A Higher Standard

I came across an interview with Jonathan Blow just now, designer of the upcoming game Braid. Because I’m still caught up in things that have little to do with this blog, I decided to mention this article as a signal to my dear readers that I’m still alive.

Let me give a quick quote from the interview that I find highly interesting:

Saying “games are about escapism” is a nearly content-free statement; it just provides some kind of pat answer so that you don’t have to look any further into the subject. But it’s obviously, at its core, woefully incomplete, and I think people who really understand games know this implicitly. (…) They can give you at least a taste of experiences that you wouldn’t have any other way. (…) Games can provide this kind of mental, emotional and spiritual expansion, and they can push it in a different direction than movies, or books, or music, or whatever. (…) There’s a certain feel to what it’s like driving a car, how things accelerate and slow down, how that feels, how turning happens, what the higher-level flow is as traffic lights go green or red, etc. The activity of driving a car gives you a very intimate understanding of these things, in ways that are more accurate and deeper than we know how to do with words. I could write a whole novel full of words about what it feels like to drive a car with 10 years of experience, but those words wouldn’t be very effective at really communicating what it’s like to someone who never did it.

There’s a German term for understanding something, “begreifen”, which literally translates as “to touch” or “to feel”. There are many ways in which we humans can learn, but one of the best is to get our hands dirty and figure out how something works by just doing it. Obviously, any real-life experience will yield higher-quality feedback in that what we learn from it is more directly applicable to our life than any simulation.

However, there are quite often things that prevent us from engaging in a real-life activity that nevertheless is worthy, in one way or another, of our interest. To pick up on the example above, I can drive all day long for years, but that won’t give me a glimpse of what it’s like to drive a Formula 1 car. One might argue that driving a Formula 1 car is hardly an essential skill, and one might be right.

So, to pick a better example1, building bridges gives you a more intimate feel for statics than any amount of studying theory will. That is not to say that playing this game is more worthwhile than studying statics, but that the two train complementary skills.

Better yet, games can provide insight into completely abstract situations. After all, how often do you expect to push crates and barrels in order clear a way of escape from insane robots? Seriously, though, games like that train generic problem-solving skills that can be applied to any number of real-life situations.

To sum this commentary up: games can provide a level of usefulness that is unique to this particular form of art, and cannot be provided by any other form of art. Why people think of games as a waste of time is really beyond my understanding2.

  1. And an example that’s sadly current, given the recent news about collapsing bridges. []
  2. Though I’ll be the first to admit that not all games are useful in this way, on a meta-level, one can at least learn how to distinguish useful games from useless games by gaining experience with both. []
  • http://chanweiyee.blogspot.com Wei-Yee Chan

    >To sum this commentary up: games can provide a level of
    >usefulness that is unique to this particular form of art, and
    >cannot be provided by any other form of art. Why people think of
    >games as a waste of time is really beyond my understanding.

    I agree wholeheartedly.