A Paradox of Play

In my last post I presented reasons why play is an important part of life, is highly beneficial to both children and adults, and is most likely a biological necessity not only for humans but many types of animal as well.

This being so, why don’t we take play more seriously? I think part of the explanation lies in a paradox about play.

This is from Stuart Brown’s working definition of play:

… the first quality of play that sets it off from other activities is its apparent purposelessness. Play activities don’t seem to have any survival value. They don’t help in getting money or food. They are not done for their practical value. Play is done for its own sake… It is also voluntary — it is not obligatory or required by duty.

For something to truly be play, and give the experience of playing, it has to be something that you do for the heck of it, without attaching any greater purpose or significance to it. If you were to do the same activities but motivated by an earnest desire for self-improvement because you know play is meant to be good for you, the activity would automatically cease to be play, the fun would greatly diminish or go out of it altogether, and you wouldn’t get the benefits of playing!

Taking play too seriously destroys it!

Now of course one can “work at” aspects of one’s play. For example you might have a training schedule for your sport, practice sessions for your musical instrument and so on. As long as the ultimate context remains that you follow your pursuit for its own sake, and from your own choosing, this generally doesn’t undermine experiencing playfulness.

The sweet spot of taking things seriously but also lightly is often the most rewarding of all.

At times naturally our “taking things seriously” can get out of hand, and then the once refreshing and delightful hobby becomes another chore to be gotten through. When this happens we start to lose enthusiasm and eventually feel burned out altogether.

“Lightness” also has two major pitfalls. Firstly, while pure spontaneous goofing around is a necessary and rewarding form of play, in many kinds of hobbies that is not enough to make for a satisfying amount of progress. You might be writing your novel for the heck of it, but if you don’t seem to be getting anywhere after months of intermittent writing, you’ll probably get disheartened. Oftentimes your hobby becomes much more fulfilling when you “get serious” about it.

The second pitfall is where we came in: You take your play so lightly that you think it’s not important to make room for it. This can happen with an individual’s personal decisions, but also with choices that societies make. When there is pressure to be achieving ever higher grades, it’s easy for school authorities do decide that fripperies like sport, art and music are relatively dispensable. And when budgets are under stress, why not just sell off the playing fields? So we do that for while, maybe a generation, and then start to worry about inactivity and obesity in kids.

The paradox of play makes our play lives a bit of a balancing act. Sometimes everything is just great, other times it veers off too much one way or the other. Sometimes we need to “lighten up”, other times “get serious”. Perhaps we can take that as a fun challenge in itself!

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The Necessity of Play

I’ve written before about the work of psychologist Stuart Brown, an expert on play in both humans and animals. Yesterday I was reading his book and was struck by a key point: play is a biological necessity.

Early in his book he recounts a striking incident in the Canadian far north:

Hudson seemed to be a very dead dog. That’s what musher Brian La Doone thought as he watched … a polar bear quickstep across the snowfield, straight toward the sled dogs … La Doone spent much of his life in the polar bear’s territory, and judging from the appearance of this particular bear he knew it had not eaten in months. With a skull-crushing bite or a swipe of its massive claws, the bear could easily rip open one of his dogs within seconds.

But Hudson had other things on his mind … Hudson didn’t bark or flee. Instead, he wagged his tail and bowed, a classic play signal.

To La Doone’s astonishment, the bear responded to the dog’s invitation. Bear and sled dog began a playful romp in the snow…

After fifteen minutes, the bear wandered away, still hungry but seemingly sated by this much-needed dose of fun. La Doone couldn’t believe what he’d just witnessed, and yet he was even more astonished when the same bear returned the next day … for another round of frolicking with Hudson … Every night for a week, the polar bear and Hudson met for a playdate…

Photos of this kind of play can be seen in his TED talk on YouTube.

What does this have to do with the supposed necessity of play? Brown’s argument runs like this:

  1. Play is widespread in a large variety of animals
  2. Life in the wild is tough, and evolution does not permit resources to be wasted on frivolous luxuries, least of all on such an enormous scale
  3. Therefore play must be a biological necessity, and one that serves an important purpose across large swathes of the animal kingdom

In his book he discusses what functions play might serve, including examining the effects of play deprivation on animals and among people. Among other things he makes an illuminating comparison in suggesting that play be considered in the same category as sleep and dreaming. They serve complex purposes, many of which we don’t yet understand, and in the past people have greatly underestimated the downsides of skimping on them.

Among other things, sleep and dreaming play an important role in consolidating the learning from the waking day. And play is also a crucial component of learning. In another context I have heard it said that “Some things can only be learned through play”.

If we replace “play” with “natural curiosity, exploration, and trying stuff out for the heck of it” it’s pretty clear that it’s an important element in developing many kinds of skills.

Stuart Brown explains how for example NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has found that one of the key markers of the kind of people they need is that they enjoyed making and fixing things like radios and such as a hobby in childhood. People with stellar academics from top schools turn out not to be good enough practical problem solvers for them if they hadn’t had early experiences of just goofing around with technology.

Likewise James Gleick in his biography of Richard Feynman ponders what made some of Feynman’s childhood contemporaries successful scientists and some not. The most noticeable thing to him was that those who excelled as adults were those who also did things like recreational math puzzles for enjoyment. In other words those for whom math or science or engineering was also play.

So, make room for a bit of play in your life!

What is your play personality?

According to Stuart Brown, a psychologist who specializes in studying play and its importance in our lives and well-being, all adults have “play personalities” …

As we grow older, we start to have strong preferences for certain types of play over others. Some things float your boat, others don’t. Over the years, I’ve observed that people have a dominant mode of play that falls into one of eight types. I call these play personalities.

Stuart Brown, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul

His eight types are:

  • The Joker… “A joker’s play… revolves around some kind of nonsense…. Parents make infants laugh by making silly sounds, blowing raspberries, and generally being foolish… Later, the class clown finds social acceptance by making other people laugh”

  • The Kinesthete… “Kinesthetes are people who like to move…includes athletes, but also others… who find themselves happiest moving as part of dance, swimming, or walking… While kinesthetes may play games, competition is not the main focus — it is only a forum for engaging in their favorite activity.

  • The Explorer… “Exploration becomes their preferred avenue into the alternative universe of play… Exploring can be physical—literally, going to new places… it can be emotional—searching for a new feeling or deepening of the familiar, through music, movement, flirtation… It can be mental: researching a new subject or discovering new experiences and points of view…”

  • The Competitor… “The competitor loves fighting to be number 1. If games and keeping score are your thing, this may be your primary play personality. The games can be solitary or social—either a solitary video game or a team game like baseball—and they may be actively participated in or observed as a fan.”

  • The Director… “Directors enjoy planning and executing scenes and events.. They are born organizers. At their best, they are the party givers, the instigators of great excursions to the beach, the dynamic center of the social world. At worst, they are manipulators.”

  • The Collector… “The thrill of play for the collector is to have and to hold the most, the best, the most interesting collection of objects or experiences. Coins, toy trains, antiques, plastic purses, wine, shoes, ties, video clips of race-car crashes, or pieces of the crashed cars themselves, anything and everything is fair game for the collector.”

  • The Artist/Creator.. “For the artist/creator, joy is found in making things. Painting, print-making, woodworking, pottery… furniture making, knitting, sewing, and gardening… Artist/creators may end up showing their creations to the world… or may never show anyone what they make. The point is to make something… or just to make something work… someone who enjoys taking apart a pump, replacing broken parts, cleaning it, and putting back together a shiny, perfectly working mechanism…”

  • The Storyteller.. “Storytellers are, of course, novelists, playwrights, cartoonists.. but they are also those whose greatest joy is reading novels and watching movies, people who make themselves part of the story, who experience the thoughts and emotions of characters in the story. Performers of all sorts are storytellers… through dance, acting, magic tricks, or lectures… the realm of the storyteller is in the imagination, they can bring play to almost any activity. They may be playing a recreational game of tennis, but in their mind, each point is part of an exciting drama”

According to Stuart Brown, while we’re all a mix of these personalities, and our preferences might change over time, or be different in different contexts, most of us do have dominant types. He believes that identifying your own types can be useful for self-awareness and finding greater satisfaction in your play. I imagine that it can also be very useful in understanding our friends who might have very different play personalities to us, even though we’re engaging in the very same play activity together!

My Play Personality

For myself, I’d say I’m firstly an Explorer, and secondarily a Kinesthete. The Kinesthete part is quite a surprise to recognize as growing up I was never a sporty type, nor much of a dancer. Much later in life I took up tennis and loved it, and nowadays I do a lot of walking. Interestingly my physical activities are influenced by my “Explorer” leanings. Walking, I love to explore new places, or discover unnoticed nooks and crannies of familiar places. In tennis, I get a kick out of developing my skills, discovering the range of things I can do with my body and the racket, etc.

The Explorer side of me is much more evident in my not-so-physical activities. I enjoy learning about almost anything, have traveled widely all over the world, like to meet and learn about new people etc. One of my main hobbies is chess, and one my main satisfactions in it is gradually developing a deeper understanding of it, and exploring different types of position and different ways of playing.

Interestingly, among my chess friends, despite us all having the same hobby, I can see quite a range of play personality types. There are the Directors, and thanks goodness for them. The chess scene would not exist without people who get satisfaction out of running clubs, organizing events etc. There are clearly Competitors, who care about results and winning most of all. There are people who collect stuff, such as chess books. I’ve met a guy who likes to make chess sets, and I know someone who enjoys studying and writing about local chess history, perhaps a kind of Storyteller. For all I know there may be Jokers and Kineshetes and such as well, but they don’t have much opportunity to express that side of themselves around chess events.

Of course I do have elements of many of the other personality types as well.

  • Joker – Well, I don’t really see myself as a joker or someone dedicated to entertaining people. Yet I do engage in banter and humorous remarks, and people generally find me fun to hang out with.

  • Competitor – I definitely have a competitive side, so I care about my tennis and chess results etc. But it’s not all that dominant, and perhaps intriguingly what competitiveness I have is perhaps only loosely connected with play as such. It’s not the competing that makes a thing fun. I’d generally rather play a tough opponent who will provide an interesting challenge, than someone who I’d have a better chance of beating.

  • Creator – Well, I get a kick out of things like writing blog posts, or coding small bits of software. But by and large, what I create for fun is small and I don’t do it frequently. If I write fiction, it’s a very short story, not a novella.

  • Storyteller – I do have a little bit of this in me. I enjoy a bit of light RP, or making up tales to amuse kids. Yet it’s never been a major activity for me.

Maybe you noticed that I left out Collector! I struggle to think of any aspect of collecting that really appeals. I might love an author, and seek out many books by them. But it would not occur to me to try to read all their books, just for the sake of completeness. Nor to collect different editions of their books, or collect other items associated with them or their work.

Your Play Personality?

I was reminded of this whole concept of play personalities by Syp’s post Am I missing out by not having a collection?. I wonder if Syp is a Collector who’s not got around to expressing that side of himself, or if he’s never got around to collecting seriously because that is not really his play personality at all.

Among my online friends with several I can make a good guess at their play preferences, while with many others, I don’t have much idea.

So, I’ll wrap up this post with a little survey…


Play Personality Survey

What is your dominant play personality?

If you had to pick just one, which personality do you most strongly identify with?

What types of play attract you?

I assume most people like several different types of play. Tick anything that is a good fit for you. If something is only mildy you, something that only attracts you occasionally for example, don’t tick that.

If you’d like to expand on describing your own play personality, or have thoughts on the concept of play personalities itself, please do comment below.

Don’t underestimate science fiction…

I came across a great article by Neil Gaiman on what science fiction, reading and exercising our imaginations via daydreaming can do for us. Here is a very striking quote:

I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed? It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls. Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.

This certainly rings true for how science fiction and fantasy helped to make me the person I am. Though being the person I am, I also have to wonder how far the causality goes the other way…. are the kind of people who would anyway have been drawn to creativity and innovation, esp of a technological sort, also just the kind of people that will get into reading SF&F if it’s around? My guess is it’s probably a bit of both. One issue I’d take with the article is the wording “an obligation for all citizens”. Obligation is a killer of playfulness, and it’s playfulness that is the most fertile ground for creativity. In fact too much emphasis on the value that can be gotten from things like reading, daydreaming and playing is going to undermine that very value! (see also)

Do it, encourage it, but don’t get overly serious and worthy about it I say!

The Great Pay-to-Win Debate: Roundup & Commentary

Simeon_Stylites_stepping_down

When I was pretty young I happened to come across the word “Stylite” in the dictionary. Mind-bogglingly enough a stylite is a member of an early Christian sect which used to live on top of pillars. I’m afraid my teen self couldn’t stop laughing for quite some time, and even now the concept brings a chuckle.

What does all this have to do with MMOs, I hear you ask? Well… it goes to show that people find worth, meaning and virtue in some rather strange activities. Much as people find meaning and worth in some rather strange MMO activities1, and consequently get excited about whether their exertions are devalued by the possibility of others by-passing them and reaching similar goals via the mere spending of money.

It is therefore in a spirit of religious tolerance and anthropological curiosity that we turn our minds to the great pay-to-win debate…

The Great Debate, Part 284

If you’ve been around the MMO blogosphere a while, you have seen this topic come around a number of times.

The current flurry of posts seems to have been kicked off by a piece on Massively OP, The Soapbox: Can MMOs eradicate pay-to-win?. This is a sample…

a quick perusal of the ArcheAge forums invariably turns up posts by thirtysomething I’m-too-busy-to-play types admonishing their anti-P2W counterparts for daring to suggest that games should be played through instead of paid through.

From my perspective, paying for your gear or any sort of character advancement is an extremely short-sighted way of approaching MMORPGs. But I’m seeing it accepted more and more often in games, on forums, and in the blogosphere, and it boggles my mind to see just how many people are falling in line.

Personally I have a good deal of sympathy with the idea (not a new one, but repeated in that post) that if people are willing to pay good money to not have to play some part of your game, that’s a pretty sad indictment of that part of the game. As I’ve said before, too many games contain too many elements that don’t really deserve to be called play at all.

Of course, not everyone likes the same things…I guess it’s understandable that not everyone wants to take part in every aspect of an MMO, and maybe considerate of the game designers to not force that on people. This is something that MMO Gypsy makes much of in Today in P2W: Gamers are getting older and that’s okay!

… obviously there are many ways to find pleasure in games. I’ve played MMOs in the past just to dress up my characters and yes, buy exclusive clothes from an ingame store. Likewise, P2W-players do very much also play the games they invest in, duh – it’s not like they’re just paying money and then never spend any time on actual game play. They just play differently.

Sadly though, the kind of things that come up in the context of the pay-to-win discussion are typically boring grinds that pretty much no-one actually likes, and which nevertheless make up 80-90% of the time spent “playing” in MMOs.

Yes, if people mostly want to skip the crappy 80% of your game to get to the enjoyable 20%, this is not exactly a ringing endorsement of what a great game you made.

What is winning anyway?

Liores (who coined the “Part 284” line I used above) has a lot of interesting things to say in her post The Eternal Payment Model Debate: part 284. A notable theme is the question of what “winning” means in MMOs anyway…

MMOs don’t have a consistent win condition. It varies wildly from game to game, and from player to player. Perhaps you feel that you’ve won an MMO by completing the hardest group content, or maybe you’re an ArcheAge player and you “win” by being dominant in PvP.

I like collecting cosmetic items, and I evaluate my gaming success by getting the “best” hats and mounts and such.

A similar point is made in a somewhat different way by Tobold

I think this is a case of everybody having a different win condition in a MMORPG, and many people wanting that *their* personal win condition doesn’t involve money.

This raises the question of why exactly do people care whether their own “win condition” involves money. There seem to be two separate aspects here…

  1. No-one can “win” without paying. e.g. You can’t get the best cosmetic hat or the finest PVP gear without paying, because it’s only in the cash shop.

  2. While you can “win” without paying, other people can get the same thing through purchases. e.g. The best gear drops in raids, but can also be bought.

Some people seem to object to (1) and I’m finding it hard to understand where they’re coming from. Maybe they think something that seems essential to them should be included with the sub or the box price or whatever, and it’s not fair to charge extra for it. Maybe they’re the type of people for whom the game doesn’t even really start until you’re geared up for endgame raiding.

Many more people seem to object to (2) though. Most of the Massively OP post is about skipping grind after all, and you do hear a lot of objections to insta-level items and suchlike. What is going on there? I don’t know for sure, but I can imagine various types of feelings that people might have…

  • “It’s not fair that I had to work so hard for X, when someone else can just buy it”

  • “My sense of achievement in getting X is ruined by the fact there’s an easy alternative way to get it”

  • “The kudos that should be mine because of what I’ve achieved is undermined because other people have all the outward appearances of what I have earned without any real achievement on their part”

My guess is that a lot of this stuff is wrapped up with people’s self-image and the qualities that they value in themselves. Some people seem to see virtue and character in manfully doing the grind, as the Stylites saw virtue in living on top of a pillar.

Personally I thoroughly dislike excessive grinding, and I can’t see a lot to be proud about for having done it. But neither am I willing to pay big bucks to avoid it. Bad news game designers: I have a ton of other fun and interesting things I can do with my time instead of playing your game if those are going to be the only options you offer me.


  1. Collecting hats? Hmm… 

Play is more than just fun

I’ve mentioned before that I think play is an important and much underestimated part of our lives. Here’s a TED talk by Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist and researcher into play, that has lots of interesting things to say on that topic.

Some points that struck me

There’s a useful transcript of the talk on the TED site, and here are some key points taken from that, which were interesting to me…

  • “So what does play do for the brain? Well, a lot…. Nothing lights up the brain like play.”

  • JPL, NASA and Boeing, before they will hire a research and development problem solver — even if they’re summa cum laude from Harvard or Cal Tech — if they haven’t fixed cars, haven’t done stuff with their hands early in life, played with their hands, they can’t problem-solve as well.”

  • the opposite of play is not work, it’s depression

  • “So I would encourage you all to engage not in the work-play differential — where you set aside time to play — but where your life becomes infused minute by minute, hour by hour, with body, object, social, fantasy, transformational kinds of play

  • “And this is where my chasing animals for four, five years really changed my perspective from a clinician to what I am now, which is that play has a biological place, just like sleep and dreams do.”

I’m going to be looking more into Stuart Brown’s work, so expect more posts about this in the future.

Tales of Creativity and Play

One of the themes of this blog is that play is an important part of our lives, and playing matters more than many people think.

Here’s a TED video, from the Serious Play Conference of 2008. The main focus is on how playfulness is important for creativity, and it shares many examples of the use of play in designing better products and services.

MMO players might find the section on roleplay, starting at 19:40, especially interesting, though the whole video is well worth a watch. And fittingly it’s a fun watch as well.

MMO game companies and the gaming community might also want to think about the importance of a safe, non-judgmental environment for fostering playfulness. Worrying about what people will think of you isn’t conducive to play or creativity, but our game servers can sometimes be pretty judgmental places with trolling, one-upmanship and such.