Games and Play

So, over on Twitter, @infinatemao posed a question of play.

With a … clarification…

And, as a game player, and as a dad, I have thoughts. I have a couple of children in early elementary school, and they wander around playing pretend. They’re pals, and it’s 2020, so that’s a good thing. One of them, the younger one, also loves video games. He loves LEGO Star Wars, LEGO Lord of the Rings, Minecraft, Wii Sports, Mario You Name It. Sometimes Goat Simulator. And Sonic, and on and on. These games don’t usually cross over explicitly into their joint play. They don’t play pretend Mario Odyssey, for instance.

But they younger one moves through the house like a video game character sometimes. He scoots sideways, sometimes looking like a Space Invader, sometimes snapping his fingers like a crab. Sometimes he bounds through the rooms doing Power-up Jumps. We send out a bookmark with this years holiday cards–a photo of him doing a Power-up Jump dressed in his Cat Mario Halloween costume.

The older one is as likely to be found pretending to be an animal, or setting up an animal family diorama, or growling around the house like a black panther. Together they play town with Matchbox cars and tracks, solve mysteries with pencils and notebooks, and just talk in that strange lilting way that starts many sentences with, “Pretend that I’m….”

So much play.

There’s a loose use of language when the younger one plays video games, or when I play TTRPG. I say I do things, sometimes, and I say “Dirk Farmer puts on his magic boots,” sometimes. My younger child says, “watch what Sonic does,” sometimes, and “watch what I can do,” sometimes. I don’t think there’s a meaningful distinction to be made there, where in one phrasing there is more playing pretend. In all of those cases, something that isn’t actually real is being given consensual reality by the playing pretend.

But playing pretend doesn’t have to be linguistic, it just gets turned that way almost always when we share playing pretend, though. Because, you know, what doesn’t?

There’s another thing, so stay with me for another moment or so, please. That other thing is embodiment.

For several years, on Thursdays, I attending a thing call the Irish Ceili Dance and Social Comedy Hour. The second half of that was informal. Each week we practiced dances from a book, and we had a stable repertoire of about ten, and we put effort into learning additional one, too. There were probably eighty or a hundred dances.

The dances only existed as nouns when they also existed as verbs. Dancers dance. When the dance moves have all been moved, the dance is done. Dancers embody the dance, give it a reality it does not have when it’s words and diagrams in the book. A dance is a rigid structure–if you don’t follow the moves, you’ll run into (maybe even hurt!)–and if you deviate from the structure, you are not doing the dance. You’re doing something else. And you might step on some toes, don’t you know?

Our group had three rules

  1. Have fun
  2. Get to where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be there
  3. If you can’t do #2, go back to #1

So that’s good. But how is it playing pretend? It is not, not at all. It’s much closer to ritual. Within those three rules, we danced all the dances with more rigid structures. When we danced, the more fully each dancer could follow the dance’s moves, the more fun each dancer had, and the less any one of us was there. A well-danced dance was an ego-effacing event.

Playing pretend is also ego-effacing. Maybe less so than dance because there’s often a linguistic element to playing pretend, and there’s only occasionally one for dance.

So, I don’t know. I’m no social scientist. Playing pretend takes an agreed set of constraints, and says, “I do X.” (Or so-and-so who is understood to be a being in the played pretend reality does X.)

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