Game Design, Gamification, Learning Design and Assorted Other Strangeness

Everything I learned from comics: Calvinball and Games


At first glance the comic above seems to be chaotic and an example of someone cheating at a game. Of course, this would be an accurate assumption if they were playing american football, where the defection of a player is definitely proscribed by the rules.

Another possible assumption is that they are engaged in what is called free play where there are no rules. This however, is not the case. While they are not playing football, they are engaged in a very particular type of game. In the comics this particular version is named Calvinball. It is a type of game that is often overlooked in the discussion of games and society.

Open or infinite games

In a regular or closed game the purpose is to achieve the win state—to cross the finish line first, to score the touchdown, or to checkmate your opponent.

In open games however, the object is to keep playing the game as long as possible. Calvin and Hobbes achieve this by  making counter moves that the other player can counter and play off of. The purpose for playing Calvinball is simply to be playing Calvinball.

An open game is inherently co-operative and creative in nature and serves the purpose of bringing people closer together. More classical examples would include the traditional games of cowboys and Indians, Cops and Robbers etc.

These imaginative games allow people to explore different roles and, in many cases, work through things that they find difficult to deal with. The exploration of being a superhero or warrior has been linked to learning how to feel empowered with the attendant psychological benefits.

While the classical examples listed above are normally seen as childish pursuits, adults pursue this form of open game often with a great deal of passion.

To borrow from Shakespeare, “parting is such sweet sorrow, that I should say goodnight till it be morrow.” The conversation that someone is enjoying so much that they never want it to end is a more adult version of Calvinball. Its moves and counter moves are meant to keep the conversation going above all else.

In fact, most of the social interactions we engage in in our everyday life are open games. In these games we adopt specific roles to further the moves. These roles may change to suit the situation we are in and the players we are engaging with.

The more easily recognized open games would be role playing games. Both the pen and paper versions and the computer based versions allow the same sort of open ended play as Calvinball, although with more rule constraints.

What implications does this have?

Bernard Suits noted in The Grasshopper: Games, Life & Utopia

that if societies which place a high value on success through domination are more inclined to emphasize closed games, we might expect societies which place a high value on success through co-operation to be more inclined to emphasize open games.

Our society is very hard on the playing of open style games, even though they are incredibly useful. Does this encourage the use of domination in our society or is it the use of dominance in society which emphasis closed games over open ended? Are people who place a high value of cooperation drawn to open style games or does the playing of these games encourage people to be cooperative? Is the grasshopper right in his opinion? Questions of the chicken or the egg abound.

With the emphasis that many cultures place on victory and closed games being used to demonstrate this, the more open games are definitely sidelined and given less study with all the potential problems that this may create. However there is hope (at least for those of us who read Calvin and Hobbes) in Calvin’s last statement which may be slightly prophetic.

sooner or later all our games turn into Calvinball

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