Play games to save the world

by Terence Tan

Ever wanted to be a pirate? A railway tycoon or a sniper in a covert military unit? How about an axe-wielding barbarian charging through a demon horde?

Do you know why interactive games are so addictive? That’s because there is so much positive reinforcement – “You are awesome,” “Oh my hero, let me reward you with 1000 gold coins,” “Amazing! You have rescued the princess/vanquished the villain/saved the world.” There is obviously a great sense of achievement after playing a game.

Now, for the typical student, compare the ego boost he gets in games against what he gets in school. If you are a high performer with straight ‘A’s, are head prefect, have completed grade 8 piano, and have represented your school in athletics, marching band, science quiz and everything else under the sun, then you don’t need an ego boost.

But for the rest of us mere mortals, there is a danger that such virtual, surreal, fake and inconsequential in-game achievements will shape our identity and ego – “In class, I’m a loser, but, hey, in a game, I’m a winner!”

Using games as an analogy in my career talks directed to first-year students, I would always say, “You can know the stats, the strategies, how to level up for many heroes in your game. But do you know the same for your career? Do you know the knowledge and skills required to be an engineer or accountant? Can you see the different paths ahead of you?

If you expend the same energy you put in games in real life, you will make real money instead of fake gold, achieve real success instead of virtual success, and possess real skills instead of +1 fireball mastery.”

So, is playing games a waste of time?

‘Gamers solve scientist-stumping enzyme puzzle’ reads a Wired headline. The article continued with ‘Thousands of gamers playing a crowd-sourced, citizen science project called Foldit have solved a puzzle that has stumped biochemists for more than a decade. Better yet, their discovery could open new doors to a cure for AIDS.’ Isn’t it amazing that a teenager can walk out of his room and declare, “I just helped cure AIDS.”

Games do not have to be on a PC, iPad, Xbox or mobile phone. Have you heard of LifeGame? It’s a camp where campers role play in a ‘giant board game’ that simulates life. Some will graduate from university, some will not, but all will go through the motions of getting a job, buying a car and house, finding a wife, having children and paying countless bills. The campers go home with a deep appreciation of their parents’ hard work and parents love LifeGame because their children come home transformed.

As for me, during my school days, I learned more about the Pyramids and ancient history from the game Civilization. I learned about resource allocation, decision making and tradeoffs from games like SimCity.

While at Imperial College, my friends and I even started a Starcraft clan where we played competitively against other clans online. Many years later, we still recall the fun we had and how life has changed with work, marriage and children. While I don’t have the time to play games anymore, I find my past gaming life useful to connect with my students and helping them see beyond the “shoot-kill-kill-die you all” locked-room life some youth live.

Therefore, is playing games bad? No! Being addicted to games is bad. My university mates and I got good academic results. Some were top in their class.

As a university lecturer, I once had a top student who played games competitively in national-level tournaments. He now works and studies at National University Singapore (NUS). I also know many students who manage to excel in both their studies and games, in addition to other activities like music, sports or arts.

As young parents, my wife and I are careful to not expose my 2-year-old son to iPads and iPhones. I want him to use his eyes to see the natural world, to look with wonder at trees, birds and the moon in the sky – simple joys that we adults take for granted and can re-learn just by taking a walk with an innocent and inquisitive ‘device-less’ child.

I realise that the digital world and games are here to stay, so when he is older, I hope to lead him to games that quicken his mind to explore history, geography and technology without disconnecting from the people around him. I look forward to racing cars with him one day and showing off my dormant elite skills.

By all means, play games, save the princess, save the world! But if playing virtual games is the only thing you know, it’s definitely game over for you in the more important, fun, epic and meaningful game ever made – the Game of Life.

Terence Tan is a senior lecturer in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering of Curtin Sarawak’s School of Engineering and Science and a Coordinator for the school’s Engineering First Year. He won the 2008 Excellence and Innovation in Teaching Award from Curtin University, Western Australia, and due to his experience and expertise, is often invited to speak to students on learning, leadership and technology. His current PhD research is on ‘Learning and Cooperating Multi Agent Systems’, which is essentially AI. In addition, he is a facilitator for the John Curtin Leadership Academy that equips students for community service, leadership and entrepreneurship. For any comments on the article, he can be contacted at