Thinking about RPGs as Toys [+]

Threads are going on now debating whether rpgs are toys or games, with all sorts of associated definitional arguments of the sort that go way beyond my interest or capabilities.

I wanted to talk about something slightly different.

Let's start by looking at these things as toys, and that as a positive.

Now that can be tricky. As noted by one of the posters ( I'm paraphrasing), Game as a term has more social clout than Toy. After all toys are used by children, while games are used by adults and children, and imply a certain level of skill.

I actually agree with that to an extent. I simply don't care.

RPGs are toys. They really aren't that different in use from a toy box filled with plastic tiaras, foam swords, felt pirate hats, and other assorted costume bits. Or Barbie's Malibu playhouse with Barbie's various pals present. Or a bunch of Breyer horses and the stable playset. Or a big Matchbox car playset with a city plastic play mat and a bunch of cars. Or a great big collection of action figures and a secret base.

Mostly, they just substitute out the physical toys on favor of a description of those toys. Oh, and maybe, sometimes, focus on a just slightly older age group's ideas of fun inspirational material for Play Pretend. In other words, they are representational toys, those listed above, not general purpose toys like a ball or Frisbee. There's at least some implication of how they're at least intended to be used and that use implies a level of play pretend of a certain sort.

Is there any game involved at all then?

Yes, but more like bits of game. Bits of game that occurs every now and again. Like two kids who have been playing with matchbox cars all day who decide to start racing them by sending them sliding across the floor. Or kids with Lego that start challenging one another to build the biggest building or something. Bitty moments of game that make the toy play, play pretend, more fun temporarily.

I think that a large number of people get that, inherently. And for large numbers of participants in RPGs, even if they couldn't put that into words, they get it. When I hear that some group had wonderful game session after wonderful game session and barely used the dice, they're engaged with the thing as a toy, and having a great time doing so. Similarly, people who enjoy the characterplay, the storyplay, the immersion in setting and don't give that much care about the mechanics--- also successful toyplay as the main emphasis.

That seems to be rather a lot of people I've gamed with in real life and a large number of people I've read posts from online.

Great, those are the preliminaries, so where is this going?


  • Well, some of it has to do with perception, and some of it has to do with presentation, and, naturally, mechanics.

    Game, as noted above, has some pretty positive associations, especially in comparison to Toy, as mentioned above.

    Adult. Skill. Contest/competition/challenge.

    Hmm, there is also a downside to those isn't there? I mean, not adult so much, but the other ones are as likely to be negative as positive, depending on your point of view, and your initial look at the thing. 300 pages of reading to pick up the Skills needed to Compete successfully at this thing?!? Good lord! I work all day, I certainly don't feel like seriously competing at anything much when I get home!

    So let's put aside game and its implications for now. Let's get back to these things as representational toys with an implication of play pretend focused on inspirational material.

    How do children play with those sorts of things successfully? And happily? And repeatedly? What makes that all work? What are the traits, methods, and behaviors present? How do kids signal one another that they are enjoying what each one is doing or adding to the play in a positive way? What exactly does fair or balanced mean in play pretend/toy play ?

    And, more importantly, can you officialize those?

    Can you officialize those and make them concise and accessible to an adult audience?

    How do you convey the inspirational material?

    When do we even want challenge and of what type?

    Looking at that stuff, looking at RPGs as toys rather than games, opens up a whole field of possible approaches that have not been thoroughly explored yet.

    It may also allow the dumping of all kinds of things that make a great deal of sense in a game that don't matter all that much in a toy.


    With that wall of text, and me running to work, I open the floor to discussion.
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