An open letter to Chris Bateman responding to his blog-post The Liberation of Games will not be streamed on Twitch at ihobo.com. Feel welcome to provide your own input via the Comments!
Here is a brief summary about my new theory that is influenced by your writings. I wanted to run it past you to see if you see any validity, utility, and novelty.
My overall goal is to encompass Play in its various forms and break it down in broad categories that I hope will un-jam some of the dogmatic claims we see in Video Games.
It is conciliatory in intention but I expect and accept that there will be disagreements with what is being proposed. My theory is based on research, play experience, observation, pan-sector validation, and what I hope is a keen discernment to see patterns that have been glossed over.
First of all, I would like to pay respect to your own writing in Imaginary Games, your blogs, plus our Twitter/Email exchanges. When I started thinking about Video Games and their aesthetics, I had some very concrete ideas that were influenced by Chris Crawford and what I read on Tadgh Kelly’s blog. Those perspectives sees Video Games as unchangeable types that emphasized competition, obstacles, and mechanics. I also appreciated Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun, but disagreed with his conclusion that Games are fun because they help you learn.
Games as an aesthetic concept has to possess some traits that are distinct from puzzles, make-believe, and toys. Otherwise, there is no point in have any classifications at all. Finding the balance of being distinct enough but related enough is not that unlike the Buddha’s advice to follow the middle-path. Its something that requires awareness, diligence, humility, and the right kind of confidence. To tread any path needs a means of mobility and a direction.
The mobility comes from Chris Crawford who created what I think is a useful, but misleading Boolean/Flow Chart to determine what a game is. I know that you don’t agree with him on his conclusion, but I found his framework to be appealing. Its elegance and refinement allows for maximum efficiency in mobility. Yet a method of mobility is not the same thing as having the right destination. I agree that Crawford ended up with the wrong conclusion and destination.
It is your philosophy on games that provides the right direction. You helped me see that games are not just Video Games and that play is much larger than games. You encouraged seeing games as a collection of various traits that had common cores. It was this ‘ingredient model’ that helped me rethink what games are and what the larger state of play means.
Crawford’s method of mobility combined with your vision of destination has lent me clarity and a conviction. Thus I would like to introduce to you the concept of Playstates.
A Playstate is a small collection of aesthetic play elements that discerns the various states of Play. At present, I have qualified (with some help) five different states of Play. These are:
Toys/Playgrounds – The Play of free-form enjoyment using an object or space for enjoyment and exploration. A stick, a park, a ball, hula hoops, action figures, and so much, much more.
Role-Plays – The Play of role-taking, improvising, pretending, and acting; using the self as an object. A person becomes a protagonist, a dragon, or an inanimate object. Examples: The Role-play in D&D, playing ‘house’, pretending a stick is a sword making the player a knight, pretending a tennis racket is a guitar making the player a rock star.
Puzzles – The Play of pattern matching; using symbols, colors, sounds as an object that is collected, completed, or repeated. Examples include jigsaws, crosswords, word-plays, and mathematics.
Games – The Play of measurement, using symbols, planes of space, and tokens/numeric qualifiers as objects that is collected, compared, moved, and ultimately trump obstacles. Examples: Board Games, the Roll-play in D&D, Most Video Games.
Sports – The Play of competition, using the measurables in Games as objects the determine winners, losers, and champions. Examples: conventional sports like Football, eSports, drinking competitions, etc.
These five Playstates are all forms of Play that captures most of what we see in the psychological development of children and animals, all the way to our societal fixation on sports. They are related in the way they are all played at, but not necessarily for recreation. Serious Play is a facet of Play and is found in professional sports, hobbyist gaming, gambling, professional acting and in some of the Arts.
The five Playstates do reflect a culmination in societal complexity as we move from Toys/Playgrounds (personal play) to Sports (local to international play) but I would never propose that greater social complexity means greater meaning. As societal complexity is added the state of Play is transformed, not unlike what we see in Matter States changing as energy is added.
Another characteristic of Playstates is that they act as ingredients and traits we find in various industries. For example, D&D is a combination of Role-Play and Game which is obvious in its genre namesake and hobby industry innovation. Some Video Games combine Puzzle and Game like Tetris or Bejeweled did, while others have free-roaming open worlds that is a virtual Toy/Playground.
A Video Game is a marketing term, an industry, and a short-hand that signifies one common element; they are all played on a video display of some kind. So the debate about Dear Esther not being a Game would see Playstates navigate this by agreeing with critics that it lacks essential Game traits, but has no problem seeing it as a Video Game. Dear Esther has Toy/Playground play and Role-Play yet there are no measurables or requirements to possess a resource in order to trump an obstacle. The ‘thin play’ you refer to is part of its appeal for some who are looking for a non-Game Video Game. 😉
In contrast Playstates would see Clicker Heroes as a Video Game product that is solely about being a Game yet it possesses very little agency. Idle play works because even when not played the game still provides measurement, accumulation, and trumping of obstacles. Some people enjoy checking in to see how much resource was collected without doing anything. I would venture to say that Clicker Heroes has even ‘thinner play’ than Dear Esther as the latter possesses quite a bit of agency.
I know you disavowed the term ‘games’ out of respect to keep the term open for interpretation. I agree with your intention, but disagree with your method. Games is a term that can and should be used, especially as it now becomes possible to see Video Games containing other Playstate ingredients. I hope that Playstates can help inoculate us from the red herring debates of Agency, Interactivity, Mechanics, and Narrative as determinants of what a Game is or isn’t. After all, every Playstate must contain degrees of Agency, Interactivity, Mechanics, and Narrative. Using those concepts as distinguishing characteristics is not helpful because they belong to every form of media.
Playstates has settled my mind about what a Game is and how it can happily co-exit with the other Playstates. It makes sense in my mind, but ideas are best put to scrutiny to test them for validity, which is why I share this openly with you and everyone who cares to participate in the discussion.
So I would appreciate your thoughts on Playstates. After all, the concept is inspired by your desire to liberate the defining of games. Where I respectfully differ from you, is I think it is critical to define Games as being solely about the play of measurement so that it liberates the term to coexist with other forms of Play. This leads to a healthy play ecosystem. I look forward to your response when you can manage the time.
Thank you for your ongoing mentoring and friendship.