Why Gamers Will Save the World

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 KymBuchanan.org and he tweets @reach2grow.