Years ago, when the legal services program I ran finally got halfway decent computers for the first time, I was confronted with learning to use a mouse. I wasn’t at all sure I was going to like it. I was used to the command line and trying to memorize what the F-keys did.
And then I stumbled across the solitaire game bundled in with the software.
Solitaire is addictive even when you’re playing with a physical deck of cards; on the computer, when re-dealing is almost instantaneous, it can become compulsive. Whenever I got tired of working, I’d pull up solitaire and play a few games. OK, a lot of games.
And I’d joke that it was okay to play solitaire in the office, because I was learning to use the mouse.
Turns out it wasn’t a joke; I really was using solitaire to master the mouse. And I was one of millions doing that, or so I heard Clive Thompson say the other day on the radio program On The Media. Talking about how intimidating the mouse was to many people when it was first put in use with PCs, Thompson said, “One of the smartest thing Microsoft ever did, they put solitaire on all copies of Windows.”
Thompson, who writes about science, technology, and culture, was talking generally about how important gaming has been to the development of computing. The Game Boy, he pointed out, was the first personal computer people carried around. Videogamers craved color back when the business applications were all in more “serious” black and white.
In fact, he said, the video game industry “laid the seed-bed” for the ways we all interact with computers and software these days. Even those of us who haven’t found ourselves immersed in World of Warcraft or other games have the skills to dive in should we choose, because our regular computer applications operate in similar fashion. And game-playing has enhanced our regular computer skills.
He went on to talk about how the Wii teaches people to use their bodies to interact with their screens and the way people are hacking the Kinect system so they can do other computer tasks by bodily movement, instead of just playing games, pointing to a future where we all wave our hands to get information on the nearest screens.
Now I may have mastered mousing by playing solitaire, but I was also goofing off. Most of the people who learned various computer skills by playing video games were also goofing off. After all, none of those things were important. Or so we thought.
The whole discussion got me thinking about what other learning has gone on in our lives when we’re doing something considered frivolous, especially if we’re doing it to avoid doing something considered important.
A radio report about a company that is still — despite the recession — buying houses, fixing them up, and flipping them happened to mention that the key people behind it were poker players. One is in even in the Poker World Series Hall of Fame. Poker, they said, helps you learn to take risks, read other people, and cut your losses. In other words, it gives you some good business skills.
Here I thought I was just hanging out with friends, drinking scotch, and playing cards. But come to think of it, I learned a lot about the people I played with.
I think it’s well established that children’s free play is a learning experience. One of the ways I used to play as a kid was to make up stories and act them out with my sister. There’s a pretty obvious connection between that and writing fiction.
Remember all those kids — maybe you were one — who used to draw elaborate pictures during class? Not during art class, mind you, but during math or geography. I remember battle scenes drawn in great detail on lined notebook paper. If the teacher had seen it, it would have been thrown away. I bet some of those kids became artists; others maybe became engineers.
In fact, as kids, we all developed goofing off habits to avoid doing our homework or paying attention to boring teachers: daydreaming, doodling, reading something else inside your school book.
Now, with the Internet at the ready, we can waste time looking up some interesting fact, one that generally leads us to another fact that we have to look up, which allows us to stumble on a really interesting article that we must read. And of course, the beauty of this is that it all looks like we’re doing work.
And in many ways, we really are doing work, just not the work we’re supposed to be doing at the moment. It could be that, as with playing solitaire to learn to mouse, we’re developing skills and knowledge we actually need without being aware of it, because we’re relaxed, just messing around, not doing anything “important.”
As someone who spent her childhood with her nose in a book, I learned very early on that reading was a fabulous way to goof off. It looked like you were working. And as long as whatever you were reading wasn’t the thing you were supposed to be reading, you were getting away with something, even if you were actually learning something in the process.
After all, reading Sartre during English class when the teacher is massacring Yeats is goofing off, no matter that you’re learning something important and tuning out drivel.
So play your video games. Do your sudoku. Get together with friends to play bridge or poker. Read anything but what you’re supposed to. It just might pay off in the long run.
My story “Emergency” is part of Breaking Waves, an anthology benefitting the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund. I also have two essays in the lastest Book View Cafe anthology, Brewing Fine Fiction.
My 51 flash fictions and a few other stories are available on Nancy Jane’s Bookshelf, and anthologies containing some of my stories are available through Powell’s. The free, chapter-by-chapter version of Changeling starts here. And check out my stories in the Book View Cafe anthologies The Shadow Conspiracy, Rocket Boy and the Geek Girls, and Dragon Lords and Warrior Women.