Gaming, Parkour, and the Art of Moving Like Water

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  • 09 February 2016

Take a peek into our “Lounge Extension Room One,” any hour of any day, and you’ll likely see a half-dozen or so 9-12-year-old students doing...something, intently on their laptops, often with eyebrows raised, mouths open slightly, and heads thrust forward, belying one-pointed concentration, unflagging determination, and ecstatic flow. So- what the hell are they doing exactly? What’s so darn engaging, and what’s it all about? Where’s the utility? Sometimes they appear to be collaborating, working together to defeat common enemies, and sometimes competing (fiercely) against each other. Other times they’re independently facing challenges, sticking it out as long as it takes to see them through, and still other times they aren’t competing at all, but are, rather, creating rooms, buildings, cities, and whole worlds. Their screens fill the room with bright colors, frenetic music, and a wickedly fast pace of activity, and to the uninitiated adult, the scene can be a little nauseating (this space is also noted for its stagnant air and organic-material messes; these students are indifferent to their immediate environment, as most people are when they’re buckling down to solve urgent problems). Sometimes one of them will bound into the office, spitting out a string of jargon that sounds to me like, “YAPBOPADOOBOPBIPBOPPA BAM!” and I don’t have a clue what they’re talking about, or even what they said, but the excitement is palpable, I can tell they’ve scored an epic win, and I’m happy for them. This is one of the most skilled, passionate, and engaged group at our school: the gamers.

Games essentially present a series of increasingly complex problems, each of which the gamer has to creatively solve before advancing to the next, which in turn will present some new twist that the gamer will have to adapt to.

The first video game I ever played, in 1990, was a side-scrolling 2D game, the kind in which the protagonist moves from left to right while the screen scrolls by, revealing as it does various obstacles and enemies to overcome and good things to grab. The popularity of this style of game has hardly diminished even as gaming technology has developed NASA-like precision and scope and expansive Tolkienesque narrative and imagery (see for example the nearly infinite detailed galaxy generated by the game No Man's Sky). If you check out the screens in LE1, you’ll see lots of these “old-fashioned” side-scrolling games. Why? The style is analogous to a certain way of experiencing life: you move through it as it rolls inexorably onward, and manage obstacles as they come, developing one set of skills for avoiding them in the first place and another for overcoming them when they arise anyway. The more complex “open world” games expand the analogy by incorporating more of the complexity of real experience. Gaming is about life.

Computer and video games are controversial; because they don’t produce tangible results or products, they’re often criticized as being a waste of time and energy. But the world of gaming offers an arena in which many - perhaps all - of the most important skills can be acquired and practiced. In order to earn our Certificate of Graduation, a student must prove they have acquired the “problem solving skills, adaptability, and abilities necessary to succeed in whatever they are going onto next,” which is an excellent description of the process of gaming. Games essentially present a series of increasingly complex problems, each of which the gamer has to creatively solve before advancing to the next, which in turn will present some new twist that the gamer will have to adapt to. Without developing the ability to face the next challenge, the gamer will not be able to advance.

It’s notable that a few of our gamers also pursue the discipline of parkour, which is usually described as a sport or a movement-art. The idea is to move around obstacles as efficiently as possible, usually with points for style. Our own Traceurs have developed multiple techniques for climbing trees, depending on thickness, texture of bark, the availability of branches, and so on. They vault over rails and jump off platforms, rolling as they land. Moving this way through the landscape, they reclaim it, also claiming as they do confidence and vision. As they gain the skill necessary to succeed at one level, they eagerly take on the next. They remind me of the Taoist aphorism which admonishes us to “move like water;” they’re learning to flow around, under, and over obstacles gracefully. The stiffer you are, the more likely you are to fail (as I did when I shamefully fell out of a tree and sprained my ankle at school last September attempting to copy a move a student had just showed me). You want to be strong - but more importantly, mobile and agile, and learn to make natural forces your allies. These are some of the same types of skills at play in gaming. Of course, there is a difference in the stakes; in parkour, the practitioner has to take care not to advance too quickly or risk injury, whereas the worst outcome in gaming is (mostly) harmless failure. This quality of safety is the foundation for gaming’s potential as training ground, allowing gamers to take more risks. Parkour thus represents a kind of intermediate step between the pure training ground and “real life.”

But if gaming and parkour are primarily about overcoming obstacles efficiently, gamers don’t necessarily experience it this way. There’s a lot more going on. Recently when I asked them about why they game and what they like about it, they mostly shrugged their shoulders: “it’s fun,” was the most common response. “You mean it’s fun to operate in an arena wherein you have power and agency?” I asked. “I guess so,” they would say. The point is not that I’m full of bull, but just that the gamers are following their intuition and inclination. They aren’t gaming because they are being trained in creative problem solving, among other things; for them, the experience itself is the benefit. They’ll acknowledge additional benefits, and to be sure, I got some amazing answers when I pressed for them, such as, “you get to experience different physics and realities,” and “you get tools for your imagination,” but the skills garnered are secondary to the gamers. They’re just moving like water, at one with natural forces. They aren't "putting another head on top of their own," as the Taoists say, trying to do what they think they're "supposed to be doing." In other words, they're doing it because they love it; and that’s the mode we all want people to be operating in, because we know that’s when we’re all the best versions of ourselves.

Now, this is an important part of the magic of gaming, and of Sudbury. I don’t think the gamers would enjoy themselves as much if their activity were framed as “training” or “work,” and they were compelled to do it. This is an important lesson that the concept of gaming in general has to teach us: the narrative you build around whatever you’re doing will dictate in large part how you experience it.

Now, this is an important part of the magic of gaming, and of Sudbury. I don’t think the gamers would enjoy themselves as much if their activity were framed as “training” or “work,” and they were compelled to do it. This is an important lesson that the concept of gaming in general has to teach us: the narrative you build around whatever you’re doing will dictate in large part how you experience it. These students are mastering the lightness of touch, the spirit of fun, and the detachment from the fruits of labour which “games” engender in those who play them. We can bring this very useful perspective to other parts of our life to perform better and solve real problems, even change the world. Want to start flossing every night? Size up your obstacles, and play around with them. Make a game out of it. You'll be more likely to succeed if you approach it this way, rather than as an onerous burden. Want to save money at the grocery store and still eat well? Make it a game. Want to figure out how to live a carbon-zero life? Move like water, and make it a big game. It works pretty well.

Our gamers are a proud, passionate, and dedicated group. They do their work out of the spotlight. But they’re working hard, and getting better all the time, and we’re rooting for them. Go, gamers, go.