Games - A Big Picture Perspective

Today’s topic is games. There are more than 60 games in my basement including four versions of Monopoly, two versions of Clue, two versions of Stratego, both adult and junior versions of Pictionary and Labyrinth and both an original and travel version of Scrabble. We have 2 cloth bananas full of letter tiles, a game called Bananagrams, because the extremely bright and highly competitive members of my family need enough letters to make long words that, trust me, you would not encounter in everyday conversation. All the toys, boxes of K’NEX projects, Legos, Playmobile castles, dozens of picture cards, puzzles, art supplies and shelves full of books make my basement look like a children’s consignment store.

I have collected games ever since becoming a speech-language pathologist, 29 years ago. I’ve culled the collection over the years, so I can locate things without a filing system. Some games were gifts, others purchased at yard sales and consignment shops, a few came from catalogues, and some were scavenged from the Barnes and Noble clearance tables just about this time of year. I couldn’t resist buying a set of colorful children’s puzzles at BJ’s just this past Friday. Many of the games kept my growing, very active son occupied. Even now, family games are one way we share time during school vacations.

I have a reputation for changing the rules. My son and I made games more challenging. For example, instead of playing a Memory game with say 20 cards, we would play it with 30, 40 or more. Instead of circling the path of a game board once, we would do it twice to decide the winner. For students, I usually make games less challenging. One game of Candyland, in which a player can select a picture card that sends her back nearly to the beginning of the game, was enough to start me thinking of ways to make games more successful and fun. For example, sometimes we roll multiple dice instead of only one, so game pieces can get to the finish line faster. Instead of struggling to hold on to cards in our hands, we sometimes place them on the table, face-up in front of us during a game like “Go Fish”. My all-time favorites are teaching parents how to inconspicuously let their kids win sometimes and making games cooperative instead of competitive.

Why do I encourage changing the rules? A July 4th article in the New York Times highlighted the importance of fairness. The title of the article was “Thirst for Fairness May Have Helped Us Survive,” (authored by Natalie Angier.) She wrote, “…by the age of 6 or 7, children are zealously devoted to the equitable partitioning of goods, and they will choose to punish those who try to grab more than their arithmetically proper share of Smarties and jelly beans…” My students tend to experience the unfairness of life, so,when we re-design game play, the rules become more fair for them and therefore more fun.

Another aspect of game design is “feedback.” Feedback relates to how present behavior affects future behavior. So for example, when we walk, a feedback system is at work to help us maintain our balance and stay upright as we move along this smooth carpet or down the stairs and out across the uneven parking lot. Artificial intelligence is partially about computers learning based on feedback. My parents e-mailed me the link to a game in which an all-knowing genie could guess any famous character I was thinking of just by asking me several yes-no questions. You see, every time someone plays the game, it adds to data bases it has accumulated, or, it is learning the characteristics of the new person you are teaching it. If it didn’t guess the character you were thinking of, it gives you several choices of who it might be. Your answer is its lesson. My son says that the advertisements on his Facebook page change as he types, because a computer program is using feedback from his conversations to find ads that would interest him.

I work with children who stutter and research indicates that some children who stutter may hear their own speech differently than you and I hear our own speech. The auditory feedback that helps us to monitor how we talk by listening to ourselves, may not work adequately for some children who stutter. Also, children who can identify simple shapes just by feeling them in their mouths show better improvement in stuttering therapy than children who cannot identify shapes in this way. The sensory feedback from the mouth, which would suggest knowledge of how the tongue moves around in the mouth to make speech sounds, may be inadequate for some children who stutter.

What kinds of feedback are in games? Video games have children collecting virtual coins, special powers, and special tools that become useful at a later time. Board games allow players to collect sets of cards, money, opponents’ game pieces, and points as rewards for correctly spelling words, answering questions, drawing pictures, or solving a mystery. Some internal kinds of feedback are skill improvement, personal satisfaction, public recognition and companionship.

An article in the July/August issue of the Atlantic Magazine, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy”, challenges my practice of changing games so that my students will receive generous amounts of positive feedback. Apparently telling a child “Great Job!” not just the first time a he puts on his shoes but every single morning, teaches him that everything he does is special. Likewise, children who earn stickers for “good tries” never get beneficial negative feedback on their performance. Growing up in a culture “…where everyone gets a trophy just for participating … is ludicrous and makes no sense when you apply it to actual sports games or work performance,” (p. 72) the article states.

The main idea of the Atlantic magazine article is to challenge those who believe children’s games should be designed to nurture happiness and build self-esteem. The argument in the article is based on research that shows “… predictors of life fulfillment and success are perseverance, resiliency, and reality-testing – qualities that people need so they can navigate the day-to-day.” – not happiness and self-esteem. (p. 76) Therefore, some children’s games should be difficult and allow for failure. Children need to fail so that that they can discover and develop their ability to survive hardship and emerge more competent.

I’m not too worried about this because most of my students have accumulated plenty of negative experiences already. New game rules give them a fair chance at finally winning. But, now I’m confused. Are we talking about play or are we talking about work?

I consider the “games” I play as an adult:

I have been playing an old game called ‘the on again, off again diet’ for decades. When I was growing up, the rules around eating were: finish everything on your plate and then you can have dessert. My mother made delicious dinners and scrumptious desserts. Feedback from the scale was always the same. However, when I was pregnant, the scale went to 200 pounds and it’s been a struggle to lower it ever since. The rules for eating changed when I wasn’t paying attention. The new rules include getting to the gym several days a week and nearly eliminating entire food groups – I believe chocolate is a food group. Fortunately, there is digital feedback on the treadmill telling me to keep walking or else feedback from my body would convince me to sit down!

I’m also playing a game called “talking with your teenager.” Where’s the rulebook when you need one? In this game, conversation can be interrupted by a phone text at any time, at which point I am to place an invisible conversational bookmark in my mind for as long as it takes for my son to complete his texted interaction; after which we can resume our conversation.

As I get older, I discover that there are many complex, high-stakes games being played all around me and it’s about time I paid more attention to them. The US Supreme Court ruled last month that banning violent video games for children was a violation of free speech. As a parent who has spent the last 10 years monitoring video game violence in my own home, I am very interested in reading this decision. And now I’m even more confused – video violence is fun?

Now I’m even more convinced that a valuable lesson learned with games is that it’s ok to change the rules. Living in a democracy, at least theoretically, grants me this priceless privilege. I can influence the rule-makers by contacting my government representatives and donating money to organizations that advocate for issues I support.

As my own personal playing piece gets closer to the finish, I’d like to sort out the difference between games that are play and games that are work and be sure I am spending at least some of my time just having fun.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.