

  3. I recommend the book ‘Everything Bad is Good for You’.

    It covers games, and the increasing complexity of TV.

  4. I’m not sure I really agree with this, in that tech people I know who don’t play video games (such as my dad) have similar attitudes towards fixing things, experimenting and working things out for themselves. In fact, my dad is a lot better at it than I am, though he’s never really played many, if any, video games.

    Also, while I might be prepared to mess around with a computer problem, I follow something like a cooking recipe very strictly and the first thing I do when something goes wrong is call someone I know who can cook – I just don’t have the confidence or knowledge to know where to start to solve the problems, or even know if they can be solved. Most of the time I don’t even know what might have gone wrong to know where to start looking.

    Basically, I think this is quite generalizing and simplistic. Different people have different expertises and levels of confidence with various tasks, and that affects how they might try to tackle a problem more than whether or not they play video games. I also agree Rene Damm that you’re rather underselling how much people invest in books and theater and possibly even some TV.

  5. I’ve personally dubbed this “buttonfobia”. Some people are afraid that pressing the wrong button will somehow ruin the computer, so they don’t try anything themselves and instead ask… or don’t do anything at all if there’s nobody around to ask. The only cure is to feel comfortable/savvy around a computer, and gaming is certainly one way of achieving that.

  6. That’s one side, but games also teach instant gratification — slay things for 5 minutes and you’re now stronger, congratulations! Just jump into the cockpit of your fighter, make a few dozen easy kills and you’re hailed for your skills as Earth’s new hero.

    In the real world, to gain muscles, you have to consistently train for months. To become a fighter pilot, you have to learn for years. And this holds true for any new skill you are seeking to acquire and for any project you want to complete.

    I have the impression that games also teach people that anything requiring more than a few minutes of effort is not worth pursuing. In other words, cope with trivial problems by blind guessing and give up right away on anything that requires actual learning/training, seeking for an easier target (most likely another game) instead.

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