Game spaces


Some time ago I watched my son Elliott play on an appliance at a play area at the Point Defiance Zoo. “Appliance” is an odd word, one I use advisedly. Some game theorists use it for non-games like <I>The Sims</I>, things better thought of as toys than real games with rules and a finish line.

This appliance was a springy mat with holes cut for about 10 sprinkler heads, with lily pads painted around each sprinkler. The sprinklers went on and off, all at different times, spouting a foot-high drizzle while kids hopped around, getting wet.

What I found interesting was the sort of attention everyone — children playing and adults watching — paid to the play. After a moment of watching, it was obvious that the sprinklers were not going off entirely randomly. A few of them, three in a row, went on together most of the time. That group of three seemed to follow a different sprinkler, one with a single long stream. But this sequence — long spout, then group of three — seemed itself to cycle in and out. This was one pattern; there seemed to be others.

It reminded me of growing up in a house with many working antique clocks. I used to pick out the sound of two clocks, which went in and out of cycle, and predict the peaks of both perfect alternation and perfect unison. Then I would center myself among three clocks, which had longer cycles and more variations. I felt satisfied and absorbed, trying to figure out the timing.

I know that listening to out-of-cycle clocks was not a game in strict terms, and neither is playing on the sprinkler mat. But each gives a kind of pleasure that shares in a deep way with the kind of pleasure games give: Figuring out the mechanics, seeing the pattern, testing a prediction against the pattern. It may be the raw stuff, the purely hypnotic part that waits to be given form by more explicit rules and incentives.

And games did break out on the mat. Some kids figured out how to stay just ahead of the sprinklers. Some seemed to want to run through them as they went on, like a driver running green light after green light. The mechanisms of the water going on and off seemed to generate not just play but play against a structure.

Around the same time I played one of Elliott’s favorite “games,” which he calls “zookeeper.” There is no ruleset. We just define the shape of the zoo and keep dividing it into different zones for different animals until the zoo is full. Then we appoint a zookeeper and someone to visit. The actual finish is an anticlimax; neither of us has figured out an interesting event. But the setup is absorbing for Elliott.

Here was the zoo that day:


Simple enough, but there’s a visual pattern there. As I drew this zoo, Elliott marked each with animal space with a different splotch of color and called for different features in each: ponds, plants, troughs.

I remember drawing a ball in front of the pig and saying “Here’s a ball for the pig to play with.” Elliott asked me to draw: “And here are two balls for two zebras, the mama and the baby.” It’s a tiny point, but see: He was spinning variations. I could feel him looking for a pattern to play on. I think the drawing had set the structure, and little pattern-play pieces broke out. This is what I think of as the game space, same as the sprinkler mat or the room of clocks: A structured space which invites variation and extension.

How often does education have this kind of pattern play? Good teachers design for continuity among the elements of the classroom, and an intruiging patterning to the handouts, the seating, the arrangement of the day. I think the wrong sort of structure enervates the room; the right kind, perhaps, creates possibilities.


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