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Learning enables one to improve their performance in any activity and repetition itself is an absolutely necessary component to continued learning. If you attempt an activity only once, it is possible to have learned something from it, but you are artificially restricting your ability to learn anything more about it by limiting your repetition.
To return to our "repetitive and uninteresting" examples for a moment, it is true that learning is involved in ironing your clothes, or grinding a character in your favorite time-wasting game. But, the depth of that learning is shallow, and its limit is quickly reached. You are simply not learning anything new when you are ironing for the hundredth time or grinding your character for three more hours to reach the next level.
Learning is satisfying, too. It empowers us; it galvanizes us to see what else we can accomplish, particularly in an operational, interactive context. It expands the breadth of what you know, as well as your awareness of what you don't know. It's a process of unpredictable exploration and discovery (and even novelty), not of a physical space, but of a mechanical, systematic one (at least in action games).
This kind of exploration is more powerful and more compelling than the exploration of physical or factual spaces. James Paul Gee, known for his advocacy of video games as superb vehicles for learning, has stated, "Learning is a deep human need, like mating and eating, and like all such needs it is meant to be deeply pleasurable to human beings." (2)
With extreme repetition comes deep knowledge as well. In fact, there are many types of deep knowledge that are only accessible through extreme repetition -- we call this mastery. This is really an immutable reality with no short cuts. You cannot become a master at chess, basketball, Rock Band or Trials without extreme practice, repetition. At the same time, the experience of performing with mastery is a uniquely sublime emotional experience par excellence, unlocked only for those who are willing to put forth the time and trouble.
When Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi performed his research on what he named "flow" in the early 1970s, he interviewed a series of experts in various performance activity fields, those who had attained some level of mastery of their practice, saying, "Our respondents, whether they play chess, or dance, or climb rocks, or perform surgery, reported an exhilarating feeling of power while involved in the activity; at the same time, they spoke of the soothing sense of being part of something larger than themselves." (3)
Complex performance activities like chess, climbing, and surgery are what Csikszentmihalyi categorizes as "deep flow" activities. Our game examples of Rock Band and Trials, and other high-performance games like Street Fighter or Gran Turismo are certainly exemplary conduits of the deep flow experience. Consider this account of one surgeon's interview, and how similar it is to describing a masterful Trials run or Street Fighter match: "In good surgery everything you do is essential, every move is excellent and necessary; there is elegance, little blood loss, and a minimum of trauma..." (3)
More recently, direct video game play research by Richard Ryan et. al. appears to corroborate this on some level: "People who experienced autonomy and competence in playing showed more positive outcomes, helping again to explain why, for some people, games may provide a source of pleasure and perhaps restoration." (4) It's important to note here that Ryan's test subjects were not masters at games, but rather a sample of low to average-skill players. Note that words like "autonomy" and "competence" are precisely the same terms Csikszentmihalyi uses to identify markers of the flow experience.
Ryan went on further to say that, "It's our contention that the psychological 'pull' of games is largely due to their capacity to engender feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness," and that playing video games "also can be experienced as enhancing psychological wellness, at least short-term."
Could it be that Ryan's reports of such feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness as experienced in games occur as players reach a flow state, and that the "psychological pull of games" is in fact the pull of the flow state itself, and that the repetitive structure of performance games is an optimal means of achieving deep flow? It would seem that rapid learning, repetition, and the flow state all go hand in hand.
While mastery is possible to achieve in any real-life skilled endeavor, video games are exceptional because they give us the tools to achieve mastery of performance in a (potentially) supremely accessible, efficient way. You don't have to waste time going after your ball after you've thrown it. You don't have to stop because you're physically exhausted (in most cases). The repetition loop of learning can be compressed into the tightest space possible without compromise. The material and feedback can be presented to the player in the most cognitively efficient way possible, to match the player's abilities, which maximizes learning and in turn satisfaction. No other medium is capable of this.
Not every video game experience must or even should be of the kind that challenges you to constantly stretch the boundaries of your own abilities from second to second. However, video games are not just a vehicle for sheer entertainment either. They have within them a tremendous power to teach us, to improve ourselves, to light an emotional, motivational spark in us in a way no other medium can.
How games are ultimately employed, in what proportions, and what history will think of them is left up to us, the publishers, the developers, the players. Will you choose to sell or craft or play something that functions only to occupy time, in whatever entertaining manner? Or will it do something more?
(2) Gee, James P., Why Video Games are Good for Your Soul (2005).
(3) Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, Beyond Boredom and Anxiety (1975), p. 136, 158, 195.
(4) Ryan, Richard M., Rigby, C. Scott, Przybylski, Andrew, The Motivational Pull of Video Games: A Self-Determination Theory Approach, Motivation and Emotion, Volume 30, Number 4 (2006).