play.jpgAs a kid, I spent countless hours with my friends pretending to explore a new planet, fight a dragon, or save the world. Little did I know that such play also helped me explore and develop emotional responses in a safe environment. After all, if it got too intense, too real, I could always quit playing.

Growing up, we leave that kind of play behind. “Pretend” is frowned upon, making it more difficult to get people together without a definite purpose in mind. Like most kids, I allowed video games to take the place of more freeform play.

Unfortunately, there’s something more that video games still don’t capture: the emotional aspect of play. Video games are entirely mediated before the game begins, whereas freeform play is mediated by continuing consensus. As with books and movies, video game designers determine what actions and reactions will be available to their audience. This makes it easy to call up great, sweeping emotions but at the expense of the more personal emotional experience that freeform play encourages.

Creating gameplay that encourages an emotional response has been a hot topic already this year, from Peter Molyneaux’s Fable 2 talk at GDC to a mention in Will Wright’s keynote at SXSW. Although it’s good to see designers think about it, they’re still focusing on linear “book and movie” emotional experiences rather than freeform emotional play.

There’s nothing wrong with a linear emotional experience, but it ignores a lot of the lessons of children’s play. Play doesn’t have an overall emotional tone that sweeps players up. Instead, it gives players a framework in which to experiment and experience their own emotional threads. For example, children often play games to investigate abstract ideas like sacrifice and how they can apply to their own lives. They can role-play scenarios like having the chance to save a soldier’s life at the expense of their own, allowing them to try out different responses to see how they fit. In freeform play, a child would also be playing the role of the soldier, deepening the experience with their unpredictable emotional responses. In linear media, it is extremely difficult to allow players enough choices to play with different scenarios like this.

That’s why I’m so hopeful about ARGs. Unlike the current trend towards pre-mediated video games, ARGs hark back to a flexible type of play that allows the game to interact with the players and the players to push back against the game. Players can experiment with unusual circumstances and make real emotional and ethical choices.

Puppetmasters can nurture this with an emotional story framework that can be fleshed out by the consequences of the actions players take. This allows individual players to explore and demonstrate their own emotional stories, the small victories and minor sadnesses that really make us human.

Eventually, I expect video game designers will examine children’s play as a way to invite emotional response. But right now, ARGs are at the forefront of meaningful play.

For further exploration in how children socialize and learn through play, The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter is a wonderful resource.