About fifteen years ago, I found myself on a family vacation with my then seven-year-old nephew, and on one rainy day I decided to introduce him to the wonders of SimCity, the legendary city simulator that allows you to play Robert Moses to a growing virtual metropolis. For most of our session, I was controlling the game, pointing out landmarks as I scrolled around my little town. I suspect I was a somewhat condescending guide— treating the virtual world as more of a model train layout than a complex system. But he was picking up the game’s inner logic nonetheless. After about an hour of tinkering, I was concentrating on trying to revive one particularly run-down manufacturing district. As I contemplated my options, my nephew piped up: “I think we need to lower our industrial tax rates.” He said it as naturally, and as confidently, as he might have said, “I think we need to rescue the princess.”
Far more than books or movies or music, games force you to make decisions. Novels may activate our imagination, and music may conjure up powerful emotions, but games force you to decide, to choose, to prioritize. All the intellectual benefits of gaming derive from this fundamental virtue, because learning how to think is ultimately about learning to make the right decisions: weighing evidence, analyzing situations, consulting your long-term goals, and then deciding. No other pop cultural form directly engages the brain’s decision-making apparatus in the same way. From the outside, the primary activity of a gamer looks like a fury of clicking and shooting, which is why so much of the conventional wisdom about games focuses on hand-eye coordination. But if you peer inside the gamer’s mind, the primary activity turns out to be another creature altogether: making decisions, some of them snap judgments, some long-term strategies. Sometimes they involve rescuing princesses; sometimes they .
Most video games differ from traditional games like chess or Monopoly in the way they withhold information about the underlying rules of the system. When you play chess at anything beyond a beginner’s level, the rules of the game contain no ambiguity: you know exactly the moves allowed for each piece, the procedures that allow one piece to capture another. The question that confronts you sitting down at the chessboard is not: What are the rules here? The question is: What kind of strategy can I concoct that will best exploit those rules to my advantage? In the video game world, on the other hand, the rules are rarely established in their entirety before you sit down to play. You’re given a few basic instructions about how to manipulate objects or characters on the screen, and a sense of some kind of immediate objective. But many of the rules— the identity of your ultimate goal and the techniques available for reaching that goal— become apparent only through exploring the world. You literally learn by playing. This is one reason video games can be frustrating to the non-initiated. You sit down at the computer and say, “What am I supposed to do?” The regular gamers in the room have to explain: “You’re supposed to figure out what you’re supposed to do.” You have to probe the depths of the game’s logic to make sense of it, and like most probing expeditions, you get results by trial and error, by stumbling across things, by following hunches.
In almost every other endeavor that we describe using the language of games— poker, baseball, backgammon, capture the flag— any ambiguity in the rules and objectives of the game would be a fatal flaw. In video games, on the other hand, it’s a core part of the experience. Many game narratives contain mysteries of sorts modeled after Hollywood plotlines— Who murdered my brother? Who stole the plutonium?— but the ultimate mystery that drives players deeper into the gameworld is a more self-referential one: how is this game played? Non-gamers usually imagine that mastering a game is largely a matter of learning to push buttons faster, which no doubt accounts for all the “hand-eye coordination” clichés. But for many popular games, the ultimate key to success lies in deciphering the rules, and not manipulating joysticks.
Probing involves a nuanced form of exploration as well, one that often operates below conscious awareness. Video games obviously differ from traditional games like chess or basketball in that the entire game environment is created by a computer. Explicit rules are a crucial part of that environment: you learn that you have only three lives, or that you can’t build a marina until you have fifty thousand residents, or that you can’t open the gate on the third level until you find the key on the second. Some of these rules you can learn just by reading the manual; others have to be discovered by playing. But the computer is doing more than just serving up clearly defined rules; it’s concocting an entire world, a world with biology, light, economies, social relations, weather. I call this the physics of the virtual world— as opposed to the rules of the game— though this kind of physics goes well beyond acceleration curves and gravity. You’re probing the physics of a world when you start detecting subtle patterns and tendencies in the way the computer is running the simulation. Sometimes these have to do with mass and velocity: you can’t jump across the canyon if you’re wearing your armor; the rocket launcher is the only weapon that can shoot far enough to attack from the rear of the fortress. Sometimes they have to do with physiology: you’ll lose more blood if you’re wounded in the chest than in the legs; you can jump from any height without injuring your character. Sometimes it’s collective behavior: your neighbors stay longer at the party if you have a jukebox and a Lava lamp; the invading robots tend to swoop in from the right when you first land on the planet.
When my nephew suggested lowering the industrial tax rate during my demo of SimCity, he was probing the game’s physics. I had explained the official rules to him: players are allowed to alter the tax rates for different zones. The physics were fuzzier, more intuitive: if you lower the rate in a given area, you’ll usually see some growth there, assuming the other variables— power, water, crime— aren’t impeding development. The game scholar James Paul Gee breaks probing down into a four-part process, which he calls the “probe, hypothesize, reprobe, rethink” cycle:
The player must probe the virtual world (which involves looking around the current environment, clicking on something, or engaging in a certain action). Based on reflection while probing and afterward, the player must form a hypothesis about what something (a text, object, artifact, event, or action) might mean in a usefully situated way. The player reprobes the world with that hypothesis in mind, seeing what effect he or she gets. The player treats this effect as feedback from the world and accepts or rethinks his or her original hypothesis.
Put another way: When gamers interact with these environments, they are learning the basic procedure of the scientific method.
This text originally appeared in Everything Bad Is Good For You. Check out a Q&A between Steven Johnson and Clive Thompson, journalist and author of NYT magazine’s “Minecraft Generation” here.