Friday, 7 June 2013

Life lessons from mobile games

The gaming industry has taken a very significant shift these past 5 years. Console games and online games were once the pinnacle of gaming, but with the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 and the App Store in 2008, things started to change. Mobile games are now a gold mine for developers. With hundreds of millions of smartphones and tablets now being used worldwide, mobile games are much more lucrative than consoles and online gaming, which only appeals to certain demographics. Almost every household has smartphones and tablets, but not consoles. This is why major social gaming company Zynga recently laid-off 18% of their workforce, in an attempt to shift their focus from online games to mobile games. With mobile games becoming more and more common in our society, the criticisms over the negative influences these games have on people (especially kids) grow even stronger. I could debate these criticisms at length, but instead I'll take the opposite approach and give examples of how mobile games can actually have a positive effect on us. You might think I'm grasping at straws here, but here me out.

Endless runners (Temple Run 2 - Android / iOS)
Endless runners are very easy to play. You swipe and tilt to avoid obstacles while your character runs endlessly until you lose (hence the name of the genre). Simple right? But what's keeping us from running forever? We lose focus. Sometimes we swipe up instead of down. Sometimes we just lose on purpose because we are tired. It's amazing how games with such easy controls can end up being so challenging the longer we play. Think about it, the control are so easy any kid can pick up the game and play immediately, yet adults often times find themselves struggling to achieve high scores. Endless runners are great for developing a strong ability to maintain focus and determination to keep going. Even the simplest of tasks (swiping and tilting) can get us in trouble if we lose focus and make mistakes. A good lesson for anyone whose job is like an endless runner.

Swipe and match puzzle games (Candy Crush Saga - Android / iOS)
These kinds of puzzle games have been around for a long time, even on PCs. Again, a very simple concept; in a grid full of different items (like gems or candy) your job is to match 3 or more of the same item to clear the board or reach a certain score, or just play until time runs out. What makes it difficult? The fact that there are a lot of different items, all randomly arranged in a huge grid. Locating 2 adjacent items, and a 3rd which can be swiped to get a 3-item combo takes a keen eye, and some composure so you don't panic when time is running out. The fact that the layout of items changes every time a match is made means we also need to be quick and alert at the changing positions of items. Some matches we had targeted might not be there anymore, and new matches might appear. We go through the same thing in life. Opportunities come and go, and our challenge is to identify the opportunities that will benefit us in the future by leading to even more opportunities. Not take opportunities that lead to a dead-end. "Out of moves" sound familiar?

Pattern based puzzle games (Flow Free - Android / iOS)
OK I don't know what to call this particular sub-genre of puzzle games. Basically what you do in the game I linked above, is solve each level by connecting two points of the same colour, until all coloured points are connected. The catch is, no connections can overlap. And to get a perfect rating, you must fill up the entire grid. There is also another version called Flow Free: Bridges which of course, has bridges but the concept is the same. If we take each colour as a task, and connecting the two points counts as an accomplished task, here are some principles we can get from the game. Completion of one individual task can not interfere with the completion of another. Solving each task may be simple, but the challenge is to find the optimum solution for each task. Sometimes solving other tasks may make one difficult task much easier. This works well as a workplace analogy. Many people with many different tasks, completion of one man's work should not prevent a colleague from completing his, and in order for the entire workplace to function efficiently, each task must be completed in the best manner possible.
Solving problems is easy. Finding the optimal solution is the challenge.

Task management games (Diner Dash - Android / iOS)
Diner Dash was (probably still is) a very popular game on the PC. It's now available on mobile as well and is a perfect example of this kind of genre. Completion of each level depends on accomplishing several different tasks. As levels increase in difficulty, completing these tasks requires better planning and better time management. Some tasks take longer to complete than others, some can only be completed after another is completed first, the number of tasks that need to be completed simultaneously increases, so you need to plan your steps sometimes 3-5 steps in advance. Again, this is great for helping us develop time management and task orientation skills which can help in school and the workplace.
Games with sequential tasks can be
very challenging when the tasks pile up

Classic games reborn (Can Knockdown 3 - Android / iOS)
A lot of mobile games are not new games per se, just classic games which were reborn into the modern age. Like the classic carnival game where you throw a ball at a stack of cans or bottles trying to knock them all down. A very simple game, yet the mobile app has been so successful, the game is currently in its third instalment and still going strong. How does a simple game like this manage to expand to the extent that 3 games can be made, and made well? Addition of new game mechanics, like exploding cans, interactive environments like conveyor belts with moving cans and dark rooms with a moving lightbulb have kept the game fresh and prevented it from being labelled as boring and subsequently forgotten. This is proof that just because something is simple in principle, doesn't mean it can't be made great. Just because something has been done for a long time,  doesn't mean you can't change it and make it better.

Those are a few examples of how games can have a positive influence and actually help develop certain skills we can use in life. Some people say that games make us less social, they make us forget how to live in the real world. I don't think these claims are correct. A lot of games are social in nature, and some more serious online games like Team Fortress 2 promote good team work and communication, which I'm sure we can all agree are great assets to have in society. Guns are used for protection, they can also be used for crime. Cars are used for transportation, they can also be used for illegal racing. Drugs are therapeutic in nature, but they can also be abused for the wrong purposes. Games are no different. Games are merely tools, how they affect us depends on how we use them. 

What other games do you think can offer us life lessons? Feel free to share!