The Serious Business of Play

It’s not always easy to tell someone you’re a game scholar

It’s not always easy to tell someone you’re a game scholar, or that you use public and private dollars to harness the power of games and play for social good. Sometimes the reaction is, “How fun,” tinged with an underlying skepticism suggesting that what we do is not important. Sometimes people ask if you can hire their kid, who is “really into video games.” Occasionally, you get a “Thank you,” with sincere hope that we can do something to make the huge amount of time our kids—and, increasingly, adults—spend immersed in video games more productive and empowering.

In our relentlessly achievement-driven society, it’s tempting to consider games and play as frivolous, but in fact, they serve many important purposes, providing opportunities to play with possible selves and futures; to collaborate with friends, family, and even strangers; to experiment and fail in a safe context; to accomplish meaningful goals; and, yes, simply to have fun.

We have come to appreciate that games run the gamut from frivolous to deeply impactful, and they can be used to support play in ways that are benign, beneficial, or harmful. What is clear is that well-designed games can be quite powerful and captivating for those who play them. Games and play can provide a sense of consequence that, for many, is difficult to find in “real” life.

Each of the stories in this special issue explores how play provides a powerful context for creating important connections and meaning while at the same time providing a space for joy, escape, and even healing. Through play, we create not simply fictional characters but real relationships; we transform our identities and build lasting memories that continue to engage our real-world identities. The lines between real and imagined are blurred (if not imagined), and for many of us, what we experience through play creates meaning that defines us in real life. In fact, it is this blending of real and virtual, and how we experience connection, meaning, and sometimes joy through play, that led us, the editors, to focus much of our life’s work around games and their impact.

Sasha’s Story: 

I grew up in a commune in Vermont, with a Jewish mom who grew up in Germany post-WWII. While I had no direct siblings, I had a rich set of playmates, almost as good as family, and I was building secret forts, creating plays and books, and even performing in community theater from the time I was five. My early childhood was spent in a world of make-believe and reality that was magical, optimistic, and filled with laughter. I learned about friendship, relationship, and even family through collaborative play. I invented worlds where anything could happen, from reversing the extinction of dinosaurs to having a father and siblings.

And then, when I turned eleven, I moved from idyllic Vermont to the affluent Connecticut suburbs. Suddenly, the rules of my world became fixed and immutable, with real consequences. In fact, it felt as if many of the rules I confronted did less to enhance the experience of life and more to remind me I was not good enough and could not succeed in “the game of life”; I ended up giving up on these rules and creating my own, and eventually I stopped playing the game altogether.

Over the next five years, much of my youth was spent at the arcade or with friends who had the home consoles then recently introduced by Atari and Sega. Like me, many of those who inhabited the play worlds to which I gravitated were struggling to fit in, having trouble making progress in the “life” game. But we could succeed in the game worlds, though some of the lessons we learned there were unproductive. In fact, I had taken my Sega console and games from an unsuspecting stranger when I started making unhealthy life choices, which, over time, contributed to my life character’s movement toward the “dark side.” I learned that the only way to succeed was by hanging with other struggling players and using cheats; in real life, this translated into forming unhealthy alliances and using chemical boosts to succeed.

I ended up in a rehabilitation center—do not pass go, do not collect $200—where I learned how to live a sober life. I developed skills, tools, and friendships that allowed me to “level up”—to change my position in life, going to college and getting a job as a drug counselor, a position in which I was able to use my emerging skills and previous experiences to succeed at small tasks and even “boss” moments. I was lucky. And then, as an academic, I received multiple grants to build immersive play spaces used by hundreds of thousands of kids to level up in areas of science, language arts, mathematics, and even life skills. What I learned is that what happens around the game is as important as what happens inside the game. We did multiple studies in which the same game was productive in one classroom but showed little value in another with the same technology and student aptitude.

Research done with colleagues has shown that the power of games for change is dependent on whether the facilitator connects the game to the class scope and sequence, whether players have opportunities to negotiate game play decisions and consequences, whether the players have opportunity to integrate what is being learned in the game with current life situations, whether the learning context is supplemented with other materials and an appreciation for players’ motivations for playing the game.

In fact, the real power of games and play for change lies not within the designed structures or play narrative (what Salen and Zimmerman refer to as the “magic circle” around the game), but in how, through play, one is able to blur lines, the players crafting imaginary and real connections with an often seamless shift between what is play and what is real. Clearly, games can become a primary thread in the tapestry of life for those who play them . . . and these days, that’s most of us. In fact, for many, games and play create a stable space to feel like a hero, to feel as if our actions matter, and to form powerful relationships with ourselves, our friends, our family, and our culture.

Alan’s Story: 

When I was in middle school, I wanted to be secretary of state. I liked the idea of exotic travel and high-stakes negotiation. Looking back, I suspect I was inspired by the many late-night games of Risk that I played with my friends, eating Jiffy Pop popcorn and teaming up to conquer Irkutsk and Yakutsk. That ambition stayed with me until college, where I studied political science; it did not, however, stay with me through college. Maybe it was the incredibly dry economics courses, but I found myself spending far more time putting quarters into a Pac-Man machine, playing pool, and watching movies in the student center than I spent studying at the library.

I had always liked movies, but in college, they become a big part of my life. Like Risk, they transported me into other worlds, providing a rich context for discussion, debate, and simply hanging with friends. Many years later, I learned that Risk was actually invented by French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse, best known for the sublime short film The Red Balloon. Play and storytelling have always been close cousins, and both have remained a key theme in my work.

After college, I put my worldly possessions in a beat-up old Mazda and drove to LA to make movies. I became fascinated by the power of storytelling to transform lives and society, which led to my getting a grant to study the Chinese film industry, becoming a film critic in Hong Kong, and helping to launch a film festival in Philadelphia. Just as I was getting deeper into harnessing the power of film for social change, I got offered a job in video games, as the head of creative affairs at Activision. My indie film friends were horrified.

It was the early ’90s. Mortal Kombat had just come out, prompting government hearings, and most of the world was either vilifying video games or simply dismissing them as mindless entertainment. Despite my deep dive into Pac-Man, I wasn’t really a gamer, but my girlfriend—now my wife of many years—was. She had me play her favorite adventure games: King’s Quest, It Came from the Desert, and Leisure Suit Larry. I was fascinated. These were player-driven narratives: interactive play as opposed to passive storytelling. Lean forward versus lean back. I quickly realized video games were much more diverse and textured than most people realized.

At their core, games are about verbs: what the player does in a game. While most people focus on the action-game verbs—running, jumping, shooting—I have always been fascinated by the verbs used in adventure, strategy, and puzzle games—exploring, evaluating, choosing, and solving. For example, Spycraft, an action game we developed with William Colby, former head of the CIA, and Oleg Kalugin, a former major general of the KGB (it turns out that agents have agents), confronted players with complex moral and ethical choices based on real-life experiences. In the strategy game Civilization: Call to Power, players had to make complex decisions about how to build and sustain an empire by balancing cultural, diplomatic, military, and scientific advancements.

Most significant, games give players agency—the ability to make a difference in both the virtual and real worlds. As with any medium or technology, video games can be a powerful force for good or ill, and sometimes both. They offer great potential for learning, health, and social impact, and pose great challenges around toxic behavior, gratuitous violence, and addiction. I became focused on maximizing the positive impact of games while minimizing the negative impact, which led me to become chairman of the nonprofit Games for Change and then to cofound E-Line Media, a double bottom-line (financial and social impact) publisher of games that help players understand and shape the world.

I have had the good fortune to travel all over the world, collaborating on a wide variety of social impact games, exploring everything from civic engagement in the Middle East to sustainable farming in Central America, to empowering women and girls in India, to partnering with an amazing group of Alaska Native elders, writers, and storytellers to bring a story passed down over thousands of years into a commercial video game played by over four million people.

As I travel the world working on social impact game projects, I have found that games—and play more broadly—can be a very inviting and disarming context for engaging players in the critical issues facing society and the planet. In fact, I think games and play could be a great platform for a forward-thinking secretary of state to tackle our shared challenges. 

Connection, Meaning, and Joy

For this special issue, we sought stories that illuminate the great variety of ways in which games—and, more generally, play—have affected the lives of diverse individuals and communities.

One of the most compelling themes in all of the narratives is how play provides a powerful context for making connections that would be difficult or even impossible otherwise. Whether a husband and wife are using a cooperative board game to help navigate a challenging patch in their marriage or a grandmother is joining her grandson in an elaborate made-up world, play is an invitation to connect.

The theme of connecting across generations, and often within families, crossed many of the stories. It was particularly interesting how often grandparents showed up in the stories. Games scholar James Gee has observed that often the deepest impact of a video game is what happens around the game/play space. The stories collected in this issue may seem to be about mah-jongg or Fallout 76 or pool, but they are really about family, about nostalgia, about making connections around games.

Play also provides a powerful context for meaning-making, a second core theme in our work and the manuscripts. In fact, play has been recognized by a wide variety of researchers and psychologists for its value to human development and growth. Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky argued that “the influence of play on a child’s development is enormous. . . . It is a novel form of behavior liberating the child from constraints.” Play allows the individual to engage in forms of communication, in rule structures, and in understandings that are unreachable in more formal contexts, helping the child to realize tendencies and desires and to engage meanings that cannot be indulged in any other way. The Association for Childhood Education International has stated that “play—a dynamic, active, and constructive behavior—is an essential and integral part of all children’s healthy growth, development, and learning across all ages, domains, and cultures.”

In our own work, we have continually worked to blend the real and virtual, building fictional contexts loosely or tightly connected to real-world events and designed to engender flexible movement between being the game character (virtual identity), the person who makes decisions about what the designed character will do (real-virtual identity), and the real individual who operates outside the game world (real identity). In fact, bridging the real and virtual, play and life, and me as character or me as person is one of the most powerful tools when using games and play for change. (Sadly, most formal learning institutions don’t realize this.)

All of the selected manuscripts were written by women, across multiple generations. They feature a blend of physical and digital play, structured games and purely imaginative worlds. One of the pleasant surprises in reading the manuscripts was this diversity—everything from board games and sports to digital games and purely made-up play. Scot Osterweil, a professor at MIT who studies play, has highlighted four freedoms that are integral to play: freedom to experiment, freedom to fail, freedom to try on identities, and freedom of effort. Regardless of the degrees of freedom offered within the game, there is much ownership and agency in how players interact around the game, negotiating meanings, building strategies, sharing stories, and all the while cultivating real-world relationships.

We invite readers to enter the worlds of play introduced and made real through the stories contained in this special issue. For us, these manuscripts provided an opportunity to challenge lingering misconceptions about the value of play, about who plays games, and especially about the notion that play is frivolous. We hope this issue will help readers fully appreciate the role that play occupies in all of our lives.

About the Author

Sasha Barab and Alan Gershenfeld

Sasha Barab is an internationally recognized learning scientist who researches, designs, and publishes on the power of immersive games and platform technologies for supporting connected growth. He is a professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, and the executive director of the Center for Games and Impact at Arizona State University.

View Essays

One thought on “The Serious Business of Play

  1. Some interesting and thought
    Some interesting and thought provoking commentary on what is obviously not at all a frivolous business. As you note, “the huge amount of time our kids—and, increasingly, adults—spend immersed in video games” is a fact of modern first world societies and also many outside that ‘western’ purview.
    The fact is, as you say, that games “serve many important purposes, providing opportunities to play with possible selves and futures; to collaborate with friends, family, and even strangers; to experiment and fail in a safe context; to accomplish meaningful goals; and, yes, simply to have fun.” They also, as I’ve posited in a novella I’ve just finished writing, offer a great deal of room for data mining and the manipulation of society via their game spaces. Narrative has always been used to condition people to the ways in which we integrate into communities; the narrative form has shifted. The game, the film, the YouTube clip has become the new norm of narrative.

Leave a Reply