How games inspire attention and nurture growth

Games get a lot of bad press. In this article I’ll discuss how games grab our attention, keep it, and how — applied correctly — this can lead to extremely valuable personal growth. I’ll begin with a quick look at the terms attention and distraction, then we’ll get to the meat of how awesome games are.

Let’s get distracted

Our attention is our capacity for focus — or ignoring distractions. Different things are better at distracting us — we ignore traffic noise (and the dishes) whilst working on an essay or complex analysis, while the smell of burning toast or the gling of a phone notification grabs our attention almost immediately. For example, while writing this article, I was distracted by my turns in Polytopia. (spoiler: I lost)

Attention is a mental skill. It’s something we can practice, — if I had better attention, I could have waited to check my turn in the game. Actually, my attention is usually good — it turns out phone notifications and games are really good distracting me.

My impending doom :<

…but getting distracted from games is really hard

So, we’re more easily distracted by some things, and we can have a better or worse attention skill — but there’s another factor in “staying focused”. That is how good something is at holding our attention.

Perhaps the most powerful example of attention holding is video games : no doubt some of you have had the experience of playing, and totally forgotten to eat, let food burn, and otherwise “lost track of time and self”. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have that level of attention when washing the dishes, writing an essay, or in the classroom or a meeting.

Oh so true…

Flow

Losing track of time and self is a symptom of flow. Flow is really, really good. It’s been described as “transcendental” and “optimal experience”. Games are intrinsically enjoyable and almost all the good ones support flow extremely well. Here are some of the key properties good games and flow experiences:

  1. Clearly defined how to “win” (solution states are obvious — even if how to get there isn’t)
  2. They seem winnable (and almost always are)
  3. …but they’re not too easy — they are a fair challenge
  4. They give immediate feedback on actions
  5. The person using/playing them has a sense of being in control
  6. There is no “prize” or “punishment”, it’s intrinsically rewarding

For most of us, the experience of “being in the zone” is only experienced when playing games, painting, or doing something we truly love. The good news is, cultivating flow is a transferable skill — and skills for achieving flow can be transferred to doing just about anything. Yes, that includes washing the dishes.

Despite searching hard for an image of transcendental dish washing, I couldn’t find one

Maintained flow is also an extremely strong growth experience. If the challenge is constantly adjusted to match our skill, we find ourselves in a situation where we are learning and growing extremely fast. As our skills improve, the challenge must be increased, and we face a new challenge.

Good games maintain flow for hours (or days…) at a time, escalating challenge from basic control through skill improvement, to abstract tactics and strategy. During these experiences, our self grows.

Optimal growth → learning fast

To be a success, a game, on its own, has to guide and support the player through incredibly efficient learning experiences. If we take Call of Duty as an example — quite far from the conception of a “learning game”, it takes the player through the following steps extremely quickly.

  1. Basic control and learning how to read feedback (e.g. bullets coming → hide)
  2. How to put together the basic interactions into effective play (applying simple interactions to complex environments)
  3. Evaluating multiple approaches to an environment and choosing which is better
  4. Iterative refinement of these ideas through increasingly challenging and varied environments

As I alluded, it’s hard to make a case for Call of Duty in the classroom — these skills simply aren’t very valuable. And when people say “video games in the classroom”, this problem often dominates the thinking. However, like Monopoly dominating the view of “board games”, the truth is that a lot of games have incredibly valuable learning experiences.


Games + beneficial topics = educational games

Now, let’s take a stretch into unproven, opinionated thoughts. Up to now most of this article has been based on solid research or anecdote. This is “my own stuff” — so engage more of your critical mind now! Here are my hypotheses:

  1. Any learning or growth which is considered beneficial by society is “educational”
  2. When games have topics considered “beneficial” they are immediately educational (whether by design or not)

The implication of this thinking is that there are a lot more educational games available than people think. Ignoring the “cheap win” of arguing for improved spatial reasoning or decision making, here is a short list of topics with example games which, under my rules, are educational:

  • Physics — Crazy Machines
  • Economics and trade — Elite : Dangerous
  • Social geography — Cities : Skylines
  • Business — Capitalism Labs
  • Space flight and orbital physics — Kerbal space program
  • Government and politics — Democracy 3
  • Healthcare — Theme Hospital
  • Pharmaceuticals — Big Pharma
  • Resort management — Planet Coaster
  • Architecture — Minecraft
  • Software development — Software Inc.
  • Computer planning and decision making — Screeps
  • Robot development — LogicBots
  • Process optimization — Infinifactory
  • Mental health — Hellblade Senua’s sacrifice
  • History — Heart of Iron
  • Boat building — From the depths
  • Interplanetary colonization — Planetbase
  • Sustainable planet us — Imagine earth
  • Driving — Assetto corsa
  • Car maintenance — My summer car
  • Programming — Human resource machine
  • Philosophy — The Talos Principle
  • Transportation networks — OpenTTD
  • … and the list can go on…

As a note — I don’t benefit in any way from mentioning these games. They’re selected just because I know them, and they’re at least “pretty good”. Most of them are also critically acclaimed, commercially successful entertainment games. In addition to the core lesson, many of them do also foster core skills like decision making, social science, complex planning, and systems thinking.

[Totally partisan self-plug] It was on my hypotheses that we developed Antidote — a pure entertainment game, with the exciting and fairly rare theme of stem cells, bacteria and vaccines. We learned a lot while making it, and it lead to some truly novel and interesting game mechanics in the relatively saturated genre of tower defense. You won’t become a medical doctor playing it, but you should end up understanding antibiotics, vaccines, and a lot more. You’re welcome to give it a try if this interests you, as it’s free to download and play on iOS and Android. [Self-plug end]

That’s some serious incoming bacteria. Prepare the neutrophils!

What next?

Please, share any great learning experiences you’ve had with games! I’m working on a database of games, related topics or subjects, and additional information on them which I hope to publish soon.

Also, ask yourself — is there a way you can use games to get ahead? If you’re learning, can you play one of the games above to boost your progress? Or if you’re teaching, can you discuss a related game in the classroom as a warm up exercise?