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The Cons of Playfulness

Jeff Warrender
United States
Averill Park
New York
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In June I expressed the view that the game world would perhaps benefit from a shot in the arm of playfulness.

Mike, Jonny and I talked about this in an episode of Mike's podcast, and I think it's a pretty good one, albeit a bit long, but, there was a lot to say.

How, as designers, do we inject playfulness and lightness of spirit into our designs? I can think of a few ways:

sugar Playfulness in conception

Some ideas are just intrinsically fun and goofy. Greece Lightning is a new game about Greek deities racing triremes around a maelstrom (or something like that). And they called it "Greece Lightning"! This is great, a perfect example of the fun kinds of silliness that create player buy-in, because they just know they're going to have a good time.

Or as another example, designer Liberty Kifer, of Crystallo fame, has a WIP game where we are food-service robots on a distant and long-abandoned space station who nevertheless keep making up sandwiches out of the most inedible combinations of ingredients (because, hey, they're robots, why not a ham on rice cakes with maple syrup on top?)

Silly tends to equate to "light", i.e. short games or filler games. But games can be both silly and substantive. I think here of the music of Frank Zappa. Zappa was an incredibly technical musician, and he demanded the utmost precision from his ensemble. I've heard that you can overlay any live recording of a Zappa song with the corresponding album version, and they mesh perfectly, i.e. the time-keeping is exact. And yet, his songs are almost all silly, satirical, whimsical, like Montana about farming dental floss, or Peaches En Regalia, an instrumental with sophisticated polyrhythms that is nevertheless silly and funny to listen to (and that soaring sax line in the climax is a higher high than just about any other song ever manages to hit, silly or not!).

A game analogy of this might be Cosmic Frog, a serious game but on a silly subject.

corn Playfulness in convention

Each game has its own internal set of conventions. What are the players up to, what are they pretending to do? A good example here is Illuminati. In game-mechanical parlance, you're building up a tableau, connecting arrows, blah blah blah. A game with this mechanical implementation could be about almost anything. But in Illuminati, these cards are groups and you're building up a power structure by having groups controlling other groups. So, you might have the Gnomes of Zurich using "Yentendo" to control "Empty Vee", which is exactly how these silly conspiracy theories work, always looking for the elusive man behind the curtain, and there's always another curtain and another man.

Another example is my friend John Velonis's game Venus Needs Men, a retro-Sci Fi beer-and-pretzels romp in which you're competing to abduct humans for your home planets. As part of the gameplay, you deploy "Zap!" cards, with take-that effects. This strikes the right tone for a playful Sci Fi game, bringing to mind phasers and ray guns.

I've talked about using playful conventions in my own games, "groveling" in Welcome to Terra or bidding "hubris" in Lost Adventures. Putting playful conventions into the game helps put the players into a playful frame of mind, and gives them permission to have a good time, to loosen up and not take the game too seriously, almost to signal to them that, hey, this game doesn't take itself too seriously, so lighten up!

indigo Playfulness in construction

We can build playfulness into the game constructively, by letting players do things that are inherently playful. Animal Upon Animal and Loopin' Louie are ostensibly kids' games, but they're beloved by adult game enthusiasts because they get you engaging in playful behavior in the very act of playing. A new game, Crash Octopus, seems similarly built for this kind of fun.

Promoting playful interaction is another good way to incorporate playfulness into the warp and woof of your game. Encouraging players, through the interactive elements of the game, to role-play, to issue threats or ultimatums, to taunt one another, these can all lead to a light tone.

Now, of course, a group of players who are so inclined can make any game feel this way. In the right hands, Dune can be a playful experience. But some games are just built to encourage players to get in that frame of mind. Games like Ca$h 'n Gun$ where you're pointing finger guns at your opponents, or like Rock Paper Wizard where you use hand gestures to cast spells. Games like Shuffleboard or its board-game equivalents where you get to dislodge your opponents' pieces physically from scoring positions. Games like Perudo where the dice aren't revealed until one player calls another a liar. You know you're going to have fun when you play games like these, because the things you're doing in the playing of the games are playful in themselves.

coffee Playfulness in conceit

We talked last year about imposing a conceit on a game as a way of coming up with some original mechanics. I gave an example of a game where we are ghost hunters but are afraid of ghosts. So many game topics are so serious, even the new crop of "harmless" games about wildlife and cats and other inoffensive subjects. Nothing wrong with a gritty post-apocalyptic survival game or a zombie game, I guess, but adding a silly conceit like "the only people to have survived the apocalypse are a convention of used-car salesman" or "zombies leave clowns alone", or whatever! Or maybe a car-racing game where the winner isn't the best driver but the one who best manages his/her bladder.
The point is, adding a silly conceit can steer even the most serious topic in a playful direction, and offer a lively new take on that topic that a serious game most likely wouldn't have.

Not every game needs to be playful, but honestly not very many games try to be, and there are probably ways, using these "cons", that many games could be, with a bit of effort.


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