Toys, Simulations and Stories II. Toys

Garry's Mod, image by Garry Newman

While most early computational devices were almost exclusively used for military and academic purposes, it is important to note Spacewar! became available in 1962 and Tennis For Two was developed in 1958 (for those unfamiliar, Tennis For Two was a game of ping-pong played on an oscilloscope with invisible paddles). It didn’t take us long at all to start making games and digital toys and this is probably a good thing. “Toys enhance cognitive behavior and stimulate creativity” says Wikipedia. If that’s true (and it probably is) then toys are some of the most important things on the planets. They teach us how to think, behave, relax, and even work.

What are they, though? What are digital toys? Most games has problems, narrative, obstacles, puzzles, rules, characters and other things one doesn’t usually find in a toy aisle. Some do not; they are our digital toys. The truest example of which I’ve ever come across is the appropriately named Source engine modification Garry’s Mod. In it, a user can spawn non-player characters and objects, pose them like action figures, arm them, set up epic battles, build robots, or take comedic, dramatic or even salacious screenshots of the posed ragdoll models.

It appears few other good examples of digital toys are available (either that, or I am just terrible at research). After giving the matter some thought, it appears the reason for this is surprisingly simple. While toys are liberating, they are also extraordinarily difficult to create – and likely even more difficult to market. Liberation, as the root word might suggest, is the byproduct of offering a large degree of freedom and video games have always had trouble with freedom. Environments need to be restricted with set beginnings and ends. Rules need to be in place. The player always needs a goal, or a destination. It’s hard to create such freedom and making it fun is another issue entirely. Worlds cannot possibly be expected to be without rules such a world does not and cannot exist in any capacity. However, the objects within that world can exist without rules. In Garry’s Mod, the world around your assortment of toys has rules. It has gravity, surrealistic physics and is built to vaguely resemble our own (depending on the choices of the mapper and/or scripters behind the map or game-mode). It however, gives you complete freedom to do whatever you wish within this world.

If the world can have rules that opens up new possibilities, such as Minecraft*. It may seem as straightforward an example as Garry’s Mod yet it is not. Garry’s Mod gives the user everything and while Minecraft only gives the user the basics, it does not give them everything. There are still a plethora of things to work for, and monsters to be avoided.

Conversely, Lego Star Wars – and all the other Lego titles – use real toys as their premise but are not toys themselves. They have goals, collectibles, and satirized stories to tell. Even if the game doesn’t remind you to do something constantly, there is something that the user should be doing. Toys, digital or physical – exist in that rarefied region of gaming where there is not something the user should be doing. Toys do not have goals or predefined end points. They can have limitations although it it usually as few as possible. The simple beauty of it is that the lack of goals and limitations allows the user to create his own goals or limitations. Most of us can remember making up our own games as children, devising elaborate rules and abilities for action figures, legos, toy cars or whatever we might have had on hand and those who did not do this themselves have assuredly observed it; I know I’ve observed this phenomena in my nieces and nephews.

It is important to mention that Massively Multiplayer Online games such as EVE Online partially qualify. These games are similar to games of pretend. Each user chooses his or her role in a predefined world and only then must abide by the rules of that particular class, race or role. The evolution of the concept is ancient, it stems from the MultiUser Dungeons from the early days of digital computation, which came from the table top role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons and these table-top games came from the place where all entertainment comes from – imagination and myths. The source is identical to the 1950s ideal of children playing “cowboys and indians” or “cops in robbers” on a quiet street in a nonexistent suburb. MMOs exist to facilitate this desire to play a role other than our own. A desire that has always been with us. Daydreaming office workers, children at play and even the players of MMOs (and certain single-player role-playing games as well) all have one common trait. They’re imagining themselves somewhere else, as someone else in a place which is more exciting and stimulating than the real world can ever hope to be. In many ways, role-playing games exist as a subcategory of digital toys and yet their single-player variants also provide the best examples of the third and perhaps most influential type of game: games with storylines which will be discussed in another article.

As for Minecraft and Garry’s Mod, their beauty lies in their emulation not of games – but of the tools developers use to create and edit games. The inclusion of Lua Scripting in Garry’s Mod allows users to enforce the rules which they create, often escalating into some kind of game of digital Calvinball. The rules are up to the user. Sometimes people build doomed robots or less doomed (but still profoundly rickety) automobiles. They find new ways to kill each other daily and they find nonviolent ways to spend there time as well. There is a Lua scripted game mode about surviving on a deserted island, gathering food, water and other resources until the user can build a shack then a farm, then a bigger shack. It’s not precisely competitive in concept alone but most human beings can’t help but wanting to out do their neighbors so competition is inevitable until such as a time arises in which social evolution figures out that cooperation is a viable path to survival.

I did not realize it myself until I was revising this article for the second time but to define the purest sense of digital toys, one must look beyond video games to the tools used to create them. A digital toy looks an awful lot like this. I know I talked about the Sims a lot in the Simulations and despite this, it is still worth further discussion. The Source Standard Development Kit, The Sims 3‘s Create-A-World, Lua Scripting in Garry’s Mod, the scenario editor in every Civilization game and so on, are what I was looking for. These are tools released in association with various games but they effectively allow the user to transform the worlds of those games in any way, shape, or form he or she sees fit. That is the defining factor of a digital toy. There are no story lines, no rules, just the imagination of the user.

I literally built this city one lot at a time.

A digital toy exists as an instrument to put the power of creation in the hands of the user and does not bother it to pretend to pursue things like immersion or coherency. They must, by definition, be versatile, fun and allow people to probe, manipulate, recreate or destroy their prospective worlds in any way the user sees fit. They are few but they do exist and that quote from Wikipedia says we need them.

*note: David only played Minecraft Classic because he simply couldn’t be bothered to pony up the fifteen euros the beta costs. Instead, he asked one of his friends who did pay for the game to explain it to him in detail.

Also: part 1 of this series–simulations–can be found here.