In the end, the most lasting effect of the Tools of the Mind studies may be to challenge some of our basic ideas about the boundary between work and play. Today, play is seen by most teachers and education scholars as a break from hard work or a reward for positive behaviors, not a place to work on cognitive skills. But in Tools of the Mind classrooms, that distinction disappears: work looks a lot like play, and play is treated more like work.
-Can the Right Kinds of Play Teach Self-Control? by Paul Tough
The boundary between work and play is blurred by the hellish commitments MMO players make to their guilds and online friends. Players willingly spend thousands of hours in-game, having fun in very few of those hours, and later find a huge, soul-sucking void in their past where one, individual, mediocre game once stood proud. Play can become life—perhaps this is the much fabled immersion everyone talks about. But what does immersion mean when the most soul-sucking game is probably one of the least immersive?
Play is a model of life. Play trains us to perform actions in the real-world. Play is a safe environment to learn about and practice behaviors that will benefit us later in our lives. Do MMOs take advantage of this? There are some abstract behaviors like guild leadership that can translate into leading other organizations. But most often useless memorization of irrelevant sets of stats and game mechanics decides the victor.
What if we made mechanics in MMOs more like the mechanics in real life? When does the simulation stop being fun and start being work?
Imagine being a blacksmith in an MMO. Imagine that you are actually a blacksmith in that world. Do you have time to wander around the country-side hitting bunnies with sharpened metal? No. You’re busy doing your job. You make so many swords, barrels, horseshoes a day and that is your life. You do it for 20 or 30 years after your apprenticeship ends and you die. Is that fun? It’s certainly repetitive. But there’s a lot of learning, skill, and knowledge there. Certainly a game wouldn’t force the player to stay logged in for the entirety of the character’s “day” in the world, but I don’t think that a player logging in for an hour or two and actually doing some smithing—and not clicking on a button that says “smelt copper bars” and waiting for a progress bar to fill, but actual game mechanics that emulate the process of creating a bar of copper out of some ore—is bereft of fun.
You could learn a lot about the world you live in through playing such a game. You can have fun while you learn—you can have fun by learning!
Imagine making a sword over the course of a half-hour and when you’re done with it, you have the knowledge that you actually made that and that someone else’s character’s life (permadeath would be crucial if we’re going to get serious about dramatic play here) depends on its quality. That is so much more meaningful than spending three hours smacking kobolds that’ll respawn thirty seconds later; and there are real world takeaways from that session aside from some money disappearing from your pocket every month.
I’m pushing past moderate simulationism here, but I see definite possibilities for games beyond A Tale in the Desert to harness real-world processes to make crafting—and the rest of the game—more fun, more rewarding, and more real.