I like talking about “history at play” or “playful historical thinking” more than “history games” or “serious games” because of some of the baggage that comes with the word “game.” I know that “game” is a capacious label, but more and more today the word describes a commercial product, a highly structured and packaged experience.
For the past several months, I and some devious co-conspirators have been working on a kind of historical ARG, and what we’ve hashed out is pretty cool. But it’s also been a ton of work, and I wonder whether the ratio of effort to impact in a project like this is ever going to be scalable or sustainable for time and cash-strapped educators. That’s one reason I’ve been talking up “barely games.” I’m trying to deconstruct my own ideas about games and gaming, breaking them down to more basic building blocks of history and play.
Game scholars sometimes distinguish between two modes of play, ludus and paidia. (The terms come from Wikipedia French sociologist Roger Caillois, and are always a hit at parties.) Ludus describes structured, rule-driven, competitive games, while paidia describes unstructured, improvisational play. Professional sports are mostly ludus; playing make-believe is mostly paidia. Too much ludus and a game can become a grind; too much paidia and an activity can feel pointless. Left to their own devices, children and others skilled at play will typically introduce paidiaic elements into ludic games (arf arf, my Monopoly dog is biting your Monopoly hat!) and ludic elements into paidiac play (you can’t step on the black tiles–they’re lava!). The two modes are really poles on a spectrum, and maximum fun seems to be a moving target somewhere in the middle.
Commercial and cultural factors have pushed the computer game industry way over towards the ludic end of the spectrum. Hardcore gamers want and expect ludic challenges. Yet many breakout hits (think of The Sims, Guitar Hero, even Grand Theft Auto) also allow for paidiaic forms of play. Will Wright describes his greatest hits (SimCity, The Sims, Spore) as “toys” rather than “games,” and their freeform possibilities are a lot of what make them open and accessible to a wide audience.
(I don’t know where on that spectrum you’d put the Facebook-style “casual” games like Farmville and Mafia Wars that seem to be taking over the world. Their low-intensity suggests paidia, but in other ways they are almost pure ludus–“games” in name only, with almost everything but the scoring mechanism stripped out.)
Three years ago, Bill Turkel was calling for “history appliances.” I think we need more history toys.