A recent talk by games academic Jane McGonigal has re-ignited discussion on the role they play in our society.
Traditionally, the debate has centred on whether they are ‘damaging’ or merely ‘harmless fun’. But McGonigal is a games advocate. Her belief is that games are actually good for us.
In order to solve the world’s most urgent problems, McGonigal says, we need to play more games because gaming creates people who are solution-focused, collaborative, optimistic and hard-working. This position is interesting, although open to the obvious critique that, unlike in-game challenges, real-world problems are not set up to be rewarding, interesting or even soluble, so framing them as a game is likely to lead nowhere. But there’s certainly potential in using game-like mechanics to encourage us to do things we otherwise might not want to: such as the S2H fitness monitor, which allows users to claim rewards for physical activity.
The wider point — whether playing games actually improves any of our skills — is still open for debate and research. Various studies have shown that playing certain games can increase players’ visual attention, fine motor skills and spatial reasoning. Intuitively, it is not surprising that practising skills involving fast responses and complicated physical manoeuvres might make us better at them.
But is this a reason to play games, or a useful position for gaming advocates? As a novelist, I’ve always found the idea of promoting reading because it improves cognitive skills deeply depressing. Reading is a wonderful thing not because it makes our brains better but because it is enjoyable, enriching and gives us new experiences: just like games.
Once someone has told you that something is good for you, it immediately becomes less attractive. I’m not sure it’s necessary to say that playing games will save the world or improve us. Can’t we just have fun?