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Raph Koster on 'play' - the possibility space for games
"Play" has more than one meaning -- and at his GDC Next talk, Raph Koster tried to show that the possibility space games afford is based around how much "play" they allow for.
Raph Koster cares very much about improving his understanding of games, the systems that underpin them, and the space of expression that he can work with. This has gotten him into hot water over the course of 2013. To say what makes a game is by definition also to say what is not a game. "Games are a rich and complicated system," Koster says, in a succinct explanation of his perspective on the issue. "I'm trying to look at things this way to pick up my tools from my workbench and do better." At GDC Next, Koster dropped the word "game" and attempted, instead, to focus on the word "play." Across all types of games, there is play. And Koster expanded on this word -- challenging how we should even think about it. Yes, it means the activities you do in a game. But using it also implies a possibility space. Think of the usage "this rope has a lot of play" -- looseness, in other words. "Games are meant to wiggle; they're like machines. You poke and prod at them to see what comes out the other end. That is the overall scope of play of the system," Koster says. "Play is the wiggle room. It is space. It is explorable areas." What is important, he says, is to deliver via games a set of both mechanics and meaningful symbols that are neither too much nor too little for the human brain to hold. In essence, if something is too simple, it bores us; if something is too complicated or abstract, it is no longer interesting. "The interesting area for play is what is interpretable," says Koster. "What isn't just one or two ways, but also isn't every possible way. In stories, that's signs and symbols that have more than one meaning. In games, we do the same thing by having consequential choice of input, of agency -- by letting the player do different things, by choosing different verbs." A complicated system engages the mind, says Koster, and teases the brains of players, and works best when it lies in the middle space between the two extremes of simplicity and complexity. "Those are the things we find most fun. Things that we tell ourselves, 'I think I can wrap my head around it' but in practice you can't wrap your head around -- there are too many variables, or the system is lying to you," Koster says. If the player believes she can more or less understand a system -- not literally fully grasp it, but effectively create a heuristic to deal with it, in other words -- she will be engaged by it.