Daydreaming is Healthy: An Apology for Wasting Time

I’ve found that lately, when I’m bored or stoned or anxious, I end up pouring a lot of my energy into Patatap. It’s a music creation tool that works in-browser and mixes clean, geometric visuals with sound samples that are each mapped to keys on your keyboard for you to play around with. (I’ve heard it works well on a tablet but I don’t own one). You can make a clever, aurally and visually interesting beat. Or you can hit all the keys at once like hammering down on a piano, just to see the shapes and colours converge in cacophony.

It’s possible that for someone else—say, a composer—the tool might have a more lasting charm because there’s more for the subject to engage with. But for myself, and I suspect a number of idle players, it rests in the tradition of gamelike toys and tools suited to short, errant spurts of energy and attention. Some may call them “time-wasters,” but I think that’s a bit of an unfair qualification. The actual length of time spent playing isn’t nearly as valuable to me as the quality of the play, and I’ve put a lot more of myself into timesink game experiences that were far less rewarding. Playing something like Patatap—and I do mean “play,” even when explicit interaction is moderate to minimal—is to engage with something unlike the imitations of productive labour I’m used to in most videogames. It’s closer to play as idleness, more like leisure that I already championed in a previous piece.

I’ve argued in the past, both in my piece on idleness and in my GDC talk on videogame difficulty as labour, that a familiar pattern emerges in many games which rely on material reward in exchange for hard work. Play as a concept becomes something that’s performatively optimized as a means for payoff—doing what needs to be done to efficiently win—thus undervaluing other ways we might explore and enjoy virtual spaces. This argument, Austin Walker points out in a response piece to Stephen Beirne’s polemic on RPG mechanics influenced partly by my talk, is somewhat reductionist for the sake of making a general assertion. For instance, many players find emergent experiences in videogames that the games themselves don’t explicitly offer, or that are offered perhaps incongruously with other types of play primarily encouraged by the game’s design.

Take for instance Samantha Nelson’s appreciation of the architecture in the abandoned cities of World of Warcraft, or the complex social dynamics of its virtual communities, despite or ancillary to the fact that the primary ludic goals of the MMO are to kill stuff to get loot, in order to kill bigger and meaner stuff. I dont mean to argue that I’m opposed to combat systems in games or even necessarily metrics and reward systems, rather that in a lot of cases these design choices are modeled—consciously or unconsciously—on ingrained capitalistic tendencies. It is for this reason that I seek out games which try to defy these tendencies. Finding alternate methods of characterizing play is immensely and radically valuable to showing us different ways of interacting with virtual spaces and our cultural and personal connections to the way those spaces are presented to us.

Why, in concrete terms, is it valuable? In Mattie Brice’s piece “In Tongues”, she calls for the need for more accessible game making tools, but more than that, for the elevation of tools, formal expressions, and creative voices that don’t necessarily emulate “game monoculture”. This is a point -of-view that understands form as a fairly plastic, mutable reflection of how we choose to process and categorize the world around us and the people in it. In other words, how we choose to define the structure of games says a lot about how we choose to define ourselves as well as others. Because that risks erasure of other narratives, it’s important that games which model alternatives be recognized. In that spirit, the conversation that was inspired by Brice’s piece on Twitter between Brice, animator Sophia Foster-Dimino, and game designer and programmer Andi McClure really stands out to me. These tweets from Foster-Dimino stand out in particular:

A tool like Patatap is not that different in principle from something like McClure’s and Michael Brough’s Become A Great Artist in Just 10 Seconds! which maps visual effects to your keyboard keys that you can use to creatively distort a randomly loaded image into a piece of abstract glitch art. Both Patatap and Great Artist provide these virtual, mediated canvases where the player is, in a way, having an open-ended conversation with the constraints provided by the designer in order to synthesize those individual constraints into a whole and personal creation.

These and other tweets in the conversation extend the kind of play that emerges in Great Artist to narrative-building tools that are gamelike but allow the player some kind of authored control over what they make (it’s hard not to think of fridge magnets or, perhaps, Latrinalia, a little game about toilet graffiti I made for the zine Flushed). This would be the case even as what they make is synthesized from a collision between their own creativity and the constraints provided by the game-tool. It would be, in a sense, like the game-tool has provided the framework of a discussion and is missing only an interlocutor to make the discussion actually come alive. As McClure puts it in her Indiecade submission, “[Great Artist] induces the player to reject conventional thinking and embrace invention.”

This inventiveness, this tendency to encourage improvisation by game-tools like Patatap or Great Artist, which give us the means to create our own value from the experience rather than dictating a correct outcome or teleology, is one approach to interaction which is fundamentally leisure-like instead of laborious. They give us the means to create, to explore, to unravel the mystery of which buttons do what and how they behave in concert. But they don’t necessarily give us the motive—that comes from the player. There isn’t necessarily an “object” to the game, but there is a subject. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to resurrect some blustering old argument about player agency. By their nature, these games already mediate interaction so much that there’s little else to do besides play sounds or make pretty pictures. But, as great imaginative force usually arises out of great restraints, the hyperfocused interaction allows for intense and profound and exciting play experiences, not unlike children roleplaying Sailor Moon at recess (and how I sometimes long for days gone by…) or resolving to build the whole Atlantic ocean out of LEGOs.

Now, I bring up Great Artist and Patatap because as game-like as the tools are, they aren’t necessarily always categorized as those things which we call “games” the way something like Wario: DIY is. I wouldn’t object to a blurring of the distinction, however, since functionally there’s as much play in something like building blocks or Etch-A-Sketch or Kid Pix, a bitmap drawing program that I owned on CD-ROM as a kid in the ‘90s and that I played the shit out of. I mean, it let me do everything from write short books to make slideshows and short movies out of animated GIFs with little need for adult technical assistance. And everything made sounds! Sometimes I would idly click on a tool just to listen to the noise it made.

In short, every toy-tool-game-whatever here offers improvisation through formal constraint, authorship through creative play, leisure through lowered or removed spatial, time and skill demands. These tools are far simpler and more accessible than playing an instrument or even building a game with the syntax of Twine, thus lending themselves more to idle play sessions and less to dedicated long-term efforts. But there are other kinds of approaches to interaction that offer even stricter limitations yet enable tremendous opportunities for playfulness. In suggesting the player author something, Great Artist or Patatap can reproduce flow states toward accomplishing certain goals found in more conventional games, the most important difference here being that the play motives are determined on a much more personal level than typical goal-oriented design. There’s a gently guiding hand toward a kind of completionism—not that that’s a negative strike—where some approaches eschew that completely for the sake of simple idle enjoyment.

There are tons of these in-browser toys—often specifically derided as “time-wasters”— that offer brief but poignant and memorable play experiences. They’re gamelike enough to me that calling them anything else is a mostly meaningless distinction based on how we rhetorically have chosen to categorize them. I’m talking about things like Staggering Beauty (epilepsy warning for flashing images), where a cute silhouetted worm jiggles erratically to the beat of jarring, high-pitched music while vivid colours and tessellated textures flash—but only when the player aggressively shakes their mouse. Its approach to interaction is so hyperfocused, so pared down, that only the worm responds to you. This teases the player that something awaits discovery and promotes experimentation and exploration of boundaries not unlike any aforementioned creative tool. (Although, if you wait long enough, the words “Shake vigorously” will appear onscreen). Staggering Beauty seduces you into exploring the physicality of your relationship with it—the stress and speed of your hand. It’s tactile, yet it’s so precise and peculiar with the constraints it puts on interaction that you’re not pressing a button. Your hand on the mouse is input enough.

I’ve had super-playful sessions playing with Staggering Beauty, or other precious little browser toys like Scroll Down To Riker, Vectorpark’s endearing Spider, Mr. Doob’s Winning Solitaire (which lets the player bask in what is arguably the most playful part of Solitaire), or Manetas’ brilliant Pollock, which treats the webpage like a canvas where the player can apply virtual splotches of paint to create their own Jackson Pollock-esque action painting. These are only to name a few. And they all produce joyful and leisurely play by conjuring different feelings. Some are tactile and sensual like Staggering Beauty while others like Scroll Down to Riker rely on comedic pacing and pop culture humour. The latter in particular cleverly puts the comedic pacing in the hand of the player by making them scroll down to get a parodical Riker-style pick-up line, while by the same turn building a sense of anticipation and, especially on the first encounter, surprise, when the player finally gets to the punchline. Here the play is less creative or exploratory or spatial and more of a comedic play on timing and expectation.

But all of these tools-toys-games-objects share a number of important characteristics—and I mean everything mentioned from Patatap to Pollock to Riker. Even interactive screensavers from the ‘90s, let alone Kid Pix, have these operating principles. The first is that none of them have a long duration requirement for play. They can be taken or left. They can be seriously engaged with or, just as essentially, idly toyed with, as simple joys or as tactile extensions of the player. They don’t abuse the player’s time nor do they dictate the motive for play, but it would be wrong to say they’re unguided. They all provide a mediated space or a “narrative architecture,” if you will. As all things, they constitute text, to paraphrase Derrida. But what they get at is a closer approximation of what “play” means, even as they strip away a lot of the superfluity and bloat of much game design. Here, play is not necessarily instrumental, competitive, exploitative or “productive”. It’s conversant. It’s pleasureful. It’s leisurely.

In fact there are loads of games-as-games that appreciate and are designed around many of these same principles, from Cecily Carver’s sweet Feed the Ducks to PALGAL’s surreal and transcendent Dream Warrior. A game like rio8’s City provides an airy, ethereal interplay between musical timing and visual patterns reminiscent of Sol LeWitt. tj thomas’s Solaris similarly treats the game space as a free canvas, exploring the intersections of light, sound and colour, almost like a mashup of Pollack and Patatap. Even a game like Silverstring Media’s Glitchhikers ruminates on the player’s journey, on their relationships with a game space and the objects in it as an expression of ideas, feelings, senses, and as an ongoing conversation between the player and the game—in part with the developer, in part with culture. More famous examples of games with this design sensibility might include Ed Key’s Proteus or David OReilly’s Mountain, but even all these combined represent a tiny fraction of what’s out there and what’s possible.

These kinds of games, toys, tools, what-have-you may all represent different aesthetics or tap into different ideas or senses. They differ in quality, too, but that’s another essay. Nonetheless, play abounds. But more than that, the idea of play as leisurely implies that play can be at once joyous and instructive without being laborious. Or that something can be deep and memorable without also being a massive timesink: that the time the experience stays with you can be more meaningful than the active practice demanded of an interaction. Or that my desire to play or not play isn’t necessarily determined by topicality or money-value—there’s a timelessness here. Or that wasting time can actually be an important and fruitful part of emotional health.

The contradiction here is that games which promise more agency tend to actually offer less, pandering to the player in exchange for the dedicated grind. But play in many of these cases can feel truer because the games spend less time telling the player what to do and patting them on the head for it and more time giving the player the means to figure it out for themselves. That being said, it makes sense that the logics reproducing mechanisms of capital are more familiar to people than ones that don’t. I can understand why leisure can be maligned as “time-wasting” when the virtue of constant productivity permeates our society. I can understand why it might not even get recognized as play. Because joy, happiness itself, can be a radical act. Because sometimes a 20-plus hour videogame has less “play” packed into it than idly clicking on a tool just to listen to the sound it makes.