Opinion on Raph Koster on Play in Games

by Chris F

The Game Developers Conference is happening just around this time of the year in the United States, and Gamasutra is covering it, posting snippets and ideas from the talks. The whole talks will be posted later on (somewhere where I’ve never been able to find them), but the articles on Gamasutra are a really good point to start discussions from. I’ve just read an article written about a concept that one of the people who we’ve studied at university has formulated and this is is me talking about it, the concept of Play in Games.

GTA V golfing activity

Koster, who is one of the game theoreticians who are actively trying to define the notion of a “game”, has stated that due to a recent scandal regarding whether or not a game was a game, he has been “trying to look at things this way to pick up my tools from my workbench and do better”.

Regarding play in games, this is what Koster theorized:

Across all types of games, there is play. And Koster expanded on this word — challenging how we should even think about it. Yes, it means the activities you do in a game. But using it also implies a possibility space. Think of the usage “this rope has a lot of play” — looseness, in other words.

“Games are meant to wiggle; they’re like machines. You poke and prod at them to see what comes out the other end. That is the overall scope of play of the system,” Koster says. “Play is the wiggle room. It is space. It is explorable areas.”

What is important, he says, is to deliver via games a set of both mechanics and meaningful symbols that are neither too much nor too little for the human brain to hold. In essence, if something is too simple, it bores us; if something is too complicated or abstract, it is no longer interesting.

“The interesting area for play is what is interpretable,” says Koster. “What isn’t just one or two ways, but also isn’t every possible way. In stories, that’s signs and symbols that have more than one meaning. In games, we do the same thing by having consequential choice of input, of agency — by letting the player do different things, by choosing different verbs.”

A complicated system engages the mind, says Koster, and teases the brains of players, and works best when it lies in the middle space between the two extremes of simplicity and complexity.

What I like about this is that his declarations fit in perfectly, in my opinion, with my read on the Cheater’s High, which say that people feel good when cheating because they do something that;s outside the system that gives them an advantage.

Koster talks about pieces in the game that are not part of the core gameplay, that allow the player “wiggle room”. It’s things like collectables or optional (OPTIONAL!!!) mini-games that you can play to pass the time in the game, to take a break from the main story-line. These might even be beneficial for you, like the extra life hidden corridors in the first 3 Prince of Persia games.

The reason why these extra activities, even as far as just allowing the player to find really nice vistas or giving them a “cinematic camera” that they can activate to get a nice view will give the player some options, rewarding them for playing the game. I don’t necessarily believe that these “play” segments give the player meaningful options, but rather playful options. A really nice example I can think of at the moment is the shmup that you could play in Blizzard’s Starcraft 2 between the missions. It was optional, it didn’t give you anything other than the personal satisfaction of getting a high score, but what it did was keep you in the game, engage you. Why should I exit Starcraft 2 and go on another website to play a smaller game to relax between the single player campaign missions, when I can stay in the game and play a mini game to relax?

The reason why I think that Raph’s idea is really important for my dissertation is because it reaffirms something that I’ve been working towards, and that I believe that a game such as the one that I’m working on needs, not to only have a main mechanic and a set of preset missions that you can’t stray away from. It needs to allow you explore, since it’s a map game, a game that needs to make you go out there and explore, share your knowledge and reward you for it. If it takes you out in the real world, it might at least allow you to do more than follow its railroad to the letter. Explore, have fun.

At the same time, games should not abuse this, they shouldn’t be just minigame games (Quantic Dream, I’m looking at you. Good thing you have captivating storytelling mechanics). They should have a solid set of mechanics that the player can use and learn, and also allow you to take an in-game break from the game.

Don’t know if this is right or not, but maybe with the types of games that I’m going towards, the gamified apps, maybe it’s a questions of not only giving meaningful choices, but also giving playful choices.

Chris F.

Nutt, C . (2013). Raph Koster on ‘play’ – the possibility space for games . Available: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/204085/Raph_Koster_on_play__the_possibility_space_for_games.php. Last accessed 10th Nov 2013.