The problem with play
When good guys win

No more game shame


This is the final post in a mini-series that has attempted, with much help from commenters, to consider games, play, fun, toys, cultural taboos and other matters too complex to be addressed by a blogger who relies on personal observations and anecdotes at the expense of silly things like data and scientific inquiry.

As I mentioned previously, I suffer from "game shame" - a term coined by one of my readers (thanks, Tonks!) - and I won't repeat all the whys and wherefores here. The short story is that I believe we live in a culture that discourages playful activity among adults; and video games, regardless of their aesthetic or narrative ambitions, are typically considered colossal time-wasters, even by many gamers. Worse, games without formal rules or victory conditions like Animal Crossing are routinely lumped in with Tonka trucks and Barbie dolls as toys for kids.

If I want to cure myself of game shame I need to fully embrace the idea that play is healthy, vital, and natural for all of us, regardless of age, sex, or occupation. That's easier for me to do in my living room than my office, but I'm making progress. If I want to convince others, however, I need proof.

It's tempting to demonstrate the value of playful activity within the framework of the very system that disapproves of such activity. In other words, I could leverage the values of the puritan work ethic system to prove that play and fun ultimately help make us more productive, which translates into the transcendent goal: more money.

Here's what that would look like: Games are good because they make learning fun. Being an engaged learner motivates me to learn more. Learning more makes me smarter. Being smarter makes me more capable; being more capable makes me more productive; being more productive makes me more valuable; being more valuable makes me more money.

Or another take: Games simulate cognitive processes such as identifying patterns, understanding complex systems, and chunking large amounts of information. Playing games enhances these cognitive abilities; enhanced cognition makes me a more capable learner. Learning more makes me smarter. Being smarter makes me more capable. See above.

I'm not suggesting these arguments are invalid; only that their validity relies on a set of desired outcomes driven by values that games should bear no responsibility to uphold. Maybe games can make us smarter and more productive, but games don't require such outcomes for validation. In fact, many of the best games provoke all sorts of wonderful, but decidedly unproductive, self-indulgent, and inefficient behaviors. Such games are like toys in the best, most delightful sense of that word.

Jordan Weisman understands this. A restless creator in an industry that too often relies on imitation, Weisman founded FASA - the studio behind Battletech, Shadowrun, and MechWarrior - (FASA stands for "Freedonia Aeronautics and Space Administration"...all hail the Marx Bros!). He also founded WhizKids and later 42 Entertainment ("I Love Bees"). His most recent creation is Smith and Tinker, a game studio working on a secret project Weisman won't talk about yet.

Jordan Weisman sees nothing demeaning in the idea of video games as toys. While not every game will or ought to function in this way, Weisman believes well-designed open-ended games can help restore our love of imagination-based play. He spoke to Chris Dahlen last May and explained:

...We have dramatically reduced the number of years that kids engage in pure imagination-based play. It used to be, when I was a kid, it would be normal to be engaged in imagination-based play at least up 'til ten years old.

Make-believe is what you were playing with your friends, because you had a very unstructured play environment, [and] you had inanimate objects which you were animating to play with. The whole concept of an "action figure" -- well what was that about? That was, I'm going to play Medal of Honor with my G. I. Joes. And you would do that when you were a kid.

But nowadays...I think there's been this perception because of more structured gaming activities, that if you're not playing with rules, you're a baby. And the last thing a kid wants to be is a baby. Because only babies play baby play, which is, that whole free-form imagination-based stuff. Big boys and girls play with rules, right? They play card games, they play board games, they play computer games. They play things that structure that environment.

We've also seen the ramifications in sports, too. When I was growing up, if you were playing sports, odds are you were playing just on the street with a bunch of friends. And it was just streetball. It was very loose and informal. And now, kids are involved in leagues and tournaments, and much more structured sports play. And so I think that that's another force that has crunched down and reduced this pure imagination-based play. And I find that kind of sad.[1]

"Finding your inner child" sounds like a ridiculous and hopelessly outmoded self-help bromide these days. But as I look at the world around me at this moment, I can't think of a better prescription. We've been steadily increasing our productivity for decades. We work and work and work; when we finally give ourselves permission to play, we party and binge-drink ourselves into oblivion (or sleep in restorative seclusion), maximizing the efficiency of even our recreation. Then we crash and recover just in time to report back to work. Somewhere on a hill Sisyphus is smirking.

We need more creative energy, imaginative thinking, and an infusion of earnest, unselfconscious, child-like faith in impossible dreams. We need more playful fun - not simply downtime or vacation time - that engages our minds and spirits in joyful re-creation. In other words, we could stand to bring back a few lessons from the world we enter when we play with toys.

I regret my servitude to relentless productivity. I'm tired of feeling embarrassed to play Animal Crossing in public. It's time for me to say goodbye to game shame.

Special thanks to PixelVixen707 for putting me onto Jordan Weisman and his creative work.