Teresa Ovalle

Welcome to Me

Don’t Play With Me

on March 26, 2014

I recently read an excerpt from a book by Steven Johnson. The book was titled, “Everything Bad Is Good For You”, which Johnson does his best to convince me that playing games is actually good for a person. I think there is some merit to this book, but before I begin, I want to share a childhood story.

When I was young, I visited my Uncle Jim and we often played a game called Scan. It was a card game that had a stack of large square cards that we spread across the floor and another stack of cards that we mixed up and put facedown in a holding block. Each card on the floor and in the stacked deck had four squares, each with a different set of colors and patterns. Before my uncle or I would flip over a card face-up in the deck, we had to distinguish which square type we were focusing on, color or patterns, etc. Once the card was flipped, the first person to identify the same pattern on the cards spread on the floor won that round. To me, Scan is an older version of Tetris.

In the article, Johnsons says, “Researchers have long suspected that geometric games like Tetris have such a hypnotic hold over us… because the game’s elemental shapes activate modules is our visual system that execute low-level forms of pattern recognition – sensing parallel and perpendicular lines, for instance.” I vividly remember looking for similar shapes and color patterns and knowing the reward in finding it first was winning the point and ultimately beating my uncle. I also remember my love for the game. I’m not sure if it was because of the time I spent with my uncle, or if it was the joy in being good at the game, but I do remember being hypnotized from the beginning of the game to the end.

I don’t play video games very often, so when I began to read Johnson’s article, I was skeptical as to how gaming could be good for someone. When I think of a gamer, I think of someone who is out of touch with the world and someone who has isolated themselves from others. These negative connotations could be true, and in some cases, I’m sure they are, but that isn’t what Johnson is referring to.

Johnson’s article refers to how gaming has a positive influence on the brain. Although, “to date, there had been very little direct research into the question of how games manage to gets kids to learn without realizing that they’re learning. But a strong case can be made that the power of games to captivate involves their ability to tap into the brain’s natural reward circuitry.” (pg. 35) When I played Scan with my uncle, my rewards were earning a point and winning the game. Although Scan is not a video game, my reward circuitry was in full swing – expecting the reward at the end of each round.

There is reward to be found in video gaming, of course, but gaming is usually much more complex with several tasks and levels to accomplish before a reward is given. This is where the “seeking” circuitry comes in. As Johnson states, we are propelled “to seek out new avenues for reward in our environment. Where our brain wiring is concerned, the craving instinct triggers a desire to explore.” (pg. 35) The only video game that I can think of that doesn’t involve some sort of exploration, is a match-3 game – a game that the gamers match three of the same items, then those items disappear. But even many of the match-3 games now have an exploration element to them. The reason I know this is because I do play the match-3 games and I recently realized that it was difficult to find one without an exploratory story line.

So to sum this up, Johnson states that, “If you create a system where rewards are both clearly defined and achieved by exploring an environment, you’ll find human brains drawn to those systems, even if they’re made up of virtual characters and simulated sidewalks.” (pg. 38)

But I still haven’t explained how Johnson claims that gaming is good for you. He claims that gaming isn’t about what you’re thinking while playing the game, but the way in which you’re thinking while you’re playing the game. (pg. 40). In other words, it doesn’t matter if you’re thinking about the game or about school that day, what matters is that while you’re playing the game, you’re thinking of solutions to problems, deciding on courses of action and finding a way to receive that next reward. Johnson goes on to say, “… games force you to decide, to choose, to prioritize. All the intellectual benefits of gaming derive from this fundamental virtue, because learning how to think is ultimately about learning to make the right decisions…” (pg. 41)

Next Johnson discusses what he calls ‘probing’ and ‘telescoping’ during the gaming process. Probing is learning the “physics of the world” in the game you are playing. It means you are learning what works and what doesn’t work in your game. For instance, “…you can’t jump across the canyon if you’re wearing your armor…,” (pg. 44) but you don’t know this until you probe the environment and learn the restrictions and permissions.

“Telescoping is all about order, not chaos; it’s about constructing the proper hierarchy of tasks and moving through the tasks in the correct sequence,” states Johnson. This, to me, means that while playing the game, you realize that to accomplish one task, you must first complete a number of sub-tasks. But to do so, you must keep an eye on the task at hand, but still have the next several tasks ready in your mind, so your efforts can be coordinated. If they are not prioritized and coordinated, you’ll find trouble. Johnson calls this telescoping, “because of the way the objectives nest inside one another like a collapsed telescope.” (pg. 54).

Johnson ends his article with this, “It’s not about tolerating or aestheticizing chaos; it’s about finding order and meaning in the world, and making decisions that help create that order.” (pg. 62) I can see how gaming could be beneficial to the gamer, but what I think needs to be proven is how a gamer takes his acquired brain skills (decision making, probing and telescoping skills) from the gaming world and transposes them to the real world. Show me the results of this mental leap and I may be inclined to play more games.