Two kinds of game

Having a 3 year old granddaughter has got me thinking about children’s games. There are two kinds, I think. I’ll call them role play games and literal games. Role play games are the ‘let’s pretend’ kind: cops and robbers, mummies and daddies etc. Literal games are the kind where no pretence is required but the players agree to follow a set of rules and to pursue some goal that the game itself defines: tag, for example, or any sport.

My dear granddaughter is too small to make this distinction. All games are role play to her. If she and I play hide and seek, she will hide in the same place every time it’s her turn to hide, and still expect me to search the house for her, muttering ‘where can she be?’ When it’s her turn to seek she will still go from room to room telling herself ‘no, he’s not in there’, even if I’ve stayed put and simply pulled a rug over my head. She enjoys the game very much (as I do!), and is always charmingly delighted to find or be found, but it’s all role play. A rule-based literal game is either beyond her or, perhaps more likely, is simply of no interest.

Thinking about it, I realise that most games are a hybrid that includes both role play and literal elements. Monopoly for example is a literal game, in the sense that it has formal rules and a set goal, but a lot of the flavour of the game comes from the fantasy element provided by pretend money, rent and so on. Would it have caught on if the properties were just called ‘colour squares’, the money was just called points and instead of ‘go to jail’ the card just read, ‘move counter to square ten’?

How about a game like football, though? In a way that is a purely literal game, in that the players are not pretending to do anything they are not doing in fact. But football fans don’t follow it as a literal game. To be sure, part of their enjoyment comes from admiring the skill of the players, but much of the excitement comes, doesn’t it, from that powerful identification with one side or another, which allows supporters to refer to ‘their’ team as ‘we’ – and from the whole mythology that is constructed around the teams: their histories, their reputations, their ancient rivalries… Formally speaking, football may be a literal game but its phenomenal popularity comes from a role play game that’s built around it, in which fans ‘pretend’ they are directly involved in the contest and are not simply observers and paying customers.

I was born without this particular gene myself, but otherwise sensible grownups have assured me that they can feel emotionally devastated when ‘their’ team loses. It’s safe emotional devastation, though, isn’t it? Not like the kind that comes from being dumped by your partner, or your house burning down. Role play is meant to feel as real as possible without actually being real: real enough to provide some catharsis, not real enough to upturn your life.

And now I’m on this track it strikes me that, even for the players of apparently literal games, there is a psychological role play going on, for otherwise why would it matter if you won or lost? People who enjoy playing literal games are not dispassionately following rules. They are engaged in a psychodrama about overcoming danger and obtaining mastery.

For some people, this isn’t ‘real’ enough, and they need to do things that really are objectively dangerous like free solo climbing, or becoming a mercenary. And here we move beyond games into the ‘real’ world, which itself consists of activities that resemble literal games – you follow certain rules in pursuit of goals such as money or success – but often get their flavour from the possibilities they provide for psychodrama, and very often require the playing of roles.

So on reflection the distinction between literal and role play games seems less clear than it did when it did when I started. At some point my granddaughter will no longer be satisfied with pretending to hide and pretending to seek and will want to really hide and really seek – but the pleasure she takes in the game and her motivation for playing it may not be so very different.

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