Now, a current post by Wired writer and blogger Clive Thompson helps illustrate the role of (video) gaming in developing this cognitive faculty. I'm reminded of Steven Johnson's highly readable manifesto in defence of video games, and other unjustly maligned -- as he argues -- pop culture products (Everything Bad is Good for You).
Thompson reviews a video game whose breakthrough innovation is a basic, profound, rewrite of the laws of physics. To me the key is not whether this is physically plausible or not, something the future could realistically bring, but simply the mental gymnastics necessary to wrap your mind around the adjustment. My sense is that this is somehow exactly the kind of mental elastic that we ought to stretch on a regular basis to stay in shape for changing times.
The game is Portal, and the premise is simply this: "[Y]ou control a gun that can blast two connected oval portals on different surfaces -- floors, ceilings and walls. If you step through the first portal, you emerge immediately from the other, teleported instantaneously through space, as if you walked through a magic mirror."
The game designers produce their coolest tricks by ruthlessly adhering to most of Newtonian physics but then cleverly violate one key rule -- thus allowing you, the gamer, to explore what happens in such a world.
This is precisely the sort of mental thought-experiment that really well-designed games can provide.
Why not use this game mechanic to shake up other well-worn genres? Imagine a first-person shooter where you can trigger portals on the fly, popping through them to snipe an enemy. Or think how weird a Mario racing game would be if you could shoot portals that wreak havoc on the racetrack?
It's ... an object lesson in breakthrough game design. Tweak one part of a well-worn game mechanic, and presto -- you can open a door to something really new.
The game review is insightful and very well written, but the demo video posted at YouTube really says it all ... this is a game I need to play. Maybe you do too.