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Games – A Human Necessity

It can be said that playing games is as old as humanity itself.  Indeed, playing seems wired into our very beings.  From the earliest ages of infancy, babies play.  Once they come to recognize faces and have some control of their limbs, they start to play.  At first it is simple games like patting hands and peek-a-boo.  When babies achieve mobility their desire for play increases exponentially.  They find all kinds of trouble to get into.  All of this is exploration of the world around them, trying to discover how things work, and how their bodies and minds interact with the world. 

Games expand learning and understanding.  The process of movement generates neural pathways, growing the brain and increasing capacity for thinking and problem solving.  Children live in the moment, playing and learning – never once differentiating between learning and education.  Everything is new and exciting.  There is always something new around every corner.  Exploration is a key part of childhood play. 

As children grow, the capacity to learn diminishes, while formal education increases.  It is said that 80% of everything that a person will learn in their life, they will learn by the age of 8.  A constant barrage of new experiences opens the mind up to new and exciting possibilities.  Children learn by watching. 

Let’s jump to the animal kingdom to compare examples of play and learning.

We see an example of formative play in the animal kingdom by looking at wolf packs.  (http://www.squidoo.com/wolf-pack )The cubs run around, wrestling and asserting their dominance - snapping and yelping – they learn how to fight, how to hunt and how to respect the powerful members of the pack.  All of these skills are essential as the wolf cubs reach adolescence.  Games provide the necessary training for survival.  Without this training, the wolf would soon die in the wild. 

Games also provide a social outlet by which wolves learn where they fit in the pack.  Authority comes to some wolves by virtue of their strength and skill at fighting.  These wolves quickly rise to the top of the ranks.  They demand obedience from their pack.  Any wolf that does not submit to the authority of the leader of the pack is driven out.  It is important to note that in a fight for superiority, wolves do not fight to the death.  They always fight to submission.  This is key – no game that results in lasting injury to another member of the group is entered into by the pack.  Ultimately the survival of the group depends upon the success of the education of the next generation.

Compared to a human child’s games, these wolf games seem very brutal, but they teach skills necessary for the future responsibilities of each member of the pack.  So, too, do children’s games teach them the essential skills that will guide them through their interactions with other people in life.

This is part of why sheltered children do not conform very well to social mores.  Beyond the simple explanation of not understanding rules of social interaction, often these individuals do not understand what it means to lose.

Games teach both winning and losing.  It can be said that a game is an event, entered into voluntarily for the purpose of obtaining a quantifiable outcome.  Entering into a game, by definition also means that the game will have an end.  At the end of the game there is a winner and a loser.  Understanding the rules of the game is definitely a part of determining the correct combination of skill and luck to turn the outcome to your favor.  However, facing the consequences of losing allows children, adolescents and adults to face their own shortcomings and learning how to improve themselves.

In previous generations these lessons were learned face to face with other people.  Social interaction was an integral part of learning, playing and growing.  Nowadays it is rare to find children playing outside as they would have a mere twenty years ago.  Electronic entertainment has become proxy for interpersonal interaction.  This allows the children to go through the steps of play, but it does not correctly form the essential thought processes that will allow the child to socialize well in the adult world.

Games  that only stimulate the visual centers of the brain without requiring movement rapidly deplete dopamine levels.  This results in short attention spans, irritability and fatigue.  All of these can be balanced out by what is termed “rhythmic movement”.  This is any sort of activity that moves the body and allows the brain to rest and recharge.  Examples of this are knitting, sketching, writing by hand, swinging on a swing, and rocking in a rocking chair. 

The result of children, adolescents and adults immersing themselves in visually overwhelming games is a socially degenerating society. Common courtesies break down.  Accountability for personal actions is stunted, as the thought processes just reboot to the last save location.  Unfortunately life does not have save points.  There is only one way to go – forward.  Low attention spans mean that fewer people are taking the time and putting in the effort to educate themselves in the traditional fashion.  More people turning off their minds and plugging into visual stimulation creates a society incapable of progress.

Progress only comes from challenging the current mindset of the status quo.  Minds that only see what is in front of their eyes never look inward to connect the missing links and create new answers to daily problems.  Games allow for creative problem solving and teach the implementation of solutions in a non-threatening environment. 

Given the current status of player choice in the crop of Next-Gen video games, problem solving falls into a narrow spectrum.  While a person may understand the issues before them on the screen, knowing how to avoid direct conflict with a Reaper will not necessarily help to ameliorate conflict with a co-worker.  Game solutions are designed for games.  They are rarely directly applicable to real life.  Only through the process of trial and error does a person learn to generalize lessons learned from games and apply them to life situations.

Video Games allow a person to escape reality for a time and be somewhere else.  Player identification is an important part of what makes video games successful.  While one person may be able to disconnect from reality and see themselves as the digital avatar, slaying giants and rescuing fair maidens, another might only see a projection of themselves as they interact with a digital poker game.  Both players have moved from their current level of reality into another place.  While they might not see themselves as someone else, they have moved somewhere else.

By moving the action from the immediate player to some indistinct virtual location, the kinesthetic aspect of gameplay is lost.  The visual continuity remains for the player to learn and expand their experience base, but this is only half of the necessary equation for a game to be fully beneficial to the development of an individual. 

Noted futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts a full immersion and integration between the mechanical and the biological within 20 years.  He says,

“By 2030 you'll see full-immersion, shared, virtual-reality environments, or spaces, involving all the senses, where we can actually go inside our bodies and brains and tap into the flow of signals coming from our senses. …

“So you have billions of nanobots taking up positions in the capillaries next to every nerve fiber coming from all of your senses. If you want to be in real reality, the nanobots sit there and do nothing, and you experience the world in the normal way. But let's say you want to leave real reality. This will shut down the signals coming from your real senses and replace them with the signals you would be receiving if you were in the virtual environment.

Just the way today you have people beaming their lives from their apartments using Webcams, people will be beaming their entire flow of sensory experiences. Rather than just watching their apartment, you will actually experience their sensory experiences--and their emotional reactions.” (http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2000/10/09/289307/index.htm)

This prediction flies in the face of all that we have so far discussed.  Games are essential to the intellectual, social and physical development of individuals and societies.  We are moving toward complete immersion in games.  We have only

Games are an opportunity to play out individual fantasies in a manner that does not directly influence another person.  Complete immersion in games at this stage merely means entering “the zone” where nothing else exists beyond the game, so far as the player is aware.  Continuing down the path envisioned by Kurzweil, complete immersion will mean something completely alien to our current reckoning.  Games will be a life experience without the reality.

Such fantasy was once only a subject of science fiction novels.  To become one with the game in a very real sense is a complete abdication of individuality in life and an embrace of post-humanism over humanity.  How can one who exists only for and in a fantasy world be expected to participate normally in real life?  Perhaps they will not be expected to participate.  Perhaps professional gamers will make their life inside games, providing entertainment and experience vicariously for those of lesser ability.

Games are moving toward greater realism.  Within ten years we will see a fully photorealistic performance from a digital actor that will be indistinguishable from a human actor.  The “uncanny valley” experienced by much of the high-end 3d animations will be nothing more than a memory.  When the graphics of games arrive at the point where they can progress no further, then the next step will be to move from a visual experience to an immersive experience.  As noted above, full immersion is unplugging from real life.  Though it may seem like an innovative experience, technological tampering with the human mind will not lead to a delightful place.  Every person carries their own demons with them.  To integrate an entire society into one amalgam with fully emotionalized experiences is to share nightmares with those who are unprepared to deal with the psychological ramifications of such demons.  Nano-possession could be termed for those who are locked inside another’s nightmare.

This does not directly impact the development of games, but it will make a difference for the designers of the next-next generation of gameplay.  With AI improving to the point of fully random and learning NPCs, game developers will be more architects of the world, crafting possibilities rather than coding games. 

Game engines will be linked together as AI improves.  There will be engines that drive only NPC / Player interactions.  There will be those that control environment.  The standalone engine will fall by the wayside as specialized engines prove their worth as modular game design becomes the norm. 

As a fan of science fiction knows, there are authors that tackle similar subjects or write characters very much alike, so also will modular designers be able to link up various worlds to create the next chapter in the growing saga.  Players will be able to enter or exit worlds through specified portals.  They can plug in and unplug at will, making life outside virtually indistinguishable from life inside.

Games are beneficial to individuals.  They are essential to societies, and a part of the human experience.  So long as there are clear and distinct differences between fantasy and reality, there will be a market for games.  When life and game becomes indistinguishable, then the game ceases to be a game and merely becomes a part of life.  The mind was meant to imagine. Games are meant to be a diversion to help the mind learn and understand.  When games become the work at which the mind ceaselessly toils, then the singular distinction that is Man will cease to be and he will become merely a component in a larger entity.

One could conclude from this that video games are bad. That is not so. The important thing to take away from this treatise is the essential nature of play in the human psyche.  While Man plays, nature can be tamed and harnessed for Man’s benefit.  When Man ceases to differentiate play and life, then nature rears up fully and overwhelms man – even if nature is the very thing Man created to protect himself from nature.

Tarl Telford,
Mar 19, 2009, 11:10 AM