My son is four now. As a result I now spend a lot of time in indoor play areas; multicoloured dystopian mazes of squishiness and confusion. I know that, as a designer, there’s some lesson to be learnt from watching kids interact with these spaces. For a start I can see how the most expensive play area in terms of materials and labor isn’t necessarily the one that pulls my son in and makes him want to come back another day.
Today we were at an outdoor play area which was a reasonably well-sized thing; the generic kind of metal-and-wood “climb-up-and-go-around-and-maybe-do-a-slide” thing you see in kids’ outdoor play areas. From a distance it had a kind of wow factor but when you got closer you realized that there wasn’t actually much for kids to do after their initial few up-and-rounds. The size of it even meant you lost some of the smaller underneath parts that would normally make for imaginary kitchens or dungeons or dungeon-kitchens.
One of the terms that was thrown about in games studies was games as being – or having – “possibility spaces”:
“the possibility space of play includes all of the gestures made possible by a set of rules. As Salen and Zimmerman explain, imposing rules does not suffocate play, but makes it possible in the first place.” Bogost, 2008, p.120
Games are a Place For Stuff to Happen and those of us who are game-development indies or hobbyists generally want to build the digital equivalent of that playground with the perfect cost-to-possibility ratio. In terms of game mechanics, we want to enable a lot of different things to potentially happen in the most efficient way; three simple verbs (climb, collect, dodge) that combine in enough ways to make for compelling interactions. In terms of game spaces, we want to make every space have a meaning and something to do (unless its deliberately a negative space for pacing reasons). I don’t have any magic advice but I know that the biggest playground that cost the most time and money to build isn’t necessarily the most fun.
Now go and look at some neat play area designs or something, I guess.
Bogost, I. (2008) The Rhetoric of Video Games. In Salen, K. (ed.) The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning. Cambridge, MA: MIT, p. 117-140.