At one point my wife and I got stuck behind a small group of kids and parents who were one step ahead of us in the Norway pavilion mission, and as we swooped in behind them to uncover the next hidden secret, one of the kids noticed the Kimmunicator in my hand. He was around eight years old with tousled, blond hair, wore glasses and looked like he was still losing some baby teeth from gaps in the smile he beamed at me. I told my wife about it over dinner a few hours later and asked why she thought the kid had been smiling at me. "Probably because he realized that you and he were playing the same game," she said, and that's when I realized I had been thinking about the World Showcase Adventure as a game, which was in conflict with how I'd been thinking of what defines "a game."
For example, Passage is a five-minute videogame designed by Jason Rohrer wherein the player wanders through the play space collecting objects, eventually finds a wife who accompanies them and enriches the experience, who then dies shortly before the player does. The game ends the same way, every time, no matter what the player does. I've argued that Passage wasn't actually a videogame because it had no rules, no way to win or lose, or anything else that felt like a "game" to me. I've employed similar arguments to question whether social games on Facebook are actually videogames, and even argued that play is about rules, and rules are enforced by mechanics. Therefore, without clear-cut rules like victory conditions, how could something be called a game?
The World Showcase Adventure certainly didn't have any rules I recognized as such. It surely wasn't possible to lose the game, as anyone who got stuck would get hints to walk them through it, so winning made no sense conceptually, either. Progress through each mission wasn't timed so there was nothing like a score. I was having trouble figuring out why the hell I would consider the World Showcase Adventure a game, until I thought again about that little kid smiling up at me. Games can also be about exploration and discovery and learning, which are all the building blocks of what developmental psychologists call "play." Games are defined by the fact that we play them, and everything else like rules or scoring or winning and losing is optional. That's precisely the sort of wisdom that children intuit and adults forget.
I wish I could thank that little kid for helping to remind me what I'd forgotten after being steeped in the hyper-competitiveness of core gaming for so long. And I hope I remember this lesson the next time I consider the audacity of telling someone the game they are playing and enjoying, whether it's Passage or Farmville or anything else that pushes the edges of the popular concept of a game, isn't actually a game. If someone had told me that the Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure wasn't actually a game while I'd been playing it, because it had no score and was impossible to lose, my response to that person trying to ruin my good time would have been unbecoming of a theme park filed with children.
First Person is a weekly column by Boston, MA-based freelancer Dennis Scimeca. You can read some of his other musings on his blog punchingsnakes.com, or follow his random excitations on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.