• Ceridwen Pietras

When is an RP also a G?

Updated: Oct 27, 2020


One of the things I spend a lot of brain power on is defining what it is I do. When I think about my hobbies and passions I can't help but wave my fists at the sky: why is there no agreement about the meaning of words! (It's because words have no inherent meaning; I know.)

Lately I've been thinking about the difference between Play and a Game.

Play is good. There are lots of studies that show play is how humans (and animals) learn to interact with the world. However, play is not always a game - I think it's a not-all-rectangles-are-squares situation.

In my mind, play is the act of having fun. You can play by yourself - I'm doing it right now. I'm chilling at my laptop, giving my homework the side eye, while I play around with a blog. That's play! You can play with others. Later I'm going to show this blog to my buddy David and we're gonna talk about it, bash out brains around the ideas, and have fun thinking about them. Play. And you can play with people who don't even know you're playing, like waving at strangers - I can wave at anyone. I love their baffled faces. I am playing, and they have no idea they're playing too.

But a game is different.

Games have structure outside the individual. You can play a game by yourself, like solitaire, Slime Rancher, Monopoly, etc. But there are rules to follow. And not all games work well with a solo player (see Monopoly). Games have requirements like a number of players, computer systems, physical components or facsimiles there of. Working within a framework, you get a different kind of play - play that can become un-fun. For example, I can gamify my waving-at-strangers. I get two points if they wave back and one point if they half wave. But if they don't wave I get -2 points. Now I can compete with myself or others. We can either compete for the lowest score, highest score, or set an arbitrary goal and see who gets there fastest. But if two people are playing and both wave - who gets the points? Now we need rules to determine the distribution of points. Let's add a rule that players must take turns waving. The turn order will be determined by tallest to shortest. If a player waves during another player's turn, they forfeit any positive point games, but take penalty points if no wave results. Now it's not just play for play's sake.

A game has regulations, mechanics and metrics.

Obviously there is some gray area - there always is. And some games are more play than others. We call them "rules light" in RPG circles, or "freeform" in LARP. In higher play ratio games there are still rules, like, "no punching people in the nards," and "be accountable." Even the most light of rules light games usually has some sort of mechanical randomizer, like dice, cards, or rock paper scissors, used to resolve conflicts. But I can't help but wonder if there isn't some better way to we - the vague collection of independent designers - can communicate the level of play in our games, and the level of game in our play.

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