Problem Solving in Video Games
One item I have frequently commented on but never fully explained over the course of this now two year old blog is how I am able to view video games as a problem solving trainers/simulators. It is admittedly a broad concept because the idea is that the mind is being trained to try different concepts in abstract worlds. There is no actual 1:1 real-world application for the problems solved in video games (for the most part), but my hope is that people are accidentally training their minds to perceive things differently. In essence, video games have the potential of expanding and redefining our approaches to concepts and problems in reality.
The first question now is how does one view a video game simply as a problem (or set of problems) that needs to be solved. This is the most basic and simple concept to understand. Most games, especially those released in the mainstream, offer some goal. Save the princess, save the world, defeat the bad guy, or simply get to the end of the stage. Rather than leave it as abstract as that, the game designs the tools you need to reach that end. Generally, that is your avatar. Most people stop right there, assuming that the point is to get the avatar to the far right of the screen. While true, that oversimplifies matters. Games feature different avatars that affect the world differently. For example, Mario works differently than Mega Man. Mario has a certain float to his jumps that throws players off, is able to bump and destroy bricks overhead by jumping into them, and can overcome most enemies simply by landing on top of them. (In later games he can pick up and throw defeated enemies, abruptly stop the course of his jump by dropping straight down on his butt, and increase the length of his jump via a delay by twirling in the air.) Mega Man, meanwhile, has a more direct jump and can only defeat enemies by shooting them with a cannon that only allows three bullets to appear on the screen at any time. (Later games allow the choice of redefining how many bullets can appear, Mega Man can slide, and the power of the cannon can be charged to a greater level.) Games offer the players different avatars, different tools, to use to solve the problems over the course of every stage.
The one thing that most players fail to do from the onset of every game is test the limits of their avatar. It would seem that understanding the basics of the controls is enough. Control pad moves, one button jumps, and the other button picks up things or shoots fireballs. But what about holding the fireball button and moving? Mario runs. How about completing a jump after this? Mario’s jump changes. How about running and suddenly stopping? Mario slides a little bit. You can combine this with ducking at the last minute to make Mario slide under obstacles. The avatar, the most basic tool, generally offers a lot for experimentation – and knowing the limits is the key to successful problem solving.
Many games offer an additional curve ball – additional tools that provide new, or even redefine old, actions. The Mario games traditionally offer the super mushroom and the fire flower. The former allows Mario to break bricks and take an additional hit, and the latter offers those same functions along with the ability to shoot fireballs at foes. Later games offer the ability to fly, better swimming capabilities, reduced traction on ice, iceballs instead of fireballs, etc. Each item is equally useful overall, but some items are better suited for certain environments. Or they may just be better suited for certain playing styles. Again, experimentation is key to one’s success.
When playing most video games, the player is encountering a number of problems each and every second of play. The general view is that every action is reactionary. Reaction time is often cited by laypersons as the only benefit of game playing. Game players see something and jump to respond. There is truth to that, but there can often be more critical thinking involved. Players are not limited to the binary responses of action versus inaction. What needs to be taken into account are all possible actions for a given situation. All of the actions discovered possible for the avatar expand the basic binary, not to mention the latter choice of inactivity is expanded by choices of how long to stay inactive. (Sometimes the player needs to wait for the enemy or moving block or whatever to put itself into an advantageous position before performing an action.) There are quite a number of possible solution scenarios to process while working toward the overall goal of ______.
Sounds good for platforming games like Super Mario Bros. and Mega Man, but what about fighting games? Aren’t those all reaction based?
Yes! But no.
Response time is even more critical in fighting games, but it is not the only skill necessary. Just as with the previous game style mentioned, understanding the abilities of the avatar is even more important. Saying it is all reaction based suggests that simply acting at the right time is enough, but there are still choices to be made. Do I block? Do I attack? What attack? Do I have time to perform the attack I want?
Which leads into a deeper level of game play, which some people call the meta game. The meta game requires an understanding of the game mechanics such that the player can predict the most likely choice of action the opponent will make and have the best solution handy. Watching some videos of fighting games online display players who simply seem to be in the right place at the right time, but that’s only because they managed to successfully predict (or constrict) their opponents’ choices.
Another approach to these games, another aspect of the meta game, is to view the opponent as the problem that needs to be solved. This is the less successful strategy, but it is the strategy most appealing to people interested in psychology. (Hell0.) Instead of basing one’s strategy around the restrictions of the game’s mechanics, one’s strategy is based on an understanding of the opponent’s preferences and inabilities. You base your choices around what the opponent does most often and what the person often fails to do. Play your strengths versus their weaknesses. It is actually a simple sports strategy, really. Often players will refer to this as playing the opponent rather than playing the game. Up until my most usual opponent discovered all of my weaknesses, I simply called it, “You just have to stop jumping at me all the time!”
So what’s your point?
The point is that video games are potentially more helpful than harmful in terms of training cognitive processes. Unfortunately, the realization of this requires its own cognitive shift. I do not know if this requires a mass culture shift or a personal one for the greatest benefits, but I know it has affected me positively. The player needs to see the game as a trainer for approaching abstract problems and accept that it is an open invitation to experiment. Too often in our real lives we are put on a task and follow what we are told is the most direct method toward its completion. Through gaming we can encourage ourselves to once again try new strategies and realize that failure is not the end of the world. (In some game narratives, it is the end of the world. Fortunately, that is rarely a permanent state.) It also can encourage people to realize that pleasure should not be derived merely from the completion of a task but through the course of finding and implementing solutions.