Home > board game design, general > on the nature of play

on the nature of play

November 16, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

I was just reading Play and Games on the Forest of Games blog, and it struck me again how playing games and playing can be two totally different things. I’m often playing when I’m not playing a game, and I’m often playing a game without actually playing.

I was first exposed to the theory of play and games in James Carse’s wonderful Finite and Infinite Games. In this book, he draws a distinction between games that are limited in time and can be either won or lost (finite games) and games that have no fixed end and whose primary purpose is to extend play (infinite games). A tennis match is an example of a finite game; children playing with blocks is an example of an infinite game. There’s a bit more to it than that, of course, but that’s it in a nutshell. Ó¿Ò

What struck me when I first read the book was how playing a game was typically finite in nature, while designing a game was typically infinite in nature. When we play a game, in other words, we play within the rules as they have been set up by someone else; when we design a game, we play with the rules themselves. When we play a game, the game is finished when someone wins; when we design a game, the game is finished only when we decide that we are done with it.

When I first read that book, I decided that what I’d like to do more than anything else as a game designer is invent an infinite game: a game where the players themselves are playing and not just fiddling about inside some metaphorical sandbox defined by boards and bits and rules. A game where the players themselves are playing in the more inclusive, more open-ended, more childlike, more infinite way.

Creating a new kind of building block, I suppose, would be one way to do this, but somehow I have a hard time imagining a bunch of adults sitting around the kitchen table playing with blocks. Adults want a little more of a sense of purpose in their play, I think, a little more structure. There needs to be a balance: games with too much structure aren’t really very playful, while games without any structure at all … aren’t really games. We want structure, in other words, we just don’t want too much of it.

Part of the fun of a game (as opposed to a set of building blocks) is precisely that there are limitations involved. Chess would be trivial if you could reach over and knock down your opponent’s king without checkmating him first; bowling would be boring if you could walk down the lane and kick down all the pins; there really wouldn’t be any point in trying to play volleyball without a net. It’s the restrictions in a game, its rules, that ultimately make it worth playing.

So this is it, my holy grail: design a board game that is both structured and playful. I think some games come close (Carcassonne, for example), but somehow none (or at least none that I’m aware of) really encourage players to play.

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