I’ve actually discussed the intricacies of defining play and game before, most notably in my post on the magic circle, but I came across and article that really tries to flesh out “the logico-formalistic configurations that as such act as indispensable vehicles for play and game activities.” you might be asking yourself, “what does that mean?” I’m not sure either, but I think it’s something along the lines of finding the essence of play and game, which in turn will help us better understand gameplay.
This would be a good time to say that the article I’m reviewing was not an easy read, but it was compelling. As I read through it, I kept trying to criticize the obscurity of the concepts and the way they were presented, interrogating each claim in hopes of unraveling it and declaring it marginally useful, exclusionary writing, but these ideas also sparked my curiosity and at times almost seemed intuitive in spite of my difficulty reading it. As usual, a second read-through was much smoother, and now I can give you a watered-down, flavored version of it (like drinking a margarita instead of hard liquor).
So the article starts off with an overview of the multiple and debatable definition(s) of play, which I’ve also discussed before, so I’ll just give you this vague list of bullet points that was originally provided by the author of the article, and I’ll add my own interpretation in parantheses.
- Play and games are anchored in spatial and temporal settings, though, as we shall see, they do not operate on the same level of complexity. (translation: play sessions have a duration and an area; these can be small, sporadic, and can intermingle with non-play, which means the “real” world.)
- Play and games are embedded within the realm of cultural dynamics, and perhaps they are even older than culture itself. (translation: play is not only a part of culture, it might be the originator of culture, which means that cultural and ritual events are simply a more serious form of play).
- Play and games rely on flow-forms that both balance and optimize experience. (translation: to play, one must separate and maintain a mindset that is different from non-play. When this happens without any breaks or interruptions by the “real” world, it is a flow experience. Interruptions can happen, but as long as the mindset can “balance and optimize,” then the flow is not broken).
- Play and games necessitate a certain mood, and hereby they seem to insist on complementary modes of analysis. What is in a game, and how do we get there? (translation: I think this refers to how fluid and hard to define play can be. Play consists of moods, actions, mental distinctions, and this makes this complicates any attempt too determine the answe to the questions presented above).
- Play and games are meta-communicative acts that frame patterns of behavior in time. (translation: you tell me. This one I’m not really sure about, but I think it means that play is self-generating and self-motivating. Play is about itself and defines itself by not being non-play ( I know it sounds like nonsense). Play is not an action itself, but a framing of actions: actions done under a certain mindset: a mindset that differentiates itself from non-play). Feel free to vomit, but it kind of makes sense after some contemplation.
That’s what the first section is about. The second section focuses on differentiating play and game. In a reductive nut-shell, play is a distinction between itself and non-play, and the player is threatened by losing the distinction and falling back to reality, and this occurs whenever balance and optimization can’t account for the interference of non-play, and non-play becomes prominent in the player’s mind. Game adds a layer of complexity to play in that it imposes “a rigid pattern of dynamics onto it.” Basically, it brings order to play through the establishment of rules, values, and goals. Play is considered a second order complexity because of its distinction with non-play, and game is a third-order complexity because it is an order that is imposed on play.
As a side note, the author also provides this awesome definition of play: “play seems to focus on investigations of semantics, since the task is, not only to measure its space, but furthermore to elaborate upon its modes of interpretation and means for re-interpretation. Not only do we explore a world while playing. We are also driven by its potential meaning and the stories we can invent in that respect. Play spaces tend to expand, either in structural complexity or in physical extent. This expansion is further reflected in the praxis of play, for instance when players argue over the exact thresholds of a play domain. Again, this must be understood in a double sense, meaning both the physical closure and the mental activities attached to it.” I like this definition because it accounts for types of play that don’t rely on space at all and only expand in terms of mental activities involved.
Anyway, if we understand game as a formalized system of rules and discrete sequential operations that are grounded in the space of play, then we can better understand gameplay (or can we?) Basically, gameplay is the simultaneous maintaining of play mood, mentality, and action while interacting and interrogating the structures, organization, and rules of the game.
Believe it or not, the article is far denser than the account I just gave, and that brings me to an issue that faces all academic disciplines: the use of alienating and exclusionary language. Granted, the topic of this article is notoriously difficult to discuss, but I can’t help feeling as if there’s a better way. I mean, even I made it clearer (although I might have butchered it in the process), and I assume that the author of this article could have done a better job at making the content more accessible.
Another issue that nags me in spite of my actively trying to dismiss it is that this all seems kind of useless. Granted, we should have some better definitions for play, game, and gameplay, and this article certainly attempts to do just that, but I know it’s going to be hard to utilize these distinctions whenever I’m actually analyzing a game/play/w.e, and even if I do make the distinctions, I can’t imagine they’ll lead to any particularly interesting insight. This stuff is really fun to discuss, but I think it becomes a game itself; this discussion feels like a game in which the goal is to put words together in a way that best captures a set of abstract concepts and their relations ( I just described language, pretty much). Is there a goal? yes, we ultimately want to better understand what we’re talking about, but have we achieved that goal? yes and no. Can we take this newfound “understanding” and do something productive with it? I don’t think so, but hey, at least we had fun, or maybe we can do something with this, and I’m just being cynical because I just got done with finals and my brain is fried.
It should be noted that this is a common critique of a large share of philosophical work, so maybe I’m just being whiny because I had a hard time reading it.
I really do have mixed feelings about this article, so I think I’ll end with a few questions. If we take familiar, intuitive, and trans-cultural concepts such as play and game, and we map them out in a fiasco of SAT words and enigmatic sentence structures, how much have we achieved? Is it the case that difficult concepts require difficult language in order to be discussed? Am I just too stupid for this?
See for yourself, reader.