Friday, June 4, 2010

Versus Series 5: Toys vs. Simulations

Chris Bateman recently concluded a series on game design as make-believe, kicking it off with an interesting view of games serving in part as props for imaginative play.  Of course, games aren't the only props that are used for the purpose of play, and Bateman lists different examples of items that can be used as representations during imaginative play.  At the top of his list is the first class of object we think about when it comes to props for imagination: the toy.

Continuing with Bateman's thoughts, toys assist their uses in constructing an imaginative construct somehow.  In a way, you can see them enabling us to achieve higher levels of imagination than we would be able to without them.  Since we have the G.I. Joe figure serving the role of the soldier (or any character--or even object) in our imaginative playground, we no longer need to dedicate neurons to certain aspects--most likely physical aspects--of this character.  The more fleshed-out the toy is, the less we have to think about its functions in our imagination.  We can concentrate on conjuring up needed elements for play that aren't as readily available, such as the conflict between G.I. Joes and the Ninja Turtles or where to jump now that we can jump three feet into the air with a pogo stick.

Obviously, this leads down the road of simulations, which can be seen as a sort of toy from this perspective.  Simulations do a lot of the leg work for our imaginations to assist us in imagining things that are difficult to imagine on our own.  Once I accept that this piece of simulation software accurately imagines the effect of gravity on objects, I can concentrate my own imagination on constructing bridges that won't fall down.  If my construction is good, the bridge won't fall down; if it's bad, it will.  No more thought needed.

However, there are important differences between toys and simulations that make it so we can't conflate the two all that easily.  Primarily, it is the kind of imagination that these props assist.

Toys are associated with play in general, and what might be called diversionary play in particular--play that is intended to distract from boredom or other unpleasantness.  The end goal of this type of play is the play itself.  As long as the play can keep you distracted, it is sufficient.  No other rules need be applied for diversionary play to be successful.

Simulations, however, require rules by their nature.  In fact, it is difficult to see a simulation other than a collection of rules.  Simulators are generally not constructed to fill time, but to accurately simulate something.  Therefore, a successful simulator is one that provides an accurate simulation, even if it does not aid in distracting from boredom or tedium.

These things seem self-evident once you point them out, but it's important to think about these differences as video games offer both toys and simulations, rarely labeling which is which on the box.  As noted in the discussion of dimensions in games, merely knowing what exactly your interlocutor is talking about can be a huge step in having a decent conversation.

Many of us may take it for granted that the video game that is a more accurate simulation is better, while others of us may believe that only video games that distract from the tedium and boredom of daily life are worth playing.  Once we become well-versed spotting differences not only of opinion, but definition, we can speak more intelligently and conserve quite a lot of energy in the process.

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