As a kid I played a lot. My brother and I were always building tree houses and underground tunnels in our big garden, setting traps for imaginary enemies that never showed up (my mother would occasionally be trapped in them, much to her dismay). Brewing weird magic potions by mixing "secret ingredients" like mud, washing powder (great foam!), piss, milk and Chanel No5. Long afternoons out in the fields, making castles out of harvested sugar beets, which you could also eat and throw at each other. I did not care much for sports yet climbing and digging were natural ways to channel surplus energy.
Warning: the next paragraphs are mostly about board and video games. Want to know more about my performative play activities? Scroll down a bit.
Board and Video Games
As a kid in the eighties I grew up when the first consumer game consoles hit the market. Unfortunately my parents did not want to buy me a computer. So my best friend and I would play at his house, on his dad's Atari 2600 (and later Commodore 64) in the parents' bedroom. At home I would then emulate these games in analog ways: I used a system of paper scrolls on which I drew roads and obstacles. This way I could play my own version of Spy Hunter. And since my parents pretty much hated board games, I made my own board games as well.
Inventing stuff was my preferred play style. With the lack of games in the house, the necessity to create my own games has influenced my preference for video games that offer level editors. I spent days on end designing new levels for Mr. Robot on squared paper. I would then bring these over to my friends house, quickly model them in the level editor and we would then test-play these levels and evaluate them. It was a lot of fun.
The first game computer we ever had at home was one of those classic Apple machines that my father would bring home from work (Illustration teacher at art school). Every teacher would take on home for the summer holidays. That was considered a good insurance against theft in those days. I played a lot with Pinball Construction Set, a game that lets you create your own pinball machine lay-outs. It is only until recently that I learned that this game had a major influence on game designer Will Wright, and I understand why. It was a truly empowering experience to mess around with this digital toy, making ridiculous lay-outs, just to see what would happen. These days I still have a preference for sandbox games in which I can create my own stuff. I started playing Minecraft in beta and am still playing it today.
That doesn't mean I don't like other types of games. I played more than a fair share of popular games like Marathon, Quake, Unreal, Command&Conquer and Ghost Recon in the office with my Studio Dumbar colleagues (and playing darts afterwards to chill out). I have a ROG Asus gaming laptop filled up with games, most of which I don't even have time to play. The same goes for my board game collection of 500 boxes (most of them in the attic). I like to play short sessions to get a feel of the mechanics, analyse them, study them. My time to play for entertainment purposes is limited. But when I do get hooked on a game I can become really addicted.
Here are two lists of my more recent favourite games, in chronological order of discovering them. Try them out for yourself, they're well worth your free time.
I guess everyone knows this game. I played the first beta version and loved the experience of surviving the first night. It's something you can unfortunately only experience once. I know anyone who's ever played Minecraft can agree on this. It's just so awesome to have no idea how the game works and try to survive the first night.
It's also the perfect sandbox game. I have never tried to slay the built-in Ender Dragon or tried a parcours map (apparently amazing with the new honey blocks). But when I discovered creative mode it became an infinite game. I created adventure-survival maps for it and even made a custom world to fly through that could be controlled with my own Makey Makey powered Cross-trainer. I'll try to find some footage of that and post links to it here later.
I would love to go on about Minecraft and how far groups like SciCraft have gone with it (credits to my Minecraft server buddy Sander Sturing for pointing these maniacs out to me), but let's continue the list...
When this game by That Game Company came out, I read about it and was very eager to play it. Yet I only had an older Playstation 2. So I called a friend and offered to pay for the game if he would let me come over and play it to the end. And I am glad I did. It's such an immersive and relaxing experience! You play as the wind. You only press one button. You cannot fail. You feel as if you're flying. Need I say more? Its intellectual successor Journey proved again how innovative Jenova Chen is in the games industry. There should be a lot more games like this.
Portal was pointed out to me by my friend and Kolabo co-founder Jasper Schelling (who also challenged me to find "the cake"). Playing with portals is one of the best things in games. You feel smart for figuring out this whole new dimension. As Extra Credits pointed out, Portal is basically one long tutorial that is actually a blast to play through. Not only are the scaffolded puzzles very extremely satisfying, the narrative really great as well.
4) XCom Enemy Unknown
I was born in 1973, which means I am getting too old to play crazy-fast games. My Quake Arena days are over. It makes me nauseous. So turn-based games that I can stop at any time (in theory) are what I play most these days (Cuisine Royale is the only exception). Xcom is one of those turn-based games that you can invest a lot of time in. Just don't cry when one of the characters you built over a long period of time gets killed and is lost forever. That's life.
What makes Subnautica great is the fact that it doesn't tell you what to do. You just try to survive below the water without any tutorial or tips. Whether you like to just survive, build luxurious underwater resorts, or get to the end of the game, it's all up to you. The storyline is randomly dispersed throughout the world and leveling up is something you experience in-game rather than managing it in a stats menu. All this makes it one of the most immersive games I know. You can distinguish a early- mid- and endgame. I personally did not enjoy the endgame as it is waaaaay too grindy. But don't let that discourage you. The early- and midgame are fantastic.
6) This War of Mine
A game about war that does the opposite of glorifying killing. You gotta love a game that makes you feel depressed and still very keen to continue. It's a unique experience and I have played it over and over again until I sucked all the magic out of it. Like some other games on this list, this is one where you wish they could erase your memory so you could experience it for the first time again.
A masterpiece. It's so poetic, creative and terrifying. You hit the ground running and have no idea why or where to. I am not going to spoil it by saying anything else about it. Just play it. Now. Seriously.
This is another masterpiece. It's original, it's beautiful, it's challenging, it allows you to explore various ways to beat the game, it lets you get straight back in the game when you fail. The game mechanic that only makes the game move when you move, makes you feel like you have magical powers. It lets you meticulously plan every move while it is still creeping up on you while you think you're untouchable. I played through it many times over anf the only reason I had to stop playing halfway through Superhot 2 is because I may never stop playing this game otherwise.
9) Curious Expedition
Maschinenmensch has made a unique game that has "emerging Storytelling" written all over it. The first one is (as far as I have testplayed version 2) by far the best. A classic. I am not sure about the ethical ramifications of this "Colonialism Simulator", but it's just such great fun to play. Rivals is also great but it has become close to unplayable because of its popularity.
10) Cuisine Royale
The game I am currently addicted to. I never played PUBG, but the way Extra Credits explains this genre is spot on: It's a multi-player thriller! Somehow I like the goofy idea of using cooking equipment as armour, but don't let those appearances fool you. The maps are beautiful and well designed. The crazy traps they keep coming up with keep things fresh (they just introduced one that floods the entire map and it's great fun) .
A true classic. My grandparents played it fiercely every day. My grandmother had to quit at some point because she kept playing Scrabble in her head which kept her from sleeping. She stopped and never played it again, no matter how much she loved it. That made a big impression on me.
2) Settlers of Catan
A gateway game for me as it has been for many. The first time I played it, it blew me away that board games could be so interesting. Especially the fact that there was no down-time and there were more than one win condition appealed to me. I still play it today (online), even though I think the luck factor becomes more annoying the better you get at the game.
3) 7 Wonders Duel
I think 7 Wonders Duel is one of the best two-player games out there (not counting classics like GO). I like very much how the "tech trees" work. They make decision-making very interesting. I wanna use these pyramid stacks in a workshop one day.
4) Puerto Rico
I don't get to play this one so often (it takes long to explain and play) but I love the smart combination of mechanics in this game. I am still looking for ways to use these mechanics in one of my workshop formats. This game ages like wine. Playing it online on Board Game Arena is a good way to squeeze it into a tight schedule.
First time I heard about collaborative games. The best collaborative board game? I love the way the cards are shuffled and stacked to create an epidemic curve. My ex-intern Thea Christy-Parker and I are two-thirds into Pandemic Legacy (Season 1) and we are amazed at the number of elements designer Matt Leacock balanced out. Hope we get to finish it someday as Thea went back to the UK.
6) Incan Gold
My favourite game for parties where no one knows how to play board games. Its core mechanic "Push Your Luck" really shines in my opinion. Having lots of people over and bored of Cards against Humanity? Then just bring this one out. Fast and fun!
A cross-over between Scrabble and Dominion. I only played the paper version once but I play it on my phone regularly.
A game that takes you on a journey across the East Sea Road in Japan. "Time Track" is one of my favourite board game mechanics, which you rarely see in games. I have played this game with a group of people that had very different player motivation and everyone enjoyed it for their own kind of fun. At the same time! This game can feel like multiplayer solitaire, a relaxing time collecting beautiful Japanese relics, or a calculated cut-throat race to the finish. Not many games allow for this in my experience.
9) T.I.M.E. Stories
I have to be honest, I played this collaborative game only once and the group that played it did not manage to plan a second play-through. So I am still hoping to get another crew together. Groundhog Day as a board game, what else do you want? The panels of a large tableau that your team will flip over as it progresses, are a nice visual touch. Anyone got time to play?
A fun and original racing game. The way luck of the dice is counter-balanced by players deciding on the order that the dice are played, is very interesting. A mechanism to borrow for something else one day.
Performative and Free Play
Now that I discussed mainstream game systems like tabletop games and video games, let's talk about other formats of play that I am into.
The field of play is so broad that I cannot possibly discuss each form of it here. There are still forms of play I have not personally explored. For instance "adult play" or sports, which I somehow can't get excited about even though I am inspired by what I have learned from people who have analysed it. I highly recommend writings on these subjects: Ida Benedetto on the rules for sex parties and Desmond Morris' anthropologist perspective on soccer: The Soccer Tribe.
Here's a few categories of play I have practiced and propose you give a try if you haven't already:
- Nordic LARP
- Participatory Drama
- Improvisation Dance
- Free Play
- Playful public interventions
- Playground play
So, how do you play?