Peeling the Onion, Part Three: Play

LEGO Minecraft by Flickr user Lego Photo mureut. CC BY-ND 2.0

“Play” is a very big idea.

Game playing is a very engaging activity, one that evokes a level of commitment and concentration in players that is not seen in most visitors to museums. So a lot of attention has been given to looking at ways to make heritage experiences more gemlike or gamified. I’ve already talked about gamification and the characteristics of games, [link] and now want to get underneath the surface of both to talk about what people do in games; namely they play. There is an important distinction between playing and gaming as activities and then toys and games as objects that support these activities.

So what is play? Coincidentally, it’s question we’ve been asking at PEM for the past couple of years, as we’ve developed the PlayTime exhibition.

Playing is an activity and a mindset that for it’s own reasons experiments with recombinations of actions, meanings, and objects in ways that the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls autotelic. Autotelic people are intrinsically motivated, and exhibit a sense of purpose and curiosity. Autotelic is the opposite of being extrinsically motivated, by things like money, power, fame, etc… When we try out new combinations of thoughts or words, or new combinations of Lego bricks, we are playing. Done properly, play can be a powerful affective teacher, and an integral part of that are what Csikszentmihályi calls “flow experiences”; a feeling of complete absorption in the task at hand, when one loses all sense of time and place, and feels that their ability and the challenge in front of them are well-matched. Flow can be a result of play or gameplay, though Csikszentmihalyi later warns that “Playfulness, or flow, is not limited by the form of the activity, although it is affected by it.“

Playing does not require games

“Playing” by Flickr user mejuan. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

For game designers like Eric Zimmerman, games are a more formalized subset of play. If two people are throwing a ball back and forth to each other, they’re playing with it; interacting with each other, and with the ball, and with their bodies, and gravity, hand-eye coordination. But, if one of them says, let’s make this a contest – who can throw the ball farther, or how many times can we throw it back and forth before we drop it?” they have formalized that play activity into a game.  Salen and Zimmerman write about this disconnect between games and play in their seminal book “The Rules of Play” “The goal of successful game design is meaningful play, but play is something that emerges from the functioning of the rules. As a game designer, you can never directly design play. You can only design the rules that give rise to it. Game designers create experience, but only indirectly.” To me, this sounds very much like constructivist experience design. You can make the place and the space in which visitors can experience culture, but always at a distance, because the learning and appreciation and interaction happens only when people are there.

Games can involve play

Playing a game of bowling by Flickr user Oscar D Salazar V. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

But games ≠ play

Not playing. Developers at work testing Team Fortress 2 Goldrush by Flickr user Tim Dorr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Play has larger meanings, too. There’s the idea of playing a musical instrument. You can play a part or a role.  There’s the play of a set of gears, or the play in a steering wheel. All these have in common the feature that within a system there’s some give, some sloppiness that doesn’t break the system. These interstitial moments of freedom within the system when you’re not doing what the system is meant to do in a utilitarian sense, is the essence of play. It’s not productive, it’s completely autotelic to wiggle the steering wheel for the heck of it and enjoy it.  This is the kind of play that opens up new spaces for creativity and innovation. This play can describe everything from stylistic innovation to political protest. As Trevor Smith, the curator of the PlayTime exhibition writes in his manifesto for the project:

PLAY spurs productivity.
PLAY is a catalyst for creativity.
PLAY is an escape from conformity.
PLAY reinvents the rules.
PLAY empowers the players.
PLAY stimulates innovation.
PLAY enables exploration.
PLAY is a response to uncertainty.
PLAY rewards misbehavior.
PLAY negotiates conflict.
PLAY resists productivity.

Perhaps the best exploration of play, playfulness, games and gamification I’ve come across is Jaakko Stenros’ 2015 PhD dissertation “Playfulness, Play, and Games: A Constructionist Ludology Approach”.  If you’ve any interest in any of these subjects, I recommend this work wholeheartedly. It’s masterful and complete. In his chapter on Play, he concludes that,

“The core of play, the part that most conceptualisations agree upon, can be called playful play. It is voluntary and positive for all participants, and there is a relative uniform understanding amongst participants as to what they are doing together. It does not overly challenge contextual social or cultural norms, at least not in a way that makes anyone uncomfortable. Such play is engaged in by children and particularly playful adults (like artists).”

– Stenros 2015

What we know about play, fun, and learning

So the voluntary and positive experience of play is what underlies the commitment and passion we see players brings to games, and those elements of game mechanics that might foster that experience are what get offered up as gamification. The activity people in engage in; play, is enjoyable, positive, fulfilling. But “fun” in cultural heritage is the great unspoken term, not unlike the way Karl Marx’s work was foundational to so much of 20th century Western social science, yet rarely cited during any research published during the Cold War.

Behind all the talk of engagement, positive experience, enjoyment, and a host of other serious sounding terms is the idea of fun. And that’s really what we’re after, isn’t it? We want to create experiences that people will enjoy, that will grab their attention and hold it, while challenging them sufficiently to allow them to feel a sense of accomplishment when they’re done, and to have exercised and improved an ability of theirs. The essence of informal learning for me is this intersection between play, fun, and learning. It draws on all the things we’ve looked at in gaming and gamification. It requires the attention of the persons involved in a way that can promote flow, though Csikszentmihalyi distinguishes between flow and playfulness.

“Flow describes a process of involvement in a given reality, while playfulness refers to one’s attitude towards the reality in which one is involved. One can experience flow in a routine activity whose goals and rules are consistent with the paramount reality; in such a case there would be flow without playfulness. Or one could shift one’s perspective on what goals and rules applied in a situation, without experiencing the intense involvement that characterizes flow.”

It is not too easy. Mitch Resnick from MIT further stresses the requirement that fun needs to be challenging in his essay “Computer as Paintbrush: Technology, play, and the creative society.

“…Too often, designers and educators try to make things “easy” for learners, thinking that people are attracted to things that are easy to do. But that is not the case. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihályi has found that people become most deeply engaged in activities that are challenging, but not overwhelming.  Similarly, Seymour Papert has found that learners become deeply engaged by “hard fun”—in other words, learners don’t mind activities that are hard as long as the activities connect deeply with their interests and passions.”

This is most fully developed in Papert’s notion of “hard fun”. Seymour Papert is one of those polymaths who make me feel like the human race might actually evolve into something better. After two PhDs in Mathematics, studying education under Piaget, and directing the study of artificial intelligence at MIT with Marvin Minsky, he became one of the great scholars of education. The way his interests combined and recombined over and over throughout his life is supremely inspirational. The impact Papert and his students like Resnick have had on education is hard to overstate. As Papert wrote in a newspaper article called “Hard Fun”,

“…everyone likes hard challenging things to do. But they have to be the right things matched to the individual and to the culture of the times. These rapidly changing times challenge educators to find areas of work that are hard in the right way: they must connect with the kids and also with the areas of knowledge, skills and (don’t let us forget) ethic adults will need for the future world.”

And just because I can’t help it, I’ll point out that all ideas relate very closely to Nietzsche’s definition of happiness as, “The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome.” This idea of hard fun is well understood by the game industry, and one of the keys behind all great games is hard fun, or what Nicole Lazarro defines with the Italian word “Fiero”, the feeling of personal triumph over adversity.  Her “4 Keys 2 Fun diagram shows how deeply one can try to disambiguate the elements of fun.

Lazzaro’s “4Keys2Fun” from XEODesign, Inc.

Next, we’ll look at what, if anything, this can mean for designers of cultural heritage experiences.