January 4, 2011

Homo Ludens

Question: why do you like games? (or why not?)

Nope, it doesn't mean what you think it does. It roughly translates to "man, the player" and is the topic of this blogpost. Over the holidays I had a little bit of time to catch up on some NewYorker reading (yay, trans-continental flights!) and read this awesome article on, of all things, Nintendo. It's a profile called "Master of Play" about Shigeru Miyamoto, the first artist of Nintendo video games - who, interestingly, grew up spending his time entirely outdoors.

The article is fascinating not only because it reveals crazy secrets like Mario was wearing a hat and had a moustache because the designers didn't know how to draw mouths or make hair move when you jumped yet, but also because it dissects not only what makes a successful game, but what it means to play.

The author, Nick Paumgarten, discusses the work of different researchers of play, including Johan Huizinga, a cultural historian who wrote a book called "Homo Ludens" in 1938 created 5 qualifications for "play". These include: 1) it's voluntary; 2) it has unserious consequences (in other words, it does not end in death); 3) it is unproductive, at least in the money sense; 4) it follows an established set of parameters and rules, requiring artificial boundaries of time and space; 5) the outcome is uncertain, and this uncertainty creates room for improvisation and discretion. As Paumgarten says, "In Hyrule [a game created by Miyamoto] you may or may not get past the Deku Babas, and you can attempt to slay them with your own particular panache"

I think I like rule 5 the best. And I think Miyamoto would agree with me, as he is quoted in the article saying that he prefers games that favor chance over skill, giving each player equal advantage. Which I thought was interesting, coming from someone who has created games that now have international tournaments.

Another author quoted in the article, Roger Callois, responds to Huizanga by saying that games can be placed on a continuum from ludus ("taste for gratuitous difficulty") to paidia, ("the power of improvisation and joy") The author contends that Miyamato's video games sit right in the middle. I'm trying to figure out where to place all the games I like to play - and also the personal tastes of the people with whom I like to play games.

My favorite part of the article is where Miyamoto is quoted describing the feeling of learning to play a game. He is quoted comparing it to learning the F chord on the guitar (maybe I like this because I just learned the F chord not too long ago and can relate). I have to directly quote because it's so well written:

“Take the guitar,” he said. “Some people, when they stumble over how to accurately place their fingers in an F chord, they actually give it up. But once you learn how to play an F chord you become more deeply absorbed in playing the guitar.” The F chord, as he sees it, is a kind of bridge between indifference and pleasure. “If the bridge is too easy to pass by, it’s called ‘entertainment.’ If it’s rather difficult, it can be called ‘hobby.’ ”

Where do your interests fall on the continuum of ludus to paidia? What are some of your favorite games (not necessarily video games)?

"it's supposed to be hard. if it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. the hard is what makes it great."
-Jimmy Dugan (played by Tom Hanks) in a League of Their Own

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