Playfulness in games

3 min read

Cast your mind back to the toys of your youth. The Jack-in-the-box, the Slinky, the pull-back-let-go racing car, the action figures. They had an inherent playfulness at their core. Things to touch, feel, bend, and stretch.

I remember the interlocking latches and spring-mounted, slide-out parts of my Transformers action figures. They offered a user experience that required no goal setting and no difficulty curve. The simple, tactile pleasure of positioning and repositioning their moving parts was reward enough.

Comparing games with toys, or even suggesting that games are toys, is divisive. Solemn gamers are wounded by such a playful definition for the medium. Yet, the verb we use to describe how we experience games is play. Not even the most hardened gaming aesthete would say ‘I was interacting with a great game last night’.

So are modern games playful? What is the essence of playfulness? Is playfulness important for games? offers, ‘full of play or fun; sportive; frolicsome.’ as a primary definition. A definition for games must go further. Playfulness in games is any action that elicits entertaining feedback. In games as in toys, playfulness does not need to serve a goal. So what type of game actions feel playful in and of themselves?

The mobile game 1Bit Ninja is aware of the child-like desire for tactile satisfaction. It is a Mario clone complete with knowing imitations of the enemies, level design and music. It plays as you’d expect, with one finger assigned to running and another to jumping. With a third finger you can pull the forced 2D view into a third dimension, much like Paper Mario on the Wii. The iPad remaster of Monkey Island allows you to switch between the old and new visuals with a mere swipe. Like 1Bit Ninja, doing so affords a surprising but not more helpful view of the action. That may be what makes it so compelling.

I’ve always been fond of momentum. Not the sort you feel in a top shelf racing game. Chasing a speedometer’s upper reaches is thrilling but bends and hairpins demand restraint. Nothing beats the endorphin-laced locomotive feedback of games like Burrito Bison or Tiny Wings. There are games where caricatured physics meet a possibility space that doesn’t punish carelessness. Unburdening the player of restraint seems to be a fertile vein of playfulness.

Sandbox games are excellent at this. They react to player behavior with spiraling unscripted dramas of cause and effect. The ambient interactions sandbox games provide don’t set direct goals or impose hard restraint. They exist to normalize rules and boundaries that are germane to more prescribed sequences. I’m back on the carpet with my toy cars. I’m pulling stunts, racing around and co-opting my plastic action figures into the mix. The caprice of my imagination dictates what happens next as much as the game’s rules do.

There are times when my actions follow the scene, the set-up and the fiction, but not the rules. My own self-restraint becomes a key ingredient in maintaining the illusion. I know that the enemy soldier over there has a vision cone. I know I could outwit his AI by avoiding his predetermined path, but instead I overplay my hand. I don’t just avoid the vision cone. I also avoid what I imagine he might hear of my footsteps and my breathing. I creep into the attack position with much more care than the game’s rules insist on for success.

The game is succeeding in making me play with it. I’m not a detached intelligence, measuring and exploiting its laws. I’m a complicit actor in its drama, playing an earnest role.I’m back in the woods near my childhood home, with a rabble of neighborhood mercenaries. Commando rolling through the bracken for effect.

But how long can that last for any given product? Imagining today’s games as extensions of our beloved childhood toys may be naive. Children play to learn. Gaming adults meanwhile, often need to re-learn how to play when they have children of their own. The simple-hearted joy of building a Duplo fortress is immediately playful. It relegates Minecraft to its LCD enclosed playpen. It forces me to re-experience the satisfying clunks and clicks of my youth. It allows me to re-discover playfulness through the eyes of my children.

Games age much faster than toys. I’ve seldom been able to re-experience a beloved title without feeling disappointed. I don’t expect the original Doom will ever rekindle a lost thrill. Even if I’m sharing it with one of my kids for the first time, somewhere down the line.

Playfulness may be eternal but games don’t have the long-term hold of their plastic progenitors. Maybe that makes them even more precious. Every game is a moment in time. A memory to lock away and protect. Like a carefree childhood.

About the Author


Games industry product guy. Trades in decisions, whiteboard scribbles and facepalms.