What is the value of games?

Discussion in 'Game Design' started by MichaelSinsbeck, Mar 22, 2017.

  1. I have had this question in my mind for quiet some time now, but Keith' latest article finally made me create a thread:

    What is the value of games?

    Are games good for humanity?

    While other artforms (music, paintings, theater...) are socially accepted as something worthwhile and meaningful, games are often regarded as time-wasters. I am sure most of you know the term "game shame". So how can I justify that I spent my time as a game designer, if games are just a waste of time? I could do something "useful" instead...

    Here are some (unsorted) thoughts on it:
    • I think most people agree that games are separate from real life. So we do not learn anything specific in a game that would be useful outside the game (such as a language or math). Is the useful thing we learn in games maybe something more general, more meta? Maybe something like "learning to learn"?
    • There are three Extra-Credits episodes, in which James tries to formulate what he got out of gaming. Maybe this is pointing into the right direction...
    • For me, the fact that people are willing to pay money for games is not an argument to prove that games have value (in the sense that they are good for humanity). People are paying money for drugs, too.
    • In this Chart, Keith says that the value of a game is "understanding". How is understanding an abstract system (that is detached from real life) of any value?
    To finish this post positively: I do think there is value in games. But I am having trouble pinpointing what exactly this value is. So maybe you can help me out here.
    richy likes this.
  2. BrickRoadDX

    BrickRoadDX Well-Known Member

    Raph Koster grapples with this idea a whole bunch in his book "Theory of Fun", by the way! I agree that there is value that is difficult to articulate and or not articulated that often.
    keithburgun likes this.
  3. Redless

    Redless Well-Known Member

    Back in the old days we used to hunt gazelles and make spears and stuff. It turned out that if you made better spears you'd be more likely to survive and pass on your genes. If you hunted gazelles better you'd be more likely to survive and pass on your genes. If you found root vegetables better you'd be more likely to survive and pass on your genes.

    Unfortunately those things all take different sets of skills, so you'd think that you'd need to evolve each one separately. However, by being good at learning and gaining new skills, you can get good at all of those things. So we evolved to be good at learning, and, more importantly, to like learning.

    Since we like learning so much, of course we want to have experiences that involve learning more skills. Sadly, most tasks aren't very good at delivering the learning value. If you design a better spear, you then have to go and find a stick and whittle it. If you had an insight into how to hunt gazelles you'd also have to run fast or whatever in order to make use of it. But what if we made an experience that was just learning, that cut out all the chaff of spear making and gazelle chasing? That's where games come from, and that's why we value them.
  4. BrickRoadDX

    BrickRoadDX Well-Known Member

    I once had a teacher explain to me that the overarching value of school/education was to learn how to learn. Games can teach us how to learn as well, and yeah as Redless is saying THATS PRETTY IMPORTANT. It's also handy that learning gives us little dopamine hits.
  5. Juli

    Juli Well-Known Member

    Why is reading a story about a short man who throws a ring into a volcano with the help of an Odin cosplayer valuable? I do think there is value in it, but I am having trouble pinpointing what exactly this value is.

    I guess it's a good thing that societal consensus is that it has value. That way I never have to question or attempt to justify its value. That would be really hard to do.
  6. SwiftSpear

    SwiftSpear Active Member

    I think like any art, the value is complex. There's a value to experiencing story in helping us form our internal philosophies. There's a small but non-zero value in exercising our brains which translates horizontally into something akin to general intelligence. Games have the ability to teach in a hands on way not present in books or even film. It's been shown that Kerbal Space Program added into education as a tool for helping students understand orbital mechanics is orders of magnitude more productive than the pure physics education that was done before. The number of people able to competently plan extraterran rocket trajectories is now in the multiple thousands when it used to be a few dozen.

    I would begrudgingly accept challenges to the value of art in general, but I think it's stupid to believe books are somehow orders of magnitude more innately valuable than games. To me the valid arguments against the value of games apply to all art.
  7. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    It's fun in a special sort of way. It's mentally stimulating.
  8. Plumlum

    Plumlum Well-Known Member

    They're mentally stimulating and they have addictive elements. For that reason they aren't going anywhere. Game designers both professional and ameteur will continue to exist and grow in number. But it's no more special than the world of literature or cuisine or filmmaking or music. There are some things unique only to games, sure, but in a lot of ways it is less special.

    Trying to find something special in game design hints that maybe one is only trying to justify so many hours reading theory and toiling at games. Like only a fool would have sunk such cost in something so nonspecial, and I'm no fool, therefore games are extra special
  9. SwiftSpear

    SwiftSpear Active Member

    I think equally as unspecial as books, music, or film though. With the exception of being better tailored to certain types of learning, but worse tailored to other types of learning on the flip side.
    Plumlum likes this.
  10. BrickRoadDX

    BrickRoadDX Well-Known Member

    @Plumlum Wait, was somebody suggesting that games are more valuable than other media? I thought we were just trying to find out what the particular values/strengths of games were.
  11. Plumlum

    Plumlum Well-Known Member

    Yes, the Extra Credits videos did and you yourself said that (uniquely) games taught how to learn.
  12. richy

    richy Well-Known Member

    A possible alternative angle is to think about what value there is in the designing, rather than necessarily the playing. I expect like musicians 99% of game designers will never get their work played by anybody else, so it might be best to see it as a creative aesthetic pursuit in its own right. Certainly you'll want to enjoy playing your own creations so that doesn't make the technique or theory irrelevant, but it does let it be more personal and maybe liberates you a bit from worrying when people left and right are making claims about what "objectively correct" design looks like and you think they're usually wrong :)

    Playing most games though, yeah, total waste of time. For me it's more an article of faith that it must be possible to create games worth playing, but I regularly wobble in that faith and drop everything for months. And what draws me back is usually the joy of creating and discussing ideas, not some burning desire to improve the world by giving it a "good" game (although that would be nice I guess if it were possible).

    Probably unsatisfactory answer, but the OP didn't specifically ask about objective value.
  13. Nachtfischer

    Nachtfischer Well-Known Member

    I strongly agree with this. Frank Lantz once called games "thought made visible to itself". They let us witness and thus help us understand processes of thought and learning going on in our brain.

    On a related note, I wrote a wall of text on reddit a couple years ago.
    keithburgun and richy like this.
  14. richy

    richy Well-Known Member

    A link I followed off @Nachtfischer's blog one time was a really interesting podcast where about halfway through they were talking about how people play games to meet various needs that aren't met by their everyday life (social, mastery, competition, learning etc.), and how everyone's needs are different (because everyone's life is different and lacks things in a different areas).

    So maybe the real unique value of the medium isn't one single thing but its huge flexibility. Unlike passive media it can be tailored to meet such a wide range of needs and desires in players.
    Last edited: Mar 24, 2017
  15. burgergirl

    burgergirl New Member

    I'd like to start this by saying that I also have had great difficulty understand the value in games too and that for a long time that, and understanding why people make any sorts of art, really frustrated me because if it's so valuable there should be a clear pay off. But I think that's the point in a way:

    (People have already said this but) Art is about understanding and learning and in a safe way. The things you learn about have real world meaning(I agree that in a way lots of these boil down to learning to learn sort of) and that's whats so hard is that it's about gradually advancing ideas and techniques. Technology advances because people make little discoveries bit by bit and we get better and better at understanding everything quicker and then adding our own bit to that. This is the same idea as evolution and genes?- but with ideas and understanding (check out The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore) because if you think about it learning to learn is vital to our success in the past and so games are one of the really good tools for going about such a complicated weird thing. (also games have other value like narrative exploration and stuff but these seem not unique to the media and stuff so not going to talk about that).

    Basically I think that it is about learning and understanding and learning how to understand IN an interesting and beautiful way INSIDE of a safe space.

    Really like this thread and might start one about talking about the part of making art that makes you feel very alone and unsure of why we do anything to help us all through those hard days :))
    BrickRoadDX likes this.
  16. burgergirl

    burgergirl New Member

    I also remembered something this morning. I couple of months ago I was doing research for a coop game and I was on a forum about the value of team sports and sport in people's lives. Apart from the obvious get fit stuff people found it hard to be specific about its value. Words like team work and friendship and social stuff came up but the thread looked a lot like this one, so I think it's okay it's so hard to pin the exact qualities in the sense that it's always hard. :)
  17. Nachtfischer

    Nachtfischer Well-Known Member

    I think you're probably talking about self-determination theory? I wrote about it before and recently linked the Psychology Of Games podcast episode on it.
  18. Some family stuff got in the way, so it took me about 5 months to write this response. Sorry for that. I still want to share my personal conclusion to my question.

    In a nutshell, my conclusion is this: Some games do teach something of practical use (such as hand-eye-coordination, learning, etc...), but the main value of a game is in the experience it provides while playing. Games do not need to be useful to be of value. The experience of playing a game is unique to the medium of games and cannot be had anywhere else (Keith called that "mentally stimulating"). That is why games are of value.

    Comparing games to other media helps understand that: In that regard, games are similar to music. Some musical pieces have practical use. They might have lyrics that make you think different about an important topic, or they might lower your heartrate to help you relax. However, these are not the reasons why we listen to music in general. We listen to music, because we enjoy it. There is no other medium that can give us the same experience as listening to music. The same holds for games.

    Sadly, for some reason, music is widely accepted as something of value, while games are not (yet).

    Remains one more question: The experience of playing a game might be unique, but why is it of value? I think redless formulated this pretty nicely: Learning is useful for survival, so the brain has some mechanisms that give us pleasure when we learn/understand something new. These reward mechanisms do not seem to make a difference between insights that are useful (don't cross the road on a red light) and insights that are not (try to control the center in a game of chess). Games provide us a space for (relatively pure) learning and this gives us pleasure. By playing a game we kind of trick our internal reward system.

    This is similar to cooking. The human sense of taste is useful in that it helps distinguish edible things from uneatable things (at least roughly): Things that taste good, are usually edible and maybe even healthy. So the pleasure caused by something tasting good is a reward mechanism to encourage you to eat things that are good for you. This reward system can be tricked: We can come up with meals that taste well, but are not more healthy than others (junkfood is an extreme example, but also normal food usually gets more tasty by adding the right spices, but I doubt that these spices make the food so much more healthy). Eating such a meal tickles the taste-reward-system without providing the real value of being healthy. Same goes for games: Playing games tickles the learning-reward-system without providing the real value of being of practical use.
    RyanRothweiler and Akkete like this.
  19. adrixshadow

    adrixshadow New Member

    Game Design is necessary if we ever want to build a Perfect Utopian Society.

    Creating an Utopian Society is the absolutely best we can do.
    Thus games even if they are a waste just to sharpen the skills of game designers are an absolute good.

    Creating, funding or participating in a Sandbox MMORPGs is objectively the best things you can do for a better world.

    Don't believe me? Imagine it is the year 2200. There has been some crisis in the world but we muddled along and games were always from now part of our culture. There has also been 10 successful Sandbox MMORPGs created.
    The question is it a better society or worse society?
    Last edited: Aug 29, 2017
  20. Bucky

    Bucky Well-Known Member

    A better or worse society than what?
    Hopenager likes this.

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