Play on Words: Play, Pt. 1

“To play a game is in many ways an act of ‘faith’ that invests the game with its special meaning – without willing players, the game is a formal system waiting to be inhabited, like a piece of sheet music waiting to be played.”
Salen & Zimmerman, Rules of Play

Play is a troublesome word for me, given how pivotal it becomes for the two things I engage in most: music/sound and games. Music is played. Games are played. I started thinking about what the word play really meant to me a few weeks back and this distinction, how we use the word interchangably and yet loosely. How else can this word correspond with itself cross-genre in certain media? How do these two disciplines, approached radically different in form, hold similar substance in mental approach? What does/can a researched study on these psyche say or do for music-game design? This relationship between noises and choices is elevated because of this focus on play between them – I don’t know how to read music as a language, only the experience and physicality of exploring music is what has given it significance in my life. At the same time, exploration and experimentation of the various systems within games is as familiar a trait. It’s by the means of play I not only learn the rules, but how the rules were made, and why.

The distinction I settled on was between the designs & interactivity of both games and music each – leading me to this key characteristic of exploration, and perhaps why modern games have yet to truly capture this experience that’s crucial to what comes of both music and games.

Cards are a good example for this phenomenon, where the medium for play is both the game and the game-engine – the hands of the clock and the gears all visible and distinguishable at once. In that sense, most table-top games are essentially analog gaming engines. Katie Salen & Eric Zimmerman’s book Rules of Play helped articulate this for me when looking at what makes games digital and not. In it references game designer James Dunnigan of both digital and non-digital wargames, in which Dunnigan states that the benefit of traditional wargames and boardgames is that given they demand more initial attention and investment to instigate feedback from the game than a digital one, by doing so they reveal their inner-workings and teach a miniature language to the player. The significance is that non-digital games invite the player to modify them the moment the player understands what defines the game at hand. For example, a deck of cards reveals itself as an engine when its system of symbols, faces, shapes, and numbers creates degrees of value in the different games cards can provide. Modern digital games such as Killzone 2, Crysis, or Fallout 3 do not bother the player with how their engines work – they’re far too complex and indigestible for the player, given how intense it stimulates the senses already. The trade-off is the immediacy that exists from the moment of entering the game, its world, its rules, to exploring it. “Computer games do not reveal their inner-workings”, says Dunnigan, calling the effect the “Black Box Syndrome”.

Where does this “lead-the-band” though? What does exploration, authorship, and the ability to make choices say for games, and their inclusion to music? Are they all that different in approach? More in the coming weeks.

*Author’s Notes: Digitalchemy is getting a bit of a house-cleaning over the month of August. With my next and final year at Cleveland Institute of Art nearby, I’ve decided to spend the rest of the summer refreshing this space towards its initial goals and focuses now that my larger collaborative projects have begun and taken some much needed grounding. Expect to see the continuation of the Creating an Environment series in conjunction to this, soon.

The Critical Thoughts on Games & Art category is being streamlined into critical short-essays/entries that aid the studies and discernment towards my BFA Thesis Project, which spans from the fall until the end of next spring. Play on Words is a series devoted towards what greater significance the most common words in game-design could lend upon closer inspection.


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