This week I explored the idea Play in Space.
I came across this reading of Eric Zimmerman on the “Narrative, Interactivity, Play, and Games: Four naughty concepts in need of discipline”
Perhaps more than any other one of the four concepts, play is used in so many contexts and in so many different ways that it’s going to be a real struggle to make it play nice with our other terms. We play games. We play with toys. We play musical instruments and we play the radio. We can make a play on words, be playful during sex, or simply be in a playful state of mind.
What do all of those meanings have to do with narrative and interactivity? Before jumping into a definition of play, first let’s try and categorize all of these diverse play phenomena. We can put them into three general categories.
Category 1: Game Play, or the formal play of games
This is the focused kind of play that occurs when one or more players plays a game, whether it is a board game, card game, sport, computer game, etc. What exactly is a game? We’re getting to that soon.
Category 2: Ludic activities, or informal play
This category includes all of those non-game behaviors that we also think of as “playing:” dogs chasing each other, two college students tossing a frisbee back and forth, a circle of children playing ring-around-the-rosy, etc. Ludic activities are quite similar to games, but generally less formalized.
Category 3: Being playful, or being in a play state of mind
This broad category includes all of the ways we can “be playful” in the context of other activities. Being in a play state of mind does not necessarily mean that you are playing – but rather that you are injecting a spirit of play into some other action. For example, it is one thing to insult a friend’s appearance, but it is another thing entirely if the insult is delivered playfully.
Quick structural note: the later categories contain the earlier ones. Game play (1) is a particular kind of ludic activity (2) and ludic activities (2) are a particular way of being playful (3). But what overarching definition could we possibly give to the word “play” which would address all of these uses?
The definition: How about:
Play is the free space of movement within a more rigid structure. Play exists both because of and also despite the more rigid structures of a system.
That sounds quite abstract and obtuse for a fun-loving word like “play,” doesn’t it? But it is actually quite handy. This definition of play is about relationships between the elements of a system. Think about the use of the word “play” when we talk about the “free play” of a steering wheel. The free play is the amount of movement that the steering wheel can turn before it begins to affect the tires of the car. The play itself exists only because of the more utilitarian structures of the driving–system: the drive shaft, axles, wheels, etc.
I like to think my element of play in my space belongs to the second category, Lucid Play, where the play exist as a result of the interaction, and when the objects are not interacted upon, the objects are not playful, so to speak.
The idea draws from a child’s mind of a playscape. What makes a landscape something playful? An empty void deck can be a playscape, you just need a friend or two to play catching. A playground is boring if no one wants to play in it. The interaction creates the play, not the other way round.
Similarly, a few fans and a balloon doesn’t make a space interactive. Its’ how we push the medium and think out of the box.
Why are we told not to stand on tables? Is it rude? Is it dangerous? We’re told so when we are kids and when we become adults, it gets embedded in the back of our minds.
Yet, why not explore it? How can we change the space just simply by ignoring certain social construct? Space itself is a social construct. If we are to be kids, we need to unlearn these rules that were placed on us and question.
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