John Michael Courson
I find the game Apples to Apples to be a very interesting example of what the essence of play is. There are few other games I play where I can repeatedly lose and yet still have fun playing the game. It is as if my goal is not necessarily the goal stated in the instructions. I play Apples to Apples to have a bit of fun with my friends or family, and I feel this is perfectly acceptable because that is what play is all about. I believe that one of the reasons that I don't mind losing Apples to Apples is because the game is so subjective. Players must lay down a card with a single word and must argue before a judge about the merits of the word when compared to another word on the table. The nature of the game makes it obvious that the judge can only pick one choice and there are moments where a player has absolutely nothing in his hand that relates to the word on the table. This being said, it's always nice to be the person to win the round and it seems like friendly arguments are unavoidable, but in the end everyone is just having fun.
There are several answers to the question “What is Play?” in The Game Design Reader and for the most part the elements of play defined in the book fit in well with my experiences of Apples to Apples. At the core of most definitions of play is the fact that all play is a voluntary activity (Huizinga 102). This is certainly true for Apples to Apples in that I've never been forced to play a game. In fact, if I'm not in the mood to play, then I just choose not to play and there is no love lost between me and the players. Another important element of play is that of tension. “Tension means uncertainty, chanciness; a striving to decide the issue and so end it.” (Huizinga 105) There is certainly an element of tension when playing Apples to Apples. Players are not sure if their card will be picked or if the next card they pick will favor them or not. Players are also subject to the whims of the judge.
Roger Caillois defines play as an activity that is essentially free, separate, uncertain, unproductive, governed by rules, and make-believe (128). A case can be made for each of these elements in Apples to Apples. It is free in that nobody is forced to play it, separate in that it is “defined and fixed in advance”, uncertain in that no person knows who will win in the end, unproductive in that nothing is physically accomplished in playing the game although friendships may be strengthened and happiness elevated, governed by rules in that all players are in agreement to the way the game is played, and finally make-believe in that the choices made by the judge and the resulting winner has no bearing on reality.
Bernard Suits has a different definition of game playing that consists of a goal, a means of achieving the goal, rules, and a lusory attitude (184). These could similarly be placed within context of the game Apples to Apples. Personally, I believe that Suits places a little too much emphasis on the necessity for a goal. At the very least, I believe that play allows for goals that can be changed and changed as often as necessary. Recent MMOG's have shown that it is possible to play a game without having an ending. There may be goals that the player tries to obtain, but if these goals are not reached this does not mean they weren't playing. I find myself playing Grand Theft Auto in two very different ways. Most of the time I do the missions in the game as efficiently as possible with a clear goal in mind, to progress the story and “beat” the game with decent statistics (no deaths or arrests). At other times I simply drive around the city listening to the radio, watching the pedestrians, and enjoying the atmosphere of the game. I am usually having the most fun during these moments and there is no clear goal present. One thing that everyone seems to agree on is that play is voluntary and that play can be ended at any time. It is one of those things that is hard to define because it may consist of so many forms, yet it is something that everyone should experience.
Salen, Katie and Eric Zimmerman. (2005). The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology.