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Sorting perceptions

Childish things reconsidered

Ours is an age besotted with graphic entertainments. And in an increasingly infantilized society, whose moral philosophy is reducible to a celebration of "choice," adults are decreasingly distinguishable from children in their absorption in entertainments – video games, computer games, movies on their computers and so on. This is progress: more sophisticated delivery of stupidity. --George Will

The student of media soon comes to expect the new media of any period whatever to be classed as pseudo by those who acquired the patterns of earlier media, whatever they may happen to be. --Marshall McLuhan [1]

Gumby A funny thing happened on the way home from my recent trip to EA's headquarters in California. Sitting in the middle seat on a crowed airplane, I opened the black case containing my Nintendo DS and a stash of ten games tucked neatly into pockets lining the inside: Dragon Quest IV; Meteos; Planet Puzzle League; Zelda Phantom Hourglass; New York Times Crossword Puzzle; Contact; Mario Golf Advance Tour; Lunar Knights; Animal Crossing: Wild World; and Nintendogs.

I never know what sort of mood I'll be in when I travel, so I always try to pack a variety of games to maximize my options. On the way there I devoted most of my time to reading and DQ IV. But headed home after a hectic couple of days, I wanted to relax and unwind, so I pulled out Animal Crossing WW and proceeded to chat up a few neighbors, get in a little fishing, and address a nasty infestation of bugs in my house. I followed that up with about thirty minutes of Nintendogs, mostly spent walking my puppy and tossing a frisbee with him in the park. Finally, I reloaded Animal Crossing WW to keep an appointment I had made with one of the villagers.

I hadn't played either game in many months, and it felt good to reaquaint myself with how perfectly wonderful they are in the right circumstances. On that day on that airplane, they were exactly what the doctor ordered for me. But it turns out, I wasn't playing alone. Throughout my play session, I was keenly aware of my seatmate on the aisle watching me, at first furtively, but as I continued she grew increasingly focused on what I was doing. When I finally acknowledged her curiosity, she said to me "Do you mind if I ask what that is?"

I launched into a description of Animal Crossing WW as an open-ended social simulator with no set goals or plot. When she looked at me quizzically, I thought for a moment and realized how unhelpful my description was to her. So I finally said, "It's not really a game. It's actually more like a toy." That seemed to unlock it for her a bit, so I gave her the DS and encouraged her to give it a go, but she declined and asked if she could just continue to watch me play. I said yes, and offered to show her Nintendogs, a game I described as even less a game and more a toy. Within ten minutes she was playing it by herself and grinning from ear to ear.

Nothing about this scenario is terribly surprising to those of us who carry with us a certain evangelical belief in the power of video games to delight and entertain. But the conversation with my seatmate didn't end there. If it had, I probably would have forgotten by now.

After receiving the "turn off all electronic devices" command (which continues to befuddle me), I put away the DS, and she asked me, very politely, if I ever felt self-conscious about playing kids games in public. I nearly said yes - because I do, despite my better judgment - but instead I asked what made her consider these games "kids games." She thought about it for a moment, and then replied "Because they're all about pretending and using your imagination. Like children do. They're toys, as you said, not really games with rules like adults play."

I've been thinking about that conversation for more than two weeks now. It has provoked me revisit the fascinating intersection between games and toys, as well as our assumptions about the meaning of that increasingly problematic term: gameplay - a word that connotes significantly greater complexity than we tend to acknowledge.

There's much more to say about all this, of course, and I will continue tomorrow with further reflections that I hope will contribute something worthwhile. I'm certainly not the first to consider these things critically, but it seems to me the emergence of games like Little Big Planet, Spore, SimAnimals, and a host of games on the Wii and DS suggests we've reached a vital milestone in the evolution of video games that may be worth considering. I look forward to pursuing this in the following post or two. As always, I hope you'll feel free to jump in and help me.

1. Thanks to Steven Johnson for including both these quotations in his book Everything Bad is Good for You.