Games have been an integral part of human society since the earliest civilizations. They are played around the world by people at every...
Do games help us form social bonds and build important life skills, or are they just a pleasant way to escape the daily grind? Worse yet, could playing games make us lazy and antisocial? These are some of the questions we’re asking in this week’s show, What’s in a Game?
I understand why someone might think games are a waste of time. It’s hard to imagine that all the hours I’ve spent playing Q-bert (great game, by the way!) have done much more for me than help me while away some empty moments. In fact, you could even argue Q-bert has been bad for me: games like that are addictive, and they keep us from socializing with friends or doing something productive and altruistic with our time.
Still, I think there are good arguments to be made for at least some games. Even Q-bert may be minimally beneficial, strengthening my hand-to-eye coordination. (Not that I’m likely to find myself in a situation where I’m leaping diagonally onto a launchpad to avoid a bouncing snake, but I digress.) Other games set us fascinating puzzles, giving a little workout to our problem-solving muscles. Or they allow us to become a different person, exploring alternative options for life. And don’t get me started on improv games—I can say for certain that they’ve helped me to be more creative, courageous, and collaborative.
Some games even have moral ambitions. The Walking Dead keeps track of the choices you make and then feeds them back to you at the end, inviting you to learn something about the depravity of your character. Meanwhile, Brenda Romero’s board game Train—a kind of artwork, which you can only play at game shows—puts you in charge of a railroad system and tells you how much cargo you need to transport to what destination using your trains. At a certain horrifying moment in the game, you turn over a card that says the destination is Auschwitz. That’s when you realize what the cargo is—and what you yourself are capable of.
Let’s not forget, either, the social aspect of games. Games aren’t just me on my phone playing Q-bert; they’re groups of us getting together to play pickup soccer, improv games with friends, Mahjong with the family, or role-playing games with people from all over the world. We collaborate, we compromise, we deliberate together, we solve collective action problems. If kids pick up basic social skills from Red Rover or Hide and Seek, it’s not crazy to think that adults can pick up more advanced social skills from softball or Risk.
None of this means that everything is rosy in the garden of games. Monopoly, which was originally designed to teach the evils of capitalism, never works that way in real life. (My brother always used to steal from the Monopoly bank; now he’s a hedge fund manager.) And sometimes collective game-playing goes badly: the world of sports is full of cheating, harassment, and violence. Fellow Brits may remember footballer Eric Cantona acrobatically kicking a fan, or Roy Keane saying he had deliberately injured an opponent with a career-ending tackle. Americans may think of Tonya Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly injuring Nancy Kerrigan’s knee. That was about as much a “compromise” as Don Corleone’s negotiations with the Tattaglias.
But still… Even in the world of professional sport, there are more inspiring models of behavior. Federer and Nadal, Venus and Serena, Evert and Navratilova: we can respect our opponent as a worthy foe, not as an enemy. We’re grateful to them for trying to beat us, since they’re helping us to raise our game. If we can carry this wisdom with us when we leave the court, we are truly winning the game of life.
Our guest on this week’s show is Thi Nguyen, author of Games: Agency as Art. I hope you can join us for some fun and games!