Play Journal #1

Hey folks,

It’s sure been a while since I’ve blogged on this site- good to take a little trip down memory lane. I will be posting six weekly “play journals” for a seminar I am taking on the topic of Video Game Studies (grad school? More like rad school.)

Kind of an interesting parallel- this blog will also take place while I apply for (a.k.a. chase) the next level of graduate school, and have a marginally similar semi-academic tone. You’ll find the body of my first entry below.

Cheers,

Andy

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Today’s readings: Nature & Significance of Play as a Cultural Phenomenon (Huizinga), The Defininition of Play, The Classification of Games (Caillois), Flow (Csikszentmihalyi)

Today’s game(s): Borderlands 2, Candy Crush Soda Saga

Today’s readings are the structural building blocks for establishing a theory of playing, and playing games. We begin with Huizinga attempting to classify the concept of ‘play’ as a cultural object, primarily noting that play does not involve capital or a material object (99) or any seriousness (101), yet relies on following certain rules (105) and existing in certain times (103-04) and spaces (105, 114). These concepts are fascinating to me, particularly the bounding of the “magic circle” (106) that Caillois notes creates a space for play, a “consecrated spot” (105) in time and space where play exists as ritual without any value, or where “one chooses to be the dupe” (116) in religion and ritual. Building off of this roughly 20 years later, Caillois sharpens up Huizinga’s work by forming subcategories of ‘play’ and significantly adding in aspects of potential gambling and capital acquisition (124-25). Play, according to Caillois, must meet a set of requirements: it is voluntary (“free”), is separated from everyday life (“separate”), leaves room for exploration (“uncertain”), has no use-value ("unproductive”), is “governed by rules,” and creates a second reality (“make-believe”) (128). Though Caillois goes on to classify different aspects of play (130), I want to pause for a moment and pit these requirements against the games that I played this week.

A screenshot for the PC version of  Candy Crush Soda Saga

A screenshot for the PC version of Candy Crush Soda Saga

Using my iPhone, I played King’s “Candy Crush Soda Saga,” a non-canonical sequel to the successful mobile game, “Candy Crush.” In this game, the player must match combinations of items in a grid to accomplish objectives such as dropping items to the bottom of the grid, destroying certain obstacles, or simply achieving a certain target number of matches. While there are certainly rules for this make-believe world to be explored according to the path set out by the developer, I want to challenge especially that the gameplay is separate, free, or unproductive. Both Huizinga and Caillois base their concepts of play on the fact that play exists outside of ordinary life (Caillois 123), but playing on a device that also acts as part of my own day-to-day routine (used for calling, texting, and emailing) represents an erasure of difference between play-space and serious-space. That is to say, the difference between these two spaces is no longer physical space, but only different software and different times of use (which, with concurrent app usage being possible, becomes even more narrow.)

Speaking now to freedom, I turn to Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of ‘flow,’ the force that keeps individuals engaged in an activity. Though I generally find Csikszentmihalyi’s concept that happiness requires primarily a great sense of self-control wildly problematic (23, 40,) his notes on flow and addiction later on can be useful. If using the Candy Crush Soda Saga app is not simply playing, perhaps progressing is to be in flow; as the game displays its well-polished mechanics, it may also encourage an obsession that keeps a user “captive of a certain kind of order… unwilling to cope with the ambiguities of life” (62). This is certainly a large ‘if,’ but perhaps worth considering in conjunction with the concept of a “flow channel” (74). Simply explained, in order to be in flow, a player/user must be appropriately challenged by the task at hand with too low of challenge resulting in boredom and too high resulting in anxiety (74).  As the user keeps playing Soda Crush, the game’s difficulty continues to increase with more and more demanding tasks. Yet, the user is not necessarily able to make more skilled decisions thanks to the random element of the pieces dropped into play (what Caillois might call “alea” (133).) In order to reach back into the flow channel, a user must purchase products from the game, including fresh lives to help them keep trying, gold to give them an extension on the particular round’s limited turns, or items that move or destroy certain pieces. The path to continuing in the flow becomes most accessible through monetary contribution, something highly problematic when considering that play is meant to be without monetary considerations. Here playing the game becomes akin to a gambling addiction: “property is exchanged, but no goods are produced” (Caillois 124).

Publicity image from  Borderlands 2

Publicity image from Borderlands 2

To contrast this model, I also played Borderlands 2, a modern first-person shooter that I have played for many hours (between all of my characters across Borderlands and Borderlands 2, I have played literally hundreds of hours.) This game, released in 2012, came before the surge of micro-transactional gaming that now so permeates gaming, meaning that the only money I have spent on this game was acquiring it used for $20. The game does not hold any more surprises for me, nor any intrigue of hidden events, and I know exactly how to power level my characters in order to make the game as unchallenging as possible; this is a game I play by rote, to kill time, in the same way that others watch a sitcom they have already seen. Perhaps this is closer to Caillois’ definition in certain aspects, but the separation and creation of game world suffer by integration into my everyday life.