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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