Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Meanings Of Play

The way I'd put it is that there are two kinds of activities which we label as "play".

The first is playing a game- Halo, basketball, and so on. The activity here is working to overcome an interesting challenge. It's worth pointing out that this is a much broader definition of "game" than the sorts normally used- it can apply to any case where the act of trying to do something is inherently rewarding (a sensation we typically refer to as "interesting" or "fun").

The second is playing like a child plays with toys. The activity here is exploring possibilities through interaction. The psychological drive is curiosity, which I'd describe as wanting to see everything there is to see. When you search obsessively for all 100 Green Stars because you've heard that unlocks a secret ending, curiosity is what's motivating you.

(Of course, this isn't to say that every case of 'play' has to be only one of these two types. Human beings rarely have only one motivation to be doing something.)

So what's a practical takeaway? Curiosity will keep a player engaged if they believe their interactions will yield something they want to see. They'll participate because they want to see the consequences of that participation.

(The above was all originally written as a post on the forums, which have sucked up a ridiculous amount of my time by this point. I'll throw in a follow-up exchange between me and God At Play:)

"Great addition Dagda. Those fit well in the Why We Play Games essay. Challenge and Mystery would be Hard Fun and Easy Fun.

That essay also mentions
Altered States (they also call it Serious Fun). They refer to it as "games as therapy," and it's about exploring the rhythm of your own mental/emotional states during play. Not sure how that translates, but it's something to think about.

What about things that would motivate you outside of what you'd typically think in a play experience?"

Hard fun and easy fun would definitely match challenge and curiosity. I hesitate to use the word mystery, because the player's drive is rarely abated by knowing approximately what will happen- the important thing is to have gotten the full experience (not counting any remaining elements of that experience which don't feel like they'll be worthwhile).

Altered states strike me as a confused catch-all that covers the ways numerous other factors affect us on an emotional level (the biggest one is being immersed in the game's narrative, which roughly same as emphasizing & identifying with the protagonist of a story). This isn't to say I disagree with the idea of games as therapy; experiencing emotions can be therapeutic in the same way that eating food can be nutritious, regardless of how those emotions were triggered.

Other things that would motivate and engage players? There's external rewards (which are just a kind of challenge that takes longer to overcome), escapism (which I believe exists, but have yet to noticed in my experiences), social elements (as identified in that essay, and brutally leveraged by facebook games) and various psychological tricks like loss aversion. Personalization is also effective. Any high-quality elements of the production (The writing, music, imagery, choreography...) can have the same lasting appeal that similar works have on their own. The player will be more inclined to immerse themselves in that element (so as to better savor it), and by extension become more immersed in the game as a whole (at least to whatever degree said element ties into that whole).

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