A Problem With Play

We've entered into a new world of play. It's everywhere and it's interesting what the play community is doing with it. But I've got a problem with some of it. A big problem. 

Give me a moment while I get on my soap box, which is then strapped to my high horse, which is then in turn set upon my bridge of privilege as I talk about why play makes me angry.

We're told through various spaces that we should be more playful, that life should be a game. Indeed our life is starting to feel like a game with new apps using playful techniques to entice it's audiences such as Endomino sports tracker, Headspace and it's 'mindfulness levels' (I'm sure the Dali Lama is like level 9000), and the constant adverts suggesting that companies like Apple are play masters with their technology, ect. ect. Now I've got no problem of using play to enhance one's self, it is an admirable goal with a fun and interesting method. But when play for adults loses purpose then that's when I've got a bee in my bonnet.

I know I'm wrong. Like I really know I'm wrong. I look at play as a very utilitarian idea, that the act must progress society or the self in one way or another. Play has to serve a purpose, it has to develop the people involved in it. If we are playing for play's sake I just want to tear my hair out.
"But David, chill out. Can't we play for fun?"
Sure! Of course! Play for as much fun as you want! Indeed, I would expect play to intrinsically create fun by the very process of playing. (Debatable I know, but so far this post is very debateable.) But that doesn't mean you can't learn/develop/grow/think/confront while playing. What I'm beginning to see in the world of play is this idea that 'free play' is an important aspect of life. 'Free play' I suggest is a play that contains the lack or apparent lack of political engagement, attempting to stride towards apolitical. Now this kind of play annoys me and the amount of value play makers are putting into it is frustrating. 

Playmakers today seem pleased with themselves if they've just given people an opportunity to play as if it were a privilege. What we need to avoid is to revert to that sense of 'free play' instead we should look at developing a conscience play in our audiences. We must ask our audiences to reflect upon themselves and the world around them. Rather than providing a space for our players to escape into, we should allow this play to highlight the morals of the self. I'll give you an example;

Mafia the party game, developed by Dmitry Davidoff, started its life as a way of exploring various psychological ideas in teaching high schoolers. It had a purpose, it was an exploration of the self and mind. But now the game has lost much of its original intention and sits as a fairly mindless game. How could designers use this game and transform it into a commentary about racism or prejudice? How could they highlight the fact that the game is sometime literally lynching a perceived minority? Maybe if we were able to highlight the mob mentality within these games we could show how easy it is for people to fall into various immoral acts and create a sense of empathy. When was the last time you heard a player say, "Hey, maybe we should like talk to the mafia and stop this?"
Another short example is using those large scale zombie or assassin tag games as a metaphor for what women feel like when walking down the street, not knowing who is a person that might hurt them  ie. a zombie in the game and who won't i.e the general public. 

Metaphor is a beautiful way of expressing and conveying these issues, we see it in Arthur Miller's The Crucible (1953), which through the guise of the salem witch trials, explores the red scare and mccarthyism of 1950's USA. At no point does John Proctor, the play's protagonist, yell to the audience, "See! You could be here! Just like me! Go out and be mindful of this!" Nor should he. Games and play also need to develop and use metaphor to a higher degree and it's lack of use is why I think games such as Braid (2008) by Jonathan Blow were extremely poignant at the time. 

By having players engage with these games and rejigging them slightly so that they give a political meaning and an idea behind them allows a greater sense of meaning. At no point am I suggesting the game should wack its player base over the head with a moral, but at least acknowledge some kind of political stance. As people who have the privilege to play we must not squander it on escapism. Before we play we must ask ourselves, why? What is the purpose of what I'm doing here? And if the answer is, "Because I'm tired/bored/sad/I need a break from life" then that's fine. But that doesn't mean we can't grow as people along side those feelings of escapism, if we're going to escape we can still learn in this alternate world.

If we're going to play, let's make it matter, let's play conscientiously.