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Play and playing

What does it mean to play and why do we do it? William discusses these and other ideas on 'play'.
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Play is natural and important. Everyone and everything plays games. If you look at the animal kingdom, animals will play games. If you look at young human children, they play games. Playing has a really important role for us and our development both educationally, socially, even vocationally. When you look at kids in the playground and they play games, they’re creating these imagined worlds with peculiar arbitrary rules and some kind of end goal. But then as we become adults, we play slightly more complex games. But largely, the structure is the same. There’s some rules that we’ve agreed upon, some end goal, some victory condition. And that’s it, that’s all that a game is.
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In playing these games, what we’re doing is we’re finding ourselves one of a community. Either we’re fulfilling our sort of need for competition, or we’re bringing us closer together as a group, or we’re fulfilling some human need for order and control. And really, the reason we play them is because they’re fun, they’re enjoyable. We have a good time when we’re playing games. And people have been tapping into this for some time. If you look now at things like educational games, so toys for children which are fun but they teach them things like basic arithmetic or how to spell, they’re hugely popular.
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And the reason that they’re so successful is because they’re tapping into that thing about games which makes them so enjoyable, which is just that they’re fun. They’ve bottled some kind of lightning which we as humans, as animals enjoy. If you were to go to some big construction company, before they put anyone on a large digger or some kind of dangerous machinery, they’d have them play a game that simulates this, where they’re in a fun and safe environment. But that game cycle, that repetitive play loop is what teaches them. It’s what allows them to learn and encourages them and motivates them to keep practicing until they get better, until they can operate the machinery safely.
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People have known about the success of games or of play as a way of motivating people to work. And we’ve seen that spread out into other areas. So typically, we start injecting game like elements into non-game systems. This is a process known as gamification. If you were to look, for example, in your wallet and you had any loyalty cards from a cafe, or on your phone and you had any step counters that were encouraging you every day to walk further and walk more, these are small gamified elements where we’re taking what we know about play and how much we as animals enjoy playing and using it for some kind of social good, some kind of change, or indeed, for some kind of benefit to the company that’s doing it.
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Philosophers have long studied play and games. Back in the 1940’s, Johan Huizinga wrote Homo Ludens, “beings that play.” And that work inspired later work by Eric Zimmerman in the 1980’s which coined the term “the magic circle.” The magic circle is this great idea of this intangible space, this abstract space that players inhabit when they’re playing a game. It’s sort of a shared area. And it’s fantastical, it’s magical.
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And Zimmerman is able to justify his use of these fantastical concepts by saying that it’s truly something magical that happens when we play games, because we all accept a different reality away from our own where there are certain rules that we have to abide by and there are certain things we have to do to score points or to win. And we are all playing a part, some role. Typically when we play games, if you’re playing Monopoly, we’re a titan of industry. Or if you’re playing a normal war game, you’re some kind of general or king leading armies. This is obviously different to our everyday lives. So you have to accept that there’s some role play going on, some fantasy.
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What’s so interesting about this magic circle, about when we step across the boundary into this game space, is we inhabit these characters who aren’t ourselves and we’re forced to think, we’re forced to feel what they feel, and we’re forced to look at the world through a lens of how they would see it, the game world in this point. And that’s why games are such a powerful medium for change, because you’re forcing people to take on new perspectives and see the world differently. Consider other medias, such as TV, film, books, these things happen to you. But games, you’re actively playing.
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If they weren’t people to play a game, then the game doesn’t exist, and that’s why we’re so excited by Games for Change.

What does it mean to play and why do we do it? William discusses these and other ideas on ‘play’.

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