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.

When our childhood dog took to mutilating me and my sister’s Barbie dolls, we patched them up with tinfoil from the kitchen, turning them into cyborgs or pirates by replacing their missing limbs. Likewise, the context and surrounding plot of these dolls could change at any time. She’s in her house, but now, as the story requires, the furnished plastic box is a school, a hospital, a shop. Even more cruelly, dolls could completely be removed from their role as an actor in an imaginary drama and be turned into stunt doubles, or projectiles. It’s not surprising then, that we had similar patterns of engagement with the videogames we played with.

In a fantastic article on the forgotten online community of Petz game enthusiasts, Jessica Famularo discusses how many fans of the games partook in ‘hexing,’ or, editing the hexadecimal code of pet data files to change their appearance into breeds of dog or even species of animal that were not advertised as a part of the game. This creative form of modding wasn’t intended or encouraged by the game itself, and so can be read as a form of misuse that creates entirely new, unintended meanings, just like me fixing up a broken doll with a set of twin hook hands. Modding has a long history of behaviors that are condoned and encouraged by game creators, but an even longer one of behaviors that are not. In the comments section, readers offer even stranger stories of tormenting or deliberately overfeeding their Petz, and other experimental play styles that push at the limits of what the game’s system will allow and react to.

The ‘artist mod’ or ‘intervention’ has also become a mainstay of Game Art where artists create a mod that alters or even destroys the original meaning or function of a game, or record themselves deliberately subverting the expected gameplay styles of a game, usually online, as a type of new media performance. These works can be critical or comical (or both), and have generally been accepted in the new media art community as an established body of practice. While there is another school of thought which focuses on players as a co-author and gameplay as a performance, the fact that many players outside of these art world practices might have little interest in ‘playing along’ with the intended function of games is rarely addressed.

It interests me, however, in thinking about my own childhood experiences with games as well as others’, and I think there can be many reasons for people to play in this way. They can be read in a negative or positive light as well. These players are too impatient or unskilled to suss out the intended goal, understand the system the game works with, and become skilled enough at using this knowledge to reach the stated goal, it can be argued, but often times this type of play has very little to do with the ability of the player to reach the intended goal. Sim games, when given to kids, often end up looking more like an artfully doodled-on easel that uses buildings and land features as the paint than an orderly microcosm of theme park, city or safari course. I remember spending hours scuttling sideways or upwards in Skii Free, to explore the scatter of tree, stump, snowdrift and rock sprites that made up the forest surrounding the course. Sometimes an arrow or path pointing towards the next objective only motivates the player to head in the opposite direction.

These forms of play can be just as much a form of narrative-making or performance, and may involve as much understanding as the intended gameplay of a particular game does. Speedrunning, for example, is a form of this type of play that takes an intimate understanding of the underlying systems and architecture of a game, and yet requires a player to work against the intended function to be able to gain an edge. Open-ended games, in which there is no ideal set of goals for player to pursue, have become more common and experimental, with games like Second Life especially being embraced by new media academia, along with reflexive mods and gaming performances. Meanwhile, writing on more linear games focuses on the experience and performances of players playing them as intended. However, if gameplay is a form of play like any other, it is, importantly, destined to have its intended purpose betrayed, creating an inevitable space for new experiences and investigations.