The other kind of playing

There’s two kinds of playing. There’s the competitive kind and there’s the whimsical kind.

Competitive play sets up certain boundaries and a goal to achieve. It can be done against other people or against oneself. The point of competitive play is to attempt to win, i.e. to reach the predefined goal. Sports is an example of competitive play.

Whimsical play is free-form. It involves non-productive activities that we do merely to amuse ourselves. Sometimes whimsical play is done with other people, sometimes alone. But the form of playing can change at any moment. Any rules that might occur are temporary or optional. Sex is an example of whimsical play.

Competitive play in essence is also non-productive. But through rules and goals, it creates a sensation of purpose. Whimsical play is always pointless. It is purely recreational and makes no excuses for itself.

Why is it that we see so much competitive play in video games and so little whimsical play?

Is it because rulesets are so compatible with the way in which a computer works? Is it because we want the illusion of productivity since computers are supposed to be machines for work, not play? Or is it simply because we have lost the ability to enjoy the moment, to play for playing’s sake?

Competitive computer games are often used for whimsical play. When players start hacking or modifying the game, when they start testing the game’s limits, when they do things in the game that are irrelevant to achieving the pre-defined goal. While many contemporary games allow this kind of activity and some even encourage it, very few games are actually built around this form of play. And since they are not, whimsical play in competitive games is almost always disruptive. It destroys the intent of the designer, the narrative of the game and the overall atmosphere.

The only computer game designed for whimsical play that I can think of at the moment is The Endless Forest. Can anyone think of any others?

32 thoughts on “The other kind of playing”

  1. Indeed. But Garry’s Mod is a modification of a game. As such it falls under playing more than it does under design, in my opinion. Also Garry’s Mod doesn’t really have any content. It’s just a tool that allows you to rearrange the Half Life 2 assets.

  2. I feel like there are games that encourage whimsical play but also have an aspect of competitive play, or “goal oriented” play.

    the thing is though, i think whimsical play may not fully exist. I think even in sex we set subconscious goals, i.e; last as long as possible feel, feel as good as possible. or this one: to have fun.

    And who’s to say sex is non-productive or play is non-productive? Productive is an incredibly subjective term. Is painting productive if only you see the product? i think so. Play betters ourselves. Play teaches.

    Honestly, when I play TEF I create goals, and I’m sure everyone else does too. I like to find people, or find something pretty, or jump over something. I find it productive because it gives me a chance to relax, like meditation.

    To be honest, i think the only thinks that are not productive are things that are counter-productive: like self-harm and abuse. Anything else is in some way productive.

    Now for games that only offer whimsical play, probably not many, but there are plenty of games designed with whimsical play in mind but also with there own goals, for people who don’t care to set there own.

    How many times did my friends and I just spend hours on Excite Bike 64 trying to crash head on? I’m not sure but I’m sure it’s a lot. And i’m probably not the only person you’ll find who likes to play GTA and just drive on the highways. No shooting or anything, just driving around. And who hasn’t run around in Goldeneye shooting the toilets?

  3. Thanks. Nothing in your comment contradicts what I said, though. I would consider “setting your own goals” to be part of whimsical play. It’s when the game rules set the goals for you, when the rules are external, that games become less “playful” and more goal-oriented and work-like.

    The whimsical playfulness that you descibe experiencing in GTA and such, is, as I said, disruptive: it destroys the narrative and intended atmosphere of the game. What I am curious about is if it is possible to design a game around whimsical play, one in which such activities contribute to the story, rather than destroy it.

  4. Yeah. It’s difficult though because the story becomes the objective. To discover more of the story. It might just be an issue of nomenclature?

    But then again, there are many fantastic paintings that tell a story. Perhaps exploration, like one might explore a book or a painting, is that possibility of whimsical play?

    If I’m not mistaken, the old version of Excel had a hidden 3d game where you could fly around a randomly generated environment, is that one that would fit into your definition? The only non random element was a credit roll that you could find, along with a biblical-parody story of the birth of excel.

  5. The question I often have when i play TEF or other experimental games is “What are you supposed to do?”

    When i answer, “just look around and appreciate the world”, they just look at me and dont see why i’m playing it. What’s very funny is that even people who aren’t very familiare with games ask have the same reaction, “What are you supposed to do?”

    So i think there are mostly competetive games because people just can’t imagine beeing free. When they stop playing, they like to now how much of the game they did, and they like to now that they have achieved something, a mission or other. But what i think is very ironical, is that the critics like “open-world games”, because we are free to do anything. So people don’t always mind that, but they still need a goal to achieve to find it “fun”.

    It reminds me of a interview the creator of katamari one’s gived. He was talking of all the “demos” he has made with fun gameplay. After showing it he added that it wasn’t finished, because people can’t have fun like that, they need goals, and he said that he thinked it was too bad.

    But in another way, i surely have a hard time finding some narrative content in these whimsical games. I now Tori Emaki, but it does’nt really have a narrative content, just an atmosphere.

    But a nice way of telling the narration in a game is the way metroid prime does it. It is a competetive game, but the fact that you now the story by analysing around you is very nice. I’m sure there is other ways of using this kind of narration.

  6. Even though the first Tomb Raider was designed for the player to go through the story, I found many oppurtunities for whimsical play. I loved just exploring things and making up stories about what went on or what could go on. I remember using the Lost Valley level as a setting for a story in which a water deity’s daughter gets lost and must find her way back. Good times.

  7. “What I am curious about is if it is possible to design a game around whimsical play, one in which such activities contribute to the story, rather than destroy it.”

    There’s a goal-free multiplayer modes in GTA4, from what I hear. Just go run around the city with friends. This seems quite whimsical.

    Also, I think art can be a productive form of whimsical play, depending on how you go about it. Although your definition seems to forbid productivity in whimsy, so perhaps I have misunderstood something important.

    Finally, this seems very similar to the ‘toy vs game’ distinction that I think Will Wright likes to make.

  8. Redkora, it seems to me that older games were indeed more open to whimsical play. While current games are a lot more tight and really guide you like a baby so that you do exactly what the game designer wants you to do. This ties in to the comment Eskil Steenberg made about designers wanting the make films instead of their games.

    Zaphos, GTA did allow for a lot of free-form play. But it wasn’t designed around that. Proof in point for me is that, even though I frequently drove around aimlessly, just for fun, in GTA3, I stopped playing entirely as soon as I had completed the last mission.

    Of course play can be productive from the perspective of mental health. But I was referring to the contrast with work and duty.

    Whimsical play and the enjoyment of art do seem to be related to me as well.

    The problem with Will Wright’s games in this context is that they are not vehicles for storytelling. They are indeed toys that allow the player to construct stories, to some extent. But I am looking for games that do have the ambition to express something, to be meaningful, to tell a story.

    It just struck me that the games industry seems to be ignoring the whimsical kind of play. Which is odd because it seems to me that whimsical play would allow designers to express a lot more and tell a greater variety of stories than sports-like structures ever can. And then they would not need to clamp down their design in an attempt to make something similar to a movie. Whimsical design would allow us to use the inherent interactive potential of the medium to create an entirely new form of entertainment.

  9. Sorry — to clarify, I meant the creation of art, not the enjoyment. (Which is not to say you can’t do both at the same time.)

    Anyway, thank you for the explanation; I hadn’t thought of things in quite this way before, and I think it’s very helpful :)

  10. Given your explanation of “Whimsical play” I would say that there is a piece of software pretty much installed in all computers that fits your description.
    As for the argument I will agree with you that (especially) nowadays video games force out more competitive play, but this can be explained since a major trend in today’s video game design is to follow the maximization of Flow during play. Even for apparently free-play games designers sometimes induce skill matching design to keep the player challenged.
    However, from what I perceived from your follow-up answers is that your objections are not on the game design itself but rather on the level design, meaning that since the rules are so overtly denoted to the player, fiction has no longer a place.

  11. I don’t necessarily object. I just find it strange that whimsical play is being overlooked, while it seems that a computer could be just as easily used for either type of play.

    But it is true that I feel that the rules-based structure of games limits the potential for fiction. I’m sure that whimsical play comes with its own limitations as well. But at least they would be different limitations. Since the win-lose dichotomy of games almost inevitably leads to stories about war and conflict.

  12. I partially disagree with that. Partially because it depends on the players’ age group. When we are young our play is more whimsical simply because our primordial pattern-matching skills are still blunt. As we grow up, we reduce whimsical play in favor of rule-based play (i.e. we stop playing with our Legos and Barbies and give way to more rule-based games such as backgammon and Pacman). The reason is simple, when the rules are set endogenously all the play is predictable hence boring. In fact all that is left is linear narrative. In contrast, when the rules are set exogenously the text is computer driven (or Ergodic as Aspen Aaserth terms it) and the emergent narratives can be (theoretically) infinite. This derives from our approach in play: We don’t apply an exhaustive approach of all possible states but rather a pattern-matching approach, which is characterized by imperfect information and thus leads to challenge(surprise). The reading of this new challenge is that creates the emergent narrative.
    Take chess set for example, keep the pieces and board and remove all rules. You may make all kinds of narratives, like a impossible love story between a black knight and a white pawn or a conspiracy story inside the white royal family but these will be linear hence there is no space for surprise. However when we apply the rules and play a game of chess it is most likely that each game will be different in terms of positions (patterns) hence the translated narrative can be a new story every time (like praising the bravery of a pawn, or the secret love of a knight for his queen who saved her life in many occasions etc.).
    Hence, fiction is twofold. One aspect of it is embedded within the game and its role is to denote meaning to the rules (i.e. why the powerful pieces in a game of chess are guarded by the “weak” pawns) and the other aspect functions within the gamer/reader and is responsible for making narratives emerge.

    PS. The badly structured link in my previous post is this

  13. I agree that rules can contribute to variety and depth in stories. But I don’t think whimsical play excludes external rules. On the contrary, especially when dealing with digital media. The rules create a context within which we can play a role. That is very interesting. But does it always have to be about winning and losing? I think that’s where games really limit the experience that we could get out of interactive media. Do we really need to be rewarded by the game for each and every little thing that we do? Can’t doing those things be its own reward? Be pleasurable in its own right?

    It is possible this is simply a design problem and game designers are just not imaginative enough.

  14. >>>does it always have to be about winning and losing?
    No, Virtual Worlds (the vast majority) have no winning/losing conditions, probably that is why you see TEF as one.

    >>>Do we really need to be rewarded by the game for each and every little thing that we do?
    Rewarding in the classic game model is a signifier. It denotes the end of an activity or a session. Imagine a football match that has not time limits (pretty much like we used play when we were kids). The players will keep on playing until they are exhausted or bored. It also denotes the mastering of skill, like clearing level 1 and then moving on level 2.

    >>>Can’t doing those things be its own reward?
    Actually that is the player’s reward. The mastering of a skill, the learning of a new pattern, getting access to a new challenge.

    >>>Be pleasurable in its own right?
    Using the football example again, there are (non-professional) players that enjoy the game for its social aspects (like playing a corporate match) or its technical (like if it is better to make attack from the wings) or just for exercise (yes some people like running and kicking up and down on a football field) and do not care at all about winning or losing. Winning/Losing as said above just denotes for them when to start/stop: analysing colleagues’ teamwork/figuring tactics/running.

  15. Childish? Ouch. I can understand finding certain methods of play and enjoyment not your flavor, but that seems to be a small stab at anyone who enjoys challenge play and win-lose models, or feels good fiction can sometimes benefit from this set up. It very much depends on the experience a designer is aiming for, in my opinion. (Not the stories you seem to want to tell, granted, which is cool and something I think is awesome.) In some stories, the stakes are win-lose, and they’re not always about war.

    ICO (PS2), for example, had a lot less to do with violence and combat and a lot more to do with running away. The game experience would have been completely different and not as powerful to me personally if I couldn’t actually lose. I found myself very scared for Yorda and it made protecting her much more urgent because there was a consequence that actually applied. Yet I felt the story was one that did have the room for the player to feel it out themselves, even if it wasn’t completely whimsical.

    How are we defining childish here?

  16. I could have done without the stress and the combat in Ico (in fact, I handed the controller to Auriea every time those ghosts appeared). I mostly enjoyed holding Yorda’s hand and staring at the trees.

    But you’re right that Ico shows a more subtle implementation of the win-lose dichotomy. I was wrong to generalize. It is indeed a matter of personal taste.

  17. Interesting Vienaragis that the dying made it more scary for you. That always has the opposite effect on me. For example, in Resident Evil 4, I always found the close calls scary and the deaths annoying or fun or funny. While playing the game i tried to think of a way that a game could be made where close calls were constant, but never deaths. That’s the thing for me though, one of the worst nightmares i ever had was one where i was lying alone in my dorm and my eight year old self walked in and stared at me.

    And Michael, the win-lose dichotomy is coming back from the discussion everyone had on the mobility/medium entry. I think at some point we discussed the “immaturity” (in the sense of a medium, not in the sense of the audience) of art that is stuck expressing man vs man conflict.

    I think one of the main issues here is one of the main issues in Philosophy, “Grammatical Fallacies.” Looking through the comments it seems like some of our subjective definitions of words are slightly different so in a sense we aren’t all fully talking about the same thing. To clarify, i’m one of the types that thinks you can place models and rules etc. on anything so that you can better understand it. However i’m also the type that thinks in a way that ruins it.

    I’m not sure Michael, but how do you feel about the “rules” of literature and story telling? for example a plot that follows the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, conclusion model? It sounds to me as if you are the type of artist that is trying to break from all of that. Which is fine: i mean, there a good and awful artists on both sides of the fence.

    I personally like rule oriented art because it expresses the boxes we live in and in many ways how we strive to be free. I mean, in TEF you are pretty limited by rules. Gravity, your deer can only run so fast, I’m not sure but i’ve never been able to leave the forest. I MUST be a deer. In the end, it’s rules rules rules. That’s the thing though, to exist something must have “rules.” I mean, perhaps even things that DON’T exist have to follow at least one rule: “things that don’t exist must in no way exist.”

    It all seems very Zen Buddhistic to me, but I also feels if there were rules that a Zen Buddhist could follow (though they appear strange and illogical) to be able to crack the code of their masters:

    A Buddhist master was looking for his replacement, and he approached his apprentice with this task. He placed in front of him a pot and said, “Tell me this is a pot, without saying it is.” The apprentice thought for a moment, and sais, “No one could say that is a shoe.” The boy that was charged with cleaning the masters home heard the Master’s request. The boy walked to the pot and tipped it over with his foot causing it to shatter. The master had found who would take his place.

  18. There’s two kinds of rules in games that are very distinct, in my opinion. There’s rules that govern gameplay and there’s rules that define the simulation. The rules that define the simulation are essential to the credibility of the virtual world. The rules that govern gameplay are arbitrary and serve a purpose that is largely outside of credibility. Clever game designers try to combine the two and use simulation rules in the gameplay. Because it is easy for a player to accept the rules of a simulation (gravity, walls cannot be penetrated, sound is situated in 3D space, rocks fall down, etc) than it is to accepts the rules of gameplay (jump on a creatures head to kill it, run over a floating gun to pick it up, you need a key to pen the door even though you have a sub-atomic cannon, etc).

  19. Interesting, so if i’m not mistaken you believe synthetic rules (which i guess we could call the ones in games, organic being simulations style rules) negatively effects the suspension of disbelief?

    I can see that as a possibility of something that can get in the way of the experience, if the rules in some way appear to encourage a lack of suspension.

  20. Some people believe that it is possible to tell stories and evoke meaning through game rules. I don’t. Indeed: I believe game rules limit the expressiveness of the medium.

    But rules onto themselves, rules as ways of creating an environment that we can understand and think about. Those are very useful for narrative. We shouldn’t let the rules dominate (as happens often in Hollywood fiction) but use them the guide us towards maximum impact. Maybe that’s the difference: in a game, rules are the purpose, are the very essence of things, while in a story, rules are a means to and end.

    So gameplay rules can be useful. They just shouldn’t dominate the experience. At least in the kinds of games that I would like to play.

  21. Because that’s what all of this is really about. I’m a 40 year old man desperately seeking a game that I would like to play. And there is absolutely nothing on the market (hasn’t been for years) that allows me to play. So excuse me if I get grumpy sometimes. 😉

  22. Woah, 40? coulda fooled me… i thought thirties or something. lol.

    Well I’m a twenty year old who thinks himself a philosopher, so pardon me if i probe past my experience :-)

  23. There’s Electroplankton, but that’s more a musical instrument than a game. And there’s Animal Crossing, but that’s more a set of fake friends in a simulation of nostalgic, idealised village life. Looking back further, there’s Doshin the Giant, which has no real overall aim, and beyond anything one sets themselves there’s only the option of meeting the requirements to have various monuments built. And then there’s Majora’s Mask (part-Animal Crossing prototype, part-Ocarina of Time expansion pack and part-something in itself) and the Monkey Island games, which come to mind as things which do have traditional gameplay aims, but in which the small details discovered just by playing about and looking around the place feel more important than the “proper” aims. In Monkey Island games, the real goal is to get all the possible responses from people and avoid asking the question which will advance you through the conversation tree, as though it will advance through the story it will make all the jokes you could have heard inaccessible. Monkey Island is very linear in any other respect, however, while Majora’s Mask is interesting for being split into two simultaneous quests, one linear and one non-linear.

    But I’m getting far off-topic with all that. The only conclusion I can come to is that I don’t understand your terminology. The way I’ve been sorting them is that if something doesn’t have any aims for which success in achieving them can be measured, then it’s not a game but a different kind of toy (a toy being a tool – whether a physical object or a concept – for assisting play, which typically involves imposing rules in order to generate ideas, as it can be hard to choose from an unrestrained number of possibilities). But children will refer to a scenario for improvised make-believe play as a “game” (or at least, I remember doing so) so there goes that definition…

  24. Calvinball! anyone remember Calvinball from Calvin and Hobbes? The funny thing is rules were actually important, but they were fluid and generated real time. That’d make an interesting videogame.

  25. …Don’t tell me nobody’s mentioned the most successful single-player PC game in recent memory?

    “The Sims” and its various offshoots are dreadfully dull, and over very quickly, if you just try to play them competitively. I submit that almost anyone who enjoys that sort of game enjoys it on its whimsical merits, and not on its merits as a competitive game.

  26. Knytt immediately springs to mind as a game of relative whimsy. It’s all about quiet exploration. There’s plenty of progress to be made and objects to collect, but much of the experience is about finding locations and walking around.

    There’s opportunity for whimsical play within other games too. I remember playing Ragnarok Online with my now-girlfriend. We went for a long walk and eventually found some giant flowers in a unoccupied area, and some other strange items where no-one was around. I suppose no-one was there because there weren’t many enemies in that area, but it was fun to have made the journey, running away from enemies earlier, and sitting down and enjoying the ‘discovery’. Equally, exploring the world of Shadow of the Colossus brings about much of the same emotion, leaving your horse for a moment to climb some ledges just to see what the view is like from up there.

  27. The Sims is an interesting case because its game design is indeed extremely rules-driven and goal-oriented while its marketing advertises it as an open-ended game. But thanks to mods, cheats and general abuse, the players have turned The Sims into exactly that.
    Still, it doesn’t fit in this list because the game’s design does not cater to whimsical play directly (since it’s so goal-oriented), it merely creates a lot of room for it (possibly by not designing certain elements).

  28. I liked Knytt a lot in those first five minutes where you can indeed just walk around and enjoy. And then it suddenly became difficult to get somewhere. That’s where the fun ended for me and I closed the game.

    I like games that allow you to explore. I think exploration is one of the most enjoyable things that you can do in a computer games. That’s why I find it so odd that so few games are designed around this kind of fun.

  29. Knytt Tales, the sequal, was a bit better. It was easier to move around.

    I liked how calm death was in Knytt Tales because you just fizzled out. My friends and i called it fluffing. It was a completely different take on death than games like Megaman where you explode into energy or Mario where it insults you with music.

  30. I don’t have anything in particular to add to this discussion yet, but I would just like to offer some encouragement and thanks for the great blog posts and the discussions that result in the comments! 😀

    (also, yay for Knytt, and I like exploration games too, and hmm, that is interesting how calm death is in Knytt/Knytt Stories)

    Have you listened to Jonathan Blow’s somewhat recent lecture Games Need You on the tension between story and gameplay that most games exhibit? I’m curious what you’d think of it. It’s fun for me to listen to all these conflicting but brilliant ideas about games, especially from people like you two and Jonathan Blow and Jenova Chen, since you are actually putting your ideas into practice with the games you make. :)

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