Why We Play Games

Everyone loves games. Little kids play simple games like Chutes and Ladders, Go Fish, and Hide-and-Seek. They play because it’s fun, blissfully unaware that they are learning important life lessons about taking turns, following the rules, and displaying empathy. Older children and adults play more sophisticated games, like Monopoly, Chess, and Go. They play these games to be entertained, and to learn strategies for future game play. Many of these games now have versions in cyberspace.

The educational aspects of a game can give it a serious as well as an entertaining dimension. Games designed primarily for serious purposes are called Serious Games. Militaries use serious war games to rehearse and test out established tactics, techniques and procedures against the enemy. Serious flight simulators teach pilots everything from the basics to evasive maneuvers and emergency procedures. Such rehearsal improves reaction time, and optimizes survival in future real-world scenarios.

The first computer games were serious games, played on mainframes during World War II. These games simulated atomic reactions, broke secret codes, and automated real-world anti-artillery fire. Their design was heavily influenced by game theory, a field invented and developed by the mathematician John von Neumann.

The first entertainment game envisioned for a computer was Alan Turing’s 1950 computer chess algorithm. By 1997, the computer Deep Blue was able to beat chess champion Gary Kasparov. By 2016, Google’s Deep Mind AI algorithm beat the reigning European Go champion.

In video games today, the line between serious games and entertainment games has blurred. Like all games, these games require at least one player to work to achieve an objective. Different games have different modes — single player and multiplayer — which allow a player to compete directly against the computer, to counter the actions of a single human opponent, to work with her team to defeat an opposing team, or to act alone against the actions of multiple rival players in a virtual world.

There are Action Games which include, among other things, First/Third Person Shooter (Call of Duty, Halo) and Stealth (Assassin’s Creed) games. Role-Playing Games (RPGs) include traditional RPGs (Dungeons and Dragons) and Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs, like World of Warcraft). Strategy games (Civilization) can be turn-based, real-time, strategic, or tactical. Simulation games include games which simulate real world or fictional realities (Minecraft, SimCity, The Sims, Flight Simulator). Other genres include virtual space versions of traditional board games, art games, music games, and more.

Many of these games are primarily entertainment-style games. Companies invest untold millions to implement the most innovative effects in games, hoping to capture market share in the $120 billion gaming industry (2019).

What about serious games? Investment in simulators, designed to teach adults how to optimally respond in serious real-world scenarios, remains healthy. But the equally important scenario – training our K-20 students to be productive adults – receives a pittance in investment. Given the palpable gap in performance and appearance between “educational games” and video games designed to entertain, it’s no wonder kids are drawn to the latter.

Can the plentiful resources of the mainstream video game industry can be leveraged to support K-20 education? Yes. At last year’s Serious Play conference in Montréal, Ubisoft demonstrated a non-shooter version of their Assassin’s Creed game, focused on educating students about life in ancient Egypt. A historian employed by Ubisoft talked how hard he had worked to ensure the historical accuracy of the world depicted. It’s a start.

We can but hope that other companies will follow Ubisoft’s lead in the future, for all our sakes.

Leslie Gruis served as a mathematician for the National Security Agency for 30 years. She is the author of the 2020 book entitled Privacy Past, Present, and Future.