In this article, I will provide a philosophical argument of why playing video games helps us learn. I will argue that video games are an enjoyable workout for the mind, and that they are valuable for their ability to improve our general cognitive learning capacities.
What is a video game? What is learning?
Per philosophical tradition, let us start with a few basic but essential definitions:
“Game” has many definitions, but most of those definitions agree that a game needs to have competition (hurdles to overcome) and rules (specifically or loosely defined ways to reach that goal). Competition can take place between the player and other players, an A.I., chance, or even the player’s own physical and mental limitations – there simply needs to be a way to divide the results into two or more categories, with the side defined as “winning” more desirable than the one defined as “losing”.
“Video games” are always programs run by a computing device connected to a screen. Due to their nature as computer programs, video games tend to have a lot more rules than other types of games. Even seemingly games with seemingly simple interfaces like Minesweeper and Super Mario have a huge number of implicit rules in the background to support their basic mechanics.
“Learning” refers to the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, study, or being taught. That means somebody who is good at learning needs to be effective at taking in information (gaining knowledge) and adapting their thoughts and behaviors to new situations (mastering skills).
How do video games help you learn?
Each video game is a system with its own rules that you need to master, and learning takes place in the two main steps required for game mastery:
1. Learning the rules
This step is about taking in information, and corresponds with the “knowledge” part of learning. To do anything in a game, you need to understand how the world in the game works and how the player fits into that world. With Angry Birds, you learn how heavy each bird weighs and what each bird can do. In Plants vs Zombies, you learn about the features of each type of plant and zombie as each day passes. In Fire Emblem, you learn about how the weapon triangles, classes, skills, items, and terrain affect battle. Knowledge of how the pieces of the game come together is essential for…
2. Achieving the goal
Once you have the information you need, the next step is getting skill through experience, and this step corresponds with the “skill” part of learning. In platformers and puzzle games, you try to bypass a variety of obstacles by using your abilities creatively; in fighting games, you try to defeat opponents with various different moves; in visual novels you try to use what you learn about the story and the characters to reach desired endings; in music games you try to react faster in order to reach the end of increasingly difficult songs. No game would be complete without a competitive process that you can get better at through practice.
But how does playing a game boost your ability to learn outside of the game?
Through neuroplasticity, which refers to your brain’s ability to restructure itself in order to adapt to new situations, creating new neurons and neurological pathways to support and enhance our cognitive abilities in those areas. You can see it as biological proof that the more you do something, the better you will get at it. Much like physical training, the more you use your brain to learn, the better your brain will become at learning. Video games, in their complexity and depth, provide a “learning gym” for our brains, training both their ability to acquire knowledge and their ability to gain skill and experience by applying that knowledge to through practice.
However, that brings up another question:
What makes games better at learning enhancement than other activities?
There are three main factors:
Video games appeal to us aesthetically on multiple levels: Their graphics are usually made to be as colorful, atmospheric, and dynamic as possible. There’s usually a soundtrack accompanying each scene to set the mood. Many games also tend to feature characters (sometimes voiced) and a story that you can unfold (and sometimes change) by playing the game. This array of multidimensional aesthetic stimulation makes games more directly appealing to us on a psychological level than many other activities, which usually provide aesthetic pleasure in only one or two dimensions, and require more effort to acquire said aesthetic pleasure than pushing buttons. This is also why movies are so appealing – and video games are essentially movies that you can participate in.
2. Instant feedback
In most other activities, your progress and improvement is usually difficult to measure or even clearly define over a short span of time, but you can see the fruits of your efforts emerge very quickly in video games: You are usually provided with visible assessments of your skill as you play, usually in the form of gained score/experience points and lost “health points”. When you succeed in achieving your goal, you’re rewarded with story progress, unlocked abilities that strengthen your character, and a victory fanfare with a big golden “CONGRATULATIONS!” spread across the screen. When you fail, you’re punished with lost progress, depressing music, and a big red “GAME OVER” splattered in front of you. And while failure might seem depressing, that is also taken care of by…
3. Unlimited retries
When we try to accomplish anything, we tend to want the positive consequences of our actions to last, but we don’t want the burden of our failures to keep haunting us. Meet the genius of video games: Programs that only save your progress when you succeed, and let you reload your data or start a new game immediately when you fail. There are no permanent consequences for failure, only permanent rewards for success that accumulate into a completed story, a powerful character/team, or simply the satisfaction of having beaten the game. In many other activities, you usually can’t retry immediately after you fail, usually because one or more parties are tired, or improvement takes much more time and practice than what you have. In video games, it’s usually quite easy to improve, and the rewards of success outweigh the penalties of failure by far. You can always afford to lose.
To summarize, video games provide 1. multidimensional aesthetic rewards 2. immediately as you play 3. with few consequences for failure. These three factors, when combined, turn the act of playing video games into an incredibly enjoyable learning experience. And therein lies the answer to why video games enhance learning:
Video games make learning fun.
The point of this article is to help people recognize how playing video games can give our cognitive learning abilities a boost through the effects of neuroplasticity. Critics of video gaming who focus on the content of video games are simply going in the wrong direction – just like how people don’t do push-ups to get better at pushing themselves up from the ground, the learning benefits of video gaming don’t come from familiarity with the content of the game, but rather from the process of familiarizing oneself with the content of the game. The learning player’s goal should be to learn the game, rather than to beat it (though you should have no trouble doing so once you master it!).