Toys Not Games

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.


  1. So D&D 4e is a fairly ludic game, while forum/LJ freeform roleplaying is paidiac roleplay? Useful terminology!

    Hm. PTA being ludic. Lots of ludic narrative-oriented games out there. Not so much with the paidia.

    Re: Farmville — does paidia imply a lack of intensity? I don’t necessary associate structure with intensity; I’ve seen people get very intense and hardcore about improvisation.

  2. Just need to see kids at play to know that paidiaic play can be incredibly intense. Our kids and their friends, anecdotally speaking, will sit down and intensely organize play, play intensely, then organize some more. It’s this thing of scary consensual play.

  3. Great post and really interesting ideas to play with. One thing I’ve noticed is that toys are becoming more and more ludic in the commercial sphere.

    When I was a kid (born 1964 for context), Lego was a box of different sized pieces. And kids did all the building, imagining, playing, etc. I recall my grade 1 teacher having a really big set at the back of the room that also included trees but still, mainly just lots of pieces that we could do with what we wanted.

    I remember when I was a bit older, there started to be small sets with wheels and such so you could make cars, and these came with instructions. But in our use of them the instructions got chucked pretty quickly and the wheels were incorporated into the larger collection.

    Now, it seems to come in sets with a pre-defined purpose, and specialized pieces in complex shapes (more complex than squares and rectangles, anyway) and a thick instruction & idea book.

    Has making your own stuff with a collection of Lego pieces become the equivalent of hacking? In my day, hacking was all you could do. The word would have been meaningless to our activity.

    I say all this because it might feed into your process of how cultural understandings of games and play work in your rethinking of how to think and do and teach history.

  4. Intense make-believe play – wonder where your kids learned that, Jeremiah?

    But Jere and Bryant, you are both right – I was probably wrong to yoke intensity to the ludus-paidia spectrum. The division is really (I think) about how goal-oriented the activity is. Here’s a nice essay using the terms:

    I really don’t know where I’d put D&D and other RPGs on the spectrum. I sometimes think the signature trait of tabletop RPGers is how structured and rule driven our aimless improvisational play is.

  5. Jo:

    Good call bringing up Lego. I’ve got some stuff to say about exactly that in my next post.

    Michael Chabon has a lovely essay about Lego in Manhood For Amateurs , which turns on the same shift in Legoland you describe.

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  7. The thing about history, as a discipline, is that it’s naturally in that middle-ground. Our approach to writing and argumentation is rather ludic (which explains a lot the tension between ‘academic’ writers and popularizers and historical fiction), but our approach to the range of questions we ask, the evidence we apply, our process, in other words, can be rather paidiac at times. This is exacerbated by the somewhat random nature of the sources available to us most of the time.

    My writing assignments tend to be rather ludic, but my exam questions somewhat paidiac….

  8. Thanks for sharing this and expanding my vocabulary!

    Do you think there is a tendency for paidiaic play to resolve toward Ludic play? People start out with interpretive and imaginative make believe, thinking about what their Gi Joe would say, how he/she would act, and then when you try to play with others start to move more toward ludic play. i.e. “My guy hits yours with a missile and so he is dead” Response, “No way cuz my guy has an infinity shield” “Well my guy does infinity +1 damage.”

    With that said, it also seems like padiaic play is always available, no matter how hard you pin down the rules. You can anthropomorphize the tic-tac-toe Xs and Os into any kind of story you like.

  9. Jon: Ha! I like that. I think my work habits may be ludic/paidiaic depending on how much coffee I’ve had.

    Trevor: Absolutely. I think that’s the nature of play, to mix up the ludus & paidia.

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    “While it is possible to play a single game, unrelated to any other game events past or future, it is the campaign for which these rules are designed. It is relatively simple to set up a fantasy campaign, and better still, it will cost almost nothing. In fact you will not even need miniature figures, although their occasional employment is recommended for real spectacle when battles are fought. A quick glance at the Equipment section of this booklet will reveal just how little is required. The most extensive requirement is time. The campaign referee will have to have sufficient time to meet the demands of his players, he will have to devote a number of hours to laying out the maps of his “dungeons” and upper terrain before the affair begins. ”
    - Preface of the Original Dungeons & Dragons (1 November 1973)

  12. The new D&D is too rule intensive. It’s relegated the Dungeon Master to being an entertainer rather than master of the game. It’s done away with the archetypes, focused on nothing but combat and character power, lost the group cooperative aspect, bastardized the class-based system, and resembles a comic-book superheroes game more than a fantasy RPG where a player can play any alignment desired, not just lawful good.
    - more Gary Gygax [GameSpy interview, Pt. 2 (16 August 2004)]

  13. Rob,
    Thank you for that vocabulary and distinction. I can see that same spectrum useful for thinking about writing tasks–my own bailiwick.


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