The Joy of Play

Last year I had two projects on the go, one of which is continuing now, one was for the iPad and another that is being pitched to another company. There is one thing in common with both of these projects, they both have to comply with the usual expectations of a game. They have to have set goals, antagonists, and the expected rules of a game that the player has to learn and adhere to to complete the experience. Now all these are valid forms of creating a game, a game has rules, the agreement that when the player(s) enter the magic circle that the normal rules no longer apply and the game rules apply instead.

This got me thinking and then writing this post, thoughts on paper as it were, as I find myself conflicted at times about this. One side of me thinks about the game as a piece of entertainment, as something that is designed to be an input – output system and provides the sense of fiero to a player and is just fun. The other side of me thinks that the interactive system of a game can be used for so much more, a means to convey an experience to others that they may not otherwise get. A means to explore topics and help people, be therapeutic, or cathartic and educational.

However with the defunct debate about ‘what makes a game?’ these days, as at the end of the day the video game market is more about interactive experiences, from ones like Proteus to those created by Tale of Tales, why are companies and education establishments are still fixated on the rules of the game? I suppose as Vander Caballero points out that you need to have a deep understanding of the rules of a game so you know how to use them and repurpose them to say something different. Yet I can’t help but feel that this is a little counterproductive when in an environment where you can experiment without fear of financial loss, such as a degree program where you can learn the rules, but then also learn how to bend them.

A lot of revolutionary products have been created by those that break convention, and yet it seems we are being taught that this is bad thing to in the games industry. No wonder there was the explosion of ‘indie’ developers, with the view that the big AAA companies don’t take enough risks. It is a shame that in this capitalist society every creative product has to be created to make money. There was something to be said about the artist patron set up of old, at least then artists like Da Vinci were allowed to pursue their creative whims. Obviously I understand the need to make the return on a product otherwise you won’t be able to continue making products. I am also impressed by Sony’s embrace of creative ideas and funding innovative games recently and giving them a showcase on their systems. (My wish for a PS Vita right now couldn’t be stronger!) 🙂

I guess as much as I want to work for the big companies like Sony as I know I can learn from them and I have always admired them. As I can’t help but feel constrained by the rules of play and the expectations of what is a game. And that at the end of the day I imagine that even pitching a product to them it has to either have a proven track record like Proteus did or have an obvious way in which to market and sell it.

I suppose all this comes from why I originally wanted to get into games in the first place, I was the kid with the overactive imagination. I created games for me and my sister and our friends to play, stories and worlds for us to interact with. Sometimes they were structured, sometimes they were just experiences and ideas that we inhabited for a time. This was all through make pretend, computers were a part of my growing up but video games were a limited and unknown world to me, my computer time was spent drawing or learning more about how they worked. The imaginary games were a reflection of how my mind works I suppose, it’s all over the place until it gets something to focus on. So I see connections that others miss and remember things that most forget and tend to lean towards wonder and thought rather than structure and expectations. As I grew up a lot of this was lost, not only to the usual means of growing up but also due to growing up quick.

The joy of play and pure experience is lost, and it’s something that I regret, the freedom of a kids imagination. We get to see it and experience in games, the ones with the rules and the ones without. From Zelda: Ocarina of Time to Proteus there is the child like wonder in both, the ability to just let your imagination soar. The reaction most people had to Flower was what I got to NiGHTS playing it for the first time on the Sega Saturn. The sensation of flight and relaxation in a beautiful and colourful environment with awesome music was what I found in NiGHTS for the first playthrough, you can’t really see it these days as graphics have moved on, but I still get the feeling when I boot it up, usually at Christmas.

Anyhow I think I am going to ramble off topic a bit here, as I said this would probably end up being a thoughts on paper post. As I am still trying to find my way into this industry, so far I’ve made about six small games/demos/experiments now, on my own and with teams (GameMaker, Stencyl, Unity, iPad) and although my own coding ability holds me back so I have penned detailed designs for a few more. Through all this I love the challenge of design, and find that my thirst for gaming experiences (by playing and reading and watching a lot) I can usually offer references and ideas from tried and tested methods when going through that concepting phase. The reading I do for pleasure and the references* I used for my dissertation all focus more on the psychology, theory and expansion of the medium. Which is probably why the projects I’ve been working on most recently feel a little stifling as the focus is mainly on the game layer the core compulsion loops that will always get the player coming back for more risk/reward through skill based gameplay gates, rather than just the joy of play.

*A reference list that I need to put up here at some point as it is all fascinating reading. 🙂

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