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Playground Design Notes: Why Pretend?

Posted by Bart

080516playground_springfieldThis is the second in a series of in-my-head notes from doing the parent thing at the playground and part of a new tag I will call “designer sociology” because I still feel I have no right to talk about design but I keep thinking about it anyway.

This post is prompted by balancing play in the playground. Why is it that so many kids add an element of pretend to the simple physical challenge of balancing?  In the case of my kids yesterday evening it was the threat of crocodiles underfoot as a consequence for falling. The case of Twixt has me thinking more about games, rules, lore and the so-called symbolic or representation layer in gameplay.

From a pure gameplay perspective the challenge of walking across a narrow beam is fine all by itself. There is a goal with win/lose conditions, a dynamic challenge potential, flow and all the rest.  For the gestural games group (G3 to those in the know) there is also the pleasure of body control and movement through space that the physical challenges of the playground make most apparent.

So why oh why do kids embellish this pure gameplay experience with roleplay, story-telling, pretending, symbolism and maybe even narrative if not lore (cf: Castronova)?  On a phenomenological level the action seems to be the same — a kid is balancing on beam and they either fall or don’t independently of whether the ground is the ground, or verbally represented as crocodiles,  mashed potatoes or deadly spikes.

Crucially, I am not asking why kids like to pretend or make-believe. I’ll accept the umpteen thousands of answers for this. What I want to know is why the “purely” physical rule-based game sometimes or oftentimes goes better with a nice juicy “layer” of make-believe? Maybe this is too obvious and I am missing something or maybe this is a crafty way of returning to game studies fundamentals that sort of started with ludology vs narratology?

This matters in new ways perhaps for the gestural games group because we have an assumption that body movement is inherently desirable and pleasurable in itself and that moving one’s whole body is better than just and arm than just a hand than just a finger… that the cognitive/physical challenge is valuable in itself. But is there a danger in focusing our design too much on this technical problem of activating the body as interface without due attention to make-believe.

I have also argued irrationally against casual games… I still don’t really know why they irk me so but maybe the issue is that casual games to me are like balancing on beams without crocodiles.

So far none of my comments get at what the crocodiles bring to act of balancing but here lies the problem… we could use Jesper Juul‘s work perhaps to talk about the ways the crocodiles frame the balancing game by symbolically affording motivation to play, heightening the challenge (making something physically easy at least symbolically more difficult), giving greater meaning to the consequences of winning or losing (balancing or falling) and so on.  Yet I wonder… is it right to simply see the crocodiles as an augmentation of the balancing game?  Its as if the kids designed the balancing game first and then thought of a crocodile story expansion pack.

Also I am missing a discussion of the design and materiality of the playground itself… of affordances perhaps. But this came up in the comments on Twixt thread with Dominic’s comment… can one afford crocodiles by design?  Painting crocodiles on the ground perhaps?  Or making a sign that says “beware of crocodiles”?  That might be a problem if the kids decide on mashed potatoes…

Final comment for following up on… for sure the crocodiles come in really handy when kids play with each other and especially when playing with strangers.  The crocs become a social coordination device in a way that the phrase “lets walk across the beam and don’t touch the ground” never could.

I dunno — anyone have some references for me here?  I can’t find what I want in the little playground literature I have on my shelf.