Puzzling Problems

Everything in a game is there for a reason – whether that reason is because it’s necessary for the player to progress, because of aesthetic appeal, or because of an oversight on the part of the developers, there’s some history behind every bump and nook and crevice of the world. Much of the time, this history is merely of idle curiosity – the sort of stuff that’s interesting in developer commentaries but doesn’t really get talked about elsewhere.

Frequent players of games, though, tend to notice the patterns of this history. If two objects have a particular spatial relationship to each other – say, they’re just close enough to jump from one to the other – then we start to infer the intent behind the placement. This is particularly noticeable when solving puzzles in games. When the developer has created the environment to be navigated in one specific way, everything about the structure and layout of that environment becomes significant. It’s like a cryptogram: there’s a meaning behind this arrangement of elements which is directly being communicated to us, but the meaning hides behind a layer of obfuscation. And, like a cryptogram, solving the puzzle is mostly just a process of sorting all the information available to us properly: Once you know what every element’s role is, the solution becomes obvious. This is, more often than not, why people see twists coming in a story as well – not because the thing that happens next is likely, but because all of the pieces of the story moving to set up the twist lack subtlety and too clearly show the aims of the author. As with games, every part of a book was written for a reason, and if you’re good at seeing what that reason is then the shape of the story will start to take form long before it is read. Writers who are invested in creating a sense of surprise and discovery often need to find newer and more subtle ways to create surprise as we get better and better at reading their intent. We could view this as a sort of game itself: The artist’s attempt to create a surprise vs the reader’s ability to decode their intent prematurely.

Real spaces, too, have a history that is shaped by cause and effect. Places where people walk become trails and trails become roads – spaces not made to create puzzles, but merely to be traversed and lived in. The ability to infer the history of a space, whether virtual or real, can be a useful skill. It is not, however, a generalized problem-solving skill. That is to say, if you’re very good at solving puzzles, that doesn’t necessarily make you very good at solving problems. The problems we encounter in the world aren’t very much like the problems that games propose to us. They are not bounded or discrete, their elements are not carefully placed to be used. They are inconvenient and messy, and it’s not always clear when one has found a solution – or what other new problems that solution may pose. Problems may not even be solvable at all. The obstacles that games present may be useful for keeping your mind sharp, but the amount of transferable skill between the tiny constrained problems offered by a game and the huge incomprehensible problems proffered by day-to-day life is minimal.

While the skills games teach may, at times, have utility, that utility is rarely anything like the way those skills are represented in-game – that is to say, while the manual dexterity and tactical thinking needed to become a martial arts master in Street Fighter may have other applications, it won’t help you win many actual street fights. It’s sometimes difficult to accept that the skills don’t transfer, though, because to accept this is, some feel, to denigrate their validity as skills. Beating Dark Souls doesn’t mean you can fight a horse, but it does mean you’re capable of a certain degree of patience and care and precision. Doing something that’s difficult doesn’t necessarily mean you can do anything else that’s difficult, but it does mean you have the capability to face and overcome a difficult problem, if perhaps a very constrained one.

It may be obvious that playing video games isn’t generally good training for real life problems, but it’s worth restating because we tend to believe in the idea of generalized mental capability, in a sort of hierarchy of intelligence, to believe that if you can do one difficult thing that smart people do you can probably do other difficult smart-people things. What lets people do difficult things, though, isn’t some sort of abstract intelligence, some numerical value that makes them better at brain stuff than other people. It’s skill and it’s practice. We have a very easy time with this idea when it comes to athletic pursuits, to the idea that the abilities that make a person great at one sport probably don’t lend themselves to making them great at another sport, but have a harder time with it when it comes to mental skills.

Movies and television like to use a visual shorthand to show that a person is smart, so that we know to respect whatever they’re about to say. They show them playing smart-person games like chess or playing smart-person instruments like violins, have them wear smart-person glasses and speak in smart-person voices. And, of course, we know that wearing glasses or playing chess don’t necessarily make you smart – but we still believe there must be such a thing as smart, and that there must be a certain set of pursuits and attributes that belong to this class of smart people.

Pursuing skill in any endeavor is admirable in its own right, but it won’t somehow train up your intelligence score. You can’t grind your stats. All you can do is get better at doing a thing, and sometimes that will also be helpful for doing other things. Even then, there’s many ways to get better at a thing – for instance, if you want to play the piano, you could improve at sight-reading music or at improvisation, you could improve at jazz or classical music, you could improve your ability to play quick phrases or to make big jumps across octaves on the keyboard. These are all related but distinct skills, and together they can make you “good at the piano” – but what does “good” mean to you, then?

It takes a whole other skill, a whole other kind of dedication, to be able to face a problem of unknown size and indefinite scope, and slowly pick away at it bit by bit, unable to know when or how it might be solved. That’s one I think we’re all still trying to get the hang of.

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