Play is a really weird verb. It implies an interactivity sure, taking part in something, but it also has an element of something not being fully in the players' control. The concept of "play" as it stands, is a state of being half audience, half author. That's why we play games, not watch them, or read them. The games that leverage that co-authorship concept are what we're focusing on this month, and here are a few we think are particularly notable.
Dungeons and Dragons:
This is kind of an obvious pick, to be honest. Dungeons and Dragons is certainly not the first game to play with co-authorship and play mechanics, but it's certainly the biggest and most inspirational. Players are at the whims of a Dungeon Master, who balances their attempts to tell a story while also posing a challenge to the players. Meanwhile, the players are trying to tell their own personal character stories, while trying not to die. It's a delicate back and forth that combines improvisational games with RPG mechanics, back before RPGs were a thing.
That's where the really interesting mechanics come in, by the way. D&D uses a a whole bunch of numbers as statistics to stand in for your character's attributes. It keeps players from having perfect characters that can do anything, but it also encourages teamwork; generally sneaking, every character in the party has a different job, and the party has to rely on each other to get through the DM's challenges.
D&D is pretty well inspired by Lord of the Rings, among other fantasy novels of the era, and really works to use its mechanics to emphasize the teamwork-oriented narratives at the centre of those stories. Having that focus on balanced, imperfect stats for each character creates the need to work together in real life, which in turns helps players bounce off of each other for character development, making the whole game work better. D&D leverages that act of play as performance to make every player better.
Well, as long as they don't just try to murder everyone, that is.
It feels like Wii Sports is a strangely controversial game these days. One one hand, it's among the best selling games of all time, packaged in with the best selling home console of all time, making it the game most likely to be played and enjoyed by almost anyone on the street. On the other hand, it's seen as a game that embodies everything "wrong" with that era of games. It's casual, it's simple, it's focused entirely around motion control, and it's, of course, a Wii game, making it less than.
It's a strange argument to have, because it highlights how Wii Sports is a game that isn't necessarily for the people who were all-in on games beforehand. Wii Sports, like an endless number of "Trojan horse" games before it, leverages the simplest elements of play to show the average person that games can be fun and appeal to them too.
Just about everybody knows how to play tennis, or baseball, or bowling, or even how to throw a punch. They're simple, one-motion activities, and while not everybody loves all of them you're certain to have some positive memories associated with one of them. By simplifying them down to that one movement — the serve, the throw, the lob, the punch — and trying them to an exciting "new" technology, the motion controller, Wii Sports sold people on the idea that games weren't just complicated messes of buttons used to shoot Nazis. Wii Sports proved to a generation of people who believed that games passed them by that play, at least in the context of video games, could be as simple as pretending to throw a ball.
This is probably a cheat, because the game isn't out yet, and we've only played a little bit, but Mario Maker is an exploration of play at this weird, granular most-people-never-think-about-this-but-that's-the-point level. Super Mario Bros. is far from the first platformer, but it's the earliest one I can think of that teaches you how to play organically, using only level design to give the player an idea of what Mario can do, and what they're supposed to do with that information.
Mario Maker isn't without its flaws; almost everything it offers budding level designers has been offered before in unofficial programs like SMBX, and Nintendo's strange decision to drip out items for level creation over time is pretty damn weird, but both make sense in the scheme of what Mario Maker is trying to be. It's meant to teach players, the co-authors, how to make their half of co-authorship work. By slowly giving them access to the more complicated parts of level design, Mario Maker ensures that they'll master the basics first, learning how to design a level effectively and educationally at the core, before tacking on fancier gimmicks.
Mario Maker hands off all the tools to make 1-1 to start, which is great, but it also forces designers to beat their own levels before they can put them up for download. Sure, that means you have to make a winnable level, but beyond that, it also means that you're more likely to make a level you find fun. As such, as you design (and beat) more of your own levels, you'll slowly learn what you find fun in the hidden facets of level design, and then unleash that upon everyone else playing Mario Maker. It's dastardly, but Nintendo is looking to make experts in play mechanics of all of us. Mario Maker is maybe asking for a bit too high of a price tag for what it offers, but a crash course in level design from the best is a pretty fascinating deal.