A number of darts have been thrown into a dartboard.


The blog post on “Play” would have been a good time to bring up game behavior, but I was preoccupied with the issue of prematurely identifying the origins of the behavior.

Besides arguments about origins, the Internet contains a number of definitions and classificatory schemes, which seem to be beside the point in explaining the behavior—or behaviors, since we apply the term “game” to the Olympics, Defender 2020, and Angry Birds.

David Elkind, who worked with Jean Piaget, noted that both Piaget and Freud emphasized the importance of unstructured play. Games introduce structure with the imposition of goals and, sometimes, rules; but this facilitates social development in play, which is obvious around the world.

Stage theorists like Erikson and Piaget (countering Vygotsky) observed the increasing prominence of game playing in the preschool years. Richard Nisbett has described the impact of the mid-20th century information revolution on our behavior, which has become focused more on data and less on things. Games show this effect as well as any behavior. Things had been the focus of the earlier industrial revolution that often replaced children’s play with work; but organizing and making inferences from data is the focus of many of today’s games.

A hand of cards is shown.

BIO: Animals play, but do they play games? Dogs seem to provide the clearest positive examples, but then dogs have adapted to human ways repeatedly, unlike most mammals. Ravens have been observed playing games like tug-of-war and drop-and-catch (seen also in gulls). But the evolutionary history of human games is cloudy*.

Our improvement at games feels like an intrinsic reward that is available to players of every level. Improvement, in fact, provides an ethical backbone for what is otherwise an indulgence linked to violent behavior and addiction. Games support healthy behavior as well, probably better than “games” that were designed for self-help. We can practice decision-making without harmful consequences of the decisions.

In some general way, modern games contribute to healthy mental activity, and perhaps some specific ones like spatial cognition.

*Evidence that dogs, humans, and maybe lions (but how general is that within the species?) also play tug-of-war is not evidence of evolution. (Is it genetically influenced? Does it have any adaptive value?) You may protest that the game teaches physics. But does physics increase reproductive fitness?

PSYCHO: Games are memory engines. As we play games over and over, we get better at playing them. As the post on “Mental Effort” emphasized, new skills begin as conscious, effortful procedures that demand mental effort from the cerebral cortex, though practice turns the initial skill into an unconscious routine housed in a different part of the brain, the basal ganglia. The newly automatic routine is faster, less prone to error, and more fun.

Making the game automatic has another interesting effect: It frees up our conscious mind to process new skills on top of the former skill. Once we learn to stay upright on a skateboard, we can learn to turn; and so on.

Games are often sandboxes for learning that leads to expertise. Of course that doesn’t mean memorizing the multiplication tables. Often, games enhance our use of working memory and can improve fluid intelligence, which depends heavily on working memory. The “intellectual” part of working memory are the executive functions it carries out, influenced by a great number of situational or contextual conditions, including practice.

Working memory also is the scratchpad used by attention to pursue a goal. When we focus attention on a video game like Angry Birds, working memory may induce the attentional state that Csikszentmihalyi labeled “flow”, which is we experience as the immersional experience known as being “in the zone”. The failings of attention such as inattentional blindness that further provide opportunities for the tricks and traps that escape attention in  video games.

There is evidence that working memory can get better with games. Performance in one difficult game, called the dual n-back task, improves in executive operations like updating through practice. This kind of practice effect also appears as higher scores in fluid intelligence.

Researchers have not agreed on a standard game for performance comparisons, though the dual n-back task comes close. Nevertheless, yet another game has provided evidence that dedication, measured as time on task, is the main driver of expertise in some games; though when expertise is considered broadly, this must be an oversimplification, as the variables covered by the term “expertise” might fill a book.

And practice must not be mechanical repetition but improvisation. The seemingly magical number of 10,000 hours is not a touchstone either. The late Anders Ericsson, to whom the figure was often ascribed, emphasized this point.

In referring to games as “sandboxes” above, I had in mind their usefulness in matching our mental constructs to physical reality: for example, correcting our intuitive physics to accord with the forces of nature, such as gravity.

The sandbox notion has been explored repeatedly for the popular video game Angry Birds, in which our physical intuition is key to success. As we internalize (full text here) the way that gravity works, we become better able to predict the game mechanics, leading some to suggest that we then play Angry Birds with the world.

SOCIAL: Since antiquity, games have been social, and video games are no exception. Social games may be cooperative or competitive or both, as when two baseball teams cooperate within the team but compete between each other.

Although psychologists have studied baseball’s hitting, catching, and throwing, when it comes to game strategy they have most often turned their lenses upon the prisoner’s dilemma, which is amenable to mathematical modeling. The calculated outcomes of decisions in the prisoner’s dilemma may vary from spontaneous behavior and they can be counterintuitive.

Some games are about projectile trajectories, but social games are about people. Such is the case with poker, which has generated lessons like “don’t play the cards, play the people” and Yardley’s law: “assume the worst, believe no one…”. To me, Yardley’s book on poker, The Education of a Poker Player, was more fun to read than Hesse’s Glass Bead Game or Cline’s Ready Player One.

The Internet is full of free games, of course, as well as the expensive kind. A few examples of the free kind appear below, benignly intended but unwarranted against unexpected effects. It’s purely user beware!

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