mon 22/07/2024

Kelly Clancy: Playing with Reality - How Games Shape Our World review - how far games go back | reviews, news & interviews

Kelly Clancy: Playing with Reality - How Games Shape Our World review - how far games go back

Kelly Clancy: Playing with Reality - How Games Shape Our World review - how far games go back

The acclaimed neuroscientist on the world and history of games, in all their variety

Kelly Clancy

For a couple of decades, the free video game America’s Army was a powerful recruitment aid for the US military. More than a shoot-em-up, players might find themselves dressing virtual wounds, struggling to co-ordinate tactics with their squad, and facing other supposedly realistic aspects of active service. The realism, of course, had one strict limit. If you died, you could reset the game and play again.

The game is one of innumerable examples in Kelly Clancy’s book of how the invented reality of play worlds has an appeal which is functional for some, potentially catastrophic for others. Games are an ancient learning aid, that allows us to explore possibilities while expending no more resources than are needed to build the game. Yet nowadays they are co-opted more and more often to nudge people toward choices and ways of behaving of the game builders’ design.

Ancient? Certainly. If you booked a trip in a time-machine that promised an encounter with some ancient proto-humans, you’d look in vain for a phrase book to allow basic communication. But a little practice with knucklebones – the precursor of modern jacks and dice games – and other games based on throwing a few similar small objects would likely give you at least one way to establish some mutual understanding. Animal bones probably collected for such games are found in remains from human encampments from 5000 BC. Before bones there were stones, which remain playthings in many cultures around the world.

Kelly ClancyAnd games, in some guises, go back further still. In the broadest definition, Clancy argues, games came before brains. Here, she is building on the analysis of evolutionary competition using game theory in the 1970s, and generalising. Given any two creatures with desires that interact, she argues, from bacteria on up, a game arises.

Game theory and its limitations, in economics, nuclear strategy or policy analysis, looms large in Clancy’s book. But she traces military interest in games much further back, crystallising with the establishment of Kriegsspiel in 19th century Germany, the forerunner of much modern war-gaming and still in use in World War Two. Other striking origin stories include the influence of MIT modeller and would-be urban planner Jay Forrester on the much-loved Sim City, in which players create a virtual city that flourishes when administered along the libertarian, free-market lines that Forrester built into the equations he made up to describe urban dynamics.

As this and other examples show, games, rather like human perception, abstract and simplify to give us a version of reality we can make sense of. But in contrast to the way our senses operate, we write the rules for games ourselves: the version of reality they offer is one of our own devising. And that raises even more questions than are immediately obvious. The constructed spaces we inhabit while playing games, whether they are purely recreational or deeply serious, affect how we perceive and behave outside the game. So, we may move closer to the reality they depict in our wider life. Most simply, people habituated to competitive, zero-sum games tend to become more competitive, and more ruthlessly individualistic. Games that reward co-operation may have the opposite effect. The actual interplay of cause and effect is more complex, though. Playing a game in the first place rests on a degree of co-operation, and agreement to follow the rules. Some players will try and change the rules, or cheat. And so on.

Clancy’s broad survey continually highlights positive aspects of the mutual influences between game reality and the actual world, then cuts back to less desirable consequences of game playing. She avoids the pitfalls lying in wait for the author of a popular book on such a topic, eschewing both slack-jawed advocacy and scandalised denunciation. The universe of games, and their effects, are complex and often contradictory. It becomes clear there are few easy answers to doubts about their uses, and Clancy’s overall approach is largely descriptive even when the description is most troubling. We seem unlikely to do without games, but the reader is likely to be convinced that we need better ways of building them into our lives and our institutions.

Games channel the always developing co-evolution of humans with our technology and culture down preferred paths, even if the preferences are not fully worked out by their creators or players. That influence has been crucial in numerous domains, and appears likely to grow more important. Clancy doesn’t claim to have many solutions, but does provide materials for thinking about how to do better. The goal, surely is to ensure our best preferences play a larger role in the rules constructed to govern games that will help create our futures.

@jonturney.bsky.social

In the broadest definition, Clancy argues, games came before brains

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