Unstructured Play Journey: Part 2

Labeling a blog post 'Part 1' was really asking for trouble. My brain likes to rebel at anything resembling an obligation. I've also had a bit of time to reflect on writing, and I get frustrated at how much time it takes to get better. I want to write faster, more playfully and prettier. And while we're at it, I'll have a dancing pony, thanks.

In the end I settle down and just get on with things again.

So, in Part 1 of my unstructured play journey I wrote about bringing a little bit of unstructured play to many things I do, including highly structured computer games. It's taken me a while to work out how important that is, and to stop fighting myself about it.

There is a second journey to explore, as I search for how games explore and facilitate unstructured play in a more deliberate way.

Noby Noby Boy Screenshot

The rainbow-coloured worm-like BOY twisted around a house.

The first game to really make me consider designed unstructured play was Noby Noby Boy. It does have achievements and goals, mostly stretching and amassing extra length as the worm-like BOY, and using those distances to help GIRL grow to new planets. Despite this core objective, mostly I was just messing about, eating things and seeing how many objects I could curl around. And that really seemed to be the point for a change, not just me being unusual.

I can use the term 'sandbox game' about Noby Noby Boy without feeling silly. It's a colourful playground full of effectively toy people, animals and objects. It's hard to explain why I might want to spend time on that, but somehow it's easy to look up and realise I've just wasted a couple of hours trying to wrangle two ends of a long worm-body, and terrorising chickens.

Intriguing (and I think important) though that was, Noby Noby Boy had no staying power. It's possible to get lost for a while in the playground, there isn't much to keep me coming back. The weirdness wasn't a problem, but the severe limitations on what I could do were. Simplicity is fine, but feeling a lack of agency is not.

I came out of that rather unsatisfied, but I couldn't stop squirming. Squirming means exciting ideas, but also worry that they might not ever really come to exist in a realistic form. I wanted my worries to be proved wrong.

Eventually, my excitement proved to be more correct than my worry. Minecraft proves it. Minecraft alpha involves popular unstructured play, and this is incredibly heartening. I would like to have more to say about unstructured games. But for now, this is all about Minecraft. I hope it's not the end of the journey, but for now it's a long stopover.

I have to admit to my own inadequacy here. I haven't played much Minecraft really. Hell, I haven't even touched it since the Halloween patch. Suddenly I might have to consider other people's journeys instead of my own. I'm not cool enough to put myself properly among the Minecraft players. A bit like when I get the urge to listen to trashy pop music for no good reason.

But, even if I'm not currently part of it, it's still exciting. I get to see lots of different kinds of players doing their own things. The builders get a lot of press, at least the ones with the ridiculously impressive and time-consuming projects. But I'm just as interested to hear about the smaller projects, like my friend building a lighthouse. It's all very tempting. I want to build cross-sections of giant invertebrates as a kind of strange Minecraft museum, but I don't really have time. If I ever find someone willing to support me financially to waste time I'll do that :)

Then there are the explorers. Most notably Brendan Keogh's Towards Dawn project. I began as a different kind of explorer, which I mention in my Game People write up. Although I began trying to carve out the shape of my surroundings, the most important thing ended up being to (symbolically) conquer and explore a scary mineshaft from my childhood. In other words, I ended up exploring something from myself.

Of course, simplifying Minecraft players into builders and explorers is horribly inadequate, and I don't think adding more categories would really fix the problem. Such as, the survivalists who feed off fear, the roleplayers (nothing good to point to that I know of, but I'm sure it will come), and the board gamers.

The truth is, I am not qualified to talk about other people's unstructured (or, perhaps more accurately, self-structured) play. I need to go out and discover more of my own.

Minecraft Screenshot

A minecraft screenshot showing blocky trees and hills.