Friday 28 October 2011

The Importance Of Toys

What games aren’t

Definable. That’s one. The world of media is an infinite sphere of infinite dimensions and within it, we’ve laid out a few boundaries and declared them to be meaningful. We decided that if you wrote about news we would call it journalism. And if you printed those words, we’d call that a newspaper. Brilliant!

Really, in real life, you can educate people about what is happening in the world in pretty much any way you like. A poem, a drawing, interpretive dance, machinima, an FPS, billboards or mime. And you can mime about anything you like. Drugs, love, bison, firework safety, trigonometry or the phone-hacking scandal. The need to put things in boxes doesn’t make the boxes real.

I'm on a horse
When you’re seeking to tell a story or play a game or teach someone or sell something, you can take pretty much any combination of things from that gigantic toy-box and make a new thing. Some of those things will stretch the words ‘ill-advised’ further than they were designed to stretch, but some of them will sparkle and glow like hot, buttered diamonds.

Furthermore, when you make a new thing from two old things, the old things don’t just suddenly cease to exist. Largely, media forms don’t change, they grow. When photography happened, it didn’t stop people painting. In fact it probably made painting a lot more interesting, because now there was another, largely better and certainly more convenient way of fulfilling one of painting’s original uses. Now painting was free to go off and examine what it was to paint, rather than do an eerily accurate copy of a big man’s face. This was good for everybody in the whole world.

What games are

So, that said, I want to talk about what games are. I want to do that because I want to talk about what toys are. My favourite definition of games is ‘toys with rules’. It’s my favourite because it’s short and it works. It also ignores the fact that toys already have rules.

oh god how did this get here I am not good with computer
A ball has the rules of physics. If you drop it, it bounces. It doesn’t have rules like ‘if it bounces that high, you win one billion points’ but it does, none the less, have rules. It has intrinsic rules, the rules that define it as a ball. If you get a certain kind of ball and give it to 22 grown-men on a big field, and only let them kick it, add goalposts and a man with a whistle and some casual racism, you have the game of football. And well done you.

The ball is a toy and it has intrinsic rules. Football is a game, that results from adding extrinsic rules to the ball’s intrinsic rules. So we can now say that games are ‘toys with extrinsic rules’. 

To infinity, and beyond

'I'm just a toy. A stupid little insignificant toy.'

This is how we think of toys. We think of toys as childish playthings. Toys are afforded even less social currency and clout than games, and games are rubbish. I collect games and from a distance they look a bit like books, so I can let people come inside my house occasionally. If I had endless shelves of action figures and toy cars, then visitors would either presume that they would never be allowed to leave or, at best, that they would never be coming back.

‘Whoa. Hey. Wait a minute. Being a toy is a lot better than being a...a Space Ranger.’

The thing is, much like gamification’s battle between intrinsic rewards (yay!) and extrinsic rewards (boo!), toys’ intrinsic rules make them fabulously good fun to play with. Game makers - despite being toy makers by default - want to make games. Often times, the game bit, the extrinsic rules bit, overwhelms that first point, that crafting of a supremely awesome toy. Again, like gamification, it’s concentrating on the extrinsic rewards (boo!), not the intrinsic ones (yay!).

Guess I got my swagger back
Toys need to get much more respect than they do. People shouldn’t be so keen to say they are game designers or that they want to make games, and should spend their time making beautiful toys. After all, what would you rather have contributed to the world of games, Zelda or dice? Grand Theft Auto or the pack or cards? In a thousand years, people will still be throwing balls around, they are far less likely to be playing Mass Effect 2.

It’s toys that make play happen, it’s rules that make toys into games. While there’s skill in both, making great toys is vastly under-appreciated. The battle over ‘are games art’ has been won and now they are. But if they are, then toys are an even greater art.

I’m off to change my job title, brb.

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