Recognizing Earned Carefree Play

May 31, 2011

Software toys enable play without challenge. Access to content is typically unrestricted.

Videogames enable play with challenge. Access to content is restricted by performance.

Software does not need to be either/or – the two can fit together.

Sense of Obligation

The beginning of a story creates tension through uncertainty. We return to a book in search of resolution to the issues raised.

Similarly, starting a videogame opens new tension. Questions are introduced that can only be answered by playing further: what do all the levels contain, what else can the player do, what are all the secrets? Playing a new videogame means taking on unfinished business.

We are challenged not only in the sense that the activities are difficult to execute, but also in the sense that the game has challenged us to complete it. Another question that can only be addressed by further play is whether we are capable of overcoming the challenges ahead.

If the challenges seem hopelessly above or below our skill level (or available time), we may feel free to simply play for the sake of playing – to play around – to interact with the game without any seriousness. If, however, the challenge seems well-matched to us, so that there is genuine uncertainty over whether we can overcome the obstacles ahead, it may be uncomfortable to back down after beginning. To back down from a fair, honest challenge goes against instincts tied to pride.

Earned Freedom

Once we reach the resolution of a novel’s questions, the book can return to the shelves. Likewise, for some videogames, we are done with them as soon as we have seen all that they have to show.

This is not always the case.

When the core activity is fundamentally enjoyable, there is a software toy hidden beneath the videogame’s challenges. When the movements are satisfying, the feedback is spectacular, and the whole world progresses like clockwork, we don’t need challenges to keep us playing, providing that we fully understand what can be done within the game. Overcoming the videogame’s challenges leads us to that understanding.

When we complete playing a great videogame we are just getting started. Only then are we free to play in a playful manner, rather than having a checklist of unfinished duties to attend to. We no longer have anything to prove by our performance. Having conquered it, seen and unlocked everything, the outcomes are stripped of any seriousness, leaving us free to experiment with nuances and explore the world like a playground.

Videogames that recognize this shift have a natural and rich longevity. The best way to celebrate this change in a player’s relationship to the software is to expose pure gameplay, fiction-breaking, open-access to the videogame’s features and content. Level selection, unlimited health, special powers, time stopping, unlimited ammo, move through walls, play as characters in a way that’s inconsistent with the narrative universe, and so on – giving access to these as prizes for surpassing the hard goals set by the game. (GoldenEye 007 for Nintendo 64 famously does this very well.)

Although those seams of the virtual universe could be revealed all at once as a prize for completion, completion alone does not reflect mastery. A single playthrough leaves plenty of wiggle room for luck or trial-and-error – optional time goals or similarly restrictive constraints leave less room for accident. Because the player’s drive toward skill improvement will likely decelerate after the world’s coherence is unraveled, and more full enjoyment of the toy aspects can be appreciated by a deeper understanding of the videogame, it is generally better to expose those seams incrementally, piecemeal as different aspects of mastery are demonstrated.

Different Kind of Replay Value

This is not about extending a videogame’s playing time by adding more content. It is about extending a videogame’s replayability by giving expert players more ways to enjoy the content that is already there. This in turn provides a natural, real incentive for more players to develop their skills in the game to an expert level: playing not just to undo the tension raised by the challenge, but instead to fulfill an innate desire to play more freely and deeply.

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