Toys, Games and Play
What is a game, and why does it matter? Game designers seriously discuss what makes a game a game, while others wonder why we care so much. With the rise of gamification, and the application of game design principles in most areas of life, a different question comes to my mind. How can we learn from games to improve our lives, like many are trying to do, if we don't know the difference between a toy and a game? Even a general understanding of what a game is can help us understand how they engage, empower and encourage us to do and be better inside games, so we can use those lessons outside of games, in the physical world.
To understand what a game is, we also need to handle the terms toy and play. All three words are thrown around carelessly. This doesn't help, but their meanings are still clear by how we use them. We play games, and we play with toys. Play is a verb in this case, making it an action. That makes a game an activity (like sports, since games are not instruments) and makes a toy an object (even if it's not physical). While not very helpful, this IS useful, because now we have the perspective to ask more meaningful questions.
The first one is, “What is play?”, and I only have a decent answer. It's definitely not work. Work is doing an activity for the expected result. Play is not about the result, which is why play is not about winning or losing, even though many times we are trying to “win” while playing. Play and work can be mixed, like a job that is done to achieve a result (earning money to pay bills), but done in a particular way (challenging others to silly little competitions) for the experience. Then it doesn't feel like work, even if done to achieve a result. This means choosing a destination and then a journey we want to experience that will still get us to the destination. While work is about reaching the destination, play is about enjoying and embracing the journey.
Put another way, play is about enjoying the experience, not to gain anything else, though the extras might be appreciated. Authority, power, money, reputation and our social standing aren't the point, because rewards, achievements and results aren't the point of play. It's about doing the activity for it's own sake. That's why some people say they were “just playing” to say they weren't “being serious”. In other words, they weren't focused on getting a particular result, but rather on enjoying the experience.
"If the purpose is more important than the act of doing it, then it's probably not play." - Stuart Brown
The second question is, “What's a toy?”, and that is far easier to answer. Things we play with are toys. Yep, that's it for the answer, but it's deeper than it appears. It's where we get the phrase, “toying with them”, which means we are treating people like things; objects, not human beings. It's also why children can get more fun out of playing with boxes than some of the toys that come in them, because the boxes can be used for more kinds of play, making them better toys. This also means dice, playing cards, game boards and computer programs could be considered toys. However, as the phrase, “toying with them” indicates, almost anything can be a toy. With such a selection, what could we do with the right toys?
"[Maria Montessori] would design these toys, where kids in playing with the toys would actually come to understand these deep principles of life and nature through play." - Will Wright
The third question is, “What then is a game?” If the dice, playing cards, game boards and computer programs used in many games could be considered toys, then what's left? The answer is, “rules”. Sure, it's a little counter-intuitive to think kids love acting in accordance to rules, but remember their reaction to other children cheating, or breaking game rules. A game is a set of agreed on rules for play. The agreement is why rules are so important to people playing together, and part of why playing games together builds trust. Those rules can include goals, conditions for winning and other commonly discussed traits of games, but they don't have to, like in a game of pretend or Tetris. Game rules can be almost sacred to those playing the game, and breaking them can earn heavy consequences, assuming everybody's playing the same game.
The fourth question is, “Why does it matter what a game is?”, and that gets to the heart of what it means to play a game, rather than to play with a toy. Some people, when they “play games”, are really playing games with people or systems as toys. They see what reactions they can get, try to provoke certain reactions or try to do things to other people and the systems. The gameplay experience can sometimes be expanded this way, by adding new ways to play, but it can also be cast aside for personal amusement at the expense of others.
A good example is in MMORPGS (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games) where some people take on the role of their character in the world, and others use their character as a tool. What I mean is that some will play through the game content like an author writing their character in a story. Their behavior fits the character and setting. Others will ignore their character role and the game setting to amuse themselves by pushing the game systems to their limits, seeing what they can kill or conquer, experimenting with the math and rules of the game or using character interaction as a way to go after the player behind other characters. Playing a game means to embrace the gameplay experiences of a game, but playing with a game, like it's a toy, means to use the people and systems in the game like things for one's own entertainment. To play a game is to respect, and abide by, the spirit of the of the game design.
"So the obvious thing for me to talk about today is graphics and audio. But if you were to go to a game developers conference, what they're all talking about is emotion, purpose, meaning, understanding and feeling. You'll hear about talks like, can a video game make you cry? And these are the kind of topics we really actually care about." - David Perry
Our experiences impact our lives, and games are designed to create play experiences. Those who play the game, rather than play with the game, submit themselves, to some extent, to the gameplay experience. These experiences can teach us many things. Some games show physics in motion. Some show communication, cooperation and leadership through collaborative challenges. Some show a glimpse of life in the past, or possibilities of the present and future. Some games help people relax, provoke thoughtful contemplation, get exercise or deal with extreme traumas. Games, entertainment games, have been used to do all these things.
That's a big part of why game designers, educators, businesses and others are so interested in the potential of games. Game design is being applied to more and more parts of our lives. There's even an entire professional field call Gamification, which is applying game design outside of games. There's also a wide variety of "games" done in marketing, team building, engagement programs, schools, homes and so many other parts of life. Often though, these “games” are more like toys and are created by those who don't understand games. That means they are less likely to be played, and more likely to be played with, or suffered through.
"And you get to thinking about how, wow, is it possible maybe that, since all this stuff is being watched and measured and judged, that maybe I should change my behavior a little bit and be a bit better than I would've been? And, so, it could be that all these systems are all crass commercialization and it's terrible, but it's possible that they'll inspire us to be better people, if the game systems are designed right." - Jesse Schell
... “if the game systems are designed right” ...
That's the key, and the reason knowing what makes a game a game is so important. It matters what a game is, because games are being integrated into our daily lives, can be used to improve our lives and used to help improve ourselves. Sometimes they're well designed by well meaning people, but other times good intentions are hurt by bad designs, and bad intentions prosper through good designs. Gameplay experiences can affect our physical, social, emotional and mental health. Understanding games helps us use games, and rules, to create positive effects in our lives. That's gamification, using game design to improve our lives outside of games.
"We've got all these amazing gamers, we've got these games that are kind of pilots of what we might do, but none of them have saved the real world yet. Well I hope that you will agree with me that gamers are a human resource that we can use to do real-world work, that games are a powerful platform for change." - Jane McGonigal
We write the rules in various parts of our lives, and the lives of others. When we understand that a game is a set of agreed on rules to organize play, we can learn from games to help write real-world rules. We can use these lessons to encourage engagement, creativity and playfulness. We can use them to help build trust and friendships, which helps build teams and enjoyable, productive work environments. We can use them to create open lines of communication that help keep communities and businesses healthy. We can use them to reduce stress, promote healthy living and help people through conflicts. Sometimes a game is just a game, but sometimes a game is so much more.
The fifth question is, “What will I do with this knowledge?”, and only you can answer that. However, there are plenty of us considering these topics, so why not join us in discussing what we should do with game design in the real world?
Have fun, spread the word, and tell me what you think.
The Sage of Games