July 28th, 2006

Hello, boys and girls.  Thus begins a series of short reflections on even shorter passages from Julian Dibbell‘s new book Play Money, available at an Amazon.com retailer near you–and currently setting my night table aglow with its cheery red exterior.  If you liked My Tiny Life, you’re sure to love… Aw, you get the gist.

Today’s fun excerpt comes from page 57.  Dibbell watches his young daughter at play:

“On the floor beside me now sat Lola, with her toy car and her squishy ball, engrossed without alibi in a game of her own devising… She needed no excuses; why then should I? Could a grown man never hope to give himself so wholly to a game?  Could unadulterated play, amoung adults at least, ever count for more than a diversion…?”

An important question, to be sure.  But for me, the scene of little Lola brings to mind a different question entirely, namely whether play needs to be bounded by a rule set, or whether it can ever, truly, be pure play.

Maybe it’s naive to think, when watching a child playing, that there are no rules involved.  But it does seem that, underlying all existing games, all existing impositions of logic and goal, there is a thing called play, an amorphous, ecstatic state.

To reach that state though, without the navigational aid of a rule set, seems nearly impossible–at least for the “logical” adult mind.  Get together with a friend and a playground ball and you can’t help but making up “games,” standards, ways to “win.”  And if that state of original play can’t be reached, does it still exist?

Something about a tree in a forest… or something

Tags: Blog

4 Responses to “Boundless Play”

  1. Mike Says:

    I’d have to go searching around to find it again, but recently I read an article that defined the difference between “play” and a “game.” The difference was that “play” didn’t have rules. A “game” does have rules.

    Now that I’m thinking about it, if those definitions are used, then how can someone play a game? Can someone simply play with another person? I’m trying to imagine two small kids playing without one trying to put rules into place so that both are playing the same thing.. which would then become a game rather than just playing.

  2. Coldstone Says:

    Good point Mike, with those defs, ‘playing a game’ would be an oxymoron.

    I gotta agree with you Bonnie, at least from my personal experience. When I was a kid, playing always involved rules, hoever, they were flexible and fluid. We would begin playing and then add constraints along the way. But my gender bias maybe kicking in here (of course, I played with boys and girls and everyone did the same thing).

    That is an more interesting idea, kinda like the game in ‘Enders Game’, where there wasn’t a point to it after a while, other than what the main character put into it. I can see MMORGs doing this and even Muds did this, where the the point of the game was determined by the players.

    Perhaps that will be the next thing in Online Interactive Environments, the ability to create ‘rules’ which people obey to play your ‘game’. Like making mini-games on the fly. That’d be pretty cool.

  3. Bonnie Says:

    I'm trying to imagine two small kids playing without one trying to put rules into place.
    There’s a form of staged interaction (For the life of me I can’t remember what it’s called) where you pair up with another person and just play, free-form. Except that it’s for adults. I’ve heard some very strange experiences come out of it. Another example to think of might be the way we play with animals. No rules, just interaction.

    Kinda like the game in "~Enders Game', where there wasn't a point to it after a while.
    Good comparison!

  4. FerrousBuller Says:

    There’s a difference between rules and goals in a game: rules are simply the constraints which govern the sorts of interactions which can occur within the game’s confines; goals are the objectives you need to achieve in order to win a game (i.e., reach a recognizable end-game state). Most videogames have clearly defined goals so you know when you’ve successfully finished a game: in most single-player games, you either beat all of the challenges or you don’t (or, in ye olden days, rank up the highest score); in most multi-player games, you either beat the other teams / competitors or you don’t. Then you can start the game over and try again.

    Some games, though, provide few if any goals or end-game states: the Sims is the most obvious example, but the more freeform online games such as Second Life count too. These games provide rulesets which govern and constrain what you can do in the game, but they don’t tell you what to do nor how to go about doing it. PnP RPGs are another freeform-y gameplay experience, which is shaped by the GMs and players, with the added bonus that the GMs can disregard the rules whenever they feel like it and adopt an “anything I say goes” mentality: the rules become a guideline for gameplay, rather than a hard limit. [Though I suppose cheat codes and twinking are the videogaming equivalent…]

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