Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Flower and the Rise of Paidia Gaming

A few weeks ago, the PlayStation Network made a new addition to its growing collection of alternative, indie, creation-focused games -- thatgamecompany's innovative, ode to natural beauty, Flower. thatgamecompany, which was co-founded by Jenova Chen (the creator of fl0w) and Kellee Santiago (Chen's co-designer on multi-award winning student game Cloud), is proving itself to be a true pioneer in the current UGC/sandbox/experiential play movement in gaming (which I've discussed in previous posts that you can read here and here), and I'm looking forward to seeing first hand what kind of unique gameplay experience Flower has to offer. So far, the reviews have been incredibly positive. For example, as Ryan Clements writes over at IGN:
"thatgamecompany has depicted something that I never once imagined: what would a flower's dream look like if we could see it? Flower, a PS3 downloadable that comes as a spiritual successor to flOw, is one of the most beautiful games that I've ever played. Not just because the visuals are entirely breathtaking, but also because the experience of playing it offers more enjoyment, emotion and enlightenment than any game I've tried in years."

You'll find a similar celebrations over at Slate. For a more nuanced critique -- aimed primarily at all the surrounding hype and hyperbole -- check out Leigh Alexander's posts over at Sexy Videogameland (or click here and here). I particularly like her comment that the overwhelmingly positive reaction to this game reflects an underlying hope that "As if by lionizing titles with the subtlest signs of promise, we could combat the mainstream's failure to appreciate the dignity of games." Nice.

But I think that whatever the blogosphere's reaction, the game itself represents an important addition to the growing challenge that game designers (esp. indie designers) have posed to the maintream or traditional games market, and against our prevailing ideas and assumptions about digital gaming, and about play more generally. There's a strong and widely accepted notion within Western culture that play should be purposive and rational - structured around rules and parameters, aimed at achieving certain aims and goals, producing points or other measurable outcomes, and resulting in a clearly defined win (or lose). Until quite recently, play and games that didn't meet these criteria tended to be understudied and undervalued, despite their continued presence, prevalence and importance within the play practices of various groups. Today, however, there's a broad and growing interest in things like emergent play, role-play, virtual doll play, etc., which is resulting in an expansion of our understanding(s) and approach(es) to play...particularly within the (programmed/programmable) context of digital games.

So far the most prominent locus for discussions (and observations) of non-rational gameplay has been MMORPGs, where semi-structured role-play unfolds within what are otherwise pretty traditionally-structured game environments. Sandbox games are another example, and I would also predict that quite a few papers at this year's DiGRA are going to look at UGC games like LittleBigPlanet (the call for papers has been extended to April 17th, btw). But games like Flower or PixelJunk's Eden are taking things much further...not only allowing for "non-rational" (experiential, qualitative, non-linear) play to occur within an otherwise rational game structure, but actually making it the central focus of the game itself.

I'm thinking about how we can approach these types of games, and start theorizing on their combined contribution...despite the enormous differences they present in terms of thematic content, levels of player agency, boundaries, etc. My proposal is that if traditional digital games -- and modern, rule-bound games more generally - can be understood or defined using Caillois' concept of "ludus", perhaps a good way to think about these "alternative" models is by using his reverse concept of "paidia". Here's what I mean.

Caillois' theory presents a differentiated conception of play that celebrates the evolution of games into increasingly rational forms of activity, which mirrors modern transformations in terms of play (practice, idealizations, thoughts about...) within modern western societies. He classifies different types of gameplay into four broad categories (agon, alea, mimicry and ilinx), which he then places in a "rank order of progression"...positioning the different types of play along a continuum between two opposite poles. On one end we have paidia, which describes forms of play that feature open-ended fantasy and role-play, free-form diversions and unscripted amusements. On the other end, games with a high degree of ludus are disciplined by rule systems. Because they better reflect the dominant ideology, they are also more likely to be seen and understood as functional, rational and pro-social.

Caillois describes that as a society modernizes, the "frolicsome and impulsive exuberance" of paidia is "almost entirely absorbed or disciplined by a complementary, and in some respects inverse, tendency…to bind it with arbitrary, imperative, and purposely tedious conventions." He argues that in the contemporary era, free-from imaginative play serves a subordinate function to the rational systems of ludus. Caillois describes paidia and ludus in terms of a "natural" progression, reflecting the modern tendency to view structured, rational (i.e. ludus) games as inevitable, desirable and ultimately beneficial...not only in terms of their "civilizing" influence, but also in terms of their ability to produce and reflect modern culture. Needless to say, various play theorists have disputed this idea - reminding us that both paidia and ludus remain important features of contemporary play, and that our privileging of ludus within play studies, within social discourses, and within game design, is socially constructed and hegemonic...a reflection of larger ideas and ideals we have about the role of play in society.

All this to say (whew!), that by putting outdated hierarchies aside and reclaiming the notion and importance of paidia, we can potentially start to theorize and even "name" this new form of innovative, free-form, imaginative game design..and its associated, emerging forms of gameplay. I think that the concept of "paidia gaming" offers an inclusive and timely paradigm. Any thoughts? Is it time to revisit paidia and Caillois?

I've uncovered a few older references applying "paidia" to digital games, a number of which appear to stem from an article by Gonzalo Frasca that appeared in Michael P. Wolf's (ed.) 2003 The Video Game Theory Reader, along with some preliminary "ponderings" by Raph Koster. Frasca uses the term in reference to games like SimCity, which are arguably the likely antecedents of the current crop of open-ended games, albeit still highly structured by rules, parameters and measurable outcomes. I'm not quite sure that these older/previous games really exemplify "paidia" or paidia gaming, which would involve more than simply having "no predesignated goal" or clear winner...although they would contain some of the same qualities, and fall somewhere closer to the "paidia" end of the continuum. It will be interesting to see how this notion has been used over the years and how it's been developed, and to see how my suggestion about this new crop/development in digital gaming fits in with the previous arguments made.

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