The Importance of Play

I called my brother on a walk this weekend and he told me two stories that I thought really illustrated how important play is to humans.

The first, is that on Friday night, my brother was getting home from work around 12:30 am. My brother is a high school coach, so he drove the kids to their track meet, spent all night there, had to drive the bus home, and so forth. He was starving and went to a local Taco Bell drive thru. The parking lot is huge because it's the site of a grocery store. There, after midnight, a few dozen Indian men had gathered to play cricket.

I thought this was fantastically cool. Cricket is enormously popular outside the United States, but here, nobody plays it and it takes up a ton of space. But, playing is so important that a group of adults, after work, on a Friday, were willing to stay up late to play a game they love. I think it's a great example of the importance of play, and also a really nice melting pot/immigrant story.

The second story is also related to the track meet. My brother sent me a video of the Hot Dog Relay, which is an unofficial event at the end of the meet. All of the throwers form four man teams to run a 400 meter relay. Throwers are typically big strong dudes not known for speed. They are Gimli, not Legolas. In the Hot Dog Relay, each team carries a hot dog wrapped in foil as their baton. On the last leg, the runner must consume the entire hot dog before they cross the finish line.

This is hilariously stupid, but it's a big deal for everyone participating and watching. Humans love silliness and teens especially love sanctioned silliness. In fact, silliness is a key ingredient of creative output, at least according to John Cleese.

Play is so important, and the general feeling of playfulness is a key ingredient to my designs. The review site I most often watch, Shut Up & Sit Down, is not only focused on comedy in how they present their material, but they tend to gravitate towards games that make them laugh. Silly games. Games that are fundamentally playful.

I don't want to belabor the point, and I'm not sure this notion is unique enough to develop into a full post, but I think there are a few key factors that'll lead to your design being more playful.

Surprise. Surprise can come in the form of random outcomes, like rolling the instant kill in Dead of Winter, or only certain cubes falling from the tower in Shogun, or a player drawing the 1 tile they need in Carcassonne, or simply having a private hand of cards. Surprise is a wonderful emotion.

Personal Expression. The ability to see yourself reflected in a game is a great way to make play more fun. This can come in the form of designing decks in Netrunner, choosing a fleet in Armada, playing aggressively to steal and block in Carcassonne, or improvising in a social game like One Night Ultimate Werewolf or Funemployed. Games that let players be themselves, or be someone else, are fun.

Minor Accomplishments. Typically games are played to a victory condition. In most cases, one player, or one team, will win. But,  something that makes every step of play more satisfying is filling your game with minor accomplishments. Blowing up an Imperial Star Destroyer may compensate for losing your entire fleet. Executing a beautiful combo that you devised is delicious. Having a round in Waterdeep where you perfectly guessed the order of your placement, or picking the right four cards in Broom Service. These accomplishments can be internally devised by players, but good designers bake these in.

Look for the silliness in your surroundings and try to strengthen the playfulness of your designs. Never forget the importance of play in our lives!