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When I was a kid, I always liked to play – like most children. I used to make up games with my action figures, set up scenarios around the house and garden and then act them out. I would set little rules up to dictate how the action figures could move and interact with each other and their environments. I never knew how each scenario would play out, but I always knew who would win. It was always the good guys or Storm Shadow. In that respect, the rules made no real difference, unless they benefited the toys I wanted to win!
Later, I went a step further and developed a little board game. I had a piece of wood that I drew rectangles on (traced around my toy soldiers). I had scenery that could be added to squares at random and then two teams of toy soldiers. Rolling a couple of dice dictated how far each could move and how accurate their shooting would be. Each one had different abilities. Different lines of sight, different damage modifiers etc. The winner was the last team standing. Just to say, at this point, I had never really played any proper strategy games, so I was not aware of other games that did this kind of thing better!
This kind of game was much harder to fix the winner for! The rules were written down and the way the game worked was fixed. It also made much less sense to cheat as I was playing with nondescript soldiers as opposed to individual characters. It was also a different kind of fun. The thrill was the random nature of the game. That said, there were tactics needed. Did you move to cover and try to pick of the other side, or go for all-out war? Which units did you move up and when?
Both ways of playing were fun. The original was much more free-form; I made stuff up as I went along and explored the boundaries of my imaginary environments. The second way, using strict rules required less imagination but added the thrill of chance and the enjoyment that comes from seeing a plan come to fruition.
What Happened to Play
As an adult, with children of my own, it is interesting to see how adults deal with situations that children find simple. I have seen grown men reduced to arguments in projects because no one set certain rules. For some reason, their mature ways of thinking have evolved to preclude imagination totally. If they are not told exactly what to do, they just can’t cope and think their way out of a situation they have not been programmed to deal with.
On the flip side, my eldest daughter in the absence of rules, just tries stuff. If it doesn’t work, she tries something else. She learns as she goes, knowing that each failure just gives her one less thing to try next time. Sure, it can lead to frustration and tears, but that doesn’t stop her trying again.
Sometimes we need rules and fixed experiences, sometimes we just have to be allowed to try things for ourselves – exercise our imaginations.
Think about this. Give a small child a box of bricks. They will probably just sit and play – no rules, no games, just play. Eventually, they may try to stack one brick on top of the other. They like this, so put another on – but they all fall. So, they try again, this time a little slower and more carefully. Eventually, they have a tower of five or six bricks. Then, just because they can, they knock it all down and start again – because they are happy that they have now worked it out and want to enjoy doing it again.
Now, if you were to stand over them saying build a tower. You showed them and told them off if they did other things. Eventually, they would build a tower, but what memories would they have of building towers? Are they ones of fun and self-expression – the joy of just playing, or are they of Daddy telling them off and telling them they are not getting it right?
What would you prefer?
Also published on Medium.