Don’t Play to Win

skiiIn his investigation into the social functions of childhood toys, Brian Sutton-Smith notes that ‘whatever toys may have originally signified to their makers… this signification is almost destined to be betrayed’ when they are picked up and played with in practice. Citing examples of how children improvise, combining sets of toys marketed to them into a mishmash of uses that may not match the original symbolic meaning of any of the constituent parts, this phenomenon is probably not unfamiliar to anyone who, as a kid, made up rather unconventional settings and adventures for their Barbie dolls, outside the narratives they were sold of glamour and girl-power careerism.

In this study, entitled Toys as Culture, Sutton-Smith also discusses video games specifically as both a machine-toy (toys focused on miniaturizing and systematizing the world) and a soft-toy (toys which substitute in-person socialization, comfort, companionship and so on), but his more general notes about how play almost always eventually finds ways to ignore the original symbolic meanings and implied intended use of toys struck me as also applicable. There seems to be a presumption in mainstream game studies that the best game design intuitively guides the player to the intended play style, goals, and outcomes, and that this represents a successful result and a good player experience. However, looking back on my childhood playing games, I played them ‘incorrectly’ a lot of the time, sometimes deliberately and even maliciously so.

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