In honor of The Secret of Monkey Island I will be delivering the rest of this post with a pirate vernacular. Arrrrrrgh maties, come aboard and see ye the wonders of monkey island. Look out ahoy... and scurvy...Okay I think we can agree that this is not the best of ideas, especially considering my pirate vocabulary is limited to arrrgh, maties, ahoy, and scurvy. Moving on, The Secret of Monkey Island was a point and click adventure game released by Lucas Arts in 1990. In
the game players would interact the world by clicking various commands,
such as "look", and objects to interact with. In many ways Monkey
Island's basic mechanics represents the bare minimum of what it takes
to be considered a video game, and yet it is still considered one the
of the greatest games of all time. However, to see if playing Monkey
Island can really pass as "play" it is important to see how it stacks
up to popular definitions of play. In order to truly examine Monkey
Island it is important to compare the game to a number of definitions.
As such we will looking at Monkey Island in relation to the works of
Johan Huizinga, Roger Cailois, and Bernard Suits who have all written
papers that attempt to define what constitutes play.
Throughout Huizinga's paper he tries to demonstrate how broadly play spreads throughout culture. As such his definitions for what defines play are also very broad. His first claim is that play must be voluntary (Huizinga 102), and Monkey Island clearly fits the bill. Like any computer game you can start Monkey Island whenever you want, quitting is as easy as hitting the quit option, and the game has no constraints on the length of play. Most importantly there is no "need" to play Monkey Island beyond the simple desire to play the game. Huizinga's second definition is that the game is not "real" life. In other words, "it is rather a stepping out of 'real' life into a temporary sphere of activity with adisoistion all of its own" (Huizinga 103). Considering the subject matter of Monkey Island involves an imaginary character on an imaginary island journeying to a second even MORE imaginary island on a quest to become a pirate, it's probably a safe bet that the game fits in with Huizinga's second definition as well. In fact the very premise of Monkey Island seems to have evolved from a classic children's dream of growing up and becoming a swash buckling (oh hey there's another Pirate word) Pirate, thus enticing many players with their own personal history of play. Furthermore, the game must take place within it's own space-time, IE he play must have it's own specific place and it must have a set beginning and ending. Being a computer game, one can only play it in front of their computer, and the games starting and winning states mean that it definitely meets the space-time requirement.
Perhaps the most important element of play is that, "All play has it's rules" (Huizinga 106). In Monkey Island the player is limited to a set of interactions which they must use to interact with the virtual world. The basic interactions outline the rules of Monkey Island, and due to its nature as software it is very difficult to subvert these rules for your own end. Finally Huizinga notes that play will eventually lead to a formation of play-communities (Huizinga 107). At first glance it would seem that it's nature as a single player game would exclude Monkey Island from this category. However, even before the dawn of the magical series of tubes known as the Internet play-communities were forming around Monkey Island and other PC games. My father has shared many stories of him talking with his co-workers about his latest excursion into Monkey Island. Now, with the Internet, you would be hard pressed NOT to find some kind of community around Monkey Island: A google search of "Monkey Island Fans" returned 1,670,000 results. Essentially now you do not need to play with someone to form a "play-community", something which Monkey Island clearly has.
In his own paper, Cailois critiques many of the assumptions made by Huizinga. When it comes to defining play both Huizinga and Cailois agree on a number of points. Both authors think playing should not be obligatory, and that is must exist within it's on space and time (Cailois 128). Cailois also add in a layer of uncertainty to the restrictions, "the course of which cannot be determined, nor the result attained beforehand, and some latitude for innovations being left to to the player's initiative" (Cailois 128). In Monkey Island there is no loose state, so player can only complete the game in a single victory scenario. The set end point does not exclude Monkey Island from this criteria; however, how a player goes about reaching set end point, or if they will even get to it at all, are all up to how the player interacts with the game. Both Huizinga and Cailois believe that play has to be separate from any needs, but Cailois takes it a step further. Cailois states that play has to be unproductive to the extent playing can produce neither goods nor wealth and the player must end the game in the same state he/she began (Cailois 128). I am relatively sure that there is no professional point and click adventure league so this seems like a moot issue to me. Finally Cailois claims that games must either be governed by rules or make believe (Cailois 127). As discussed above Monkey Island is clearly governed by a set of rules. Unfortunately Monkey Island does not fair as well in the make-believe category. This is due to the fact that a large portion of Monkey Island's humor is designed specifically to break the immersion of the game, which makes it very difficult to maintain a state of make believe. Despite this I think Monkey Island meets enough of Cailois's criteria to be considered a game. Ironically Monkey Island does not fit very well into Cailois's classification system, but I believe the game fits best under Mimicry, Simulation (Cailois 148). While the game does not simulate anything per se, it does accurately convey the experience of the game's character to the player.
Finally our last author, Suits, has a much more straightforward definition for play and games,
Really the only unique section of this paper is the idea of efficiency. In no ways does the interface of Monkey Island mesh with this statement. Easily a more efficient way of playing the game would be to just tell the character what to do. Even the sequels of Monkey Island slowly refined the interface until the word list was no longer used. In principle I agree with Suits definition, but I feel that Suits was not considering technological limitations when he was writing this statement. Still, since the interface of Monkey Island was as efficient as it could be at the time, I believe that the game still meets Suits definition of a game.
Huizinga, Johan. "Nature and significance of play as a cultural phenomenon." The Game Design Reader. Ed. Salen and Zimmerman. Boston: MIT, 2006. 96-119.
Caillois, Roger. "The definition of play and the classification of games." The Game Design Reader. Ed. Salen and Zimmerman. 122-155.
Suits, Bernard. "Construction of a Definition." The Game Design Reader. Ed. Salen and Zimmerman. 173-191.