The biggest benefits of playing games, I’ve come to see, are social. Games teach children how to take turns, lose stoically and win graciously (well, most of the time). And there’s another skill that game-playing promotes, one I hadn’t thought about until I read a study published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: Games push players to try to understand the minds of the other participants. Is she bluffing? Is he clueless, or just playing dumb? Can everyone tell that I’m planning to go out in a blaze of glory on the next round?
“When players compete against each other in a game, they try to make a “mental model” of the other person’s intentions, what they’re going to do and how they’re going to play, so they can play strategically against them.” This “mental model” of other people’s thoughts and feelings, also known as theory of mind, is crucial for the development of empathy, perspective-taking, and social reciprocity—all the skills that allow us to get along productively with others.
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