Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Are Rollercoasters Play?

It seems like a silly question. Rollercoasters are fun and exciting. They’re clearly entertainment. What difference does it make if they fit into some arbitrary definition of “play” or not?

Rollercoasters are interesting because they highlight an important characteristic of play: The ability to move freely within an abstract system of rules. As Huizinga says, “all play is a voluntary activity”. Play cannot exist without freedom. You can’t be forced to play. Once an activity is compulsory, the play value evaporates.

But, just as importantly, you can’t be forced while you play. Being able to choose whether to participate or not is one type of freedom. Being able to choose HOW you participate is a different kind of freedom. Both are essential for play to occur. Play requires both the construction of a microcosm and the ability to interact freely with the rules governing its existence.

When my daughter was younger she was very bossy. She liked playing pretend with Playmobil figures, and she liked having adults play with her, but she was very particular about what all the characters would do and say. A typical session would go something like this:

Me: “Okay, here comes the bear, walking through the forest!”

Her: “The bear’s not walking through the forest! He’s hiding behind a tree, waiting for the princess.”

Me: “Okay, I’m hiding behind a tree. There’s the princess! I jump out … ‘grrr, I’m going to eat you!’”

Her: “No, that’s not right! The bear wants to give the princess a ride.”

Me: “Uh … okay. The princess climbs on the bear’s back and we take off through the trees.”

Her: “Oh no, there’s an evil wizard up ahead.”

Me: “Grrr … I’ll protect you princess!”

Her: “No, you’re the wizard’s pet. You’re kidnapping me.”

Me: “Sigh … okay …."

My daughter was cute and all, but playing like this was really boring. We’d created a perfectly good microcosm, but only one of us had the freedom to explore it. My involvement was limited to acting out the script she had in her head. It was missing the sort of interactive give and take that occurs during really good games of make-believe.

You can observe this same dynamic in pen-and-paper RPGs. Players complain if the gamemaster engages in too much railroading, i.e. forcing them down a particular path in the adventure. The Queen of Elfland wants her crystal dagger back and you’re going to go get it for her whether you like it or not! It doesn’t matter how compelling the microcosm is, if the player’s aren’t free to explore it, play collapses.

Which brings us back to rollercoasters.

Rollercoasters are, literally, railroading. Once you’re on them you’re going where they want you to go. In fact, they often go where you don't want them to go … say, straight down a 300 foot drop that your lizard brain tells you will end in death. You have no freedom while you’re riding. They’re not play.

But they are fun.

It turns out there are lots of ways to have fun that don’t involve play. Riding a rollercoaster. Eating an excellent meal. Watching a sunset. Bungee-jumping off a bridge. In all these cases the pleasure is immediate and experiential. Rather than removing you from the real world, experiential pleasures anchor you more firmly in the immediacy of the moment.

Not only are rollercoasters not play, they’re actually the antithesis of play. Play is about the construction of an abstract microcosm and the freedom to explore it. Experiential pleasures are about the physical enjoyment of the fixed reality of the moment.

This distinction will become important when we look at the elements of play in traditional narrative.

No comments: