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What is Play? Decoding the Game Ep.1
by Nils Pihl on 10/20/13 10:56:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


In the first episode of Decoding the Game we discuss what play really is, and the implications that the work/play distinction has on game design.

This is the first episode out of five, so make sure you subscribe to

For those of you that prefer to read, here's a transcript:

Hello and welcome to Decoding the game, where we discuss behavioral engineering, the interesting intersection of behavioral psychology, game theory and memetics. My name is Nils, and I'm a behavioral engineer. The question for this weeks episode is: What is play? But before I try to answer you, I'd like to start by making a controversial claim:

Human civilization, and your culture in particular, was built on a long series of failures. 

Let me explain:

Perhaps the most defining characteristic of our species is how we approach problems, and what happens when we fail. We are not peculiar only in how we tackle problems, but also in the weird fact that we sometimes seem to relish them. Failure compels us to try harder. We seem to have been evolutionarily guided towards enjoying a challenge. Our brains reward us for problem solving, and as pattern-seekers we excel at finding problems to solve. The cultural historian Johan Huizinga coined the term “Homo Ludens,” or “the playing human,” to describe how we as a species seek out challenges for their intrinsic value. 

He argued that the difference between basic shelter, a roof over our heads, and complex architecture was play. The idea was that our innate desire to play provided a surplus, on top of our basic survival instincts, that over time spawned what we today think of as culture. 

When we engage in problem-solving purely for the enjoyment of it, we stop thinking of it as work and enter the domain of play. 

The concept of work revolves around the undertaking of tasks, or performing an action for a perceived reward, with the added condition that the performing of this task is in some way perceived to be necessary. The necessity of the act moves us out of the realm of voluntary actions, and therefore also outside the domain of play. It should come as no surprise to you that necessity is a poor motivator, and we will often be very reluctant and unhappy to perform tasks that we don’t find enjoyable. Huizinga was on to something with the term homo ludens - as a species, we strive to be entertained. 

So what is play? Like work, Play is performing an action for a perceived reward, but without the added condition that the reward is  necessary. The line between work and play is drawn between need and desire - it is not the actions that differ, but rather our reasons for performing them. Let's picture some kids sitting in a sandbox, trying to dig a really, really deep hole. Digging is their form of play. Now picture a grown man digging a really, really deep hole - we are more likely to think of this situation as work. How we feel about digging a hole is what determines if it is work or play. The intention of the game designer does not decide if it is work or play - the player's reason for engaging does.

Where work is performed in exchange for an instrumental reward - I work so that I may continue living - play is voluntarily pursued for the intrinsic values of problem-solving and entertainment.

If you're not entirely clear on the difference between an instrumental and an intrinsic reward, let's take a moment to look at that.

You are probably most familiar with instrumental rewards, because many things in our society revolve around acquiring things with instrumental value. That a reward is instrumental means that you value it because you can use it for something else that you want. Money is a great example of instrumental value - the reason we like having money is because it allows us to do other things that we enjoy, and to get things that we think of as necessary - like a place to live, electricity, food or an internet connection. Although we rarely think about it, the reason we like getting paid is because it allows us, in the long run, to watch YouTube videos.

Earlier in the video I mentioned that necessity is poor motivator, which means that giving someone money in exchange for performing a task is not a great way of making sure it gets done - at least not very well. Although common business sense tells us that giving someone money for performing a task will yield great results - the science behind motivation doesn't agree at all. In fact, giving someone an instrumental reward to perform a task can actually lead to worse results, as demonstrated in several famous experiments by researchers like Glucksberg and Ariely. 

Intrinsic rewards, on the other hand, are things that are a lot harder to explain why we like. It is not readily apparent why we like some things, and the explanations for why we enjoy them go so far back into our evolutionary psychology that it becomes hard to relate to them. We enjoy experiencing beautiful things, for example, but they're not useful to us, but still they really get us going. Things like companionship, the feeling of belonging, beauty, self-expression, making love or the taste of ice cream are good examples of intrinsic values and intrinsic motivators are the best way of getting people engaged in what they're doing. 

A popular approximation of the general types of intrinsic motivators for many tasks have been succinctly compiled by Daniel Pink in his book "Drive": He argues that the intrinsic motivators fall roughly into three categories; Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. These distinctions paraphrase the findings of Self-Determination Theory and the researchers Ryan and Deci, who famously argued that Autonomy, Competence and Psychological Relatedness were highly motivating.

We'll talk more about motivation in coming videos, so make sure you subscribe to our channel.

So, play is voluntarily performing actions for a perceived reward. If the reward is perceived as necessary, we think of it as work. Doesn't that make sense?

Remember that work can occur in the context of games, and that play can happen in the context of doing your job.

The distinction between work and play is not purely philosophical, it has some very real neurological underpinnings because of our brains' differing responses to intrinsic and instrumental rewards. Work and play motivate different kinds of behaviors, and as game designers it is important for us to know when to guide players into either one of these mindsets. I've left you some links in the description of this video, so make sure to read up and prepare for the next episode.

In our coming videos, we will be taking a closer look at how rewards really work, what engagement really is, the psychology of social, what memes are, and how all of this can be applied to game design, marketing and product design in general.

Thank you for watching, and make sure you subscribe if you want to know more about behavioral psychology, game theory and memetics. My name is Nils, and I hope that you'll join us next time as we continue decoding the game. 

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Ryan Braley
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It surprises me how many F2P companies seem completely oblivious of this, and try to engage players by throwing instrumental virtual currencies at them. Sure, you get a bit of loss aversion going if you're lucky, but it's so much better to offer intrinsically rewarding things. Virtual currencies have no intrinsic meaning unless you are already engaged and experienced with a game. Items can carry intrinsic meaning. If I am given an ebony saddle, for example, I now have a new mission if I choose to accept it: I can find my very own mount. I would find that intrinsically rewarding. Giving me instrumental gems or gold doesn't teach me about why I would want to engage with a world.

Nils Pihl
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I seem to recall Emily Greer of Kongregate sharing an anecdote at this year's GDC in Shanghai, where they had noticed that giving away an in-game item (I think it was a sword?) to convince people to sign up performed significantly better than giving away in-game premium currency.

I suspect the cause of this is, as you say, that the items carry with them an intrinsic meaning, or mission, that communicates the purpose of the game much clearer than the currency does. A sword communicates combat and competition, whereas currency is ubiquitous.

Giving someone a +2 Strength gem if they sign up might carry more information about the game and what it entails than giving them 200 premium currency.

Ramin Shokrizade
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IF the sword is unique, or not easily acquired by other means, then it becomes a prestige item as I describe in various papers. Even if functionally it acts the same way as a relatively low value item, its rarity can boost its perceived utility to the consumer.

Nils Pihl
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That would be rather hard for a new player to know.

Anders Larsson
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Actually, DotA 2 is using a version of the system that Ryan is talking about, through giving Chests, where you have to procure a Key to open it.... by paying currency. The contents of the chest is random, and can be of significant value.

The reality of this is that this is gambling. It highlights an issue that I think the industry will run into - HARD -, a huge reaction against pure gambling mechanics directed at quite young players. DotA 2 is not doing us any favours.

Jason Hawreliak
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Oh boy, I really like this stuff but it's a very tough subject so please forgive the following rant. First, I love the Huizinga reference. Still one of my favorites. If you haven't come across it, he writes quite a bit on the work/play dichotomy in *In the Shadow of Tomorrow* which predates HL.

But like everyone before you, there are some big problems with your definition:

"Play is performing an action for a perceived reward, but without the added condition that the reward is necessary. The line between work and play is drawn between need and desire - it is not the actions that differ, but rather our reasons for performing them"

There are lots of times where we do something we don't have to but that isn't play - like, as you say, looking at art. Or eating that dessert after a big meal. On the other side of it, where do professional sports fit in? For some athletes, they *have* to play to earn a living - not the stars, mind you. Are they "playing" or "working"?

Or what about e-sports? If that's someone's job, has it ceased to be play? And what if two people are playing, one professionally and the other "for fun" - is the experience play to one participant but not the other at the same time?

Or more generally, what if someone is coerced into "playing" a game? What about Wesley Snipes in The Fan? If you're not familiar with that classic, he basically has to hit a homerun in a professional baseball game or else his son will die. Is his participation "play"? It doesn't seem voluntary. And what about the pitcher who has no idea what's at stake? Ok, that last one is a stretch--the MMO labour camps are a better example--but you get the point. The voluntary/necessity dichotomy is not tenable. Same goes for the intrinsic/instrumental reward systems. I'd say there is no such thing as an intrinsic reward - nothing is done for itself, except for continued survival perhaps.

Have you read Sutton-Smith's *The Ambiguity of Play*? If not, it goes over the basic impossibility of defining "play" or "game" in any satisfactory way. Wittgenstein had this problem, and just gave up on his "family resemblances" argument.

I guess I'm just trying to say that this is a question that's been taken up by hundreds of people and we haven't really gotten anywhere with it. Salen and Zimmerman's "free movement within a more rigid structure" is the go-to right now, but that definition excludes nothing, essentially. What doesn't operate in that manner? My point is just that it might not be too useful to try to come up with a definition of play, not least because it's essentially impossible. Like quantum mechanics, we just have to accept we don't know the finer details and live with it.

All that said, I really liked this piece and love to see work on the intersections between psychology and play. These questions are just the same ones I've dealt with myself so thought I'd add to the conversation. I look forward to the next instalment!

Nils Pihl
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I would say that art is an expression of play - but you might be right in that certain basic activities like eating, sleeping, defecating, reproducing etc might be tricky to categorize at times.

My following quick response is in no way meant to be rude, but it is my birthday and I have to get out of bed :) Keep in mind that I am arguing a new use of the words work and play, and not trying to find a definition that will hold true for all common CURRENT uses of the words:

"For some athletes, they *have* to play to earn a living - not the stars, mind you. Are they "playing" or "working"?"

Depends on their state of mind at the moment. That you get paid to do something doesn't automatically turn it into work. Some actions in a certain season might be play, some might be work.

"And what if two people are playing, one professionally and the other "for fun" - is the experience play to one participant but not the other at the same time?"


"Is [Wesley Snipes'] participation "play"?

Not likely.

It all depends on the subject's state of mind when performing the action you are monitoring. This work/play distinction holds, has predictive power, but does not conform to every day usage of the English language. You only get a paradox if you assert that any activity that we today CALL play is, by necessity, play.

Think of this video as a stipulating of terms moving forward, rather than a philosophical treaty on how to reconcile our reasoning with our language.

Nils Pihl
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I will give you this: If we are reductionist enough, the intrinsic/instrumental distinction disappears, as you say - but doing so would be a mistake. When dealing with behavior, reductionism is not always the most predictive or productive.

Eric Salmon
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While I see dichotomy in the definitions, there's nothing forcing an activity to be exclusively play or work. In fact, these definitions rather nicely handles situations that are both work and play (have both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards) as well as the common perception of the activity. The problem is just that we tend to ambiguously use the word "play" as a substitute for "perform," "compete."

I also don't agree that nothing's intrinsic. In the educational field, this is a bit more clear--intrinsic motivation are factors under a students control (autonomy, confidence, interest) whereas extrinsic are rewards/punishments placed on them from the outside over which they have no direct control (money, grades, competition, punishment). Wave a stick or dangle a carrot and you have to continue to get bigger and bigger sticks and carrots--but if a student enjoys what they're doing, you hardly have to motivate them at all.

Great read, thanks for the transcript!

Nils Pihl
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Nothing being intrinsic is a reductionist argument that follows from the idea that the brain rewards you for confidence because confidence increases your likelihood of reproduction. If you take this reductionist view, everything can be argued to have instrumental value - but I think this is counter-productive because we don't EXPERIENCE the world in such reductionist terms.

I agree with you that there is a language issue where we ambiguously use the word "play". But the verb is not the noun, right?

Stipulating terms is important, and as much as someone might disagree with these definitions now, I hope to show you in the coming episodes that stipulating the terms this way helps us explain some interesting phenomena.

Jason Hawreliak
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Sorry for the delay in this and happy belated birthday! You've gotten to what I think is the heart of the matter here, and something I feel uncomfortable with - "play" is primarily a psychological property, having little to do with the action itself. Play becomes something purely subjective. I think that's probably right, but then it gets us into awfully messy territory when trying to come up with workable definitions.

As for the intrinsic/instrumental reductionism, point taken. I do think it all goes back to instrumental motivation, but as you say we're often not conscious of it, nor do we experience the world according to that framework. Still, I think we can use psychological principles to make better, more engaging games, especially in regards to the subconscious. Anyway, thanks again!

David Serrano
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Huizinga addressed the question of how professional sports, and now esport, impacts the play value and quality of the games:

"Now, with the increasing systematization and regimentation of sport, something of the pure play-quality is inevitably lost. We see this very clearly in the official distinction between amateurs and professionals (or "gentlemen and players" as used pointedly to be said). It means that the play-group marks out those for whom playing is no longer play, ranking them inferior to the true players in standing but superior in capacity. The spirit of the professional is no longer the true play-spirit; it is lacking in spontaneity and carelessness. This affects the amateur too, who begins to suffer from an inferiority complex."

"Between them they push sport further and further away from the play-sphere proper until it becomes a thing sui generis : neither play nor earnest. In modern social life sport occupies a place alongside and apart from the cultural process. The great competitions in archaic cultures had always formed part of the sacred festivals and were indispensable as health and happiness-bringing activities. This ritual tie has now been completely severed; sport has become profane, "unholy in every way and has no organic connection whatever with the structure of society, least of all when prescribed by the government."

Nils Pihl
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Love the first quote, very interesting.

Nils Pihl
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Thank you!

Our mission with behavioral engineering and trying to marry behavioral psychology to game theory AND memetics is to create better predictive models - that doesn't mean that it will always correspond to any physical reality (memes rarely do). For our purposes, these definitions of play and work take us a long way. Check out episode 2, as well, if you haven't.

Aaron Oostdijk
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Interesting piece! Like you've said in other comments I think the important bit to take away from this is that varied perspectives on this topic can result in interesting phenomena, rather than purely focussing on being a totally comprehensive description of reality. (IMHO a logical impossibility) So, usefulness is an important factor in determining the merit of a perspective in an ambiguous concept space, which might be unavoidable in language formulation like this. I'm interested to see what interesting things you come up with in further videos based on this.

I always try to remember that our minds are geared towards dichotomisation. I've always thought that we think along axes, positives and negations, and are often hard pressed to remember that we may be creating dichotomy (which I guess is what language is all about? is signification necessarily dichotomy?) where none as such necessarily exists in reality.