I recently finished reading Brian Upton’s book Aesthetics of Play and I found it containing many insights into Games Design which also can be applied into our understanding about theory of Play. Of particular interest for me was his description about the emotional state of anticipation being a form of mental play. This anticipatory plan he then applies to our interaction with media like books, film, theater, and music. Our delight in anticipating what will happen next in these linear medias is still an active form of play according to Upton and I can’t help but agree with him. This prompted me to consider updating my Playstates theory since I first wrote about it in May 2017 and established its first version in April 2018.
When I wrote these posts I considered Play to be an overtly interactive activity. It was Upton’s explanation about how the media of books, theater, movies, and music are fundamentally practices of Play. While they don’t overtly possess agency and interactivity, Upton is brilliant in illustrating that it is the anticipation of what will happen next is where the Play takes place. This can happen in a chess match when you wait your turn to make a move, a sporting event that you are in attendance with, or the next act in a film, or song by a music artist. We want to know who will survive in a horror movie, will true love be found in a romance, who will win the sports match. This engagement is a type of Play.
We engage and interact with books, films, theater, songs, and other events with our minds. We are using our minds to read all of the verbal, non-verbal, para-verbal, environmental, musical signals and symbols and to put them all together so we can understand what we are witnessing. It is a never ending detective case and it is the delicious anticipation of whether we are right that is definitely a form of score-keeping. Even when we know a story, we find the experience of having our anticipation being satisfied to be a worthwhile experience which is why it is possible to listen to a singular song hundreds of times and not tire of it. There is always new things to look for in any movie, book, song, etc. which helps us expand our understanding and help make meaning in our lives. While anticipation is like an emotional chemical trail that engages us, the actual Play that is taking place is our reading of the signs.
This interpretative and anticipatory play practice makes sense to me and I was convinced that I needed to update Playstates. I decided to rename and enhance the Role-Play Playstate definition and replace it with Sign-Play Playstate or the Play of Meaning. While acting or role-playing are definitely direct examples of Sign-Play, there are still verbal, non-verbal, para-verbal, written signals that are not captured effectively by the Role-Play name or definition. Sign-Play is broader than Role-Play and while Role-Play was accurate it was too narrow. Playing with behavior is still present, but now at home within the larger practice of Sign-Play. I feel that modification enhances my Playstates theory.
Playstates is a theory that explains how different types of play coexist, combine together, and are recursive. The different types of play are each defined by a singular core trait that acts as a both a distinguishing and complementing characteristic.
The updated five distinct Playstates are:
- Sign-Plays (replacing Role-Plays)
Sign-Play is interpretative play with signals and symbols as found in writing, visual media, theatre, and music. Essentially, it is almost everything that we engage with as signals and symbols are ubiquitous. Signals are direct communications like languages, writings, speaking, para-verbal, etc and are dynamic and ever-changing. In contrast, Symbols are relatively static and encapsulate a depth of meaning that is personal and obscure. Writing, acting, movies, and music are all about people communicating ideas, stories, and feeling through signals and symbols. Sign-Play is the basis of most human play activity whereas Semiosis is the basis of all human activity. Sign-Play is a sub-form of Semiosis, as are all Playstates.
While all Games, Puzzles, and Sports include Sign-Play, it the intentional layers and rules in those Playstates that distinguish them from Sign-Play and Toygrounds. A puzzle or game will use signals and symbols in its play but the communication of these signals and symbols is not it’s primary purpose. The rules of Chess are not to be subjected to the degree of personal interpretation as it is when it comes to reading a fictional novel or playing with a toy truck. In contrast, literature, acting, and other kinds of Sign-Play their primary purpose is to communicate meaning.
Sign-Play is similar to Toygrounds in not having hard-fast rules for interpreting and relying very much on personal interpretation though there is a fundamental layer of rules such as literacy. To add layers of anticipatory fun to Sign-Play, obscure signals or symbols can be added. Humans love to create meaning and alluding to it through intentional obscurity is an invitation to engage.
So thank you to Brian Upton for his insightful and helpful book. It helped me understand Play better and enhanced my Playstates theory to be more whole.