This thesis argues that it is productive to consider playthings, playmates, playgrounds, and play practices as constituting a set with shared design characteristics. I make this argument by analyzing a series of examples, teasing out commonalities, and articulating these as play design principles. Since play is central to human experience, play design techniques allow us to design for the whole human, whether we are crafting games, tools, learning experiences, or playthings. SimCity, a software plaything that confounds game-centric approaches (e.g. game studies and game design), is the keystone in an arch of case studies that takes us from some of the earliest examples of computer simulation all the way to model cities enacted with children, cardboard, and costumes, and unusual playgrounds made of junk.
Before turning to the case studies that lead to the principles of play design, we must first address two foundational methodological points:
First, in order to analyze something as play, we must be able to speak constructively about play itself, which is a bewildering subject. In chapter 1, Play, we review the literature on play, reconciling multiple perspectives and definitions, and distill seven play characteristics that underpin the thesis.
Second, in order to analyze software, we must have methods for doing so. Chapter 2, Software, advances an analytical framework for this purpose. This is a methodological contribution to the nascent field of software studies, which seeks to interpret the semi-visible infrastructure of computing that mediates modern life, from our bodies and our most intimate relationships to our public and political lives. To link software to play, I introduce an additional analytical framework for considering software as a resource for play.
Will Wright created SimCity to amuse himself and learn about cities. To build it, he appropriated from multiple traditions in which computers are used as tools for modeling and thinking about the world as a complex system, most notably system dynamics and cellular automata. Wright’s make believe play was scaffolded by these software practices, which offered inspiration and guidance, as well as abstract computational primitives for world building. Chapters 3–5 trace the historical contexts and origins of SimCity’s many design influences, from system dynamics (chapter 3) and cellular automata (chapter 4)—two very different ways of seeing, thinking about, and computationally representing the world—to Pinball Construction Set and Raid on Bungling Bay (chapter 5).
Taking up the evolution of software in this way allows us to see how it is formed, what it is made of, and how ideas are embedded within and perpetuated by it. Deconstruction also helps us to understand software as a medium of dynamic representation, a scaffold for thought, an aesthetic experience, and its appeal as a resource for play.
In Chapter 5, SimBusiness, I give a historical account of SimCity’s creation and the social circumstances that shaped its design, and sketch the history of Maxis, the company that marshaled and published SimCity. The trajectory of Maxis offers a parable about play and creativity. We see in Maxis’s formation and unraveling the inescapable tension between play and capitalism, and between intrinsic and extrinsic play—the private autotelic play that innovates and creates, and the public play of player-consumers that pays the bills.
Chapter 6, SimCity, completes the SimCity case study by considering it as play artifact and experience. Using extensive diagrams that translate and map its code, I perform a close reading of SimCity, explaining how it conjures the illusion of a miniature living city, and how this living world scaffolds play.
Two non-digital examples round out the play design case studies. In chapter 7, City Building Education, we look at Doreen Nelson’s practice of building and role playing model cities with children in classrooms. Nelson’s simulation is an excellent counterpoint to Wright’s, and their comparison elucidates many play design principles. Chapter 8, Adventure Playground, looks at an unusual playground in which children build with junk, and play with risks and materials, like wood, paint, and nails, that are typically withheld from them. In addition to illuminating principles of play design, the adventure playground tradition reveals play’s “refructifying” (Sutton-Smith 1999) capacity to sweep up everything, even the detritus of civilization, and creatively reimagine it. Conceived amidst the darkness of World War II, adventure playgrounds illustrate how life transcends ruin through play—an important lesson for the 21st century’s unfolding challenges.
In chapter 9, Play Design, I articulate play design principles drawn from the case studies. The principles are analytical, enabling us to see how play is scaffolded, as well as generative, prescribing design strategies for scaffolding play. This analytical-generative pairing enables us to deconstruct the design of a plaything, and transfer these design techniques to a new project—a technique that should be of interest to the educators, marketers, and designers of all stripes who have often envied the deep focus, enthusiasm, and pleasure afforded by make believe caves, dungeons, cities, and computationally animated living worlds. Play design is also deeply relevant to new embodiments of computation on the horizon, such as augmented reality and tangible dynamic media. Play is profoundly appropriative, and good play designs teach us how to robustly accommodate unpredictable environments and activities—a key design consideration for builders of such systems, which must gracefully take in the human world in all its glorious messiness.