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Playing Games Has Helped Humans Learn—and Survive

alt dek: In both games and life, how well you prepare in the early stages could determine how well you do in the later ones.

Sixteen-year-old Owen Liebenberg and his friends are spending the day rushing around to find resources for tools and food for health. They’re in a race against time to build a wooden ship that will take them away from the nightmarish island they find themselves on, a task that’s not simple. At each turn, vicious beasts try to stop them, each one exponentially more difficult to defeat than the last. It’s a game called Muck, and it’s another in a long line of contemporary survival video games.

The game is procedurally generated, so every playthrough is different. “Sometimes you get lucky right away, sometimes you don’t,” Liebenberg says, noting how important it is to do well in the early rounds in order to outlive the increasingly challenging beasts that attack with each day-night cycle. It’s quirky, lively fun that might also be giving players more than what first meets the eye. It’s a delicate mix of entertainment and strategy, yet on a much deeper level, playing games may contribute to our overall evolutionary survival. Playing games could even be enhancing our cognitive, social, and physical skills, giving us added advantages in life.

The idea has been studied in animals many times, with physical strength and dexterity at the top of the benefit list. We routinely see dolphins and otters playing in the waves, or dogs wrestling gleefully with each other at the park. Physical activities keep animals in good health and help them release stress and bond with each other. 

Humans benefit in the same way. Athletic sports keep us in shape while also boosting our hand-eye coordination, speed, and strength. Games can serve as stress release too, whether a short-term, fast-paced first-person shooter along the lines of Apex Legends or a longer, peaceful round of solo solitaire with a deck of playing cards. And we know that games can contribute to good health.

However, the larger idea is that this play also serves as practice. Take, for example, a cat chasing a laser dot across the floor. Nathan Lents, professor of biology at John Jay College, says that when kittens play, it might serve as a “warm-up for doing the real thing as adults.” Attacking a toy mouse for fun turns into hunting prey for food in later years. Similarly, it’s possible that the pleasure children get from wearing costumes and acting out roles they see around them is practice for later in life. “One of evolution’s greatest tricks was to link up behaviors and stimuli that are good for us to our reward centers, as a way to drive us to engage those experiences and thereby gain the benefits that they offer,” Lents says. 

With such good reasons to play, why not tailor schools to tap into this concept? Ana Lorena Fabrega, a former teacher, helped design a school that focuses on the impactful benefits of play. She’s now chief evangelist at Synthesis, a school that believes kids are hard-wired to learn through play and gamifies as many learning principles as possible. Lessons are problem-focused, not tool-focused, and encourage students to “take ownership over their choices and develop a sense of self-efficacy.” There is no losing, only winning or learning.

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“Video games teach kids how to collaborate and organize in extremely large groups,” Fabrega says—all skills that are valuable to a successful adult life. She adds that not every child is built to learn in an environment where the desks face forward and a teacher lectures at the front. By introducing a variety of games into school curriculums, more students will be able to understand and appreciate their lessons.

This brings us back to survival games, where a player has to persevere in the world set forth for them. RPG classic Fallout begins in an underground vault shelter, and players have to explore the unrecognizable and dangerous nuclear-war-ravaged world on the surface to find resources such as food, weapons, and, depending on the Fallout game, even shelter to survive. Minecraft asks players to build tools and shelter in order to survive the zombie horrors that come at night. There are even trendy, real-world escape rooms that test a variety of analog and analytical skills in order to save yourself. All of these games are fascinating, and turn the basic instinct of survival into a compelling—and often fun—pastime. But could these entertaining venues also subtly give you the know-how you may need if you ever find yourself in a similar real-life situation? How many incident survival tactics could be taught with games, versus a paragraph in a textbook?

In his paper “Evolutionary Functions of Play,” Peter Gray says that in social play (meaning more than one player) the players “must decide together what and how they will play.” For Liebenberg and his friends, slogging through Muck is mostly an excuse to socialize. They each take a specific role—whether it’s the fighter of beasts, the gatherer of resources, the protector of the shelter, or the builder—to all chip in and achieve the end goal. Attempting the game alone is sure to result in a quick Game Over.

“When we’re together,” Liebenberg says, “there’s a cooperative survival aspect, versus the four of us surviving on our own in the game.” They choose who’s in charge of doing what and rotate the roles as desired. The learning happening here is clear: Communication and cooperation between roles is building social skills they might not otherwise master on their own. It’s also teaching them the values of these roles, both in and out of the game.

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In her 2010 TED Talk, “Gaming Can Make a Better World,” author and game designer Jane McGonigal suggests that people are often better versions of themselves in games than they are in real life, and that games inspire us to “collaborate and cooperate” with each other. 

For example, in Animal Crossing, some players have created “jobs” for themselves in their villages, and in the adorably mischievous Among Us, players have to band together to find the Imposters, while the Imposters have to be clever enough to win. But a recent title that takes the cake for social collaboration is Sea of Thieves, a game filled to the brim with pirates, treasure, and never-ending quests. Sure, players can attempt to go it alone and play the game solo, but it’s far more gratifying with a ship full of friends or an alliance with a crew of strangers. In fact, manning certain ships requires more than one player and constant cooperative communication in order to be successful. One person may call for another to steer, someone to repair the ship from attacks, and someone else to operate the cannons. A rookie crew in perfect harmony will sail without worries, effortlessly overtaking even the most elite solo player.

There’s a timeless conversational question: Who would you want to be with during the apocalypse? Maybe gamers should make that list. Perhaps future research will reveal even more about the benefits of video game play, and how they help us throughout the stages of adolescence and adult life. For now, however, Liebenberg and his buddies continue to chug away in Muck, working toward completing their ship and, ultimately, securing their survival.


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