Opinion: Play Plays Well With Others

Editor’s note: The following blog was written by a NordicGameBits.com Opinion-blogger. The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the individual writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of NordicGameBits or the other writers and authors of the community. 

I’m nothing if not changeable.

Last week I solemnly swore to deliver to you this week an exploration of how rules carry gameplay messages. As you have no doubt guessed from this intro, though, plans have changed.

I attended the 2015 edition of the CounterPlay festival in Aarhus, Denmark last week and this brought up some thoughts that I’d like to share here as well.

The wonderful and dedicated volunteer crew at CounterPlay 15 get a deserved thank you. Photo: Kirstine Askhom (@vullebalut) via Twitter


I was a speaker there for the second year in a row, and I think a pattern is emerging for this lovely event. People are extraordinarily kind, there are many different and cool experiences to be had, and the thinking is usually a little bit scattered. Since CounterPlay is a festival and not an academic conference, this state of affairs suits it well, but as you well know I have a perverse fascination of stringent thinking, which admittedly may be a bit counter-CounterPlay at times.

I think that there is a tendency among many scholars and practitioners in the field of play to identify play basically as: “what we think is good about the human spirit.” For various speakers at the festival this seemed to mean freedom, imagination, leadership, illusions, joy, rebellion, entertainment, democracy, productivity increase or successful project management. The challenge CounterPlay 15 provides is how to integrate all these things in a single concept such as play (or playful, which is a distinction some of the speakers made, and took to mean “activities where elements of play are adopted” though what those elements might be was a little fuzzy). This is a not a challenge I wish to meet, though.

I often think that this multitude of views of play is grounded in what I find a rather reductive definition of play at the core of play studies. Many games scholars see play as paratelic, that is to say without any goal other than the play itself. This, I find, is flat out wrong.

You can play to see your friends (MMOs often do this), to decide a bet (sports often do this), to create a certain mood (playful interventions often do this), to grok or test a system or game (reviewers, developers and scholars often do this), to learn something new about yourself (good RPGs often do this), to learn something new about the world (good games often do this) – the list goes on. What is crucial to understand here, though, is that these purposes for playing do not negate play, and in fact only really work if play is achieved.

What do I think?

I’m not at all done thinking about this yet.

But I did give a talk, right?

Yes, and here’s my definition of play from that talk:

(I came up with that definition out of whole cloth for last year’s CounterPlay festival and thought it terribly clever, until I realized upon finally reading her book that Jane McGonigal mostly came up with it first, and as such she’s really the clever one.)

The interesting words in this definition with regards to my thoughts above are “accepting” and “feeling”.

Accepting can cover a wide range of ways to assent to the rules of a game. From completely internalising the rules and recover them as personal truths – the Kantian acceptance, if you will – to begrudgingly acknowledge rules of play because you want to achieve play for some other purpose, to children accepting on the fly and in face of mounting evidence that at this particular moment they are no longer little Timmy but are, in fact, Spider-man.

Feeling denotes that the crucial thing to achieving play is not actual freedom, but a feeling of freedom. Let’s say me and a friend are playing a new board game and we’re trying to figure out the rules. At some point I realise that a modification to the rules would make the game more fun at least in the short run – long-term balancing issues are tricky to figure out up-front. I bring up the rules change, but when I mention it my friend blankly refuses, because “those are not the rules”. Do you recognise this situation? You can feel the joy evaporate from your mind instantly in such moments; this is you falling out of play.

Up until the point I mention it and he refuses, we both have a feeling of freedom in whether or not we can control the rules, even though that freedom didn’t actually exist when push came to shove. In order to use play as a management skill, the creation of this feeling of freedom is crucial. In order to manage player motivation through periods of grind, this feeling of freedom is crucial. In order to achieve play, this feeling of freedom is crucial – but it is crucial not to conflate play with freedom, as it is a question of perception rather than truth, and as it is only one aspect of it.

Different Words are allowed in different Communities when playing Scrabble – sometimes negotiating these rules is the main point of playing the game! Photo from CounterPlay 15 by Karen Melchior (@karmel80) via Twitter

Another thing I brought up in my talk relates even more directly to the idea that games and play are at their heart isolated from other activities. This relates to the idea that play represent freedom from the world, because it then follows that play can have no consequences or relations to the rest of the world. This is admirably stringent, but deplorably wrong.

The wonderful little 1959 paper by Roberts, Arth and Bush “Games in Culture” shows a metastudy of how indigenous people have different types of games in their societies as catalogued by Western ethnographers and anthropologists. The more complicated their political structure is, the more likely they are to adopt strategy games, for instance, while a pantheon of benevolent deities sustain more games of chance than a cabal of vengeful gods.

This shows a crucial thing that we should realise as players, thinkers and developers of games: games, like narrative, are explanatory modes in culture. Stories establish patterns that we can recognise in re-telling, and games present dynamics and mechanics that we recognise from and perpetuate in our culture. Thus, I believe the principles of play can be summarised thus:

And any use of play – in game development, education, organisational theory, pedagogy or everyday life – should aspire to incorporate these principles in their design.

Alright, next week, we’ll definitely look at rules and gameplay.

Well, definitely maybe.

Here’s some more pics of the festival:


Jonatan Yde (@aladinsane_dk) talks about queerness in the Danish game The Silent Age. Photo: Kirstine Askholm (@vullebalut) via Twitter

The Foam Lego Fort has achieved sentience and is keeping an eye of the Playful Education panel at CounterPlay 15. Photo and sentience Construction by the author


I’m an associate professor at the Dania Academy of Higher Education in Grenaa, Denmark. We offer two AP level educations focused on game development, one for programmers and one for designers. I teach a flurry of different analytical disciplines, and I will be blogging about various forms of analysis from gameplay and narrative analysis of games to marketing analysis and even occasionally object oriented analysis in relation to game development. My focus is on making analysis a practical skill. I hope to produce insights and lessons for use in further design, rather than analysing for pure fun and knowledge – though that certainly also has its place. Oh, and a warning: I have a weird background for games – philosophy and the study of religion – which may bleed through from time to time. I will try to blog at least once a week – always on Thursdays, occasionally also on Mondays.

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