Games and Human Development

Games and Human Development

Games are an essential component of human development.

We’re all familiar with the term “thinking outside the box” as a metaphor for creative thinking. The best way to observe the “box” in this context is the limits and rules of a system. Thinking outside the box is art… creative expression without restriction. Thinking outside the box means considering something when preconceived rules and limits are not applied to it. Thinking INSIDE the box is the essence of gaming. When presented with a set of rules and limits, how can one function to their greatest effect?

Thinking inside the box can involve a lot of creativity as well, but the majority of what occurs inside the box is decision making. While people might say their greatest fear is public speaking, I’ll put forth that the true greatest fear is making decisions. In fact, I think that the most plausible definition of fear is the time elapsed between acknowledging a decision must be made, and actually making it. So “there is nothing to fear but fear itself” then becomes “there is nothing to fear except that when the time comes to act, we shall do nothing”. People get stuck in this almost every day, from major decisions pertaining to employment and personal relationships down to the simplest tasks of ordering a pizza or choosing a movie.

In the case of children’s development, parents fear about the ability of their children to make good choices. How are they supposed to get practice making good choices when so much of their lives consists of them being told exactly what to do and what not to do? People learn best through action/interaction. Engaging young minds in games gives them a safe and controllable environment to practice decision making. They can be led to explore concepts of risk, reward and consequence, and the freedom that decision making brings. It is also an invaluable tool for parents and educators to further engage children in their own development, by giving them the opportunity to observe the child in a decision making environment and providing feedback.

Decision making in games is derived from examining the qualities of the objects in the game space and their interactions with each other as well as the players. A very small sampling of games that can be used as decision making exercises includes:

  • 10 Days in the USA: In addition to building familiarity with geography, the player must evaluate their cards and plan the best possible route by exchanging cards they can’t use with other face-up cards. Similarities to Gin Rummy make this game quick to teach and fun to play. Play a round or two with the cards face up on the table so moves can be observed both by the educator and the learner. Talk about the choices and what makes an option better or worse. Good for beginning and intermediate learners.
  • Dominion: A terrific game for fans of collectible card games such as Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh and Magic: the Gathering. Players actually construct their play decks during the beginning of the game from a commonly available pool of cards, and then use their deck to acquire victory points. There are decisions to be made in regards to which cards will make a player’s deck the strongest, and how much of any given card they will need. Has a wide variety of decks to mix and match into the game, creating extensive replay. At the end of the game, take the decks apart. Talk about what went into a deck (card selection), and why it worked or did not work. Be sure to include a discussion of the importance of the victory points and how they figured into the learner’s strategy. This is a solid choice for intermediate and advanced learners.
  • Shadows Over Camelot: A very rich cooperative game, with all players playing against the game itself! The game includes a “traitor”, which can be left out to foster a higher degree of team-building and included in later games to add deductive reasoning (and a lot of strategic play for the traitor). Decisions to be made involving risk assessment and resource management. All players have decisions to make during each turn that have the potential to negatively or positively influence the outcome. This is a good game for advanced learners.
  • Chess: The classic game, which needs no introduction. Decisions are made regarding each more, with deeper analysis to be had in terms of how the opponent might respond. The player needs to take a broad range of the board into account, considering many options. Successful players “look ahead”, gauging the opponent’s probable responses and how they themselves will react in turn. Take time during each turn to point out the possible reactions to a given move.

Games can also be used to stimulate other types of thinking and action:

  • SET: Pattern recognition in a group of cards on the table. Can be played solitaire. I am a big fan of this game because you can treat each and every set as a “mini victory”. A good game to play before asking the player to engage in evaluation.
  • MyWord: Similar to SET, MyWord utilizes letters instead of patterns. Pattern recognition becomes more specialized as word recognition.
  • Jenga: Dexterity is required to remove and place the blocks, but some structural analysis is needed to determine which blocks to pull. Can also serve as a basis to discuss a number of basic physics concepts (force, gravity, action/reaction, friction). A good exercise before asking the player to engage in something involving caution and attention to detail.
  • Fluxx/Family Fluxx: the rules to this popular card game are constantly changing. Players are immersed in an environment of constant adaptation and unusual tactics. A good game to play before introducing change, such as a new subject at school or perhaps changing homes.

The list goes on. It is easy to make a list of the actions associated with playing a particular game, and then a list of similar actions we undertake in our daily lives. Exploring a subject in the context of a game first, even metaphorically, gives the learner an active component that they can return to when they need to refocus on the topic.

Games are a means of understanding the world and how we live in it. Its modeling systems, interacting with them, and even improving on them. The rules and limits of the box, explained through games and simulations, now give the learner a sense of security and even empowerment. With the box firmly in place, learner can start exploring their freedoms… outside the box.

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