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December 23, 2005

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Pure Play in Adulthood

I started reading this post by Chris Bateman about theories of play and got sucked in despite the jargon, and I’m quite happy about it. It ends up framing a very interesting discussion about games in a light I’d never considered before.

Imagine that “play” is a continuum stretching from freeform, imaginative anarchy (“paidia”) at one end to rules-based order (“ludus”) at the other. As children, we start out with a natural tendency towards paidia — we play nonsense games with dolls, we build worlds out of Legos, we bat about aimlessly with sticks, with no rules or direction in mind. (Although one theorist mentioned in the post argues that the unspoken cultural ‘rules’ underpinning these games are stricter and more elaborate than those you’d find in an instruction manual.) Paidia tends to be short-lived, generally evolving into ludus. As we play with our dolls and our Legos and our sticks, we start developing more and more rules and logical structures for our play. The dolls start acting out a scenario. The sticks find a target and a purpose.

As we age, we tend to skip paidia altogether and head straight for the ludus. Adults play card games and sports and board games with rulesets that are complicated from the outset. And the geeks among us prize those games with incredibly Byzantine engineering — turn-based role-playing games, for example. These are games that have been carefully designed to incorporate many different patterns of play — strategy, chance, competition, mimicry — into a seamless whole.

Video games tend to be very ludic things, entirely based on rules and structure. Think of Pong, Pac-Man, Tetris, Space Invaders. They’re all so easy to play because they center on exactly one rule: the objects are in constant motion — go. Given that computers are logic machines, it makes sense that computer games would have started like this.

But we’re starting to see more and more video games that incorporate much more potential for paidia — The Sims, Katamari Damacy, Grand Theft Auto, Everquest. Like our organic play as children, paidia in these games tends to quickly evolve into ludus. We generally start acting out the scenarios the game designers created for us. But it’s so much more fulfilling, because we’ve reconnected with the sense of freeform play. The “rules” we develop or the scenarios we inhabit have arisen organically from our experimentation, and our enjoyment is much deeper because of it. And unlike our childhood games, video games carry much fewer consequences and constraints. We can torture our Sims without having to go buy new ones. We can run into buildings and through stoplights in our Grand Theft Autos.

This is why text adventures were so immersive for me. Although I was guided along a predetermined narrative path, I found that path by engaging in pure play, doing whatever I wanted in the game world and reacting to the consequences. In text adventures, that sense of paidia is much easier to create than in graphical games. It would probably still be very difficult today for game developers to recreate the world of Wishbringer visually. But as computers have become more powerful, it has become much more possible to create immersive visual game worlds that allow for paidia.

As we enter adulthood, the consequences (especially social consequences) of real-world paidia become much more pronounced — what would people say about a grown woman playing with Ken and Barbie? So rediscovering paidia in video games gives us back a wonderful, irreplaceable type of fun.

This seems like such a simple thought, but I’d never heard it expressed in these terms before. As adult paidia becomes more common, I wonder if it is changing our approach to the world? Is Google’s 20 percent time about bringing paidia to work? How does thinking of it in those terms help us make more sense of it?

By the way, one of the comments in the Only a Game article pointed to, which is pretty hot.

Posted December 23, 2005 at 10:06 | Comments (3) | Permasnark
File under: Video Games


Hello, and congratulations on the website!

I donīt know what you think, but - even more than the search engine - Google Earth is, I believe, the most interesting paidic activity for adults around right mow. In a way, I think it is much more of a competitor to Solitaire and FreeCell (and even the sims) than most intermediate-hardcore games could be. And as you point out, this is partially thanks to the increasing capabilities of the average machine (a PC in this case)...

Keep up the good work and thanks for pointing to my website. Iīve placed a link to SnarkMarket too.

Thanks for the trackback! I'm pleased that this piece has been well received. I feel that we're in the midst of a transformation in our cultural attitudes towards adult play, and I'm particularly interested in other people's perspectives on the subject. The first I heard of was when Chico commented on my blog... I'm thrilled that such a site exists! Best wishes!

Chris -- Seriously. If historians a hundred years from now look back on the opening decades of the 21st century as a time of revolt against the 'scientific management' ideals concocted in the early 20th century and still (gah) in practice today, AND if that revolt involved an understanding of play (fun, experimentation, screwing around) as an activity of potentially incredible productivity, I will be soooo happy.

Well, I'll be dead. But still soooo happy.

Good post, Matt. You are on a real cool-blog-finding roll lately.

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