The Average Gamer

Videogame Playground Part 1: What is fun?

How do non-gamers play? It’s a question that has puzzled me for a while. In a country where the main form of recreation involves throwing large volumes of toxic liquid down your throat and declaring “I can’t remember what happened. Must have been a GREAT NIGHT!”, I can’t help wondering how else people play. Sure there are places like Go Ape, which are great fun (unless you’re me) and certainly a type of play, but they’re an awful lot of hassle to organise. Not to mention expensive. And scary as shit, imo. People read books and watch films for fun, but they’re very passive hobbies. I’m not sure that counts as play.

Fortunately, I had the privilege of being invited to the Japanese Embassy recently to see Takahashi Keita (creator of Katamari Damacy), Mark Stephenson (level designer on Little Big Planet) and Martin Hollis (director/producer of that N64 classic GoldenEye) ruminate over the nature of play at an event called The Videogame Playground. Perhaps these experts could help me shed some light on things.


Simons standing at a podiumThe event was chaired by Iain Simons of Game City, a series of events to showcase games and play in Nottingham. You probably heard back in October that Takahashi would be combining his experience in sculpture and games to design a playground – Iain Simons is the man responsible for that. Latest update on the playground is that it’s going to increase the size of the current play area in the park by about ten-fold, every piece of equipment will be custom-made and the whole thing will be tremendously expensive. The playground design is almost legal now. Gotta respect those Health and Safety regs.


Rather than jumping straight into the panel discussion, we had 2 presentations, from Mark Stephenson and Takahashi Keita. Stephenson started out by reminding us that playing should be fun. It sounds obvious, but given that certain unnamed designers seem to misunderstand the balance between challenging fun and frustrating annoyance, I think the lesson bears repeating. Stephenson joined Media Molecule to make warm and inviting games – worth mentioning because I’m sure there are plenty of men out there who are sick of being tarred as fools who just want endless versions of war re-enactment. We were shown a lovely LBP trailer (which immediately made me want to go home and play the game again) and taught some of Mark’s core principles:

  • Playing is fun
  • Learning and experimenting is fun
  • Expressing yourself is fun
  • Making friends is fun

Yup, they’re simple concepts but they work. I was over at a friend’s house playing 4-player LBP only last week – once you plow through the 2+ million levels and find something that isn’t designed solely to spread mediocre objects like viruses, it’s a brilliant cooperative experience. So easy to lose an hour figuring out what we’re expected to do and just laughing at each other’s ineptitude. Also a handy way to find out which of your friends is incapable of following instructions. (“On 3” means ON THREE goddammit, not AFTER THREE! FFS!)

Final takeaway tip from the LBP talk – most of the best community levels are apparently done by Japanese designers. Don’t know why, but they apparently do cute and inspiring very well.

The Videogame Playground was supported by the Embassy of Japan in the UK, the National Videogame Archive, BAFTA and Nintendo. Subscribe to the The Average Gamer or come back in a couple of days to find out what we learned in Takahashi’s talk and the panel discussion.