Game”play”

After Edmond Chang’s presentation (Un)loving Mechanics at Smith, there was a short question and answer period which touched on the singular purpose of a game being fun entertainment. A game is something you “play,” not necessarily something you can undertake. And as long as it stays under this lens, the field will have difficulty effectively addressing social or political concerns, nor will its commentary be taken seriously. 

Play, v.:  “to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.”

Play, n.: “activity engaged in for enjoyment and recreation, especially by children.”

In its very first verbal definition, play is expressed as contradictory to an action with “a serious or practical purpose.” There is no continuum; there is no intersection; and there is certainly no integration. Its definition as a noun enforces this further by specifying play as an act of children (which is irking for a great number of reasons I will refrain myself from going into). What does this mean when we almost universally use language like “play a game” or “gameplay?” The implicit connotation here is that games are not serious, cannot affect change, and reduce our power to that of a child.

Even though a number of game designers are taking leaps, risking or sacrificing popularity for awareness, critical thinking, and discussion, the field as a whole is still fueled toward producing entertainment. There is a failure to recognize the work, struggle, and “stuck” aspects of the game – and even more so, the potential of the game to be compelling or interesting or thoughtful. I agree with Mr. Chang, there must be a functional change in game production, one infused with intent and purpose, if we want to see the field open to these possibilities.  And maybe the first step is examining how we talk about gaming and how we present it to the world.

I want to leave you with a few more definitions to ponder:

Game, n.: a form of play or sport, especially a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck.

Game, v.:manipulate (a situation), typically in a way that is unfair or unscrupulous.

Game, adj.: eager and willing to do something new or challenging.

0 thoughts on “Game”play”

  1. I want to start by saying that I absolutely agree; pigeonholing games as having to be ‘fun’ holds back radical design and limits the boundaries of the medium. But I disagree with your assertion that a game being fun diminishes it’s ability to speak to social or political concerns.

    Kostor’s theory of fun says that games are fun because they are actually low risk learning tools. We enjoy ‘playing’ because our brain releases endorphins to reward us and keep us engaged while we are discovering new things.

    In this way ‘fun’ and ‘play’ are intrinsically linked to the experience that we pull from a game. Social and political commentary should actually be made more effective by being viewed in a fun way.

    1. Good point – I’m glad you mentioned this because I agree with you! I didn’t intend to exclude the possibility of fun games supplying meaningful commentary. Only to suggest that if minds are closed to these possibilities, viewing gaming as solely for fun, then their power is limited in that those people won’t as readily allow the game to affect their thoughts once they walk away from it.

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