Over the last year, we have discovered quite a lot about play. In our Community PlanIt research, in particular, we have seen that the simple framing of an â€œofficial processâ€ as a game provides players with the permission to play. This permission alleviates the pressures of participation by diversifying the paths one takes to express themselves. Instead of just answering a question in an online poll that would serve as an official record of opinion, Community PlanIt, even though it also serves as an official record, gives players room to experiment with ideas and room to fail safely.
I have assumed for some time that the permission to play works pretty much the same way for players, regardless of who they are. But now I am fairly certain this assumption is wrong. When children play games, there is often something very different at stake. The psychologist Bruno Bettelheim urges us to rememberÂ â€œthat for a child, a game is not â€œjust a gameâ€ that he plays for the fun of it, or a distraction from more serious matters. For him, playing a game can be, and more often than not is, a serious undertaking: on its outcome rest his feelings of self-esteem and competence. To put it in adult terms, playing a game is a childâ€™s true reality; this takes it far beyond the boundaries of its meaning for adults. Losing is not just a part of playing the game, as it is for adults (at least most of the time), but something that puts the childâ€™s sense of his own competence in question and often undermines it.â€
Now think of a game like Community PlanIt. It is a game that mediates a local planning process. There is something very real at stake for adults â€“ the city plan or official record. What is intriguing about Bettleheimâ€™s proposition, is that maybe those real world outcomes that motivate adult players are not the same real world outcomes that motivate youth players. We have seen in interviews with youth players that they are for more motivated by the mechanics of the game, not because they choose to focus on things that donâ€™t matter, but because they choose to focus on things that can matter. Winning the game provides a sense of purpose that it might not for adults.
At the Engagement Game Lab, we talk a lot about intergenerational collaboration â€“ but I think weâ€™ve misunderstood the stakes. Adults play the game to see change in their community; youth play the game to master a system, to play at expertise where they are in other areas of their life, denied entry. Performance in the game is attached to this, not (at least at first) the external goal of civic participation. So, the goals of the game are the same for everyone, but the goals of play are different for youth and adults.
This is an area that I am quite excited to explore in more depth. How can we design a game where we anticipate divergent goals of play within the same game? Can we use these contrasting motivations to motivate the other group? Can we raise the stakes of play for adult players and can we raise the stakes of civic outcomes for youth players?