Lately I’ve been asked to recommend a good computer game for an educational institute aimed at a teenage audience, which brings me to a topic I’ve always been planning to write about – the potential of video games, and games in general, for self improvement. The game I ended up recommending is OpenTTD, but many of these things would be true for many other games.
Gaming does not seem to enjoy a very good reputation these days; civilized people are usually expected to have a preference, maybe a “good taste”, in interests such as books, film or music; but games are a guilty pleasure at best. Few people would consider them on the same level as those “higher culture” interests. However, what games don’t give you in social status, they give you in character. Because games provide you with an extremely important gift, one of the most important gifts you can get in a modern, comfortable life: the gift of failure.
Failure also does not enjoy a very high status these days. Not many people participate in activities that include failure; when you go to meet friends in a restaurant, you cannot fail. You might enjoy more or less, but failure is generally not a possible result. Nor in going to see a movie, taking a walk, jogging or dancing. Some of these things you can do better or worse, but that is for you to decide; no declaration of failure awaits you. This does not seem to be a coincidence – whenever I have tried to introduce gaming to non-gamers, the immediate aversion came from the presence of failure. As soon as a “game over” message (or its equivalent) showed up, the non-gamer immediately lost interest. “It’s too stressful”, “I’m not good at this kind of things”, and so on.
But escaping failure can only get you so far. Our everyday activities might not include failure; but eventually, our lives will encounter it. If we are not used to it at that point, failure might devastate us. Our business collapsed? We lost a job? We were rejected by the university? I’ve seen many people unaccustomed to failue, who were caught completely off-guard by things like this. And this is the first advantage of games, and the most general one – even the simplest of games, including the kind of “shoot other people” games that many people imagine when they think about games (this is not the type of game I advocate, although they do also have much more depth than most people appreciate), will give you a constant knowledge of failure.
Does that sound unattractive? Keep reading then. Because failure is only one side of the coin. Failure is not only a catastrophe we need to prepare for; it can also be the source of the greatest joy. Light cannot exist without darkness; Good cannot exist without bad; and without failure, we cannot have one of the most important and pleasant things in life: success.
I don’t want to repeat too much of the critisism of the “everybody is a winner” approach gone too far, as many others have done that already; I’ll just say that an approach to life that does not include any way for you to succeed, or win, in something you had a chance of failing, is a recipe for an unsatisfying life. Why is it that people enjoy so much the feeling of fake-shooting a fake-person on their tv screen, even when these people have no interest in violence or weapons in real life? You can have many guesses, but I (as someone with experience in fake-shooting) have little doubt – the reason that succeeding in these games is such a sweet feeling, so difficult to find otherwise in daily life, is that they are difficult. When we know we can easily fail, the feeling of success becomes real. This is because the game is unforgiving – it will not give us any discounts for being tired, for being “almost right”, for being nice; the game is endlessly cold and objective. If we did well, we’ll succeed; if we did not, we fail.
And this is the real value of games – they give us the benefits of real-life challenges, but without the danger. Outside the context of a game, failure can have serious consequences; and in our modern society, even reaching the point of facing a challenge might take a lot of time and preparation. Games allow us to face challenges in comfort and safety; not as a replacement for real-life challenges, but as an introduction and practice for them.
And it’s not only the general feeling of failure and success that games prepare us for. What I’ve said so far is true for almost any kind of games, but I don’t recommend playing too much of the most common games. Because games can also choose which kind of challenges to offer – and the right challenges can teach us things that would be very hard to learn otherwise.
Strategy and management games, such as Civilization, Europa Universalis, Cities: Skylines, and many others, bring us into a whole new world with a whole new way of thinking. The most striking one is resource management – I’ve been shocked occasionally by how some non-gamers are perplexed by things that for a strategy gamer are obvious. A strategy gamer learns very quickly that the most basic concept is sacrificing some objectives in favor of more important ones; we need to do or allow some things we do not want, becuse in the bigger picture, in the long term, it will pay off. Outside of games, where else do we encounter this kind of thinking? Seems like not enough. And this is just one of counless examples – A single playthrough of Europa Universalis IV will probably give you a better understanding of world history than a full university course. I’ve seen architects who consider Cities: Skylines to be superior to their own university education in urbanistics. Games are the perfect platform for learning – in a game you do not only absorb information; you must internalize it and act by it – the difference between success and failure depends on it. And what starts in the game, will eventually be an education for life.
 There are some exceptions: I wonder if the recent expansion of what some critics jokingly (but quite accurately) call “walking simulators” is basically a way to sell “games” to people who are afraid of failure.
 Just to clarify: there are definitely good sides to this approach, and an ultra-competitive environment is usually not good; a healthy balance is the ideal.