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Pop CultureJanuary 24, 2017

IRL EXP: Real world lessons from video games


Video games are crafted, introspective experiences. Frequently though, these small worlds demand or produce skills that spillover into the physical world. Expert gamer and at-least-average real world person Dan Taipua sets out some of the better skill trees developed through a life of gaming.


1. Hooking up

If you’re going to play video games, you need to turn them on. Thereafter, you need to route at least a three phase system of inputs to outputs. From UHF tuning a Sega Master System routed through your family VCR to speccing a sick rig for PC casting, video games demand a working knowledge of the machines that run them. Further along the skill tree, home networking can be an entry point for homebrewed and hashed tx projects – setting up LANs, fuxing bridges and yelling at routers can be as informative as it is massively cathartic.
Man contemplates cause of his eventual death
Man contemplates cause of his eventual death

2. Cooking up

Not every gamer will attempt maintenance and electronic repair, but a good many do. Probably the greatest example is people sticking their first generation XBOX 360 motherboards into an oven to repair the Red Ring of Death fault. While there’s a limited number of electronic defects which can be rectified through baking, the general lesson here is to have a go at a problem with the tools you have available


3. Interfacing

Anyone who plays a lot of video games eventually develops an intuition for playing any new game they encounter. This intuition is an effect we call Interface Proficiency, the ability to adapt to new systems of interaction based on the experience of individual rules and activity encountered in existing systems. While the particulars of interaction are generally bound to video gaming, the process of learning and adaptation is not, and can be transferred to other software interfaces.
This means gamers ‘get’ how to utilise and exploit software very quickly, recognising similarities and identifying differences in function with speed. A good comparison is graphic designers who move into video editing: Photoshop is very different to Final Cut but the fundamental idea of layered non-linear editing is the same across both.

4. Defacing

Once a player knows how a game works, the next thing to do is break it. Hacks and modifications are the thin bridge across the divide between users and developers, letting everyday people at the tools of game programming. It’s a bit like fan fiction, only less embarrassing and usually more illegal. Mods have been a gateway for many a future-legitimate IT worker, exposing them to the architecture of a program and allowing them to make adjustments they’d like to see, and the number of programmers I personally know who started their career by adding boobies to video games is as high as it is appalling. Because of the grey status of modification, most practitioners are either autodidacts or community educated through online forums and tutorials – and that kind of model for education persists into the realm of ‘real’ software management too.


5. It’s lit

Video games can’t compete with the lessons gained from non-fiction reading (nothing can), but they probably impart the same degree of real-world learning gained from fiction. Take for example Dynasty Warriors which is based on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong, one of the central works of classical Chinese literature and comparable to Homer’s Iliad in its treatment of history and legend.

Dynasty Warriors is a cartoonish beat-em-up with 1,000-hit combos and magical powerups, but the settings are sites of real historical battles during the tripartite state conflict between the kingdoms of Shu, Wei and Wu (Battle of Hulao Pass, Battle of Shiting etc.) and the playable characters are all based on historical generals and statesmen. If nothing else, it’s a window into the enduring appeal of nationalising mythology – which is a flag we we can all gather under.

Luo Guanzhong: nice lips, good yarns

6. Es ist feuer

The little worlds of gaming are often microcosms of our real world and, much like IRL, are coded in many languages. Years of exposure to foreign-developed games will gift the average gamer an ear for pronunciation, while the military themes of most AAA titles mean 12 year olds can recite the full NATO phonetic alphabet and Greek callsigns. The most impressive example of learning a new language came from a member of my Facebook game group, who learned musical notation via Super Mario Maker.


7. Physics

All video games are simulated worlds, insofar as they establish a set of virtual boundaries or quasi-physical laws in which a set of obedient interactions can take place. At the more serious end of this scale we have flight simulation programs, used to train actual pilots. At the less serious end we have play simulators like the recent Kerbal Space Program (2015) which operates with near-Newtonian dynamics for planetary orbit and rocketship design. So while most of us will never travel to space we can at least gain an appreciation for the physical limitations and affordances involved

Orbital mechanics are for everyone now and everyone is pleased
Orbital mechanics are for everyone now and everyone is pleased

8. Shmysics

Most video games don’t approach the detail of real-life simulation, but their approximation can still provide useful real-world knowledge. In my early encounters with Gran Tourismo (1997) I learned about the auto-mechanical physics of camber and suspension, the effect of gearing ratios, and the minimum effect of aero spoilers on a 1993 Honda Civic Hatchback. Is this the same as the experience of driving a real race-car? Not all, but understanding the general principles of driving physics has definitely helped me as a motorist, and I’ve never under-steered a front wheel drive while taking a sharp corner.


9. Sharpshooting

The visual stimulus of video games and the physical reactions they elicit trains every gamer into a sharpshooter of sorts, even if they’re matching three pieces of candy on their cellphone, and years of repeated practice make gamers look faster and react quicker as their neurons fire signals down well-tread paths. The ability to identify fast moving 2D objects won’t always find a place in everyday life, but I know a number of professional video and image editors whose game-addled brains can process massive amounts of visual data very quickly. When I worked in image archiving none of my colleagues would trust the speed at which I could scroll through screenshots without ever missing a target and I was often, annoyingly, forced to slow down so colleagues could keep up.

All the things will be shot
All the things will be shot

10. The reduction of sex difference in spatial skills

Of all the real-life skills and benefits listed here, this is the most complicated but also the least speculative. In 2007 a team of researchers from the University of Toronto monitored the effects that video gameplay had on subjects mental rotational ability, that is, their ability to track and predict the movement of shapes in space. While it’s not a perfect example, it might help to imagine the tracking your brain performs when an overtaking car leaves your hindsight: you have to mentally map its location based on the speed of approach so you can ‘tell’ where it is in relation to your own car.

A better example is the shape tests presented in many forms of IQ testing, which face criticism due to notably high gender differential. What the researchers discovered is that 10 hours of gameplay for a 3D action title markedly improved women’s results for spatial skill testing – significantly diminishing the gap in results between them and male subjects. The implications of this are quite far-reaching as it undermines lay assumptions that the deficit in skills needed for mathematics and engineering are biological sex differences, rather than socialised gender differences affected by everyday activities. In short, as women play more video games they begin to ‘catch up’ to the spatial skills exhibited by men, and so dismantle the gender narratives that mark women as less able. And that’s a lesson everyone could stand to learn.

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