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The Game as Laboratory: Planning and Discovery

We all know that some games are described or marketed as “educational”; in other words, the game is a medium through which knowledge or skills are directly passed on. The majority of these are aimed at children and marketed at their parents – is just one example of many. For adults, however, gaming can be better viewed not as the sugar that helps the medicine of facts slip down more easily, but as a tool to understand our understanding.

The popular press and your social media timeline have no shortage of suggestions to improve your performance or wellbeing – how can we hope to determine what works for us? Real life is too complex, too messy to match causes and effects with any certainty. You may have landed that sale because you upped your intake of blueberries, or it may have been a simple coincidence.

In contrast, many games offer a quantitative measure of performance – either an absolute score against a fixed benchmark, or a relative measure against the entire community of players. In either case, it is possible to track one's achievement, just as one might record your weekly running times. The game creates a stable proxy for performance. Do you really want to know when you are best as solving problems? Then compare your performance at a cognitive game in the morning with that in the evening, over a number of days. Is the subjective feeling that your week's detox has left you sharper justified? The numbers won't lie.

This works because each game is its own small world – still with rules, interactions and unpredictability, but on a much smaller scale than the real world we inhabit. Businesses and politicians use “wargaming” to refer to the use of simplified realities for testing their plans and ideas against possible ways they could play out over time. Games are spaces insulated from the chaos of the everyday; and this opens up a further possibility – that they are spaces where we can safely investigate ourselves.

Let's imagine for a moment that you found it difficult to handle reversals and disappointments at work: they upset you and throw you off track. Many different tips, strategies and even lifestyle changes might be suggested; but in order to find which works for you, you would need to test them out – which can only happen as quickly as these unwanted events occur. It would hardly be wise to invite failure in the workplace purely so that one can “try it on for size”. So instead, games which are one-on-one competition (Scrabble, Backgammon) or task-based (Sokoban, Chess problems) – those where you can, indeed will inevitably run into failure or loss – give a means to experience in a controlled way those negative emotions; and having experienced them, to understand how you best cope with and grow from them.

A means to measure, a mirror to reflect, and a window into ourselves – the laboratory of the game gives us all of these, and importantly we can still have fun at the same time!

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