In chapter 4 of his excellent Good Video Games + Good Learning, James Paul Gee starts discussing video games as a technology from which we can extrapolate—or at least approximate—some of how the mind works to acquire and retain information. He draws the comparison with previous tech-based metaphors for this process, such as the tabula rasa, etc.

The title of this post is Gee’s term for a certain type of complex game. He gives games including Half-Life 2, The Elder Scrolls III: MorrowindRise of Nations, and World of Warcraft as examples. The phrase itself—”action-and-goal-directed preparations for, and simulations of, embodied experience”—makes me wonder whether many of the most popular game genres amongst so-called “hardcore” gamers are teaching those players to look at the world in terms of a cost-benefit analysis.

Think about it: how many of those games are zero-sum numbers games? Half-Life 2 is a narratively linear single-player shooter, which means that there’s essentially an ideal route through the world—exploration of the geometry is of no gameplay value. Rise of Nations is an RTS, which means that the numbers which determine the wisdom of a course of action are right there on the surface. The only questions the game encourages the player to ask are tactical and strategic: “Should I build Unit A or Unit B? Research technology C or D? Use a flanking tactic or try to break through the enemy lines?” World of Warcraft players are notorious for ignoring their game’s “lore” in favor of debating which distribution of talent points is optimal for various purposes.

In doing so, players are recognizing the essential nature of gameplay as complex pattern-recognition.

I’m fudging somewhat, of course. Half-Life 2 may be nearly on rails in terms of the critical path through the game, but players with an interest in the game’s world are rewarded for digging deeper into the plot at certain points. Similarly, Morrowind may be a stats-based RPG, but the fact that it can be beaten in under a half hour by exploiting the underlying systems doesn’t mean that every player will attempt this. Most players prefer to progress slowly and absorb the massive world around them. Games may also sidestep the problem of “playing it wrong” by putting fraught moral and ethical choices before players—witness the end of last year’s Fable II for one of the best recent examples of this approach.

Still, I can’t think of a computer game that isn’t based on math. I, and I suspect many other games, frequently view decisions in games through the lens of ultimate mathematical advantage, even at the cost of ignoring peripheral issues. Serious multiplayer FPS gamers frequently turn off all graphical bells and whistles, for example.

Does this kind of mental training impact our reactions to situations in the real world?