Why Gamers Will Save the World

Superman Returns (Electronic Arts, 2006)

For strengthening our minds, games have at least three powerful advantages over TV or similar media.

I have high expectations for games and for those of us who create, play, and study them. By "games" I'm referring to video games, board games, tabletop role-playing games, and more. Games have vast potential worth, including escapism, catharsis, learning, self-discovery, and fostering relationships with other players in and beyond games. Perhaps games' most important potential worth is in scaffolding the growth of gamers' creativity. Because of that scaffolding, I believe the eventual indirect impact of games on human achievement can't be overstated.

First, allow me to share a quick primer on some relevant psychology. Many psychologists have studied creativity extensively. This includes Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, who pioneered the idea of flow, a state of concentration to optimize experiences and activities, and helped define positive psychology, a relatively-recent movement. Rather than only focus on diagnosing and treating dysfunction, positive psychology asserts that we can and should apply our understanding of the mind to help people improve their wellness and reach their full potential.

Flow is one example of positive psychology. As described by Csikszentmihalyi and his collaborators, flow is an immersive state of feeling a “pleasure in doing”. Flow is most likely to result from extended engagement with optimal challenge. A flow activity is autotelic, which means that I may do something just for the sake of doing it.

When some people first encounter the idea of flow, they think, "Hmm, that reminds me of some Eastern spirituality (e.g., wu wei in Taoism)”. When I first encountered the idea of flow, I thought, "Hmm, that sounds like a good game”.

Csikszentmihalyi went on to study creativity, partly because many flow activities involve creativity. Think of the pleasurable, immersive creativity of building a fortress in Minecraft or developing a nation in Terra Mystica. Csikszentmihalyi and others define two forms of creativity. "Big-C" Creativity includes extraordinary discoveries and inventions that expand our understanding, capabilities, and/or experiences. Think of Einstein's theories of relativity or Nintendo's Wii. "Little-c" creativity includes incremental innovations and improvements, such as optimizing a block of computer code or repurposing a binder clip to secure my monitor cords.

Both forms of creativity are valuable, and I agree with Csikzsentmihalyi that anyone can at least increase their little-c creativity. Nobody will write a biography about me if I help streamline my university's bureaucracy. Yet incremental, iterative improvements to a system have cumulative impacts on efficiency and sustainability, and thus provide benefits to humanity. Furthermore, practicing little-c can lead to the pivotal moments of big-C.

If I want stronger muscles, I lift weights. If I want to be more creative, I need to exercise my creative capacities. There are many possible exercises for increasing my creativity. The best exercises are autotelic, so that I cheerfully seek them out as recreation rather than as chores. Here's where some media can shine, including games.

In his persuasive book Everything Bad is Good for You, Steven Johnson argues that when media challenges our minds, it can help us get smarter. Johnson unpacks a variety of popular media to prove his point. For example, he charts the increasing sophistication of TV police procedurals. Today's shows often have numerous characters and subplots or even non-chronological scenes, making them far more sophisticated than similar shows thirty years ago.

As viewers, if we eagerly and mindfully engage in the narrative puzzle of a sophisticated TV show (i.e., by trying to solve the case before the characters do), then the show becomes an autotelic activity for strengthening our minds. As media grows in sophistication, we can practice lifting progressively-heavier cognitive weights.

For strengthening our minds, games have at least three powerful advantages over TV or similar media. First, games are interactive, and, thus, they can require a minimal level of ability and effort to advance. I can watch a television police procedural without trying to solve the case, and the plot will still continue. But a game can demand solving problems to move forward.

Second, games can encourage taking risks and owning mistakes. For example, rogue-likes such as Rogue Legacy explicitly expect players to make mistakes and fail repeatedly. Yet games can actually reward making mistakes by allowing players to accumulate resources or upgrades for each attempt. Games can even foster consciously owning mistakes by guiding players in reconsidering choices such as load-outs or tactics. For example, after I die in Borderlands, the loading screen offers advice such as, "Enemies with Green Shields are resistant to Corrosive Damage."

Third, games can allow for emergence, including rewarding players for experimenting with novel solutions -- that is, solutions that the designers didn't envision. For example, there's no jump command in the original Doom, so players repurposed the back-blast of a rocket launcher. That's little-c creativity.

Emergence is what makes many games great. For example, from one point of view, a 13-year-old MMO shouldn't still be as popular as EVE Online. Yet the designers intentionally foster emergence in at least two rich problem-spaces: experimental tactics in fitting and flying ships and the Machiavellian society of ever-shifting player alliances.

To foster emergence, designers should consider Chris Crawford's advice: "As a game designer you are an absolute god. One kind of god says, 'O.K., now this leaf will fall a little bit here, and then this wind will blow a bit over there.' The other kind of god says, 'Here are the laws of physics. Go for it.'" EVE's designers take the latter approach.

I remembered Crawford's distinction two years ago when I was selecting a Christmas present for my daughter. She was excited about two toys-to-life games: Skylanders and Disney Infinity. I gave her Infinity because of its Toy Box mode. I wanted her to experiment in an unstructured, unguided blank space, combining characters and objects from a variety of Disney stories just to see what happens. For my daughter and myself, I hope to find more such games (especially if Infinity is truly dead).

Furthermore, I hope that we continue to see more room for experimentation and, thus, a scaffolding of creativity in games. There many possible directions to expand game design. Games as varied as Minecraft, Disney Infinity, the Deus Ex series, Magic: The Gathering, and tabletop Dungeons & Dragons all expand their worlds and/or player choices in different, promising ways. Deus Ex specifically touts the variety of solutions players can apply to its challenges. Tabletop role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons can represent the pinnacle of player freedom and creativity through real-time improvisation and collaboration with the Dungeon Master.

I'll conclude with one more important lesson from psychology. When trying to foster creativity, it's not enough to provide freedom of choice. Creativity also depends on freedom from judgment: minimizing one's fear of others' derision. The potential of games to make us smarter will continue to be limited if gaming continues to be stunted by racism, sexism, and discrimination against mental illness, intellectual disabilities, and LGBTQ+ identities (e.g., "that's retarded", "that's so gay"). Similarly, hazing or exploiting new players fundamentally impedes the spread of gaming (e.g., "HTFU, noob" ("Harden the Fuck Up, new player")).

Such ugliness has far-reaching implications. For instance, in education we've long known that playing certain games helps inspire and prepare students for careers in science, technology, engineering, and math -- fields where we acutely need more big-C and little-c creativity. A future engineer, such as my daughter, could benefit a lot from playing games such as EVE, but she's highly unlikely to experience flow in an uninviting, judgmental, and otherwise toxic environment.

To be clear, games such as EVE belong to players as much as designers. Evidently, some players prefer a toxic culture in and around games. Similarly, the annual sequel mill in video games demonstrates that some players are satisfied with cookie-cutter rehashes that don't try to challenge or improve our minds.

Yet I remain optimistic that an increasing number of designers and gamers will continue expanding our beloved recreation in new, challenging ways and help promote a culture that respects difference and thus risk-taking. We're going to have fun and get smarter at the same time. We're going to invite novices into our imaginary worlds and thus grow our game-specific and global gaming communities. If we can get this right, games will have a profound impact on our capacities to innovate and invent and then to solve problems in the real world.

Kym Buchanan is the Associate Dean of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He studies and teaches psychology and human development, including the intersection of adolescent development and modern media. His ideal game would be a mashup of Kohan, System Shock, and dwarves. His professional website is and he tweets @reach2grow.

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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