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  Squeezing More Out Of Play  
Posted 2006-02-23 by Tony Walsh
David Thomas of writes about how his kids have taken to playing Simpsons Hit and Run hooked up to a broken screen. "At first, I thought this was an obsessive, or maybe desperate, attempt at entertainment," writes Thomas. "But my house is filled with games and alternative game systems—including Game Boys and Game Boy Advances among other things."

Gonzalo Frasca of writes in response: "Maybe this kind of behavior is not often seen in rich societies, where children have tons of toys and games at their disposal. I've seen children in South America with only one game on their console that invented new ways to play that arcade game over and over. They inverted the gamepad; they tried to complete the game without firing, just by dodging the bullets (it was a space shoot'em'up)."

I am reminded of a story last year about young, captive dolphins, and their play patterns. From my summary of the article: "One dolphin calf blew bubbles while swimming upside-down at the bottom of a pool, then chased and bit the bubbles as they rose to the surface. Young dolphins deliberately challenge themselves--the bubble-blowing calf made its game harder by blowing bubbles increasingly closer to the surface, as well as changing its swimming style to increase the difficulty."

I've often made solo and multiplayer video games more challenging by deliberately handicapping myself--for example, by using the weakest weapon in a shooting game, by using the clumsiest weapon, and with deliberately-risky strategies. In Battlefield 1942, I enjoyed playing an "anti-tank" class of soldier, which employed a very clumsy bazooka with only a few missiles. After reaching the peak of my skill as an anti-tank unit, I began to use the same class in an infantry assault role--a task my class was totally unsuited for, but the challenge highly enjoyable. After becoming skilled at eliminating other players this way, I eventually lost interest in the game.

I think what David Thomas' kids, Gonzalo Frasca's South Americans, the dolphins, and my own experience demonstrates is that once a basic play mode is mastered, we often delight in making the experience our own by innovating further challenges. In my case, once there is no more that can be reasonably squeezed out of a game, it's time to quit.
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