The difference between games and toys

A recent conversation with James Huggins, MD of the rather good company Made in Me, got me thinking about a divide that’s often not discussed in the world of video-gaming: between toys and games.

Another way of thinking about this is to consider the difference between simply playing, and playing a game. An excellent recent piece for the MIT Tech Review by Julian Dibbell points out that Second Life has never been what many people wanted it to be (and might reasonably have expected it to be, given the name): a second, alternate reality for people to do “real” things in, like business, shopping, meetings and so on. It has always been a space that people visit, primarily, in order to be playful: to play at being different characters or types of people; to design or own crazy, delightful things. Often, they don’t know themselves why they’re doing all this. Through play, perhaps, they hope eventually to find out.

This, Dibbell argues, means that Second Life is best thought of as a game. But I think that glosses over an important distinction, and one that my conversation with James revolved around. Playing a game means submitting to an external set of rules defining particular things you are supposed to achieve: goals, achievements, points, a certain amount of exploration or action, kills, items, whatever. Playing with a toy, though, is about satisfying not an external set of conditions, but a far more nebulous internal set: through play, you are experimenting with how doing something makes you feel. The aim is not, in the end, to satisfy something outside yourself; it is play itself in the most basic, self-delighting sense.

Are there clear divisions between these things? A lot of the time, no. People pretty much can’t help themselves from being playful; and the best games always seem to permit playfulness as well as simple game-playing. In football, you try to score goals, to beat the other team; but around the edges of that there is always the sheer delight of controlling a ball, of doing things with it that are their own, joyous justification. Similarly, with any beloved video game, players will do far more than simply attempt to beat challenges and get high scores; they will play with the game world itself, and around it, from cultural references to the urge simply to test a game’s physics to its limits.

Something different again appears when you get to what I think of as “software pets” – from complex digital organisms like Sim City to simpler ones like Farmville or Nintendogs. Here, the virtual object is cast as a mixture of game and toy, and your fundamental relationship with it is one of nurture/management. Satisfaction is not so much about meeting particular win-conditions as it is about watching something flourish: a feeling that mixes the internal and external, in that it’s about your individual (and often fairly esoteric) relationship with a particular “toy,” but also about how fully developed that toy is by external measures.

As you can probably tell, my ideas on the subject are still developing. But it seems important not to lump these different sense of play together if we at some point hope to do a little better than just saying “game” whenever it comes to talking about any form of interactive entertainment.