In the academic world this question pops up fairly regularly. It stems from the view of games as pastimes and inconsequential in comparison to the more serious subjects out there. This view is so common that the field of Game Theory is linked to mathematics and philosophy, and has only the most basic reference to games as any regular person might recognize them.
In recent years people have started to sneak the study of games into a variety of fields; James Paul Gee and Constance Struekheimer in education, Bernard Suits in philosophy, and others, are advancing our understanding of games in these fields.
But why are games important? Why should we devote time to studying them?
Games are autotelic activities
Autotelic activities are when the reason for doing the activity is contained within the activity.
We engage in games for the joy that the game brings us, making them possibly the best example of intrinsically motivated activities. You can neither be forced to play a game against your will, nor will you get very far with the game if you are doing it merely for reward. How many professional athletes talk about the love of the game?
In a world where motivation has been tied to behaviorist models of punishment and rewards, games provide a different model. Understanding and correctly setting up the conditions for intrinsic motivation offers the potential to have more creative, happier, and engaged people.
Games are simulations of real world scenarios
One of the first groups to understand the power and value of deploying games were the military. The military uses war games to test battle plans for flaws before they are implemented, in an effort to reduce the costs in both resources, public opinion, and most importantly blood.
They are however not alone in deploying games as teaching devices.
Airplane pilots are trained with hours on flight simulators (very fancy computer games) for the very same reasons. Fortune 500 companies have started to use simulations to train corporate officers, and even some schools have started using specifically created games to simulate real world problems for their students to solve.
In all of these cases, games provide us with opportunities to experiment that would be too risky or costly to perform in the real world. They let us try out new strategies or figure out counters to old ones. The low cost of failure (relative to crashing a 747 in real life for example) allows for people to try creative solutions that may fail but will certainly provide useful information.
The study of how games work will let us create better simulations, which will increase the effectiveness of the training they provide. Observing how players are acting or communicating can provide useful data for fields as diverse as ergonomics and psychology.
Games are analogies for other human behavior
Johan Huizinga labeled humans “Homo Ludens”, or “game playing man.” In his book of the same name, he argues that the majority of human cultural interactions are a gigantic game.
While an interesting argument, it might be better to say that “games provide an analogue for human behavior.”
Games can hold a mirror up to the decisions that we make and let us experiment with decisions that we would never make in real life. They let us play with our understandings of identity, loss aversion, moral decisions and social interactions.
By understanding games we are learning how to understand how people interact with themselves and the systems that they have established.
In conclusion, the study of games provides opportunities to understand intrinsic motivation better, to learn how to simulate situations before they occur, and to better understand how humans relate to one another. The study of games for these reasons should be given as much respect as any other academic discipline.