The real value of games

Published 2021-05-30

A few years ago, I got really into chess, and people said, “Wow, that must be so good for your brain.” I was skeptical of this, and thought, “Nah, the only thing it’s good for is getting better at chess.”

But recently I’ve come to value not only chess but all games in a new way, thanks to the book Games: Agency as Art, by the philosopher C. Thi Nguyen. In one passage, he explains how chess helped him develop the right mindset for philosophy:

I had long nurtured a deep desire to seek the truth via analytic philosophy. But in my earlier years, I was temperamentally ill-suited to analytic philosophy. My attention wandered; I wasn’t very interested in looking for potential objections. I wasn’t motivated to take the requisite painstaking care in developing my arguments. […]

Then, I started playing a lot of Chess. Chess offered not only entertainment, but an agential mode. Chess gave me access to a way of focusing my practical rationality by making me, for short periods of time, extraordinarily interested in winning through careful calculation and predicting precise countersequences. Playing Chess made the short-term interests that were conducive to analytic philosophy more psychologically available to me. I could then deploy them at the appropriate time, like during graduate seminars.

For Nguyen, the value of chess was not that it made him smarter or taught him about strategy. Instead, chess showed him he could enjoy a style of thinking that he’d previously found tedious. In chess, you have to evaluate not only your own available moves, but also your opponent’s potential responses, and in turn your own potential counter-responses. Similarly, in philosophy, you have to weigh not only the strength of your own arguments, but also the strength of any likely objections. So, both chess and philosophy require you to evaluate sets of branching logical sequences. Chess helped Nguyen realize: ‘Oh, this kind of thinking can be fun!’

Nguyen tells this story as part of a broader argument about the long-term benefits of game-playing. The main benefit, he says, is that it can help us develop greater autonomy. Let’s unpack that idea.

Nguyen’s argument rests on the idea that throughout life, we use a wide variety of abilities to pursue a wide variety of goals. One moment, I’m using my dishwashing abilities to pursue the goal of having a clean kitchen; the next, I’m using my listening abilities to pursue the goal of having a harmonious interaction with my friend. Each of these activities can be thought of as an agential mode: a way of being in which I am pursuing this goal using these abilities under these constraints. For Nguyen, life is a long string of agential modes, and autonomy consists mainly of identifying and adopting the agential mode that is best suited to each context.

With this definition of autonomy in mind, a game offers us something special: a designed agential mode. The goal and rules of a game may seem arbitrary, but in fact they are tools used by the game designer to sculpt the agency of whoever plays the game. In this sense, game design is a way of “writing down” an agential mode so that it can be reliably experienced by others through play.

Nguyen refers to games collectively as a “library of agencies.” He believes that by exploring this library, we not only expose ourselves to a wider range of agential modes than we would otherwise experience, but also access each mode in an especially focused way. In the same way that a dish prepared by an expert cook can focus our attention on particular flavors of food, a game can focus our attention on particular flavors of agency. Game-playing, therefore, helps us improve our taste for agential modes, which makes us more discerning when choosing goals to pursue or strategies with which to pursue them.

Nguyen’s theory of games aligns with my own game-playing experiences. As I wrote in a previous essay, the game Avalon incited one of the most significant episodes of personal growth in my adult life. Avalon is a social deduction game—a bit like the children’s game Mafia, but more elaborate. It conveys an agential mode of collaborative decision-making, with an added challenge that some participants are secretly trying to corrupt the process from within. Playing Avalon showed me that in real-life situations of this kind, I should be more communicative than feels natural, especially when I feel uncertain or underinformed.

I think Avalon is an especially edifying game, but after reading Games: Agency as Art, I’ve paid closer attention to agential modes in all the games I play. For most of these agential modes, I’ve found analogous agential modes that I use in real life.

For example, about a month ago, I started playing the turn-based strategy game Civilization VI. In Civ, you guide one of the world’s civilizations from prehistoric times to the space age, trying to outpace other civilizations in scientific, religious, military, or cultural achievements. I’ve only scratched the surface of Civ’s many agential modes, but here is one that I’ve found interesting: trying to strike the right balance between short-term and long-term investments. Should I spend five turns producing a warrior, who I can use to protect myself from barbarians, or should I spend fifty turns building Stonehenge, which will allow me to found a religion? Or I could do both—but only if I have two cities, and to get a second city, I need to spend ten turns producing a settler…

I am now asking analogous questions about the way I invest my time in real life. Should I go back to school for another degree? Or try for a promotion? Or maybe there is a real-life equivalent of building another city in Civ, allowing me to do both at the same time?

After reflecting on my own experiences with games, I’m persuaded by Nguyen’s argument. And since games are also such a great source of fun, I’ve decided to make them a bigger part of my life. Practically, this means two things:

  1. Every three months, I’m going to explore a new video game. Until I picked up Civ, I hadn’t played any video games since middle school, so there’s tons to explore. Why three months? I want to give myself enough time to develop some skill. With many games, skill is necessary if you want to experience the game’s agential mode. Here are a few games I have queued up:
    • Portal 2
    • The Witness
    • Outer Wilds
  2. I’m playing more tabletop games with friends and family. These games have an advantage over video games because it’s hard to accidentally dump 50 hours a month into them. Here are a few games I’ve been playing lately, on Nguyen’s recommendation:
    • Spyfall
    • Hanabi
    • Modern Art

If you have recommendations—especially for games that offer uniquely interesting agential modes—please send them my way!

Thanks to Matthew Jordan and Meg Inman for editing this essay.

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