Friday, October 5, 2012

Are Games Useful?

I talked about usefulness in the last post. Separately, I am also still thinking through the idea that games are by definition frivolous, and that they have no real purpose outside themselves, which is a major argument in Suit's book.

I just don't think that is true. Suits is wrong about this. Games do not just pass the time, but can thrill and stimulate, and help people develop skills and health and insight. There is a connection between games and purpose, which is why the point is so important.

I an writing this on a plane. I wonder if airline 757 simulators count as a game, for example? They are not a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles, in Suits' definition. They are a professionally essential sharpening of skills, and the obstacles are necessary to do that. But it is not reality either. A simulator is an abstraction from reality, a little like a well-written drama.

Role-playing is also a game, in a sense - a point which Suits has difficulty with. Drama and stories are also one step away from reality, but something

Can a game provide something that people do consider useful? The "lusory goal" can be less important than the indirect consequences of the game, especially improving skills and judgment.

Allegedly the British Empire (or at least the Battle of Waterloo) "was won the playing fields of Eton", which seems like a major real world consequence if it is only even a little true. Certainly most militaries play "war games" and exercises and general staff drills in any case.

And is the Olympic Games just games with no larger significance? Why do cities fight to spend $10 billion to host them?

Bill Shankley of Liverpool Football Club in England once said "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that." There are hundreds of thouands of fans who would agree with that.

I've been reading Johan's Huizinga's Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, which I'll say more about in a few days. He talks about how deep the competitive instinct, or the agonistic instinct as he calls it, runs in people in culture. He also frames the discussion in terms of play, which perhaps runs wider than games.

Games, I think, can be significant in that they can be intimately related to things people care about, like status and winning and belonging and stimulation and entertainment. They can also be very important in displacing other things. Better to compete on a football pitch than a battlefield. And they overlap with other important concepts, like drama, simulation, role-playing, play, competition, winning and ambition. They are also strangely wrapped up with virtue, and testing and display of virtue.

Indeed, they can almost be a moral system in themselves, such as when an Englishman (or Indian or Australian) says "that's not cricket."

Perhaps there is a more general point. There is a standard piece of ancient folk wisdom which says you don't achieve happiness by aiming directly at it. It comes as a side-effect of other things. In that sense games can be most important not in terms of their primary lusory goals, but the indirect side-effects and consequences, the extra-lusory indirect goals, such as enjoyment, stimulation, learning... and happiness and flourishing.

Games are useful beyond the lusory goal. The extra-lusory effects matter, and indeed could be central to society. The games we choose to play say a lot about us.


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