Monday, September 14, 2009


Chris Meadowcraft sent me a thought-provoking e-mail last week. Here's an excerpt:
Well-structured, psychologically addictive games (like Guitar Hero or Rock Band) do take away time from unstructured play. Playing piano for me is a game of my own making. I work on different pieces and techniques and am rewarded by the pleasure of doing something great, or at least better. In a way I'm internally creating levels and badges of accomplishment for myself but they're the result of my own imagination, not someone else's. This type of creativity and judgment is the same, intellectually, as what makes me a good engineer.

I think to a certain extent the cooler and better-designed the game--if it feels like the developers have thought of "everything"--kills the positive aspects of play.

Adults may not call it play, but many people have hobbies: carpentry, working on cars, even reading, which have the good characteristics of unstructured play. It's the organization and analysis part of deciding which book or what piece you're going to work on next and how you're going to go about it. Not doing things by rote, or because you want to get paid, but because it's fun, because it feels good to make or learn something new, is what I call good play.

That's a very interesting concept: that structured play takes time away from unstructured play, and that unstructured play is more desirable. Chris made several interesting points in his e-mail, but this is the one I'd most like to explore.

Now, to no one's surprise, a tangent.

I have always been a misfit (to some degree) because I am often not comfortable around adults, and the reason I am not comfortable around them is because they don't know how to play. I know many people who would be mystified if you asked them the question "Do you play?"

It is an entirely foreign idea, this "play."

I don't just mean playing video games. I mean painting or playing an instrument or playing in the park or watching the Marx Brothers. I have a very wide definition of "play," but there are still many adults who never do.

When I meet a grown-up who does not know how to play, I'm not interested in talking to them. I would much rather talk to children, who always understand play and always know how to laugh. And when children are present, parents tend to talk about play far more often.

This has created an odd situation for me at Eli 8.0's school. Whenever there is an event that involves parents and children, I'm in. Whenever it's an event that involves only grown-ups, I'm out. My ultimate nightmare is a dinner party for parents where there are drinks and discussions about jobs and mortgages. How can anyone stand to have a conversation about that?

End tangent.

I think Chris's notion that directed play takes time away from undirected play is very interesting, but I don't believe that the two are mutually exclusive, unless the time one has for play is very inflexible. So in an absolute environment where I had exactly an hour a day for play, it would be a zero-sum situation, but I think for most of us, time is more flexible.

I also believe that there is frequent crossover. There are times when I enjoy playing a game that's basically a guided tour (first-person shooters, for example, which are basically 2D platform games in three dimensions), and times when I want as little direction as possible.

My favorite example of unguided play has to be Dwarf Fortress. There could be nothing less guided than a wagon full of dwarves at the base of the mountain, with no real objectives other than to survive. That's one of many reasons why Dwarf Fortress is so wonderful, because it inspires and requires so much creativity from the player. It's basically the process of writing a story.

The ability to generate stories is one of the characteristics I've always felt separated average games from great ones. Stories that every player will experience can be cool, but stories that emerge as an organic result of the player's actions are stories at an entirely different level, and the greatest games tend to generate these kinds of stories.

Plus, it's possible to have unguided play inside a guided game, and many of my favorite games have had this characteristic. In Crackdown, for example, you could play the game in a very guided faction, just hopping from one mission to the next. My favorite part, though, was hunting for agility orbs, which was entirely unguided. In Dead Rising, the addition of photography as an unguided extra was an entirely brilliant piece of design, and distinguished an already wonderful game even further.

I think one of the many brilliant characteristics of Rock Band is that while it is clearly guided play, it often doesn't feel that way at all. Even though I'm following a note chart, I usually have a tremendous sense of freedom while I play. It's an incredibly clever bit of disguise, and I think it's one important reason why games in this genre are so popular.

Play of all kinds is so neglected by adults, and I wonder if people who no longer know how to play are more likely to be unhappy.

If they can't play, what do they look forward to?

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