Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Play by Stuart Brown, M.D.

I've started reading Play by Stuart Brown, M.D., and a lot of what he has to say resonates with my experience as a roleplayer and storyteller. I've skimmed through the book and started reading the beginning in detail, so I'm only giving my first impression here.
In his attempt to define play, he hedges a bit, because play is experiential. A description of play must take into account that what is fun and relaxing for me might be repellent to you. Some people play cards for a living and garden for fun. Some people garden for a living and play cards for fun. Their experience of the details of play will be different, even though the benefits they draw from it are similar. I'm reminded here of the Brilliant Gameologists complaining about people who use the word "fun" in game reviews. They point out that this is worthless as a descriptor, because the only thing it tells the reader is that the reviewer enjoyed the game.
Brown does give a few definitions of play, including this list of criteria:

  • Apparently purposeless (done for its own sake)
  • Voluntary
  • Inherent attraction [By which he means the activity is fun for the participants]
  • Freedom from time
  • Diminished consciousness of self
  • Improvisational potential
  • Continuation desire [by which he means all participants want it to continue]
I think that this definition contains in it a checklist for healthy, positive roleplaying games. If we design games that encourage all of these criteria for all participants, everyone at the table will probably have a good time. What that sort of design looks like is worth thinking about.
A couple of medical observations Brown makes about play, in no particular order, are:
Based on interviews with Texas inmates, a childhood without a lot of opportunities for play is as good an indicator of adult behavior problems as any other factor.
In animals (and presumably humans) one benefit of play behavior is that it helps the individual practice responding to surprise while in a low-stakes environment. Given how often animals will need to respond to high-risk surprises in order to survive, practicing and developing this skill does have survival value. However, this benefit is not, in Brown's view, the primary benefit of play for humans. That benefit has to do with social interaction and with mental health.
According to Brown, the opposite of play is not work. It is depression. Quitting your normal play activity is a frequent sign of depression. And in some cases, play can serve as one treatment for depression.
Again, all of these are just my initial take on the book. As a game designer and storyteller, I think that the nature of play is worth examining. I often think about the nature of story. I design toward particular kinds of narrative. But my design assumes that you share an enjoyment of certain play activities with me. Perhaps I should examine that assumption. Or at the very least, perhaps I should use Brown's criteria of play to help ensure that everyone else is having fun, too.