Things I’ve Learned from Games

People often underestimate how much you can learn from games. On a simply factual level, I learned most of my British geography from The Great Game of Britain, a light-hearted children’s game set in the golden age of rail, played on an accurate map featuring well over 100 British locations. And whilst I’ll admit that Risk may overemphasise the importance of Irkutsk and Yakutsk on the global scale, I would confidently claim that 99% of the people outside Germany who can tell you the location of the Heligoland Bight will have played Diplomacy.

Moving from board to computer expanded the realm of learning into into history and science, with Sid Meier’s classic, Civilization, being the first place I encountered Hammurabi, metallurgy and Sun Tzu. And when I moved to creating my own games, I was forced to learn and become intimately familiar with the laws of probability and statistics – such as would, of course, be already well-known to any serious player of poker.

Facts, though, expansive though they can be, are the simplest of things that we can learn from games. Games such as chess, go or Lemmings can sharpen the mind as much as any crossword, whilst most strategy games, regardless of format, teach the skills of prioritisation and weighing trade-offs, essential skills for life and the workplace. The tight, resource constrained environments of Agricola or Dominion, the element of considered risk in Carcassonne, are all fundamentally lessons in how to optimise to reach a goal, whilst taking into account the actions of others. In computer-based 4X games such as Civilization or Alpha Centauri, this develops into the ability to create, pursue and adapt strategies and plans over hundreds of turns of play, yet even these pale next to games of Grand Strategy such as Crusader Kings, in which a player must balance (or choose to ignore) literally thousands of pieces of economic, military and political data to guide their nation to dynastic success, all the while being cogniscant of the relative advantages of agnato-cognatic primogeniture as opposed to gavelkind succession. Whether one ultimately is managing a corporate budget, consulting on public policy or planning a marketing campaign, the ways of thinking sharpened by long-term planning and prioritisation within constraints are highly transferrable.

Soft skills, though are equally developed. Some games, such as Settlers of Catan or Bohnanza (‘the bean game’) explicitly include negotiation: when to trade, what makes a good deal? Many games, from the traditional to the modern, involve a high degree of bluffing. And still others teach interpersonal dynamics more indirectly, such as Smallworld, where the actual tactics are often secondary to your positioning with other players.

Even creativity and leadership can be enhanced by games. Role-playing games are a shared exercise in creativity, a structured sandpit in which narratives are created jointly by the games master and the player, bounded and circumscribed by the mechanical rules of the system and the luck of the dice. Creating my own games, together with the background worlds, proved a huge outlet and stimulation to my creativitity as a teenager, with a concurrent investment in writing (bearing in mind my A-Levels and degree were entirely maths and science based, involving minimal writing), which helped to underpin a successful career in the civil service, a novel, a prize-winning Brexit essay and now this blog.

As to leadership, the best training I had for chairing meetings, early in my career was to have run, week-in week-out for three years, a role-playing group, where I aimed to keep people on track regarding focusing on the game, providing room for digressions and diversions, but nevertheless ensuring that progress didn’t entirely stall under a side-turn into Monty Python references. As a games master, your players are only there because they want to be, so if you’re not effective, you’ll very quickly end up with no group at all. Of course, on my CV and at interviews, I spoke of my time as a supervisor at Sainsbury’s to illustrate my early leadership skills – an example based on role-playing games would have carried little weight – but I know which made most difference in the room.

Though they may be often underestimated or seen as childish, games of all sorts can be hugely educational, imparting everything from basic facts, through strategy and prioritisation, to negotiation, leadership and creativity. I haven’t learned as much from games as I have from books, but I’ve certainly learned a great deal.