Does play-ability matter?

Years of research has confirmed the value of play. In early childhood, play helps children develop skills they can not get in any other way. Minecraft is interesting to kids because it gives them more play-ability than many other titles – and because it’s easier to get hold of – cheapish, multi-platform and not obviously nasty looking to parents. Minecraft is just the latest form of game to arrive in our homes. It takes its place on the timeline of games and toys, which reflect closely our social-technological interest in using toys, games and play to do more than train for a profession or duty – but to explore imaginative ideas.

Did you grow up in the 80s?

In the 80s, Nintendo brought new forms of playability into the lives of children. Many games back then made significant attempts to be ‘educational’ such as ACME Animation Factory, Fun ‘N’ Games, Great Waldo Search, Mario Paint and Fun With Numbers. Financially they made little or no money – and education ignored Nintendo completely – but kids then didn’t and they still don’t. Education still does – in the decade that brought us Web2.0 – Only Derek Robinson talked about Nintendo – where all the other ‘experts’ talked about blogs, wikis and other things that have made no significant impact.

Today, Mario is one of the worlds most lucrative and enduring ‘house brands’, as big a money spinner and cultural icon than Disney’s Mickey Mouse. Games we’re being played well before the home computer became significant in the family home or the classroom. How many games-systems are in your kids school now? Why are they not there – given games are well proven and iPads, Netbooks etc are barely studied? Why isn’t Xbox and Nintendo the ‘house brand’. There’s nothing on the Internet or on an iPad that is going to help kids pass standardised tests that isn’t in books or can’t be coached. So what’s the story here? Why are games outlawed?

It’s because of Dee Snider and Lemmy Kilmister.

In the 80s most parents we’re freaking out about the rise of MTV and Twisted Sister and Motorhead lyrics. The media was busy whipping up the stories in usual fashion – good vs bad, moral decay, language, civic values, religion and so on. For example, back in 1984, Twisted Sister’s anthem “We’re not going to take it” was so incendiary that a US Senate hearing was held over whether it was harmful to children. MTV and the rise of music-videos (some of which were novellas) rallied concerned parents, who thought the violence and lawlessness in the video to be morally objectionable. The wife of then-Senator Al Gore, co-founded the Parents Music Resource Center in response to it and other button-pushing ‘80s tracks. Today,  Al Gore is free of the past and all about the future. More specifically, he’s all about The Future – his new book. Along the way Al and Tipper enjoy a net-wealth of some $300 million and attempted to kill rock and roll.

Games are under the same kind of censorship today. It uses the same media-rhetoric and whips up the same fears – addiction, sex, drugs, violence and so on. Songs of course have been ‘banned’ for years by concerned citizens. Here’s a list for your amusement.

In a showdown with the PMRC in front of a Senate Committee, Dee Snider, Twisted Sister’s vocalist said,

The full responsibility for defending my children falls on the shoulders of my wife and I, because there is no one else capable of making these judgments for us.

Today, Dee Snider sees game censorship as he did music censorship. So to me Dee Snider is more of an educator than Ken Robinson or any Kahki jean, sport shirt wearing middleclass edu-expert.

I wonder today, who among the game-community is standing up for not censoring play – besides Dee Snider. Most are banging on about gamification and selling books (face palm). You will not be able to keep some children from playing sports, while others prefer more screen based activities. Only a fool would suggest both are not equally important – given the decades of research and studies about play and childhood development.

Yet play is rapidly disappearing from our homes and schools. Over the last two decades , children have lost eight hours of free, unstructured, and spontaneous play a week. Children’s time spent outdoors fell 50 percent. In the same period – organized play (adult generated and policed) increased by 50% and TV watching went from 30 minutes to 3 hours. Over decades, children’s playability has been eroded.

I define playability as “a set of properties describing a player’s experience when playing alone or with others, related to a specific game that is intentionally entertaining and credible”. This could be playing Minecraft. Equally just kicking a ball at a wall or riding a bike along a trail – or banging out noise on a Jackson while listening to Motorhead or Sleigh Bells. It’s all the same to me as the man said.

So if mums and teachers don’t get Minecraft, then it’s probably because they haven’t taken into account we have treated play as a luxury that kids, as well as adults, could do without.

We’ve linked it to health and fear rather than imagination and creativity – as society has a love hate relationship with junk food and television. In addition, the rise of organised play “kiss and drop” (soccer, little athletics and so on) has over-powered kid-organised play in the way kids might have just been ‘in the street’ in previous decades – when people didn’t own 2 cars per household or spend 2 hours a day driving to and from work. Go outside and play … anyone not want to do that? Raise your hand. For those who can’t – what should we do? – ban games in school and at home or just figure it how playability fits into learning, imagination and creativity.

If you’re a gamer – maybe a Mincraft player – what is your play-ability that you’ve got from playing? If you’re Dee Snider – then man, you’re still epic.