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2:48pm on Wednesday, 15th March, 2023:

Play as Imagination


I've just finished reading The Infinite Playground, a book collecting the notes of game designer Bernard De Koven completed after his death, padded out by the recollections of other game designers who knew him.

I never met him myself, but by all accounts he seems to have had an infectious attitude to play that inspired those around him. He founded the New Games movement in the 1980s, which reshaped how many people thought about games.

Brian Sutton-Smith's book, The Ambiguity of Play, describes seven lenses that people use to look at play (which he called rhetorics). One of these rhetorics, "play as imagination", is pretty well embodied by De Koven: he seems to have been all about using play to free and to grow the imagination. This isn't necessarily for a particular end (which play as imagination often is — a composer may "play at a keyboard" specifically to find a melody, for example), but more as a vague one: the world would be so much better if people played and used their imaginations more.

Most academics and many game designers look at play using the "play as progress" rhetoric, which sees play as a driving force behind learning. Raph Koster's highly influential A Theory of Fun for Game Design (every game designer should have a copy — if not more than one copy) takes this line. As with all the rhetorics of play, I can see the rationale behind this and its justification. It's definitely of more use to game designers than are some of the more play- (as opposed to game-) oriented rhetorics (such as "play as power", which treats play as a way of projecting a group's prowess).

Personally, because my interests are primarily to do with virtual worlds, I use the "play as self" rhetoric. This sees play as something people do to come to know themselves. Most of the other rhetorics can be explained at the individual level using this rhetoric, although not always usefully. Likewise, play as self can be recouched in terms of some of the other rhetorics; with play as progress, for example, the thing you're learning is who you are.

I would have probably got along with Bernard De Koven, but I doubt I'd have come round to his point of view. He was all about play, and for him, games were a catalyst for play. I'm all about games, and I see games as crystalising play. He was interested in the imagination, which games free up; I'm interested in expression, which games enable in ways nothing else does. It's not that I think he was wrong, he wasn't; it's just that we emphasise different aspects of the games/play relationship.

I know for certain, though, that had I been invited to participate in any of De Koven's signature games, I'd not have enjoyed the experience. This is for three reasons.

Firstly, these games are about honing the imagination, and my imagination needs no honing. My problem, which is shared by many creative people, is not that I have trouble imagining things, but that I have a continuous stream of imaginings coming at me and I have to decide which to accept and which to decline. Playing in order to free the imagination is, for me, like adding orange paint to orange paint in an attempt to make it more orange.

Secondly, I'm a game designer. As soon as I read the descriptions of games in The New Games Book, I could see what they were about and had thence no need to play them. I'd just be going through the motions. This is a curse common to game designers: once you've looked at enough games objectively, it's hard ever to look at them subjectively. There's even a word for it (coined by Raph Koster): "designeritis". If you want to make games that are fun for other people to play, you gradually lose your own ability to play games for fun because you can see how the magic works. You're not always fun to play with, either. You gain another form of fun — that of appreciating the design — which is often better, albeit much shorter-lasting. It's a different kind of fun, but it's still fun.

Thirdly, the stated philosophy behind De Koven's games is not one that especially grabs me. It's about community and togetherness and a balance between the individual and the group. This is visualised as a graph with "me" on the x-axis "we" on the y-axis, and a broad, diagonal line between them. Above the line, people feel obliged to conform; below, they feel alienated; on the line they are "coliberated", which is the ideal place to be. I don't dispute this graph, but for me the line is not at 45 degrees, it's more like 5 degrees: as you might expect from an advocate of the play as self rhetoric, I don't like conformity one iota. That doesn't mean I'm selfish, it just means I resent being forced by peer pressure to do things I don't want to do — so I don't. If I do want to do it, there's no problem, but if I don't then there is. De Koven's games are built with a differently-gradiented slope in mind, so I'm not going to engage with them. Many — probably most — other people, of course, are going to enjoy them a lot.

De Koven died in 2018. He had a huge influence on the game designers he met, and judging by some of the big names who wrote anecdotes for the book about him, he's had a huge second-order influence on even more game designers that he didn't meet. I'd have liked to have met him, even though we came at games and play from different directions, because by discussing with people who have a contrasting perspective, it helps you get your own perspective straight.

I shall not be playing Prui, though, no matter how much fun people say it is.

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