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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.
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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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