playthings

While the world was busy trying to understand what lawyers and corporations mean with the concept of “game”, I wrote a paper trying to make things even more complicated (if possible!).

Playthings draws on new materialist philosophy to define a new concept, “playthings”, that should allow us to think and write about the properties of the things we play with without necessarily having to think them as “games” or “toys” or “playgrounds”. The paper is dense and academic, and you can read it here.

If what you want is the tl;dr on my take on games, here’s the summary of the paper, in understandable language (famous last words):

The problem with the concept of “game” is that we use it to try to define the nature and qualities of things that are very different from each other (Wittgenstein already made that point, I know). Furthermore, there are more playable things out there than just “games” or “toys”.

What we know is that when we play with things, new interaction and material possibilities take place. That is what I call a “plaything” - any thing that is part of a playful interaction. Most things can become playthings, because most animals like exploring the possibilities of the material world by tinkering with it. Sticks become fishing rods, fruits become balls, and even Excel can become a game engine.

Plaything is a way of describing what happens to things when we play with them. It describes how some things are easier to play with than others (for example). It also can help us explain why we can have playful user interfaces without necessarily needing to categorize them like “games”, or “toys”. A lot of my work on Ridiculous Software involves creating playthings that are neither games nor toys.

My intention is to work with the concept of playthings in two directions: one will be about “play feel”, trying to expand the excellent work that Martin Pichlmair and Mads Johansen have done on game feel. Game feel and play feel overlap, but there is a certain feel that is exclusive to playthings, that does not draw on and cannot be recognized as “games”. The second direction will be to work on the design of playthings, likely using my ridiculous software as a starting point.

So, what does this have to do with games? Well, the other point this article wants to make is that categories like “games” or “toys” cannot be used to describe the nature of anything (in philosophical terms, they are not ontological concepts). “Game” is a concept we use to make sense of a plaything in our culture. “Game” is a cultural concept. It is also an economic concept, and even a social concept. It’s a word we use to make sense of a plaything, and as such is not fixed but evolves with time, as it is used to describe more and more playthings.

For example, when Dear Esther was released, there was a massive discussion online regarding whether it was a “game” or not. That discussion has nothing to do with the nature of “games”, but with what we want to culturally, socially, and economically accept as a “game”. That’s why a few years later we wouldn’t blink when calling Death Stranding a game, or Firewatch. The concept of “game” stretched to allow us to describe all those playthings.

What does this tell us about the Apple vs. Epic lawsuit? Well, it tells us that they are using the terms correctly! These lawyers are not discussing what games are (even if that’s what they are saying). What they are discussing is whether we can use the (cultural)(economic) concept of games when it comes to categorizing playthings on the App Store. What we are seeing is not a discussion on the nature of things, but a debate on how we want to situate playthings in our economy and culture.

The tl;dr of this tl;dr is: use playthings to name the things we play with, and know that using “games” or “toys” implies using cultural, economic, and social concepts, tied to a specific culture and moment in time. Or, playthings are eternal, games are transient.

(sort of)