Dice

You might not be an undergrad anymore, but you can still give learning the old college try. At the University of Richmond, Kristin Bezio, Ph.D., teaches a course called "Games, Game Theory and Leadership Studies." We asked for some insight.

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Why do we play games – and how do games "make" us want to play them?

The answer is as diverse as the people who play games. Some people want to escape. Others want to "burn off steam." Some play games, like solitaire, to kill time.

Games provide us with something called "challenge by choice." Human beings like the feeling of overcoming difficulty, and games present us with difficulty that is (a) surmountable, and (b) something over which we have control.

It’s also perfectly acceptable to fail in games in a way that it isn’t acceptable to fail at things in life – because of social pressure, economic pressure or self-esteem. This is particularly important because failure in games has actually been shown to increase our resilience to failure in life – a skill that is preciously underrated and much-needed!

How do games intersect with understanding or improving leadership?

Games are a fundamental part of culture, and culture both creates and is created by our expectations and problems of leadership – whether we’re talking about ancient games like chess or Go or modern video games like "Call of Duty" or "Fortnite."

More specifically, games and game design tap into fundamentals of social engineering, psychology and behavioral economics. These are equally important to both the practice and study of leadership, but what I’m interested in is how these things intersect with storytelling, which is very much my specialty.

Even simpler games, such as Clue, help us to tell stories using gameplay, art and design. And stories are fundamental to our understanding of leaders and leadership.

Monopoly is a familiar game. Are there surprising elements there about leadership or culture?

Monopoly was designed by a woman, Lizzie Magie (later Phillips), as a critique of predatory landlord practices. She called it – and patented – The Landlord’s Game in 1903, and handmade and printed copies circulated surprisingly widely until it was picked up and modified by a gentleman named Charles Darrow. He sold his version – which glorified the very capitalistic practices Magie was criticizing – to Parker Brothers in 1935.

This story is a rather interesting lesson in the way in which corporations and people with privilege are able to take advantage of those who – like Magie, a working-class woman in 1930s America – don’t have the power to stop them ... much like the game itself.

For instance, if we look only at the game, Monopoly presents us with a case study in how our fates are determined randomly – but still gives the illusion of people being in control.

Typically, the winner of Monopoly is actually decided by the game board within the first two or three rounds. The players might not know it, but the way they have been able to land on particular properties – by luck, determined by dice rolls – has already determined which of them will be successful.

In the same way, people’s success or failure in life correlates significantly to when and where they were born, how much money their family has, and whether they had access to quality education as children.

Certainly, there are exceptions and outliers, but for the most part, one’s success in life is as predetermined as a game of Monopoly.

Like Darrow, we're drawn to the idea that we can somehow "get lucky" and become successful – and the game caters to the fiction that we’re doing the work, even though it really comes down to the rolls of the dice.

How does social commentary turn up in more modern games?

Every game contains some element of social commentary. Literally every game.

I mentioned Monopoly, and even Clue fits the mold: It sought to give people a sense of control over their lives during World War II by letting them find "the bad guy" in their midst, showing that anyone could be a murderer (or the hero who finds them).

In modern video games, the most recent "Tomb Raider" franchise reboot (2013-18) critiques American imperialism and the exploitation of indigenous peoples and Third World nations. "Dragon Age Inquisition" (2014) includes and encourages acceptance of trans persons. "Assassin’s Creed" games (2007-18) foreground the oppression of indigenous peoples, slaves and women, as well as religious minorities.

Even if these themes aren’t the main point of the games – and in many cases, they are – they are prominent enough to influence the way we think about these issues, even if we aren’t aware of it.

Modern video games make a lot of adults shake their heads. What should they know?

Most video gamers are adults! The idea that only kids or teenagers, or even college students, play video games is completely and utterly false.

The average gamer is 35 years old, and there are far more people over 30 who play video games than people under 18. In fact, there are as many gamers over 35 as there are under 35.

Games – video games and otherwise – influence society in the same ways that any popular culture influences society: They tell stories and present us with images and characters we can admire, emulate or reject.

There is a misperception that video games somehow are different than movies. But if we aren’t "shaking our heads" at the Marvel Cinematic Universe, why should we do so at "Fallout" or "Red Dead Redemption"?

Has gaming developed into a norm in the way that TV once did?

It already has. Video game development is a bigger economic industry than Hollywood, and it added almost $12 billion to the U.S. economy in 2016. More than 67 percent of U.S. households own a device used specifically to play video games.

Games aren’t yet as ubiquitous as television, but they are rapidly approaching that threshold as more and more young adults – and I mean people under 40 – don’t watch television, instead using the internet as their primary source of entertainment, whether gaming or Hulu or Netflix.

Kristin Bezio, an associate professor in the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, specializes in how literature, drama, film and games influence society and how people think of leadership.

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