I was having a discussion with a friend of mine who is not, by nature, a ‘gamer’ recently and he made an interesting comment: “Why do you need to have more games than just the ‘classics’ like Chess?”
This is actually a reasonable question. After all, Chess has been around in one form or another since about 600AD, a lot longer than Settlers of Catan. Chess exemplifies the maxim of, “simple to learn, a lifetime to master”; Chess has a long history of organized and competitive play around the world; Chess has an organized system for players to rate and match themselves against any other player; Chess is strategic and tactically complex in a way few other games approach; and most of all Chess is fun!
But even listing all those elements, why do you never see gamers playing Chess? why does everybody own a Chess set and so few people play it regularly in their hobby game time?
I believe the reason is tied into being a ‘gamer’ and what that means.
First though I want to revisit that conversation with my friend, because I think it highlights the key difference between ‘gamers’ as a type and other people and helped me to clarify why gaming is such an important hobby to me.
I believe the fundamental difference is that ‘gamers’ view game-playing as a skill or an activity unto itself, while non-gamers see game playing only as a skill of playing that particular game, like Chess. Gamers might play Chess to enjoy the interplay of strategy and tactics, of planning, of the social pleasure of victory or defeat, but a non-gamer might only see playing Chess as a way to practice and improve your ability to play Chess.
My friend actually espoused this viewpoint in our conversation, “there are so many things to know about Chess that I don’t see how I’d have time for other games, if I got into it.” I think that this is the attitude of an athlete, not of a gamer.
An athlete usually picks a sport or a skill and practices it, and trains their body and their mind to the performance of that skill, and, at a very high level tends to not practice other skills in other sports choosing to focus on achieving excellence in one area rather than in every sport. Similarly for high level Chess players, there are reams of books written about strategy, and lists of moves to memorize for efficient play and an endless lifetime of the pursuit of excellence in that skill, but to what extent does being excellent at Chess help you win at Carcassonne?
A gamer, in contrast, is practicing a different set of skills, not the skills of soccer, or of Chess, but the skill of ‘game-playing’ which is, I believe, as valid and valuable as the ability to kick a ball, or know the opening to Kasparov vs. Deep Blue.
What is the skill of ‘game-playing’? What are you learning when you pick up a new game, and more importantly why is it valuable, fun and for some gamers, so compelling a hobby?
A short list: the ability to socialize in a confrontational environment; the ability to prioritize actions in response to novel situations; the ability to develop strategies in a new environment; the ability to adjust those strategies as the environment changes; the ability to process new instructions; the ability to be a gracious loser and a humble winner.
In short, you’re practicing and learning valuable skills for LIFE, not for games, when you pick up a copy of Dominion and I strongly believe that in doing so you’re putting yourself ahead of non-gamers. Take a look at that list again. Every one of those skills is valuable in a work or professional environments, some of them are critical to successfully navigating the modern world. They’re valuable in relationships, negotiations, novel problem solving. I’m pretty sure I’ve used the decision-making skills I learned playing Magic when I was fixing my sink, not because I knew how to play Magic, but because I knew how take a situation and say, “okay, I’ll try this…that didn’t work, now I’ll try this other thing…hmm, that was better, what if I change it a little and try this last thing.”
There are studies indicating that game players do in fact see benefits of the kind described above. The work of James Paul Gee and Jan Mcgonigal are good places to start for further reading. Additionally, there is anecdotal evidence that employers are using game playing as a litmus test for certain kinds of skills in the workplace, and more to the point, as evidence of a particular worldview.
The only way I know to develop this viewpoint, and to grow those skills is to play games. Certainly it’s the most fun way! But not to play the same game exclusively, because then you’re not learning to play games, but to play a game, and that’s less useful than developing the wider toolbox of skills described above.
The gamer is ultimately a highly trained, engaged, curious problem solver, whether the problem is defeating your friend in Warhammer, scoring points in Lost Cities or yes, even checkmating your opponent in Chess. You’re developing your ‘gaming-brain’ or your ‘decision-making muscles’ every time you pick up a game, and more importantly every time you pick up a new game. You learn these skills, which are inextricably about coping with novelty and change, best when you face new situations, new rules and new games.
The skills of gaming, and subsequently the hobby of gaming for many, are the skills of breadth, of taking a large number of experiences and a wide body of knowledge and applying it to new situations, rather than taking one domain, or one situation and studying it completely. Both are valuable, and both can be fun, but as I think more about raising my new son I know I’ll be leaving a copy of Settlers in his room, and hoping someday he can beat me at Chess.