No. 9 — Learning by breaking the rules
Punk rock played with the conventions of how to make music. Political revolutions play with the established order. New ideas play with old ideas. In experiencing play, we are training ourselves to be flexible and creative. To be critical. To not just accept things as they are… Eric Zimmerman
Games of survival
Heroes of Might & Magic, Tainted Grail, Castles of Burgundy, Casting Shadows, Ravaged Star, Project Ironside… The most-funded tabletop game campaigns on Gamefound and Kickstarter in 2022 all have some things in common: besides names that resemble rock bands, they’re all about hierarchies and power.
Raph Coster, who wrote A Theory of Fun for Game Design, discovered that many games can be traced back to the needs of primitive humans to survive under difficult conditions. He also identified that games do very well with certain action verbs: timing, hunting, conquering, aiming, projecting power…
This explains why the skills we learn with most games are skills of survival: spacial relationships, estimation of probabilities, memory…
Learning to interpret symbols on a map or assess distance and risk must have been a critically important survival skill when we were nomadic tribesmen. Which is why most games teach us how to examine the environment around us…
With little information and high risks, exploring possibilities allows us to make better decisions. Which is why most games are really good at teaching us how to predict events based on the calculation of odds.
Exploration involves memory. Which is why a lot of games involve recalling and managing complex chains of information in order to… survive.
This tells us to two things. First, that we’re playing games that teach us to be better cavemen. And second, that a lot of games look similar because the skills they teach us are the same.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
I think we need better models of play. We need games that resemble the skills that we need to learn in the modern world. It shouldn’t be the case that the most popular games are the ones that teach obsolete skills, while the more sophisticated ones tend to reach smaller markets…
On playful deviance, breaking the rules, and innovation
One way to explore new possibilities is to learn from games that have actually been successful at teaching something, and the population that uses games as a learning tool most effectively is the young. They’ve been doing it for years and it hasn’t changed much over time (maybe the basic skills needed by children have remained more or less the same…)
In The Moral Judgment of the Child (1932), Jean Piaget traced the ways that children come to understand the rules of the game of marbles. In his native Switzerland, Piaget found that the way kids played the game was extremely local. The rules were purely children’s culture: traditions passed down from older to younger kids.
He found that children move through three different stages as they learn how to play marbles:
Stage 1: The youngest kids have a vague sense that there are rules you are supposed to follow, but they don’t quite understand how they work.
Stage 2: Around age five, children are able to understand the rules of marbles and fully play the game. They hold the rules as a kind of sacred authority and strictly follow them.
Stage 3: The third stage begins around age 10. Children come to see marbles as a social contract, a set of rules that gain their authority only because the players agree to follow them. This means that, if everyone agrees, the rules can be changed…
According to Eric Zimmerman, this is similar to how adults see games, too: as a voluntary, social construct. Play in this sense is wonderfully flexible. It’s playful deviance, it’s letting go of perfectionism...
In her book “The Power of Fun”, Catherine Price shares that fun is made up of three factors: 1) playfulness 2) connection, and 3) flow. But what caught my attention about this triad is that when she described playfulness, she didn’t talked about games or make believe. She talked about harmless rebellion: deliberately stepping outside the bounds of your “normal” life and doing something different just for the fun of it. This is consistent with what happens when we experience play: we are training ourselves to be flexible and creative. To not just accept things as they are… To change the rules when playing marbles.
As Steven Johnson argues in Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, many of the activities and endeavors we have undertaken for pleasure have fueled an exceptional amount of innovation and discovery.
“Because play is often about breaking rules and experimenting with new conventions, it turns out to be the seedbed for many innovations that ultimately develop into much sturdier and more significant forms.”
So what if instead of looking at play as a mission for survival, we see it as an act of rebellion? After all, in the proper doses, irresponsibility and indulgence (and pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones) are good for us!
What if instead of teaching a blind obedience to leaders and rules, we build games were players are able to blend them?
And far beyond just blending of rules, what if we also reimagine the skills that adults learn through games?
What if instead of rigid hierarchies or binary thinking, games are more about collaborating instead of competing?
What if instead of probabilities, games teach you how to thrive under uncertainty?
What if instead of memory, games are about independent judgement?
What if instead of speed, games become a thing of thoroughness?
What if instead of power, they become a matter of purpose?
Some tabletop games have started evolving in this direction. Catan, although not the first of its type, is a game that struck a chord like no other. Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, Azul, Cascadia, and some others, are starting to follow new principles of gameplay. Ones were new skills, more aligned with today’s world, are put into practice, and where flexibility and creativity are more important than spatial relationships, probabilities, or memorization…
At TeamLogiQ we’ve been working hard at exploring and building these types of games. Games that have one thing at its core: transformation. We’ve learned that games serve as very powerful learning tools. They guide players to better understand themselves and their world. We’ve also learned something else: it turns out all the neurological and physiological systems that underlie happiness -our attention systems, our reward center, our motivation systems, our emotion and memory centers-are fully activated by gameplay.
The world is changing fast and we constantly need to learn new things. Games are a great vehicle to do that because when we play we take chances. We experiment. We try new combinations just to see what happens…
And despite what people usually think when they hear the words “play”, it is not just lighthearted pleasure and it’s not just for kids. In fact, all good gameplay is hard work. It’s hard work that we enjoy and choose for ourselves. And when we do hard work that we care about, we are priming our minds for happiness.
“We do not quit playing because we grow old. We grow old because we quit playing.” —Oliver Wendell Holmes