Thursday, August 21

What is 'play', exactly?

I am a very naughty individual, wasting too much time playing games. The lure of SC4 and Drake's trophies draws my attention from other time wasters such as this blog.

When dabbling in the psychological arena I encountered some explanations for the meaning of play. The psychosocial component where a child apes adult behaviour in an effort to understand and learn about it. The physical component where a child explores their changing bodies through games like tag, tree climbing and the formalised versions of sports. At this stage of our lives, psychologists tell us, play is very important, regardless of whether we are dynamic or reflective thinkers we engage in play and through this non-threatening means of exploration we come to understand the world and our place in it. I say non-threatening because although injuries and possibly even death may arise from play it is far safer to pretend to hunt a tiger than to hunt a tiger for real. Thus play is a form of education.

Michael Abbott at The Brainy Gamer would know better than me but I fear seeking his attentions as they will highlight my ignorance and he is far too busy being somebody to devote attention to a nobody like me. I am okay with this and it is part of my humour through the nobody self referencing. I had heard that educators who have studied children who engage in regular play activities are more adaptable, have more fully developed imaginations and are capable of more varied problem solving methodologies - lateral thinking, data collection, exploration and just trying weird shit that their less playful peers would not consider as relevant in any form of thought. If only I did not spend so much time sitting on my porcine arse playing games and put my problem solving skills to good use! How about you?

So this then leads to my quest, video games more often than not give the illusion of play, but fail to deliver. Sim City™, The Sims™, Spore™ and LittleBigPlanet™ are probably the best examples of games where the rules are more about engaging with the game in playful ways. They're less task oriented focussed toward fostering the player's whims, fueling their imagination and allowing them to explore the nature of the real world through a fictional one. It's also interesting to note that Sim City™ and The Sims™ don't really have an "end game".

I have encountered several "life stories" online where the poster uses The Sims™ as a vehicle for self discovery. Learning about themselves through play, discovering that the game did (or did not) scratch an itch of a highly personal nature and resolving to explore the newly discovered itch either in the fictional world of The Sims™ or more frequently The Real World™.

Sim City™ gave me a healthy respect for the difficulties of politics, an experience I would never had otherwise. I learned that in order to make one subset of the population happy I would have to displease another, it was a delicate balancing game and everything cost money. It even helped me make some decisions about careers I would be willing to explore, or more specifically ignore in my quest to contribute meaningfully to society.

Spore™ and LittleBigPlanet™ are not yet known quantities. Spore™ shows enormous promise, offering biology, anthropology and more as its means of exploration. It looks more like Sim City™ than The Sims™ and in that case it will probably focus on the "big picture" of society rather than the smaller, more personal picture of The Sims™. Countering this is the Spore Creature Creator that suggests it might be possible to create unique individuals within this world, individuals who will become the heroes, the mythical figures of lore who are used as role models. LittleBigPlanet™ is harder to explicate, it suggests explorations in physics (the physical world), economics and marketing.

Thus I elevate these games as potentially significant from a cultural perspective. And posit that they have not yet realised this potential. A few lives may have changed from those who have interacted with these games, many more will not (from those who have interacted) and the culture(s) at large would enjoy no impact from this form of play. It is when games such as these can shape many lives in The Real World™ in the same manner as other forms of 'entertainment' media that they will start to be favourably compared to those others.

What of your experiences? Has GTA 4 taught you that crimes pays or how to steal a car or that having sex with hookers and then killing them afterwards for a refund is a cheap way of experiencing sexually transmitted diseases? Has Mass Effect turned you into a sex-addict? Does Ivy's massive breasts make you want an implant, NOW!? Do you feel undervalued as a person when your own personal minority is not represented in the heroic mold?

I can only claim to be a thoughtful ignorant, you can enlighten me.


Michael Abbott said...

Well, you got my attention, and I would certainly not describe you as ignorant at all! ;-)

I agree with the main thrust of your post here, and I think it holds true from pre-school through adulthood. We learn better when we enjoy learning. Fun, by definition, means engagement. When educators say we want our students engaged, everyone agrees. But when we say we want to have fun in the classroom, suddenly everyone worries we've forgotten rigor.

I think games have great potential to stimulate our thinking, which can be very different from teaching us things. I believe if they stimulate our thinking, they have fulfilled all that we can reasonably ask them to do. Good teachers can take it from there.

nobody said...

Michael, thank you for taking the time to comment here. A bittersweet moment for me, a virtual visit from someone I admire and who informs my opinion amusingly countered by the subversion of the premise of this blog.

I am relieved to learn that someone who actually knows this stuff doesn't think I'm completely ignorant.

Your final point is very poignant, yet as a difficult student I wonder how students factor into the equation.

I also secretly believe this is a prank being played on me by one of my friends. Still, I'm going to be much more careful about what I say when referencing other people's "internets", just in case.