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Jan 20, 2004



Perhaps it is subjective (from the point of view of the "player"). Like my shrink tells me, mental conditions are only "disorders" when they cause you a significant problem. If you think the world is run by purple monkeys, that's okay, you're not crazy. If you think they are out to get you and you let that dominate your life, then it's paranoia and deserving of treatment. So, likewise, if you see (MMOG of choice) as a game you play, then you're playing. If you see it as a world you live in (part time), then it's a world. If it is something you do for money, it's a job. Or, worse, if it is something you feel you have to do to the point that it dominates your life, it's an addiction. Of course, nothing is black and white, there are shades between all of these perspectives (it's a game you play, but you make money too, for example). Hmm.. The intellectual college graduate in me wants a conclusion here. :) I guess the point is that there are no hard and fast absolute answers. Or something like that.


Without going too deep into this I think there are a number of parallels with other realms of real life and fantasy that deal with these same questions, so just to give a few examples;

Take golf. Is golf play? Maybe for some, and maybe it's easy to discount professional players as 'golf is work', but there are also a number of examples that don't fit well in either traditional model of 'work' or 'play'. When I was working in Toyota's product development department in Japan, an engineer's ability to play golf was sometimes the tie breaker in getting a new project, cutting a business deal or getting that overseas promotion. So, its no wonder that engineers often spend their 'free time' grinding their tee shot at the local practice range.

What about TV? Is watching TV play? Sure, OK, if you work at a TV station then, TV = work, but what if you are a product manager for a large retailer and want to keep up with the latest trends? Are you working or playing while you watch MTV?

What about the single scene? Is that play? Maybe for some, but I don't think it would be hard to dig up some language that would make you think that finding a lifelong companion, included some activities that are 'not fun' or 'repetitive', but isn't the whole reason that people get involved in the single scene to increase the 'happiness' in their life? So, why all the repetitive 'work'?

Changing gears, I don't think it would be hard to bring in how people use money for all sorts of social and emotional goals. If the MMOGs die and everyone in them switches to ice fishing, I fully expect to see article after article about how people use money to get ahead in the new competitive sport of ice fishing. So, would ice fishing then be 'work' or 'play'?

However, what I do find fascinating about MMOGs is that they have a very inexpensive access cost and a very consistent experience regardless of the most of the participants demographics. Assumably, the 'experience of golf' in Michigan is very different from the 'experience of golf' in San Diego, Finland, Japan, Fiji, Kenya, etc, etc. But, in the case of, say, EverQuest, I would expect that the 'experience of leveling from lvl 1 Ranger to lvl 20 Ranger' is very similar regardless of geographic or genetic demographics. At the same time, I wonder if the reason that the issues dealing with 'money' in MMOGs are so heated is because, 'real world wealth' is the one of the few demographics that can fundamentally redefine people's experiences in MMOGs.

But, I still think there is an underlying question of 'so what?' So what, if we find out that populations of size react in a similar manner whether they are playing golf, watching TV, working the single scene, grinding in EQ or ice fishing? Is that good, bad, or just life?




That's great for Dr. Juul! I've put Brian Sutton-Smith's book on my reading list. (I'm already a fan of Ryan's work.)

As I've suggested here before, the interpretation of a single word can have significant legal implications, so I, for one, wouldn't ask "so what" in this case.

To some extent, though, the problem is essentially a matter of turning a common word into a more clinical definition. When we attempt to formalize a definition (in law, we do this all the time) we inevitably must cast out some things which would otherwise fall within the field and cast in things that would otherwise fall without. So why go through the process of creating a more formal definition?

I think that defining "play" or "game" is more valuable for the sake of the exercise than for the sake of the utility of the result. In the process of fleshing out why or why not an activity constitutes play or a game, we begin to understand more deeply the nature of the activity itself.

But there are alternatives: one doesn't have to proceed by just starting and ending with a single broad category. It might be more worthwhile to take a more mechanistic approach to dismantling the idea of play.

For instance, I was reading Nick Monfort's "Toward a Theory of Interactive Fiction" yesterday, and one of the enjoyable things about it is the way it separates out different aspects of IF (eg. frames, games, winning, exploration, puzzles). That type of multivalent approach is perhaps more fruitful as a critical interpretive method. One could take a similar aspect-oriented approach toward "play" in virtual worlds.

But as always, I feel I've just scratched the surface of your question.


"Theorists like Huizinga and Caillois seem to go even further, suggesting that play is actually a space quite separate from, and even contaminated by, the real world."

When I was younger, my brother and I played lots of Elite. I would fight enemy ships by charging at them with full speed and quickly ending up in a vertiguous dogfight. My brother wisely noted that one merely had to install a military laser on the aft of your ship and, when enemies were sighted, fly directly away from them picking them off one by one as they slowly approached. Despite being well aware of this strategy, I continued to charge in head first, as I felt this was "more fun".

Which one of us has contaminated our play experience with the real world? I would say it would be me. In-game, the goal is to blow up the ships without being destroyed. Within the play space, the correct tactics are my brothers. It is only when you contaminate it with the real world - the knowledge one can restart/reload, the knowledge that the goal of the game is fun, can one frame arguments for my own course of action.

I think my problem is that I don't admit to the real-world / play-space distinction. In any social interaction we define a bunch of fictious rules to play by. Consider the magic-circle which surrounds a court house. The lawyers and judges therein play by a collection of arbitrary (in the sense of not deriving from natural laws, but by human choice) rules, and play for high stakes. These rules and procedures are rather different from those we engage in our normal lives. The magic circle has limitted duration. We thus seem to have a play-space.

Thus, the magic-circle definition, unless I have horribly misunderstood it, seems meaningless unless one adjoins some concept about the reason for the circle formation. I'd be more leniant to a definition which states that play-spaces involve the magic circle which are created for the purpose of "having fun". But then I'd toss out the magic circle entirely, and just define play as "having fun", which is likely a rather circular definition. That doesn't surprise me, however.

- Brask Mumei


I personally stick with the general idea of play used by Huizinga and Caillois: irrelevence.

However, there are many cases that simple 'play' becomes something more. In the animal world, what appears to be play could be training, education, or something else. Here's where I say that it is no longer play and something else, whatever it may be.

Using Maslow's framework, I think any motives other than irrelevance would fall under the top two layers. As to where irrelevance fits into this framework, I'm still pondering. But, such pondering is irrelevant, no?




Huzinga actually has a chapter dealing with the law as a form of play. I should probably post a summary of it here some day.

I don't think either you or your brothers were contaminating the game -- you were just using different styles of plays. That said, I don't think Caillois formalization of "play" is appropriate descriptively, but you, TL, and I all seem to agree on that.


I feel that there is no useful distinction between "play" and "reality". MMOGs prove this -- as well as anything =). A line between play and reality does not exist.

I believe the word "play" serves the useful purpose of exposing to the hearer the speaker's biases concerning what activities the speaker considers performed merely for the psychic thrill of it all. I.e. activities performed without, or regardless of, any physical resource benefit. And really when you get down to it, isn't relaxation, a common component of play, a physical resource benefit (see first paragraph)?

Kinda like alcohol tolerance in EQ. BTW, anyone who thinks children's "play" isn't work (for the child) hasn't watched much children's play -- anxiety, learning, emotional lability, joy, anger, incredibly important social AND mental/physical development activities, all part of the "work" of childhood.


Children often play that they are "working", and adults often (have to?) work to achieve a state of play...Some kids have no sense of play, and some adults have no sense of work. I don't think that behavioralist definitions are of much use outside its own narrow scope.

The answer, if there is one, lies fully in the realm of that behavioralist anathema--internal psychology. You can apply universal rule sets and analyze all day long, but in the end, asking the person is the best way to your answer: is it work or is it play? Or rather than force a dichotomy: where along the continuum does it fall.

Intermixing economies, breaking the magic circle, etc works well for academic papers but doesn't necessarily get to the heart of it. And in that case, I think the question is wrong. "Is it [MMOGs] play?" has no answer. Person X will play while Person Y works at the same activity. "Are you playing?" might be a more fruitful investigation.

T.L.>"The obligations, passions, even anxieties. Are all those players really players in any strict sense? Or are they doing something else?"

Shakespeare>"All the world's a stage/And all the men and women merely players"


Play is definitely subjective, which is why there are so many genres of games (and any other art form, for that matter). I personally find most of the MMOGs I have played utterly boring and work-like, but this obviously doesn't mean that others don't play. The question then seems to be whether "play" has any commonality for different subjects in different contexts. What is the essence of play? Is Person X playing, and is this play the same as Person Ys play?

On another issue, I think that a line can be drawn between play and reality, but this line is negotiated. Games provide some control over how play and reality will mingle. Dr Juul touched on this in his Level Up paper.


This reminds me of a series of debates over the use of the term "wargame" as nomenclature for a series of advanced planning sessions involving table-top exercises and role simulation for national security and other purposes. There are those that are inimically opposed to the idea of calling something a game in order to avoid the perception of "demeaning" it.

However, no matter how the adrenaline gets going in the most realistic of field exercises; or how intense the pressure is around the table - these are still games. There may be real life consequences, such as reviews which impact future promotions or assignments. There are certainly social implications, including the unkind judgment of peers passed on those who fail to make the grade. But these (like even the exchange of sums of real currency for virtual items) are but a pale reflection of that which they simulate. After all, one is not burned to death by the dragon’s breath (or simulated hand grenade). One does not lose the ability to converse with a friend when a traveling companion is struck down.

In short, there is still an off switch in the virtual worlds we discuss here. This makes them games. Whether there may be tomorrow, when we make use of our avatars in more extensive ways and in virtual persistent worlds that are not modeled solely for our enjoyment and recreation, still remains to be seen.

Until then, I do not wish to cut short the innocence that still marks these worlds - fast fading though it already is. After all, the first practical applications which so marked the development of game theory were far grimmer stuff - and something which one can derive little enjoyment from (excepting perhaps the pure mathematician which was not bothered by the need to contemplate the physical aspects of major nuclear exchanges.)

Play on, say I. When the music ends I no longer wish to be in the room.


Currently I’m very much on the side of play being a descriptor of a certain intention stance that we take to activities. I can’t really see it as a way of describing those activities or more broadly behaviours them selves as they as acts (strictly) in-and-of-them selves, as generally meaning neutral. This does leave the issue of the scope of the intention i.e. do we say that the there is a general stance to an MMO that informs all acts, or do we look act by act. I think it is more the latter. I may do lots of things in an MMO that are not remotely play, they just happen to be mediated through technologies that are common to activities that I do that are play.

I also see it hard to see the real world as pollution of play as the intentional stance does not sit in a vacuum. If we take Sutton-Smiths idea of play standing in relation to the crud that is our lives, then the relation is central to what it is. Even if we see play as say just to pursue pleasure then that has a context.

And now I’ll actually _start_ reading Zimmerman and Salen’s Rules of Play, the probably contradict everything I have said.



I know this was referenced in an earlier comment field, but just as a reminder, there was a good discussion of games/play on Scott Miller's website:



I agree with Ren here -- play is always, necessarily related to the world, and these two spheres interact. The Magic Circle is not a stable place of isolation; in fact, it is the breeches between the game and the world that orients their relationship to one another.

As for how this changes in a virtual world or an MMOG, I suspect there is a kind of balance problem between play and work... but I'm not an MMOG expert.

I'm writing on this literally RIGHT NOW (I just took a break to read my dailies...), and giving a talk on it tomorrow here at UCLA (where, by the way, Edward Castronova is also speaking on virtual worlds), and next week in Atlanta. I'll post it on Water Cooler sometime next week.



I have to confess I haven't read Zimmerman & Salen yet either, but it's certainly on my reading list. I see MMOGs as primarily social games (using "primarily" in a demographic sense, not a categorical sense). So I tend to think many of the ludological (for the lack of a different word) insights are highly relevant to thinking about VWs.

I'd be curious as to the views of others about that. I've been thinking of posting on that issue for awhile, actually -- at risk of re-raising an issue perhaps already briefed on MUD-Dev! :-)

Ian, please post a draft of it on WaterCooler when you get it finished.


I have never seen a better definition than the one Mark Twain came up with. To paraphrase, he said that work was something a body was *obliged* to do, and play was something that you were not obliged to do, you just did it because you wanted to.

Seems reasonable to me.


B.Smith > I have never seen a better definition than the one Mark Twain came up
> with. To paraphrase, he said that work was something a body was *obliged* to do,
>and play was something that you were not obliged to do, you just did it because you
>wanted to.
>Seems reasonable to me.

Seems highly un-reasonable to me.

If play were part of the set of things that one is not obliged to do it certainly would not the totality or even the majority of that set. I’m not obliged to drink coffee but it’s not play. I also think the words ‘work’ and ‘obliged’ would need to be unpacked, does work mean labour in the very broad sense, so really we would be looking at something like Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

Problem with this approach is that while any instance of play may be by choice, there seems to be an underlying need to play that is common to humans, hence humans are in fact obliged to play.

In short I think Twain’s definition is wrong in just about every important respect.



The above comments echo many of my own sentiments except I disagree with the act-by-act determination of 'play' in a VW. Rather than scrutinize each individual action or series of actions, we should look to the overall motivation of the individual. If we do look at each separate, individual act, the delineation breaks down rapidly. I'm playing when I'm in a group hunting mobs but I'm working when I'm trying to find that group or when I'm setting up my store? Even when I am setting up my store, an act that admittedly seems more like work than any other action, I'm doing it because I consider it to be play. As a participant, I generally try to log off, change my play-style or stop 'playing' the game when my actions begin to feel more like work than play, when the enjoyment and benefit I derive from my VW experiences decline to the point that it becomes more of a chore than a game. My subjective evaluation determines, for me, whether my overall actions constitute 'work' or 'play.'


Definitions of 'play' have two sides, I think: A political and an analytical. We define X as Y because we have some sort of normative agenda or we define X as Y to specify the range of phenomena we talk about in a given analysis. This is not to say that definitions are not important - they are crucial and have wideranging consequenses - but they are not true or false in any interesting sense. We probably agree on this.

Anyways, when discussing definitions of play - and particularly in contrast to work - Philippe Aries' 'Centuries of Childhood' is quite relevant. It describes how play was pushed into the domain of childhood which can explain why we are reluctant to understand that many adult activities are much the same thing.

I think what you could be read as suggesting, TL, is that we shouldn't necessarily see play as innocent and/or completely different from the outside world.
Is what you're objecting to, perhaps, what Brian SS calls the rhetoric of 'play as the imaginary'?
I think it would be very interesting if "the 'magic circle'-like definitions of play" are in fact a manifestation of this rhetoric and they can be seen to characterize modern approaches to guide modern approaches to game ontology.


Here's Dave Myers on play, btw...


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