Friday, July 12, 2013

On My Mind: Play vs Game - Can you play a game wrong?

Warning: This post dives into a really weird place of Ludology, and you may find it quite a bit like my philosophical discussions: quite a bit of self-wankary with a whole lot of hot air.  It's something to think about, but I'm not sure what it really leads to.

One of the things that I've been thinking about recently is whether you can play a game wrong.  By most definitions, the act of "play" can't be wrong: it's merely experimentation, exploration and for enjoyment; "game" on the other hand, may have a "wrong" state: games have rules and structure, and there's definitely room to interpret "wrong".  The problem I'm trying to get at is where these two intersect, and how is this defined in games.

An example: Baseball.  Throwing a baseball, swinging at bat?  Definitely in the realm of play.  Swinging at a pitch, running bases, using the predefined rules of baseball?  A game.  The the question is, if a team decides to only bunt for every player at bat, or move all their outfielders inwards, are they "playing wrong"?

For those who are familiar with the GDC Design Workshops, this may sound familiar to some of the questions and points addressed with both Marc LeBlanc's MDA Framework, Nicole Lazzaro's 4 Fun Keys or even Jason VandenBerghe's 5 Domains of Play. I'm not sure if this is some sort of regurgitation of all of those, or some broken analysis, but please go ahead and take a look at those if you're interested in this sort of thing.

On the surface, you could argue that a team that only bunts is "playing wrong" because that's easily the worst way to try to score, but that's not an entirely accurate picture.  You can definitely point that such a team is "not optimally" using the rules of the game to their benefit, but they're definitely working within the rules of the game.  Similarly, you can look at a team that has only home run hitters: are they as a team playing it wrong if all they can do/want to do is home runs?

Taking this idea of analyzing play vs game into the video game realm: is someone who refuses to use the run button in a Super Mario game playing it wrong?  Well, at some point, when you have large gaps, then maybe.  How about someone who is avoiding the enemies?  Or getting the most coins?  Or finding all the secrets?

Once you start deconstructing what is a game into the rules within the game, the content within the game, and the player's possible actions to act within the world, you start to realize that "you're playing it wrong" suddenly becomes a much more subjective statement: Telling someone they're playing it wrong can mean anywhere from "that's not what the game wants you to do" to "that's not how I would have approached it".

With this in mind, a pretty interesting problem arises for game designers to tackle: player agency vs designer intent.  As designers, you may come up with mechanics, setups, and ideas to nudge players to experience specific events, emotions and challenges; but all those gameplay tools also influence player's choices and actions within the world.  In a game like Bioshock, players are dropped into this atmospheric environment where they're experiencing the story and atmosphere, and the intent was that players interact with the enemies and environment in this fairly serious tone; in direct contrast, because of it's weapon/health system, most players act like rabid scavengers, clicking and scouring through garbage bins, dead bodies, benches, stores, etc.  Think about how that looks like from an outside perspective: you're the protagonist going through this harrowing experience, and the most frequent thing you ended up doing is picking up from bins looking for loot.

In the above case, it's not even "playing wrong", because the world and the rules established within the game suggests that this is what you want to do.  The above is another facet of this "play vs game" discussion: player intent and how that can influence a game.

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