The bounds of what a game is from my perspective:
When we play we are participating in a game. What defines a game is a set of rules that define outcomes. A game can involve any number of agents or systems. When we talk about games we usually refer to crafted artifacts made for artistic, entertainment or educational purpose. These artifacts involves and organizes art forms. Any art that involves decision-making and rules could be called a game.
In essence games are simulations. It is: “Let’s define the rules, and play by the rules and see what happens.” So when asking, what can we learned from games, it’s the same as asking “what can we learn from simulation and thought experiments.” and I believe the answer is that we only learn from simulation and thought experiments. (If you are a skeptic to this argument, you can imagine that the reality you perceive (your world view) is by no doubt an experience simulated by your physical brain which is what enables you do good and bad decision in the world which you learn from.)
What we can potentially learn from games is only limited by what games we are able to create and communicate and involve others in. (I believe the limits are not theoretical but practical. A problem of the limits of what you can imagine and communicate.)
But in the end I suppose games is just the same type of simulation as the one created by smokes and mirrors.
In what circumstances is it practical to play video games for learning?
To answer this I’ll convey what I think is the unique position video games have compared to most other means of learning:
- Interaction learning
In video games you learned through a focused simulation in a practical field. You don’t read about the problems, you meet them. It’s the difference from reading about juggling and actually juggling.
- Self pacing
In video games you can control where you are in the problem space you are learning. You can slow down the difficult parts. You can skip the parts that are unimportant to you. You can pause, you can save an interesting state you want to return to at a later point. You can quickly put yourself in exactly the situation and scenario where you need to be.
- Externalized Rules and correction checking
The game can be made to guide you, it can check your errors, it can adapt to your needs. It lets you hold in your head only what is essential for the problem, and leave the rest to be presented to you rather than simulated in your mind.
- Faster than human
A game can load the appearance/simulation of an experience faster and with more detail than most people could imagine the same experience.
- Possibility to experience with limited physical consequences
It allows you to experience the things you can not afford to experience in the real world. You can explore without being judged, without anyone watching. Without any physical effect at all on the external world. You can explore even the immoral and the consequences of what would be gravely dangerous to do in the real world.