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The Science and Art of Play

People often think of games as a form of fiction, even much like cinema. “That doesn’t quite capture the full picture,” contends C. Thi Nguyen, associate professor of philosophy. “Games offer something much more important and distinctive—participatory action and the ability to experience different agencies.” 

Author of Games: Agency as Art, Nguyen says games can be autotelic, where the activity is done for its own sake, or technical, where the purpose is the outcome. Consider a marathon—if the point were simply to get from point A to point B, it would be most efficient to travel along the shortest possible route rather than run a seemingly arbitrary distance. Many games succeed by relishing in the journey. “So much of the joy of life is being caught in the struggle. It brings rich texture to our lives,” says Nguyen. 

Games also give us a chance to experience a set of values where someone tells us what to care about and to pursue only those goals. “Life in a game can be incredibly crisp and clear.” But they can also be a cautionary tale, and to get that feeling elsewhere in life, you must have an incredibly artificial and narrow set of values, he says. 

“Social media, education, work, and many other facets of life are trending toward increased gamification,” he remarks. And much of the splendor of life can be lost in that encroachment. Think about Twitter, where measures of popularity are tracked for short periods of time. “When you let yourself and your tenets be set by external metrics, you’re outsourcing your values—they’re off-the-shelf.” 

His advice? “Learn from games and their structures, then go out and find what counts for you.” 

Listen to The New York Times podcast with Ezra Klein: Are We Measuring Our Lives in All the Wrong Ways?


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