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Computer games and 'deep play'

“Computer games are not a waste of time. They help me think strategically.”

That is the best excuse I could come up with when my wife asked me whether I had spent the day wisely playing the strategy game Rome: Total War all afternoon, rather than tackling the pile of assignments I had to mark.

In a way, this is true. I don’t run a business or manage other employees. I work alone, usually teaching online, managing my own workload and switching between a variety of self-generated creative projects. So, growing a city, managing an army, designing a profitable dinosaur amusement park: these activities demand a different kind of mental engagement than my usual work. And, yes, gaming is also fun and, as a career in professional football management is unlikely at this stage in my life, it offers a simulated experience for things I am probably not cut out for (although, at 39, I still feel I have a season or two in me as a non-league reserve goalkeeper).

Classic city bulding game, The Settlers 2.

I have come to see gaming not simply as a form of entertainment or relaxation but, instead, occupying a space in my working life that Alex Pang calls ‘deep play’ in his excellent book Rest. Pang defines ‘deep play’ as time spent on “hobbies that are challenging, mentally absorbing and personally meaningful”. ‘Deep play’ is experienced through games, sports or activities where we detach from the pressing demands of our lives: work, family commitments or other stresses. In doing so, we free up our subconscious minds to chip away at puzzles, problems or strategies for the work we have to complete. In Rest, Pang cites a cast of people from Darwin to Tolkien to DNA discoverers Watson and Crick as examples of people who achieved their aims (I am intentionally swerving the term ‘were successful’) whilst making deliberate time for rest and play. Indeed, the ‘play’ in their lives might be a prime factor in their achievements rather than a luxury rewarded afterwards.

Pang argues that, contrary to the modern myths about living a productive life, rest and play represent an important complement to work, rather than an absence of work. He draws on the research of German sociologist Sabine Sonnentag who suggests that engaging with activities that offer us mastery, control, mental detachment and relaxation are the routes to a more restful state. By doing so, we emerge more focused and efficient than if we had spent the time working. I feel that these are precisely the sort of experiences that can be offered by computer games.

Football management game, Championship Manager 1994

From recent personal experience of working on complex cognitive tasks, I am now more convinced that regular immersion in the game world is not simply a reward or a distraction but the grease on the wheels of the thinking process. For example, my Masters dissertation, a book project I have recently completed, assignments and, yes, even this blogpost were all written against the backdrop of game playing. At complex points where arguments had to be clarified, wording needed to be loosened or - when writing fiction - a new plot direction was required, I have found allowing my brain to wander, to focus on organising battle strategies or tweaking my football tactics seems to allow the cognitive logjam to free itself.      

Pausing to distinguish between types of games is also useful. I have found that computer games offering complex opportunities for narrative alongside gameplay the most effective for deep play. Console games including racing, playable sports such as Fifa, first person shooters and combat games (crush, kill, destroy games) might be a quick stressbuster, but losing yourself deeper in the game requires something more substantive. On the other hand, simulated strategy and sandbox games offer me an immersive experience that nudges me towards a more restful experience. While I am happy to play new titles (e.g., Elite: Dangerous, Jurassic World Evolution, Minecraft), I find myself frequently returning to games from my childhood (e.g., The Settlers, Theme Park, Civilisation 2, Rome: Total War). Familiarity seems to accelerate the drift towards a more restful state. I know how to play the games so there is no tricky, uncomfortable period of familiarisation. I can quickly enter the game world and feel at once under control of the experience. Yet, as they are simulation games offering great variety, there always feels something more to learn. 

Soldater, marsch! Modern strategy game, Empire: Total War

While this undoubtedly offers me a way to a different, more strategic state of mind, more recently I have come to reappraise what playing computer games can offer my creative work. Specifically, I am beginning to see a greater connection between entering the game world and generating creative ideas for writing. I will explore that in a separate post.

For me, computer games are helpful in entering a state of deep play. For you, it may be something else. But, as a former primary school teacher, I know that playing computer games is an important part of children's leisure time. It is often seen as a distraction or an obstacle to effective working habits. Yet I feel that computer games may have an important role to play in children’s learning and development, both in classrooms, bedrooms and the spaces in between. I know this is a tough sell to those who work in education, but I am curious about whether simulated strategy games played individually or collaboratively could help children feel more satisfied with the balance between their home and school lives, or how the playing of complex strategy games might help them recharge and refresh. I think there is also potential for gaming to helping children develop a deeper sense of narrative and authorial mastery over storytelling.

I hope to consider some of these issues during my forthcoming PhD and explore some of the academic writing of Professor Judith Good (University of Sussex), Professor Judy Robertson (University of Edinburgh) and Professor James Paul Gee.

I am not advocating for any specific change at this stage, but it does raise some interesting questions that are yet to be answered:

  • In what ways could immersive gaming help children at school refocus between intensive periods of academic work?
  • Should parents, teachers and educators encourage children to play immersive games in the same way we encourage them to read books?
  • To what extent do social attitudes about 'meaningful activities' mean that computer gaming is excluded from educational settings? Would it be right to change this? If so, how would that be achieved?

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