Many books, articles and papers have been written about games and many of these struggle with words like “game” and “play” as they seem to be used for many different things, but when you look at the experience of media from a player’s perspective it suddenly becomes apparent why words like “play” mean different things in different contexts but are also the same.
We all feel that there is a difference between these things, toys are not games, games are not movies, puzzles are not toys. But we also feel that they are the somewhat the same. Puzzles have rules and goals just like games. Games are played, just like toys. Visual Novels allow for players to make impacting choices. Some people have described playing with Lego is similar to playing a game; there are unwritten rules on ‘proper ways’ to use the bricks for example, in fact there are actually written rules on legal and illegal Lego builds.
So where do toys end and games start? Where do games end and puzzles start? Where should we draw the line? My answer is we don’t draw the line. When we look at these artifacts from the “player’s” participation perspective, the lines become blurred and the distinctions overlap. The responsibility that the “player” takes on while experiencing any of these media shifts from very responsible to mildly responsible for the existence of the total experience.
Player as author of the experience
The “player as author” of an experience is in charge of the experience. Toys are the tools that the author uses to create the play experience. There are no rules how to play with the toys, the play experience is undefined and unrestricted.
Toys may afford certain actions or facilitate some forms of play, but even so, there is no guide with what to do with them. Therefore, one could argue that any tools used in improvised play are in fact toys.
Curiosity, discovery and experimentation are key drivers and expressions of the experience of the player as author.
Player as actor of the experience
The “player as actor” of an experience follows a script, adheres to the rules of play, and operates within predefined space created by the designer or director. A goal must be reached and rules must be obeyed.
Rules define correct- and incorrect player behavior, they define the space with in one can operate. Play and player expression exists between the rules and the space that it defines.
Puzzles are pure “player as actor” experiences. They define a clear goal and strict boundaries of accepted player behavior. If the player wants to experience the puzzle it can only follow the rules until the goal is met.
Observing, testing, understanding, learning are all part of actor experience. Fun arises from mastery, skill and interpretation. Like the actor in a theater play, the player of games can express themselves while still adhering to the script.
Player as audience of the experience
The “player as audience” of an experience makes a deliberate choice to immerse themselves in an experience completely governed by someone else. The player willingly surrenders to the experience, suspending their disbelief and just observes.
Rollercoasters, music, books, theater and movies all require the “player” to surrender any authority and just observe the experience that is carefully crafted. The “player” is taken by the hand and guided through the experience without any choice.
Suspension of disbelief, observing, surrendering and subordination define the role of the audience. The way I see it, they are all part of the same thing. The only difference is the player’s role while experiencing them.
Examples of Scale of Experience Authorship in action
The amount of authorship a player is afforded in any of these experiences, change it from being a movie to becoming a toy.
For instance, let’s take Lego as an example. Lego bricks as a toy doesn’t have any rules and the “player” is fully responsible for the experience of their play with Lego. But take a little authorship away from the player by adding a rule (use only red bricks) and setting a goal (create the highest possible tower) and the experience turns into a game. Take away more authorship and tell the player to create a specific model and the game turns into a puzzle. Take away even more authorship and only allow the player to watch a model being made on a screen and the puzzle changes into movie.
Emergent behavior; unpredictable player solutions and things that happen in a game that have not been envisioned by the developers of the game, see player’s take on more responsibility than required for the experience as designed by the developers. These players push the game-playing-experience towards the toy-playing-experience. They tend to stress the system(s) and bend the rules the way they want, rather than following the rules as envisioned.
On the other side, many tutorials and on-boarding techniques change a game into a visual novel, requiring little more than certain exact actions from the player. They strip the player from their responsibility and guide them through the available options.
This also explains why it is very hard (or maybe impossible to some extend) to really create a game with a deep story where the player is both free to play with the rules and subordinate to the narrative.
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