Why We Play Games

I'm the founder of Taaalk and I used to be an analyst at a top tier European VC fund where I was part of the investment team for three gaming deals. I also have a MSc in Psychology, so am interested to know the mental mechanics behind the most successful digital games.
I'm the Chief Creative Officer at https://spryfox.com/. I blog at https://lostgarden.home.blog/. Games I've designed include Triple Town, Alphabear, Road Not Taken, Steambirds, etc...
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13:29, 06 May 20 (edit: 13:30, 13 May 20)
This Taaalk was written on the first version of Taaalk in 2016.
The archive.org version is available here.
Joshua Summers
22:11, 07 May 20
So why do you think we play games?
Daniel Cook
22:11, 07 May 20
We play because it is one of the dominant modes of learning for the human animal. We have a huge instinctual love for learning...we can't help ourselves. Arguably these naked, clawless apes are only successful as a species due to our mastery of tools, language and social skills. These let us adapt to our highly variable landscape in an unprecedented fashion. We can learn these through essential skills rote learning by reading books or gossiping with one another. But we can can also learn by playing.
Play is exploratory learning. You see something, you fiddle with it and see what it does. Using what you've learned, you try something else. Along the way, you build up a remarkably rich mental structure for how the thing works and how it might be used productively. That moment of discovery when you figure how a thing does something interesting...that's delight...that's fun! Laughter while playing is a sign of insight.
Now, while you are playing, it may seem totally useless to the more serious minded folks. You flounder about and fail a ton. You make mistakes. It takes immense leisure time. But all this playful effort ends up building out the paths of understanding. Wisdom gained through play doesn't look like knowing a single way to do something successfully. It is knowing all the ways things can go horribly wrong and knowing how to adapt. Exploratory learning yields flexible skills. That's super valuable.
So where do games come into all this? Games are merely structured play. They are a way of sharing play with others; a game says "Hey! Here's a fruitful form of play!" This usually takes the form of a process defined rules and actions that people should carry out. Over time (or by intentional design) the rules are edited and pared down to be something that can be easily explained while still offering a rich and delightful play space. Just as novels are a highly edited and transferable form of grass roots gossip, games are a highly edited and transferable form of play.
Just as it is extremely difficult to stop play from happening, it ends up being very difficult stopping humans from playing games. It is part of who we are as an organism.
Joshua Summers
22:11, 07 May 20
That makes a lot of sense!
From a learning point of view, what do you think the differences are between a seemingly more shallow game like Flappy Bird and a deeper game like Chess?
Do you feel it’s possible to tell from the design of the game if people will play it six months after they first try it? And does that always come down to the games ability to continue to tickle your learning vibes?
Daniel Cook
22:12, 07 May 20
Flappy Birds and Chess both have a relatively large amount of headroom for learning, albeit in different areas. Flappy Birds focuses on physical skill. Expert players need to master the brutal physics and random map generation. The short loop of trail and inevitable failure means you get a lot of practice in a short amount of time. It isn't for everyone and deals with a narrow set of skills. But I suspect that there are a vast number of players who have been getting incrementally better over months of play. Chess has years of learning in it, but the skills it exercises are more about pattern recognition and memorization (of opening moves).
There's often a certain amount of snobbery in our discussions of 'deep' vs 'shallow'. Not all players like the same things and there are many orthogonal play styles for even the same game. A haphazard social game of chess with take-backs and gossip may be a wonderful way to spend an afternoon for friends. They are more interested in building a relationship with one another than mastering a game. They might find harshly competitive chess downright insulting; a betrayal of the trust in one another they are building. Instead of asking whether a game is shallow or deep on some ideal scale, I like to instead ask 'What value do you get out of a game?'
That's a much more personal question. It leaves room for different people with different needs. And it leaves room for lots of different types of meaningful games.
I'm honestly still mystified by what games players will play 6 months after they first try it. I've actually built a lot of my career and designs around 'evergreen' games. These are the sort of game that people play for years. So I have patterns and black magic rituals. I know how players burn out on certain types of content. And I know how we can employ various mathematical structures to maintain variety and engagement. But in the end, it is still a bit of a crap shoot.
Games are human processes. We are codifying play in rules and mechanical systems, but ultimately you need to have those run on human wetware. I don't have a compiler manual for the human brain. It's a complex, messy system with highly variable quality control. I can write the most pristine code but as soon as I get a player executing those instructions things often go wildly off the rails. Imagine a computer that instead of executing your program decides to pop off to the fridge and get a yogurt. This is why play testing is so critically important to any game development process. You literally cannot develop a functioning game unless you run it with real people and see how they react.
Getting that human brain to execute your game for 6 months? Hoo boy! Most of our work goes into getting you to play for 30 seconds. Learning is part of it. The player's needs, mental resources and expectations matter too. All these factors are hidden until you test the game. You slowly tease them out over hundreds or thousands of iterations, all while retuning your game to fit what you've learned as the designer.
Joshua Summers
22:13, 07 May 20
Although I think humans are hard to understand, I believe that there are consistencies across us. Going back to the Flappy Bird vs chess debate; if we're playing games because we learn through them, do you feel that all forms of learning have the same weight?
This is just my personal perspective, but I feel that pattern recognition (and memory exercise) has a greater transferable use in day to day life than the physical mastering of random map generation. Do you think that's at all the case? And if you do, would it be fair to presume that a game which taught more commonly used transferable skills would have better retention?
Daniel Cook
22:13, 07 May 20
There's actually considerably uncertainty about what transfer from games into the real world. Definitely an ongoing topic of research with more questions than answers. My simple rule of thumb is that generalized skills seem to transfer more than specific skills.
What does that mean?
Let's look at 'specific skills' first. It helps to understand that games are these little self contained pocket universes; more abstract mathematical toys than scientific models of the real world. Greg Costikyan use the phrase 'endogenous systems of value'. So what do skills in a game represent? They represent us getting better at manipulating this little abstract toy.
You see this argument pop up with regards to violence in games. To a game player that is deep within the mathematical pocket universe of a game, shooting an enemy the head has nothing to do with the real world act of shooting someone in the head. Instead, they are concerned with timing sequences, controller manipulation and abstraction resource payoffs within the game's internally coherent value structure. There's this moment in most games where advanced players 'see the Matrix', strip away the evocative media and just start manipulating numbers and game concepts.
But if that is the case, where do all the theoretical evolutionary benefits for play come from? It seems that exercising specific game skills does accidentally exercise overlapping general skills. It is sort of like how doing pushing ups will indeed make you better at pushups, but also will end up making your arms stronger overall. For example, playing action games results in surgeons become more accurate and faster when performing surgeries. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17309970) The specific skills of shooting virtual enemies overlapped with the general skills of performing rapid, high accuracy tasks.
That was a very surprising result and it makes me wary of jumping to conclusion on how any specific game might or might not be helpful. We are incredibly bad at reasoning about how the brain works...we tend to rely on wildly inaccurate just-so models. For example, we'll happily accept that a fictional shooting activity obviously must results in a real world lust for killing. It is ripping tale, despite being false...I'd repeat that to my favorite aunt in a heartbeat! She needs know. But we'll ignore the functional components of attention management and timing that go into that same 'shooting game' skill. Those micro-moments of second-to-second experience are deeply boring and don't make for good gossip. So we don't talk about them. But that's what is actually happening and where all the skill transfer magic is occurring.
So I wouldn't write off Flappy Bird quite yet, especially if you engage in any real-world fine motor control activities.
Chess...is complex. It happens to be as much a social game as it is a game about thinking. So chess players get this wonderful burst of bonding with other people over a common interest. And it sets up social norms for a group where thinking and planning are celebrated. So something as mundane as a chess club end up seeding a new community. And we've suddenly gone beyond simple games and fallen headfirst into the creation of culture.
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