What is play? How do I know if I am doing it properly? Fear not, I will provide you with a comprehensive walkthrough – all the ways in which it is possible to play, and how they relate to each other.
So what are things doing when they play? There is a lot of diverse research on the topic, and there are many ideas. Mellou (1994) provides a good summary. Initially people dismissed play as animals burning off excess energy when all needs are satisfied. Then some hypothesised that it might have evolved as a way for young to practice the tasks that they will perform as adults – a kind of role play for gaining skill at grown-up things. Others have suggested it is a form of social bonding. Is it for developing skills of language and pretense? Is play a way for culture to arise and evolve? Is it a way to subvert and break from the norm? Is it escapism? Is it simply the opposite of work and seriousness? Is it by definition unproductive?
All of these theories and studies defined play in different ways. These differences in definitions were because they were interested in a specific context or question. For example, Salen and Zimmerman (2003) defined play as “free movement within a more rigid structure,” to help them discuss game design. Play was defined in such a way as to ensure clarity in their particular investigation. But these definitions do have some things in common:
- Intrinsically motivated: Play is pursued for its own sake, not due to an external reward or punishment.
- Fun: Play is enjoyable.
- Voluntary: Play is something that is freely chosen, not mandated externally.
- Activity: Play requires taking action, or interacting with something – you can’t play by lying back and doing nothing. That is just resting or viewing or listening. In order to play, you need to participate.
These seem to be the minimum requirements to include when trying to understand play in some context. Additional elements are often added depending on the topic under investigation. Turnbull and Jenvey (2007) empirically studied what criteria people consider necessary for play. When trying to understand the evolutionary or social purpose of play, that is all fine. But what if you want to understand the variety of behaviours people exhibit when playing games?
The purpose, or need fulfillment of play will depend on the kind of play. Or the kind of play depends on the needs of the player. In any case, psychologists have come up with several categories of play.
- Attunement play: For bonding between parent and child.
- Body play: For physical exercise and skill development.
- Object play: For learning about the object and exploring how it works and what it does.
- Social play: For learning social skills and making social status manoeuvres.
- Pretend play: For developing creativity.
- Narrative play: For learning about communication and self-awareness.
- Creative play: Transformative play that finds solutions to problems.
- Functional / sensorimotor: Repeated movements with or without objects (e.g., repetitive banging of a block on a container) for the pleasure of the physical sensation.
Drachen et al. (2009) and Barata et al. (2014) have examined data on player behaviour in games to identify different clusters that suggest some distinct playstyles or personality types. Yee (2005) and Nacke et al. (2011) have used surveys to try to find different motivations for play. There have also been several reviews of the literature on player types (e.g. Bateman, 2014; Hamari & Tuunanen, 2014). When trying to figure out why people play, or indeed how they play, there are several possible foci:
- Genre preferences
- Ways games appeal to players / needs fulfilled
- In-game behaviours / playstyles
- Types of fun / desired subjective experiences
I could develop a taxonomy of any of these things, but I focus here on the bottom of that list: pursued fun experiences. Because this is the ultimate cause of the differences in all the categories above. Differences in motivation, genre preferences, in-game playstyles, and player personalities, can all ultimately be reduced to pursuing different experiences through play. Starting at the other end of the list (looking at personalities) is problematic. People can pursue multiple mixed experiences at the same time, and change their mind over time, which makes the categories we devise very fluid and subtle. Whereas when we focus on personality we create simplistic stereotypes and imply that each player fits into one of these categories to the exclusion of the others, and doesn’t change from moment to moment. That said, even with the focus put on pursued experiences that can be fickle, it is still likely that players will have long-lasting preferences and dispositions, which may evolve much more slowly over time. So we are likely to see multiple overlapping layers of change, from the micro timescale of moment-to-moment play impulses, to the macro timescale of genre preferences and personality.
Of course, I have my own play preferences and that is likely to bias the level of thought and detail that goes into the different parts of any taxonomy I analyse or create. That shouldn’t stop anyone from reading up on and thinking on these questions to come up with taxonomies to help explore their questions.
I have read about many taxonomies devised for various purposes. Combining all of these play pursuits together, we have a comprehensive picture. Broadly, there are several large categories, in order of low-level and direct, to high-level and indirect:
- Interaction / Procedure: Playing for the moment-to-moment process and mechanics of play – the visceral feedback from interaction, the problem solving, the triumph over obstacles, the progress and completion of goals.
- Exploratory Play: Playing for the sake of discovery – the excitement of the unknown, the joy of experimentation and invention, the pull of curiosity.
- Creativity: Playing as a way to create, to be expressive or artistic.
- Fantasy: Playing to experience the world, the setting, the characters, the narrative, the fiction, the backstory, the themes, the subtext, the authored content of the game.
- Social: Playing for the social relationships and interactions with other players – cooperating, competing, griefing, social bonding and belonging, or jockeying for social status.
Each of these can be broken down into more specific play pursuits.
Interaction / Procedure
- Juice: The visceral reaction from interacting – “game feel“. This can be a power trip where small actions cause spectacular cascades of reaction, or just appreciating the subtlety of the finesse involved in the control scheme. Either way, it is about the experience of control and manipulation. This is related to the play pursuit of sense pleasure. Games like Prototype, and Red Faction: Guerilla with how they give the player superhuman powers of destruction and demolition.
- From Struggle to Mastery: Pursuing challenges to master them. But which kind of mastery you develop depends on the kind of struggle.
- Obstacle: Develops skill. Games like Quake with its twitch skills.
- Problem: Develops knowledge.
- Plan: Solving problems by carefully arranging the solution then flawlessly executing it. Games like Hitman.
- Improvise: Solving problems by thinking on your feet, adapting to a dynamic situation. Games like Starcraft.
- Skill: Improving your ability to manipulate, execute and control.
- Knowledge: Improving your knowledge of the mechanics, the systems, their behaviour, and the usefulness of different strategies in different situations.
- Fiero: The feeling of triumph and achievement at having overcome an obstacle or solved a problem.
- Perfection: This is not the joy of completion or simply overcoming an obstacle. This is painstakingly pursuing the top of the multiplayer rankings, developing the unbeatable strategy, the perfect speed run. To pursue perfection in a game is to look at it like an Olympic athlete, and to develop insane, god-like skills and knowledge that can only come from endless hours of practice and dedication. Games like Super Meat Boy, where you can only win through practicing over and over.
- Abnegation: The feeling of zoning out, submitting to the structure and monotony of the game patterns, perhaps as a kind of meditation. Replaying a well-mastered game just to re-experience and maintain your competence at playing the game. Think of the kind of people who enjoy grinding, or have a favourite game that the come back to just to unwind at the end of a long day. Games like Candy Crush.
Productivity: The intersection of abnegation, exploration and creation. This is play as work, as getting things done. For example, the enjoyment of building up or completing a collection. Like Steam Achievements.
- Collecting: The enjoyment of accumulating a growing collection of certain items of value / meaning. Games like Pokemon.
- Organising: The satisfaction of sorting, cleaning, clearing. Games like Tetris, and Viscera Cleanup Detail.
- Progress / Completion: The satisfaction of making progress, getting closer to a goal, and checking items off a list, then completing the list. Games like Skyrim, with its checklist of incomplete quests.
- Experimentation / Learning by Doing: Satisfying curiosity by trying different actions and combinations of actions, or building contraptions and combining objects to see how they interact.
- Game Griefing / Learning by Breaking: That curious but mischievous attitude, to see what happens when things go horribly wrong. This is the antithesis of learning by making.
- Disruption: Trying to fail the game in creative ways, or pushing the game’s variables to extreme values to see how the game reacts to such a ridiculous situation. Trying to manufacture chaos.
- Transgression: Trying to break the game. Disobeying instructions, searching for ways to break immersion, and straight-up bug-hunting.
- Contraption Construction / Learning by Making: Serving the dual purpose of productivity/creation as well as curiosity. The antithesis of learning by breaking. Games like Garry’s Mod.
- House of Cards / Line of Dominos: The intersection of learning by making and breaking – the joy from first constructing an elaborate creation, in order to then destroy it.
Self-Discovery / Expression: Includes the appeal of customisation and personalisation. The intersection of creativity and exploration – using the game to see what decisions, thoughts, ideas, behaviours and creations come out of your own mind. Games like Dragon Age, The Walking Dead, or Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
- Artist: Creating things that are beautiful or interesting in their own right, using the game as a paintbrush. Games like Spore.
- Director: Enjoying telling stories. Creating scenes, situations, pictures or movies using the game’s fiction to tell some kind of small story. Sometimes it results in no screenshots, films, blog posts or any record whatsoever of the story, except in the player’s own memory. This intersects with creativity and fantasy (often role-play). Games like The Sims.
- Setting / World: Enjoying where the game is set – the world, the time period, the culture, the atmosphere.
- Realism: Enjoying the simulation for its veracity and authenticity. Games like ARMA II.
- Escapsim: Enjoying leaving the mundane real world, being in a new, alien, fantasy world/situation. Being immersed in the world, drinking in the atmosphere. Games like Skyrim.
- Tourism / Learning by Looking: Enjoying experiencing the content of the world. Serves the dual purpose of satisfying the curiosity of what is at the top of the mountain, and pursuing the sense pleasure of the awesome view to be discovered. Games like No Man’s Sky.
- Role-Play: Enjoying being another person, playing the part. Also connected to escapism, narrative, empathy and self-discovery/expression.
- Narrative: Enjoying the authored story content.
- Characters / Empathy: Enjoying the interplay of the characters or even just the company of characters in the game, like your pet dog.
- Plot: Wanting to see what happens next.
- Subtext / Background: Enjoying trying to discern the implications of subtle story, character, and world clues that you can use to piece together information about the history of the fictional world, or the themes or message of the game.
- Cathartic Subversion: The enjoyment of breaking from the norm, being evil, ignoring the taboo. Sell a child into slavery, kill innocent people, be a difficult jerk in conversations with NPCs. Have fun doing what you shouldn’t be doing. This requires suspension of disbelief, buying into the fantasy of the world. This can also connect with transgressive play and comedic play. Games like Carmagedoon, Fable, Fallout, and Black & White.
Comedic play: The humour that arises from suspending disbelief, then orchestrating a situation which is absolutely hilarious from that suspension of disbelief. From the point of view of a character in the world, the situation or event is utterly preposterous. This is related to transgressive play and fantasy play. It can also be a social form of play. Games like Goat Simulator and Kissing Simulator.
- Cooperation / Fellowship: Enjoying belonging to a group of other players and helping them out.
- Sacrifice: You are worse off but your allies are better off.
- Assistance / Commensalism: You are unaffected but your allies are better off.
- Cooperation / Mutualism: Both you and your allies are better off.
- Coordination: Mutual dependence, assistance, planning and coordination.
- Competition / Dominance: Enjoying showing your superiority over others, rising in social status, or being at the top of the social pecking order.
- Parasitism: You are better off but your enemies are worse off.
- Amensalism: You are unaffected but your enemies are worse off.
- Synnecrosis: Mutual destruction. You and your enemies are worse off.
- Social Griefing / Sadism: Enjoying harming people.
These pursuits are arranged in a rough spectrum from very low-level, direct benefits, to very high-level, indirect benefits. At the low level, what you get out of it is very directly due to the game itself, whereas at the high level, the game is just a vessel or medium through which you get what you are looking for. The higher level pursuits are less dependent on the specific design of the game.
As you can see, the social and fantasy pursuits are the least fleshed out because they are not things that I have a natural tendency to pursue or think about very often.
I have tried to be comprehensive while also trying to avoid redundancy. Other projects like the Fun Factor Catalog and the Game Design Patterns Wiki prioritise being comprehensive, and gathering all of the possible items. I think there is tremendous value in that – casting your net wide and making sure you collect everything that might be interesting so that you don’t miss anything. But particularly in the domain of science, there is also value in having a parsimonious model that contains only as many components as are necessary to explain and predict phenomena. In fact, I think cataloging play pursuits would be a valuable purpose for a wiki.
Since I started this project my list and arrangement of play pursuits has evolved significantly, and no doubt it will continue to evolve. Specifically, I am looking forward to scientific studies that can establish whether two pursuits are really the same thing, or if one is dependent on the other, etc. With this empirical information, we can construct our play pursuit diagrams to reflect reality rather than just what seems to make sense.
Fundamentally, people play in a wide variety of contexts and for a wide variety of reasons. The definitions of play often have the same problems as definitions of games: They are either too broad and vague as to be meaningless (they include many things that don’t seem like play), or they are too narrow and specific, excluding many things that most people think of as play.
So what is play?
Well, what do you want it to be?
Whatever you are studying or trying to figure out, you are probably better off using your own definition of play that suits your purposes. Are you interested in why some people enjoy their work and others don’t? Do you want to know why children do weird things? Do you want to know how people teach themselves new skills? Whatever you are looking at, there will be a reason why play is interesting in that context, and there will be different elements to your definition of play that are vital or irrelevant. You should look at the research and theories of play, and tweak the definitions they provide to make sure you are pursuing what is interesting about your topic.
Here are some taxonomies of play, fun, motivation, personality and behaviour in games:
- Novelty (which maps to Openness to Experience) is the presence or lack of new, interesting, dramatic, or beautiful things in the game. A high Novelty game would be Minecraft, and a low Novelty game would be Flight Simulator.
- Challenge (which maps to Conscientiousness) is the part of the game that requires the player to use self-discipline: overcoming obstacles, work, avoiding danger, and (literally) collecting achievements. A high Challenge game would be Splinter Cell, and a low Challenge game would be Lego Star Wars.
- Stimulation (which maps to Extraversion) is the part of the game that excites, be that through direct thrill-rides or through social interactions. A high Stimulation game would be Just Dance, and a low Stimulation game would be Flower.
- Harmony (which maps to Agreeableness) is the part of the game where the player behaves in a particular way toward other people or characters. Do you shoot them? Or help them? A high Harmony game would be Little Big Planet, and a low Harmony game would be Street Fighter.
- Threat (which maps to Neuroticism) is the negative tone of the game that can evoke negative emotions in the player, such as addiction, anxiety, anger, or sadness. Threat is the domain that has so far resisted efforts to predict consistently what players will actually like.
- Veterans: Complete the game quickly with relatively few deaths.
- Solvers: Slow, careful players that deal with enemies relatively easily and derive most of their challenge from puzzles. They avoid asking for hints.
- Pacifists: Get most of their challenge from the enemies in the game, but otherwise a widely-varying group.
- Runners: Die often, but complete the game quickly.
- Competence: Mastery and effectiveness.
- Autonomy: Agency, freedom and control.
- Relatedness: Social belonging.
- Hard Fun / Fiero: Challenge and achievement.
- Easy Fun: Curiosity, fantasy, exploration, creation.
- Serious Fun: Repetition, rhythm, collection.
- People Fun: Cooperation, competition, communication.
- Power Gaming: Enjoying accumulating greater power by getting better items, abilities, etc.
- Role-playing: Enjoying playing a character and playing off of other player characters or NPCs.
- Wargaming: Enjoying overcoming tough challenges through tactics and skill rather than raw power.
- Storytelling: Enjoying being immersed in and discovering new things about a fictional world.
- Gamist: Pursues winning, completing goals, competing.
- Narrativist: Pursues a good story.
- Simulationist: Pursues a realistic recreation of the game’s world.
- Achievers / Diamonds
- Explorers / Spades
- Socialisers / Hearts
- Killers / Clubs
- Achievement: Success at the game’s goals, for example acquiring more powerful items and abilities.
- Advancement: Progress, power, accumulation, status.
- Mechanics: Numbers, optimisation, templating, analysis.
- Competition: Challenging others, provocation, domination.
- Socialising: Casual chat, helping others, making friends.
- Relationship: Personal, self-disclosure, finding and giving help. Developing meaningful, supportive friendships with other players.
- Teamwork: Collaboration, groups, group achievements.
- Immersion: Being in the fictional world.
- Discovery: Exploration, lore, finding hidden things.
- Roleplaying: Storyline, character history, roles, fantasy.
- Customisation: Appearances, accessories, styles, color schemes.
- Escapism: Relax, escape from real life, avoid real life problems.
- Plan: Achievement through careful planning.
- Practice: Achievement through repeated practice until perfect.
- Improvise: Achievement through adaptation and thinking on your feet.
- Sensation: Perceptual pleasure.
- Fantasy: Losing yourself in a fictional world.
- Fellowship: Social belonging and cooperation.
- Masochism: Submitting to the game’s rules to zone out.
- Domination: Besting other players.
- Fortune: Winning by chance (e.g. gambling).
- Imagination: Pretending, storytelling.
- Spectatorship: Watching stories.
- Directorship: Making stories.
- Socialisation: Friendly social interaction.
- Recreation: Recharging, for adjusting physical, mental, or emotional state.
- Distraction: To avoid thinking about something in the real world.
- Contemplation: Pondering thought-provoking issues.
- Exertion: Getting physically energised through play.
- Subversion: Breaking social or technical rules.
- Provocation: Antagonising other players.
- Disruption: Breaking the game.
- Transgression: Playing as an evil character.
- Power Gamer: Enjoys winning, optimising, perfecting strategies, improving his character’s abilities and equipment.
- Butt-Kicker Wants to let off steam, smash stuff.
- Tactician: Wants complex, realistic problems.
- Specialist: Has a favourite character class or playstyle (e.g. Ninja), and if your game doesn’t support that specific style of play then they won’t enjoy it.
- Method Actor: Enjoys role-playing.
- Storyteller: Wants a good narrative.
- Casual Gamer: They play to hang out with friends, and are invested in the game only as a social activity.
- Conqueror: Challenge, optimisation, fiero.
- Manager: Wants to master complex systems.
- Wanderer: Wants unique, interesting experiences.
- Participant: Wants emotional involvement, whether that is by playing with other people, or by a good narrative or relatable NPCs.
- Logistical player: Drawn to optimisation, planning, trading. Behaves with caution, meticulousness. Tolerant of repetition, rules, procedures.
- Tactical player: Drawn to improvisation, operation, controlling single characters, thinking on the spot. Behaves with impulsiveness, competence. Tolerant of risk, speed, noise (in the ‘signal to noise’ sense).
- Strategic player: Drawn to problem solving, hypothesising, controlling multiple units, thinking ahead. Behaves with logic, perfectionism. Tolerant of complexity.
- Diplomatic player: Drawn to harmonising, imagining, co-operation. Behaves with empathy, morality (their personal morality). Tolerant of impressionism.
- Seeker: Curious, enjoys wonder and discovery.
- Survivor: Enjoys terror and pulse-pounding danger.
- Daredevil: Playing on the edge, with dizzying platforms and rushing around at high speed.
- Mastermind: Enjoys solving puzzles and devising strategies.
- Conqueror: Enjoys struggling until they achieve victory.
- Achiever: Motivated by long-term goals, collection, completion.
- Immersion: I could use my fantasy in the game.
- Tension: I was nervous during the game.
- Competence: I was good at it.
- Flow: While playing, I forgot everything around me.
- Negative affect: I found it boring.
- Challenge: I had to put a lot of effort in the game.
- Positive affect: Playing the game was fun.
- Social experiences: Playing with others.
- Physical experiences: Physical activity during the game.
- Captivation: Forgetting one’s surroundings
- Challenge: Testing abilities in a demanding task
- Competition: Contest with oneself or an opponent
- Completion: Finishing a major task, closure
- Control: Dominating, commanding, regulating
- Cruelty: Causing mental or physical pain
- Discovery: Finding something new or unknown
- Eroticism: A sexually arousing experience
- Exploration: Investigating an object or situation
- Expression: Manifesting oneself creatively
- Fantasy: An imagined experience
- Fellowship: Friendship, communality or intimacy
- Humor: Fun, joy, amusement, jokes, gags
- Nurture: Taking care of oneself or others
- Relaxation: Relief from bodily or mental work
- Sensation: Excitement by stimulating senses
- Simulation: An imitation of everyday life
- Submission: Being part of a larger structure
- Subversion: Breaking social rules and norms
- Suffering: Experience of loss, frustration, anger
- Sympathy: Sharing emotional feelings
- Thrill: Excitement derived from risk, danger
- competition—to be the best player of the game;
- challenge—to push oneself to beat the game or get to the next highest level;
- social interaction—to play as a social experience with friends;
- diversion—to pass time or to alleviate boredom;
- fantasy—to do things that you cannot do in real life such as driving race cars or flying; and
- arousal—to play because the game is exciting.
- Agon: Competition.
- Alea: Chance.
- Mimesis: Role-play.
- Ilinx: Vertigo, altering of perception (e.g. Rollercoasters, spinning in circles).
- Padia: Improvisation. Free-form play.
- Ludus: Rule-based play. Games.
- Constrained: Construction play.
- Community: The joy of sharing creations in a persistent world.
- Visceral: Appreciation of aesthetics.
- Behavioural: Enjoying using and interacting.
- Reflective: Enjoying the story told, the idea or thought evoked.
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