Games Are About Personal Development

by Malte Skarupke

Here’s an angle on the fundamental reason for why we play games: They are about personal development, learning about ourselves and about the world. This may not be a new angle, but I haven’t heard it stated this explicitly. Instead I have heard people say stupid things like “games teach hand-eye-coordination” which is true, but also bullshit because why would you spend this much time training your hand-eye-coordination? No I claim that games teach import life lessons, and that that is the fundamental reason why we play games.

I’m going to talk about video games, but this is also about games in general. Why do kids play with dolls? Because they want to learn about family life. (or about conflicts when playing with action figures) This is not explicit learning like we learn from a teacher, but you act out situations and adjust your behavior depending on how your play partner reacts. Why do we send our kids to football practice? Not because we think that they need to learn the valuable skill of kicking a ball into a net. No it’s because we want them to learn about working in teams and about pacing themselves and about playing fair and all that.

The things we learn are obvious in those scenarios. It’s well known that it’s important for kids to play in order to figure out how to act in the world in a safe environment. But I claim that the same thing is true for video games, and my example will be Super Mario World.

Why Super Mario World? Because I bought a SNES classic and I’ve been playing it a lot. Going back to it, I’m actually very impressed with the game, but that’s for another blog post.

Learning about Nagging, Perseverance and Stubborness

Let me talk about a specific situation where I learned something small from Super Mario World: Me and my girlfriend currently have a friend staying with us for a week. Last Friday night we went out separately, and when me and my girlfriend came home we found our friend playing Super Mario World in the living room. We briefly made fun of him but then joined him. Very quickly you had three thirty year old adults sitting on the floor in front of the TV playing SNES like six year olds.

Our friend had remembered a secret that allowed him to skip half of world 3 and all of world 4 of the game. You just have to beat two really tough levels. Our friend had a very hard time at those levels, going through several continues and not making much progress. I tried to give him advice, but naturally I also started making fun of him: “this shortcut seems to take longer than going the normal route.” This went on for a while and I found new jokes to make because our friend kept on trying the same level, not making any progress. At some point my girlfriend got upset and told me to stop nagging him. So I scaled it back a little but didn’t completely stop. By the end of the evening my girlfriend was quite upset with me, so we had to have a conversation about this.

There’s a lot to learn in this simple social interaction, so let me walk through it.

First, why do we nag people? I was nagging my friend because I thought he was employing a bad strategy. I have played a lot of games and I know from experience that if you are stuck on something like that you can easily burn out on the game. Even if you eventually overcome the challenge, you might never turn on the game after that because you’re burned out. So the smarter thing to do is to go do something else for a while and then come back to the challenge, so I was trying to get my friend to take the “normal” route instead of the difficult shortcut. My friend thought he was showing perseverance, but I thought he was just being stubborn. And stubbornness leads to burn out which is the opposite of perseverance.

So why nag him instead of just telling him this outright? Because you can’t just tell people “you’re doing this wrong, you should do X instead.” That would introduce some power dynamics because suddenly I claim that I’m better than him, and the other person might get defensive. So instead you try to do a subtle intervention, and you nag him a little bit. He can either respond to it, or he can ignore it. And he can also easily tell me to stop at any time without anyone losing face. (and in this case it actually turned out that I was wrong since he has since beaten the game, so doing a subtle intervention like that is good because if it turns out to be a non-issue, then it’s good that you didn’t escalate it)

We never think about it this explicitly, (I didn’t think of this while I was nagging him) but that’s the kinds of dynamics that are going on here. It’s awkward to state all this and it’s even more awkward to say all of this in person. Since my girlfriend was upset about the nagging (this friend I’m talking about is more her friend than my friend) I thought that our friend might also be upset about it, so I tried explaining things the next morning. Turns out he wasn’t upset, but when I explained that I had learned the “difference between perseverance and stubborness” that I mentioned above, he got defensive. He said things like “I’m not trying to beat the game, I’m just playing for nostalgia.” I tried explaining that what I had learned wasn’t about that, but it wasn’t a good conversation to have so we dropped it. You can’t say these things directly, so the slight nagging I employed the night before was the best strategy.

Social rules like this are really complex and you can’t teach the subtleties directly, because we can’t even articulate all the subtleties. It depends so much on the situation. I claim that we learn these things from playing games, and that these things are the reason why we play games. We never learn them as explicitly as I stated them here, but we try to figure these things out. When should you be stubborn? When should you nag, when should you say things directly? The rules for these are complex, require a lot of experience, and you can’t transfer them directly, so you learn them through play.

In the conversation that my girlfriend and I had that night, she was upset at me: “Why did you have to nag him like that? He was just playing a game.” But my point is that the nagging has to happen precisely because he is playing a game. We all know people that are too stubborn in their job or in other competitive situations, but you can’t necessarily tell them that in those situations. Because in the real world the stakes are often higher, so if you come along and tell them that they are doing something wrong, there is even more tension. And if you nag them, they might snap back at you.

But then we also play games, and the hope is that if a person has a personality like that, you would also see that personality in the game. And since it’s “just a game” this is the perfect time to try to improve on these things. It’s a low-risk environment where we can easily practice our social interactions, and if there is an uneasy interaction, we will all forget about it within a week. Because it really wasn’t that bad, and that’s the whole point of doing this in the context of a game. All that happened was a bit of fine tuning in everybody’s interactions.

How Games Teach

So then if games are about learning about ourselves like that, why is Super Mario World a good game? Because there is so much to learn there. It’s an amplified version of the real world: It’s a world rich of challenges, opportunities, risks and rewards.

You always encounter new levels and new enemy types, so you learn about how to approach new situations. How to be careful in a new situation. How to incrementally learn more about it and to explore safely. (but you also learn that often if you’re trying to be too safe, you don’t succeed either, so you can’t be too timid) There are levels where you have to be patient, levels where you have to be quick, levels where you have to be creative and levels that are about perseverance. There are situations where you have to grab an opportunity, and there are situations where the “opportunity” is actually a trap.

So you can learn and experiment with all those skills and you can try to fine-tune them. You can do this much more quickly than you can in real life, because there simply isn’t that much going on in real life. On top of that you can learn a whole different layer of skills when playing with friends. Whether you’re competing, cooperating, or taking turns, there is a lot of social behavior to practice.

These are all really valuable life skills and we learn them in games. This may sound too grandiose, because after all it’s “just a game” and I do agree that it’s weird to state these things so explicitly. It’s not like you’re going to become a really smart person because you found a smart trick in Mario to get extra lives. But if you watch kids play, you will see how bad they are at a lot of these things and how they get better the more they play. And I claim that the things you learn in the game transfer into real life. Obviously something like “here is a trick for easily beating enemy X” is not going to transfer into real life, but the creativity that you employed in finding that trick is going to transfer.

Our subconscious knows this and this is why it likes playing these games. To beat Super Mario World, you need to be good at a lot of high-level-skills like “perseverance,” “patience,” “curiosity” and “creativity” because otherwise you’re going to get stuck on a difficult level half-way through. When a game stops teaching us those meta-skills, it becomes less interesting. If all it presents us with is harder versions of the same problems that we have already solved, we get frustrated or bored. We don’t actually care about getting better at jumping or at killing enemies. So don’t just give us harder versions of that. We care about getting better at the higher level skills, so instead we want new situations where we can try what we have learned and refine it further.

Pattern Matching the Theory

When thinking about a new theory like this, it’s always fun to try to pattern-match it to see if it also explains other things.

One thing it explains is why we play less as we get older: As kids we have to learn so much about the world. All these high level skills have to be learned and fine tuned. But at some point we’re pretty good at them, and we’re learning less from playing new games. At that point we can either play more complex games like Dark Souls or Europa Universalis, or if we don’t have time for that we stop playing. The normal games stop being interesting for us for the same reason that playgrounds stopped being interesting for us: We have learned all we can learn from playing on a playground, and we have learned all we can learn from playing simple games.

This theory also explains why so many educational games are bad. They think that in order for games to be educational, they have to teach you something directly. So they make you do math exercises or something stupid like that. But they lose all the much richer learning about ourselves that happens in game like Super Mario World. It’s been said before, but “The Sims” is how you make a good educational game: The thing you’re learning is intrinsically interesting. It starts off with the same appeal as playing with dolls, where you learn about family life. And then you also learn about having a job, using money, building a house, getting better at skills etc. None of this is taught explicitly, and you’re not going to get any big wisdoms out of it, but you are going to learn and tune some of those implicit social rules that everybody has to learn to live in modern society.

So how do we make games like that? I don’t have the answer to that question yet. A few games came to mind while writing this blog post, but I don’t think the creators of any of those set out to make games where you develop as a person. What I do think though is that if at some point through the development of your game you realize that “this is a game about breaking through your perceived limits” (as in Dark Souls) then you can use that realization to make choices that make the game better. One example that I came up with is if The Sims is a game about learning how to use money (among many other things) then it should probably contain credit cards or student loans or some way to learn about debt and interest on debt. Obviously you don’t want to allow the player to get themselves into really bad situations, but you could for example have debt collectors come to the house and take the most valuable furniture. Would that be fun for the player? Maybe not. Would players enjoy the game more because they have more possibilities in the game? I think they might.

Appreciating Games More

One thing I tried while writing this blog post is to use this angle to try to understand a game that I didn’t understand before. I chose Candy Crush Saga. Playing it, thinking “what do you have to learn to beat this game?” made me think that Candy Crush is a game about being lucky. It’s a game about setting up situations where luck can strike, and spotting lucky opportunities when they come about where you didn’t expect them. You know all those theories about slot machines being “due to hit” or lucky streaks and all that? In Candy Crush these really do happen, because the game is about setting up the board so that these do happen. Is that a valuable skill to learn? I think it’s a very valuable skill. I think being lucky is half of my success in life. You should read this article about the difference between people who consider themselves lucky and people who don’t consider themselves lucky. When I first read that article I realized how much of the good things in my life happened because of habits like those described in the article. Now is Candy Crush a good game to learn these skills? Not necessarily. I think it’s better at it than other match-3 games like Puzzle Quest, but all the free-to-play things in there with the mind tricks that try to get you to pay money are… problematic. But I now think that I could make a game based on Candy Crush that’s more explicitly about teaching luck to people, and I think it would be a good game.

So I think this is a useful  theory. And hey, isn’t it great to realize that video games teach important life skills? If somebody ever complains about you “wasting time” because you’re playing video games, you can say “no I’m learning about my role in society, about balancing work, leisure and family and I’m experimenting with different life trajectories” (when playing The Sims) or “no I’m learning about dealing with frustration, exploring novel situations and finding alternate solutions when I’m stuck” (when playing Super Mario World) or “no I’m learning about focus, creative thinking and how to use both my active mind and my background mind to solve difficult problems” (when playing The Witness) or “no I’m learning about my limits and how seemingly impossible things can be achieved with practice, perseverance and attention.” (when playing Dark Souls)

Can This Really Be a New Theory?

The main part of this blog post is over, but I think it’s interesting how I can’t find people talking about this theory before me. It is well known that as kids, animals (including humans) play games in order to learn how to act. And they do this through play because that’s a safer environment where you can gather a lot of experience in a short amount of time. But for some reason that thinking hasn’t encompassed video games.

I was reading the book “The Art of Failure” by Jesper Juul while writing this blog post, because I thought it might have some thinking in this direction. The book description starts off with

We may think of video games as being “fun,” but in The Art of Failure, Jesper Juul claims that this is almost entirely mistaken. When we play video games, our facial expressions are rarely those of happiness or bliss. Instead, we frown, grimace, and shout in frustation as we lose, or die, or fail to advance to the next level. Humans may have a fundamental desire to succeed and feel competent, but game players choose to engage in an activity in which they are nearly certain to fail and feel incompetent. So why do we play video games even though they make us unhappy? Juul examines this paradox.

And in the book he talks about the paradox of failure, which is that we generally avoid failure, but we also seek out games where we fail. One thing the book talks about is how people generally like a game less if they beat it on their first try, compared to if they fail at least once and then beat the game. It all sounds like my theory of “we play games to learn” is a perfect explanation for this paradox. And the book talks about it, for example it has this quote from Ben Franklin:

The game of Chess is not merely an idle amusement. Several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired or strengthened by it, so as to become habits, ready on all occasions… we learn by Chess the habit of not being discouraged by present appearances in the state of our affairs, the habit of hoping for a favourable change, and that of persevering in the search of resources.

But somehow, even though the book has that paradox of failure, and it has this quote by Ben Franklin, it never seems to say that the solution is that we play video games to learn these skills, to develop as a person. (just as it’s the reason why animals play) This was really puzzling to me. Even at the end of the book it feels like the authors are unsatisfied because they haven’t really solved the paradox. I wanted to shout at the author “you are so close, why don’t you just take this tiny step and state that this skill development is why we play games.”

I think one part of the book gives away why they don’t think this. Whenever the author talk about “learning” from video games, the author actually only talks about getting better at the game. Whenever he talks about video games, he doesn’t think that you can develop as a person, he thinks that you can only develop to get better at the game.

This became clear to me when the author talks about the difference between games of chance and games of skill. In that chapter he also talks about a third category of games, games of labor, which are games that primarily reward time invested. In those games the actions you perform are not particularly challenging, and you will mostly succeed if you invest a lot of time. Examples are World of Warcraft or Farmville. (it should be noted that most games are a mix of skill, chance and labor, these are just examples where the labor part is particularly strong) After explaining the distinction, the book states this:

For those who are afraid of failure, this is close to an ideal state. For those who think of games as personal struggles for improvement, games of labor are anathema.

This sentence only makes sense if the “improvement” that the author is thinking about is only in terms of getting better at the game. If the “improvement” was about developing as a person, then games of labor are as valid as games of skill or games of chance. Because in the real world there are a lot of activities that are simply a lot of work. For example manual labor on a farm like in Farmville is a lot of repetitive work. Not everyone can do that kind of job. But you can learn to get better at something like that by playing a game like Farmville, which teaches that for some things it’s not about your skill or intelligence, but it’s about putting in the time necessary to do something good. (but of course Farmville is probably not the best game to learn this, as it has all the same problematic elements as Candy Crush)

So I think part of the reason why people don’t think that games are about personal development is that the fact that you’re getting better at the game is so obvious. And then they miss the less obvious effect that you’re also getting better at higher level skills that you’ll need in life.


Games are great, folks. And we shouldn’t feel bad for playing them. Just, you know, don’t let this be an excuse to play too much. After all the reason why you’re learning and developing in games is to use what you learned in the real world. (and to then get better than you could get just from playing games)