My flirtation with gaming has been an education


To put it mildly, I am having a difficult year.

But when a friend called the other evening to ask my advice on a business problem, I enjoyed forgetting my travails to help her come up with a strategy. My friend, a fintech entrepreneur with an annoying habit of being right, had advice for me in return. “Have you tried playing computer games as a distraction?” she asked.

I tried to explain how much I despise computer games. I know they are a legitimate art form. I know all about esports and how it is massive. But every game I have watched my children play has struck me as either boring or offensively violent — often both.

“Have you ever tried Monument Valley?” Lisa asked. “It’s not violent and it’s incredibly beautiful. I think you might get a lot out of it.”

“It’s not fantasy, is it?” I asked. It was. I ranted about how I loathe fantasy, from Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones.

But the next day I downloaded the first Monument Valley game anyway. At first, it seemed to confirm my suspicions, with some twaddle about a silent princess called Ida skipping through fairy castles.

But within five minutes I was hooked, and I have spent the past two weeks as a fairy, navigating characters through a dazzling landscape of impossible, Escher-inspired architectural structures.

A scene from Monument Valley II

The characters are on vague but irrelevant quests. The mental challenge is first in establishing the rules — by trial and error, as a child would — then negotiating traps and obstacles to guide characters from level to level, which requires noticing seemingly hidden details. Ladders, drawbridges and machines swing into place for the cartoon characters to proceed. The graphics and colours are breathtaking.

I had to discard conventional ideas about geometry and gravity, but the sense of achievement as I proceeded was palpable. I even developed empathy with the soppy characters to the point where I could barely believe I was so emotional.

Could I let the child travel on without her mother? I could find no alternative, so I let it happen and hoped they would be reunited. Three times, I have overshot my Tube stop because I was so engrossed.

I am not the first person to have discovered Monument Valley since it launched in 2014. I am not even the 25 millionth. It is huge.

The first game has sold 25m £4.99 downloads since 2014. The second, which launched in June, has sold 1m and counting. This is much less than, say, Minecraft, which in various versions has some 100m registered users, or Candy Crush — 500m — but it has been a bonanza for its 17-person maker, Ustwo Games. They set out dreaming of selling 250,000 copies.

I was so intrigued by Monument Valley that I wanted to speak to its creators. So often, a solution became obvious after time that I wondered if the game’s algorithm was moving the goalposts. Did the game change its challenges?

A scene from Monument Valley II

Ustwo Games are not based in California, but in the quaintly named Pickle Mews, close to London’s Oval cricket ground.

Producer Adrienne Law and art director David Fernandez Huerta shook their heads. No, the problems remain the same, they said — it is the player’s perception that changes.

The main thing I learnt from meeting these smart young people was that non-gamers are a key demographic for Monument Valley. Grandparents often play it via Apple Family Sharing with distant grandchildren. I could imagine how working together to solve seemingly intractable problems could be both educational and bonding.

I went so far as to make a note of the life and business lessons I have picked up during my fortnight as a fairy. A few appear below. Excuse me if they are not quite MBA material, but they have helped me. If I had time, I would write a short business book on what I have learnt.

  • Do not panic when faced with a problem that seems like a glass wall — explore options fearlessly, like a child
  • It is surprisingly easy to gain new skills quickly
  • Solving a problem sometimes just means looking at it differently — solutions are often obvious
  • When trying to solve a problem, however, there is no point repeating the same mistake in the hope that it will miraculously come right
  • Sleeping on problems, or just taking a break, really works. Brainstorming does not
  • Botching and half measures do not work — you must get the fix right
  • The problem you think you need to solve may not be the one that needs solving
  • Just because you have thought of a solution does not mean it is correct

I know that other non-violent games, such as Minecraft, teach problem-solving, but they appear to require greater commitment, like taking on a new hobby. Monument Valley, by contrast, takes about as long as it does to watch a film.

And as my daughter said, sniffily, at the weekend, while playing some hideous Mafia game, “Monument Valley isn’t really a game, you know, Dad.”

It will do me though.

jonathan.margolis@ft.com
@TheFutureCritic



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