Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Playgrounds - Food for thought

Followers of my blog, the following is not a review, but it does have something to do with games, even if at first it may not appear to have anything to do with them.  It's a conceptual idea that's been brewing over the last week in my mind, and I feel I need to get it out.  And maybe, just maybe, it will change the way you think about things as well.  Or it may just confuse you to pieces, seeing as it's mostly a raw dump of my thoughts over the last week.

As children, one of the basic things we learn from is our time on The Playground. As children, much more so then adults, we love to play pretend.

Not everyone has a physical playground in the grown up definition of the word.  For example, I played more often in my house then in any nearby park.  So in that sense, my house was my Childhood Playground.

If you really open your mind, anything can be a Playground.

A Playground, in the childish definition of the word, is any place or world that allows one to play in it.  In playing, there are often rules, not always set in stone, but there to provide structure for those who want to play in it to all be on the same page and play together.  If you watch children play at a literal playground, they often find a set of "agreed on rules", such as "this is lava, don't fall in", or "the main structure in the playground is our spaceship".

The Playground also has a lot of unwritten rules such as "if you blow up the whole spaceship, everyone will ignore you because then there will be nothing to play on".  This is because most playtime follows a "theme" of some sort, and destroying that "theme" means you no longer are playing the game.

As a parent, it's often important to watch not only every action the children do, but also what rule structures they are creating.  For example, a parent would stop the playing if one of the rules in the playground involved physically punching each other till they bled in reality.  While on the other hand, a "murder" mystery game played by children often doesn't involve much more then touching the target and whispering "you died", in which point the child "victim" acts the part according to the rules of the Playground, falling dead in the pretend world.  In other words, there is a limit on how far into reality the play activity is allowed to go, and this should never be broken.

Now, remember that the term Playground here applies to any environment the children are in.

That includes virtual environments, such as those presented by video games.  That's right, the many video games I played as a child were just as much an influence on my childhood as my real life Playgrounds.

Let's run a checklist to prove it. Video games have the following properties:

  • Rules to follow, which if broken result in negative output, usually the game over screen. In turn, the punishment for not "playing by the rules" is to "not be playing with the group anymore". In most cases, the group here is the electronic characters the game world is populated with, but that's becoming more of a blur as multiplayer games become much easier to make and more popular.
  • A world to play in. Every game, no matter how "arcadey" or "abstract", has a set of elements to it that make up a world. Most games attempt to create not only a world, but characters living in that world that interact with the player and each other in some way.
  • A theme of some sort, in both the graphical and storytelling theme, and in the way the player is allowed to interact with the world.

Alas, one big difference becomes very apparent.  Video games are often very large, many many times the complexity and size of a real Playground.  This, I believe, is why most parents give up figuring out what the game contains beyond the initial packaging.  It's easy to figure out if a small half acre real life playground is safe, it's a nightmare to figure out if the whole of a fantasy continent is also safe.

However, like our physical playground, in any Virtual Playground there are the rules and theme to follow.  The rules are often laid out in the first half hour or hour of the game, no matter how long the game is, though of course there are exceptions.

The overall theme however, almost never changes.  It may have some twists along the way or be turned upside down in the very end.  But the theme of what the game is about and how it presents the characters within or comments on our situations in real life is going to be relatively the same all the way through.  Otherwise the game would feel pretty crazy and unstructured, much like when the "whole spaceship blew up" on our physical playground above.

So, much like a physical playground, parents don't need to know every last button press, and every last scene of a video game to get the general idea if the game's Playground is something they are willing to discuss and have their children play in.  They only need to take a bit of their time to study what the theme and rules of the Game Playground are.

In real life playgrounds, parents will often ask their kids "Is everything ok?" or "How are things going?" to find out what is going on in the pretend land even though the parent is off doing "adult things".  And of course, on the car trip back home there is always the "What did you all do today at the playground?" question.  It's actually pretty amazing how much a parent can find out about the theme the children played in or what actions they just pretended by asking this simple question on the car ride home.

I guess in the end, all I'm trying to say is this.  Instead of shrugging off the video game Playgrounds as "not important" or "just some time wasted", take the time to ask what's happening, or how they are doing.  Show interest in the Playground, even if you are not going to play pretend and instead do "adult things".  You might be surprised how much you can learn about what stories and worlds your children are exploring while they sit in front of that console or computer and interact with a virtual world.

But most importantly, you will have the opportunity to talk with your children about what the games creators might be telling them, so that you can apply your own voice as well.  You may be surprised by how deep some of these "time wasting" games really have become.

Well, thinking about video games as Playgrounds really is pretty deep.
*runs away from the angry people screaming at his horrible pun*

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