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Unstructured Play Journey: Part 1

It's generally assumed that computer games are playful, yet highly structured experiences. That's certainly fair comment -- there are set rules, mission structures, or goals to achieve. Games are won or lost, and rules can rarely be changed. Stories and events are often highly scripted and pre-determined, with at least partly set pacing.

Googling unstructured play brings up a lot of articles about the importance of a freeform style of play for kids, and the need to have time away from structured play like video games. I don't disagree, but of course it's not really that simple. Structured vs. unstructured play isn't a true binary option, it's just one way of looking at a wide spectrum of play. Still, I'll run with the distinction for now, because I think it leads some interesting places.

I suppose I grew up with a fairly high proportion of unstructured play in my life. Television hours were at least partly restricted, and computer games were rare. There were trees to climb, thoughts to write, and many creative attempts to avoid practising piano.

When there was actually access to computer games it seemed very natural to bring more unstructured play to the game. I drew some unnecessarily elaborate and pretty maps of the mazes in Return to Zork. Rather than being platforming zombies staring at the screen, we made up lyrics to songs on Sonic the Hedgehog 2. (The 'we' is important here, it was also very often a social activity, regardless of whether the game itself was designed to facilitate that.)

Games always seemed part of a broader idea of play and creativity. I don't draw lines between these things in the way some might -- if I dress up based on a game character is that fun part of the game itself, or something else? It didn't (and doesn't) matter to me. It's all connected. Note: not having a firm line between gameplay and real-world play does not limit my ability to see the difference between fantasy and reality, that would be a very different thing.

(Tangent: Michael Abbott (The Brainy Gamer) a few months ago attempted a first draft catalogue of fun in games. One or two of my thoughts are in the list, but my idea of costuming or other spin-off activities as part of the fun were not included. I wasn't surprised. I could have better clarified that I do consider those activities to increase fun within the game itself as well as outside it, but I might need to put that down as one of my own oddities. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I enjoy having those lines blurred in my own life, but I don't expect it to be a common point of view. If you do agree I'd love to hear more about your experiences.)

Later, I created story and roleplaying in game worlds. Intentionally blank protagonists, such as the hero of Baldur's Gate, were inadequate without my input. I populated the world with my own imagination, at times complete with extra dialogue and character development not present in the game itself. Some people create mods to weave their own stories and romances, where I already had an imaginative extra layer without blatant manipulation.

Sometimes there is a fight for control between the game structure, and how I would like to play. In Final Fantasy XII it might look like I'm playing the journey from street urchin to hero, and the attempt to put Princess Ashe back on the throne. But really I'm a biologist cataloguing the land's creatures (and trying to ignore those long cut-scenes which sometimes try to side-track me from my important scientific mission). I like Biologist Fantasy much better than Final Fantasy, so why wouldn't I play like that?

As games become more elaborate there is less room for my imagination, it seems. It can become a fight between my will and the game structure. My Biologist Fantasy game is pushing the limits. I couldn't really maintain the illusion, though it remains my major motivation for possibly going back and finishing the game one day.

I do think there are still a lot of unstructured elements to games. Often, they lie off the beaten path and away from a core mission structure. It's moments like driving off jumps because the rules of the world have scope for it, rather than because of any related achievement.

I have to wonder -- why am I fighting the game presented to me, and cherishing any hidden corners where I can do whatever I like? Structure isn't such a bad thing, is it? That's what allows games to tell stories, and so on.

I seem to keep encountering people asking this core question recently: are games the problem, or is it that games just aren't for me? Then I remember I'm working with multiple false binaries here, and life is actually far more interesting and complicated. I don't want to sell things short with such a limited question.

I'm closer to what I want to say when I consider that although games have rules and limitations, that isn't the same as having a right and wrong way to play. If I want to run around setting fire to things instead of completing missions in Brütal Legend that's still valid, as is my Final Fantasy biologist. At least to some extent, following the obvious structure is a choice.

Some games give me more room to move than others, but either way I don't have to see it as a fight between my imagination and playful tendencies, and the game structure. Remembering that the unstructured play I bring to a game is just an extension of the play I have inherently in everything I do. Suddenly it starts to feel a lot more natural, and isn't really in conflict with accepting the more structured elements of a game.

This post deals with the unstructured play within myself, which colours game experiences. Part 2 will focus more on unstructured play as intended design.