They used to play outdoors, fingers in mud and hair full of sand, laughing when they fell never giving it a second thought. Operative word being: used too. The definition of childsplay has undergone a tectonic shift over the last few decades. In the 60s and 70s, prior to the proliferation of the first console games, children kept busy playing with each other. Board games, outdoor fun, tree climbing, and monopoly were just a few of what was then the default set of recreational habits for the young. Then came Pong.
Pong was Atari’s first console game, allegedly copied from the Magnavox Odyssey gaming console. It was initially distributed in arcade form placed in bars and taverns, then making it to the home. It was an instant success, and it changed childsplay forever.
Well I think it’s fine,
building jumbo planes
Or taking a ride on a cosmic train
Switch on summer from a slot machine
Yes, get what you want to if you want
Cause you can get anything
I know we’ve come a long way
We’re changing day to day
But tell me, where do the children play?
Where Do The Children Play [excerpt], Cat Stevens
People who are old enough may remember the outdoor games played on the streets. Treasure hunt, hide and seek, jump rope, tag, and musical chairs were just some of the popular games prior to the mid-70s. As a kid, you had to actually go outside and meet your friends in order to play. Moreover, the games were mostly physical, requiring spending a lot of time either within the neighborhood or on the street.
In his book Children at Play Howard Chudacoff shows how free play and exploration were gradually limited by parents as of the 1960s onwards, replaced by extracurricular classes, little league teams, and television. The latter, although considered bad for children was quickly adopted by parents as a mean to further limit, observe and marshall their behavior. It was all about and still is, about parental anxiety.
As the gaming industry evolved it provided more ways to keep kids at home. With the proliferation of the Internet and the introduction of multiplayer gaming, parents were provided with an additional tool to “keep them safe”, while telling themselves their kids enjoy free play, education, and social interaction. Gaming became a social interaction performed in absolute solitude.
In Isaac Asimov’s The Naked Sun, Elijah Baley, an earth-born detective, is sent on an inquiry to Solaria, a planet whose people are taught from birth to avoid personal contact. All social interactions on Solaria are carried out via holographic screens placed on special walls in each and every home. Face-to-face interaction (referred to in the book as “seeing”), and especially impregnating a woman, is seen as unavoidable but dirty.
We are not there yet. And we have to thank the failure of VR for that.
Virtual Reality (VR) gaming and virtual interaction at large have been an unfulfilled promise for decades. Many companies in and out of the valley have been said to be the ones that would get VR (and to some extent AR, Augmented Reality, or Mixed Reality) right. The latest grand failure and source of mockery to date is Magic Leap, who promised this:
And finally, after years in development, and more than two billion in investment, delivered a 3D, poorly drawn Super Mario clone.
But it’s not merely a technological failure. Magic Leap and the like would eventually bring forth a workable VR/AR experience that is deemed good enough, or at least wouldn’t cause nausea due to sensory conflict after short usage. Games, especially multiplayer ones will be developed, and people would sit in the comfort of their homes, strapped into contraptions providing a full body virtual experience. Solaria, as Asimov imagined it, is just around the corner, and we have not yet begun discussing Brain-computer interface(BCI), and the myriad of other cyborg-like technologies being actively researched as these lines are written.
Do you feel the chill traveling up your spine? Well, you should.
Why Do We Play
Or better put, why did you stop.
Play, as an activity, is fundamental to both humans and animals. Cats, young dogs, chimpanzees, and of course human babies spend most of their waking time playing.
The answer is that playing is a rehearsal devoid of the fear of failure. When a child tries to climb a tree and fails, it does not register as a failure because he was not trying it for real. This mechanism allows a child to gradually build his confidence retrying on failures. Defining an activity as a game rather than a test removes the psychological stress involved with acts that are measured and have a rigid expected outcome. In layman terms playing allows stressless experiencing, which begets learning.
Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.
Free play is the basis of learning. Learning the world, its physical rules, and social interactions. Without play, a child is placed into a universe whose rules he does not understand, expected to fit in without being provided with the knowledge and resource to do so. You must try, you must make mistakes, you must be allowed to. Free play provides just that. A non-judgmental environment where mistakes are not only allowed but welcome.
Remember grandpop’s old saying: “If you don’t make mistakes, how would you learn”? Happens to be true, and not just in life, also when training a machine learning algorithm. You must have negative examples alongside positives ones in order for the training set to be of any use. Moreover, negative examples usually provide more information than positive examples, as they create a hyperplane that halves the N-dimensional space in two, removing an abundance of possibilities we now know to be incorrect.
It’s like a boy climbing a tree. He could climb thick branches for hours without losing his grip never learning anything about the correlation between branch thickness and its weight-carrying strength, but then he reaches for a young branch that could not carry his weight. The boy falls, but he now knows thin branches are to be avoided while thicker one should support him. Climbing the thick branches he did not learn the distinction between thick and thin, only hitting the negative example triggered learning process.
Are Computer Games Evil?
Looking at my 5-year old trying to navigate his way between the ads on my smartphone, is an eye-opening experience. Games, even benign ones (the only kind he is allowed to play for a very limited time per week), are deliberately built to have a child, sometimes even adults, push the wrong buttons. The player has to cognitively avoid traps laid out before him, or else he would later discover he just bought three power potions for a few dollars each. When it comes to younger children playing games on parents’ smartphones linked to a credit card account, this is nothing short of a scam.
Those games, built to fool players into buying virtual goods and/or encourage addiction to increase retention and revenue, are truly evil. The Talking Tompopular smartphone game is a good example. Although it seems benign, it entrances younger players while bringing no true value whatsoever.
You may think games like Talking Tom are a representation of the moral decay often attributed to 21st-century western culture, however, the Tamagotchi, a toy created in Japan in 1996 was a keychain-sized virtual pet simulation game that quickly became a major source of concern for parents. Tamagotchis were (sold as) a small alien species that deposited an egg on Earth to see what life was like, and it is up to the player to raise the egg into an adult creature. The creature went through several stages of growth and would have developed differently depending on the care the player provides, with better care resulting in an adult creature that is smarter, happier, and requires less attention.
The kids were instantly addicted. The Tamagotchi required constant care, and kids who neglected to do so were heartbroken when they found their egg died (no reset was available for obvious business reasons). Did the game have any value? Probably so, as children were implicitly taught to take care of some “significant” other. Nevertheless, it also exhibited how children can be easily manipulated into compulsive gameplay.
Are Computer Games (still) Interesting?
Seriously. Are they interesting? Well, they used to be, at least when plots were more important than pixels. Nowadays many popular games can be summarized in two words: shoot’m dead.
Before game consoles’ manufacturers fought each for better polygons per second draw rate, games used to have plots (a.k.a gameplay, not referring to RPGs gameplay). Earlier games that preceded the graphical computer interfaces were played on text terminals where one instructed the computer to “go left”, or “attack that dragon”, and people did, and they loved them because they told a story.
Modern console and desktop gaming still revolves around the shoot’m dead theme. Even the multiplayer ones that supposedly teach how to work as a team (so the team can kill as many zombies as possible) do so. As gratifying as it is to lock N load and rain hellfire on your 50-inch screen, eventually it is simply boring.
Back in the days where pixels were expensive and networks were not yet in existence, game designers had to work hard to get players on board by providing playability, that elusive factor separating truly good games from mediocre ones. Games, as books and art were designed to leave a great part to the player’s imagination. And imagination goes much further than pixel density. Which bring us back full circle to play.
It is interesting to note that the English word play refers both to the script of a theatrical performance, as well as to childsplay. Theatrical space is the one place where adults are allowed to play out a role different than their day to day persona. Most adults though, not being stage or street actors, have stopped playing.
The proper Adult world consists of chores, action items to be fulfilled, deadlines. To be considered an adult is to accept and abide by the rules telling you that play is something that you should leave behind buried deep in the sandbox of your youth. Why so serious?
The entire notion of playfulness is not supposed to have any room in the adult world. Those who do stick to it are considered eccentric at best often looked upon as misfits of society. As adults, we issue playfulness-permits to but a few, clowns, theatrical and street actors, performers and all those people who failed to get a proper education and do something real with their lives (if you spot a hint of cynicism, you are on the right track). All other hands are expected to be on time and get things done.
As a tech guy, I have done my best work when I was not working. I was employed, I was hitting the keyboard, I was coding, but it never felt like work. I was playing around with ideas, models, forming them toying with them, making mistakes, recalibrating, generating new ideas, never worrying what would happen if I do something wrong. Like a child on the beach building a grand sand house I was creating something beautiful simply because I enjoyed the game.
When we devoid ourselves of playfulness we give up on an extremely powerful creative resource and let fear in. And fear is a bad advisor, what fear knows best is to slow you down, set barricades for your thought, warn you to go no further, the complete opposite of any successful creative processes.
Back to the Streets
One of the most popular computer games of its time was SimCity. Originally published in 1989 SimCity quickly made a name for itself. In the SimCity games, the player develops a city from a patch of undeveloped land, controls where to place development zones, infrastructure, landmarks, and public services. The player also determines the tax rate, the budget, and social policy. The city is populated by “Sims”, simulated persons, who live in the city created by the player. Sims inhabit residential zones, shop on commercial zones and work in industrial zones.
The thing is, it’s all simulated. Why would you want to play in a simulated city when you can downright do it in the real one. And I am not even talking about children anymore, it is adults that have given up their basic right to play out in the open. Feared of being ridiculed they either drink themselves to a state of playfulness or worse, go get an Xbox 360 and dance safely at home in front of the TV screen.
In his short story The Country of the Kind (1956), Damon Knight pictures a society so docile and tame that it cannot handle any kind of non-conformant behavior. The main character is a man who is capable of antisocial behavior, a freak by that society rules. He is allowed to do what he wishes as long as he is not violent towards another human being, but all he truly seeks is someone to play with. In his misery, alone and cast out, he places little notes around the city hoping to find that one other person that shares his free spirit, a partner to his ever-growing violent games.
You Can Share The World With Me. They Can’t Stop You. Strike Now — Pickup A Sharp thing And Stab, Or A Heavy Thing And Crush. That’s All. That Will Make you Free. Anyone Can Do It.
The Country of the Kind, Damon Knight
Playfulness and play should have no boundaries. Adults should (not to say must) regain that sense of worry less joy ushered in by running wild and free as they once were. Back then, when they were kids.