The importance of play when developing games

Gianfranco Berardi asked an interesting question on Google+ yesterday: “how much of your non-day job hours do you spend actually playing games instead of working on one?” For those who have a day job, he asked his general circles and even those on the Indie Game Development group, how often, in other words, do you actually play the things within the genre you create? How much time, if any, are you devoting to getting to know the classics and those games just coming out? As a developer, if I can expand out the question a great deal, how often are you playing other people’s games and creations. Are you doing that at all?

It’s a bit of a problem, of course. For those with jobs, responsibilities, and other obligations, there is only so much time in a week. Between taking care of a work schedule, trying to balance time with a family, and then trying to fit in some development time on an indie game, finding some additional slot in the schedule for actually playing games can be tricky. If there isn’t a great deal of free time to begin with, and it is taken up with trying to make games, there just isn’t any hours left over to play even other friend’s games, let alone keep up with news about the deluge of others. There just isn’t enough time for it sometimes.

Yet, in considering this problem this yesterday and early this morning, I was reminded of something I was told by a writing professor of mine. See, way back, many years ago now, I was thinking about going into novel writing. It was, looking back on it now, rather foolish of me. Something that, obviously, didn’t work out. I just don’t have the patience for writing for long periods of time and then trying to edit my work. I get bored way too easily.

But here I was, though, trying to embark on this new life journey. I had read Stephen King’s On Writing and was, like many other people in my fiction workshop class at that very moment, aspiring to become writers. Some, like me, wanted to write novels. A couple were considering becoming screenwriters of some sort, I remember. Yet, we were all in this class, about 15 of us or so. And then the professor asked a set of seemingly innocent questions that have stuck with me. Both the questions and the answers some of the student gave.

I don’t remember exactly when it was, but it was early in the semester. This class met once a week for three hours and this must have been the second or third class meeting. We had all gotten to know each others names and general interests. We all shared what our aspirations were, why we were in this class, and what we hoped to take away from it. The professor, naturally, asked about what genres we wanted to write in and, of course, which ones we read. Out of all of them, which did we really love. Did we hate any?

This was the strange part. In our responses, some students confessed that, although they wanted to write in a certain genre, they didn’t read it. One, I’ll never forget, told us he actually hatred a certain genre. Could not stand it. Not at all. Yet, and here was the humorous part to me, he wanted to write within it. And a bunch of us, when pressed about our favorite genres, could not really explain its tropes and popular authors. For all of our love, and in that one person’s case hate, we had a hard time explaining our choice of genre. We didn’t really know the details, not the innermost details anyway, yet wanted to produce work within them.

And then came the teaching moment. The professor responded very simply to this realization dawning on the faces of all of us. “Why do you want to write, then? Why these genres?”

It’s a question that comes to my own mind when asked about what we play as developers. Even though I don’t have a dream of being a novelist anymore, I carry with me the wisdom of auditing myself even once in awhile. To just double-check that, yeah, I still happen to love this work. That among my various projects are reflections of things I actually like in the games I play. And that, of course, I still play games too. I haven’t gotten so caught up in the performance of creation that I am blinded to the work of others around me.

Because, it’s easy. It is so very easy to lose track. To think that your own work has a higher priority than anything else. To stop playing other games, reading other stories, or watching other shows because they might influence you. To avoid media completely because it might corrupt some grand vision of your work. To forget utterly that we can learn from so so many sources and incorporate past lessons into what we make.

After all, why are we making things if we don’t like them? Some part of the creation must excite us and drive us forward. Otherwise, why do it? Why create something within a genre you dislike? Why create a game, even if you are part of a much larger team, when you don’t like it at all — when you can’t even find some small piece to be proud of? Why do that? If you like games, if you like to make them, then it is worth spending some time, when you can, remembering why you investing all the hours developing something in the first place.