The lead designer of Portal says that she makes toys. This shocks many in the gaming community, especially in the “Games are Art” movement. It shouldn’t.

A toy is not a bad thing. Dictionaries tend to define toys as “for children.” The Wikipedia article takes a more balanced, less dismissive approach.  The key phrase as follows: ” Adults use toys and play to form and strengthen social bonds, teach, remember and reinforce lessons from their youth, discover their identity, exercise their minds and bodies, explore relationships, practice skills, and decorate their living spaces.”

When you state it like that, it sounds dignified, and a downright serious intellectual activity. Because that’s exactly what it is. All men have toys, whether they’re Lego, dolls, action figures, board games, pencil and paper RPGs, electronic devices, power tools, automobiles, gardens, or whatever else.  The experience of art is in the interpretation, and it is natural and human to interpret something as a toy if that is how you use it.

There is no shame in enjoying toys.  There is no shame in publicly embracing toys. People claim that there’s something wrong with the adult who plays Dungeons & Dragons or Super Mario Bros. or hundreds of other diversions, yet no one is called a “man-child” for playing Words With Friends or Angry Birds – at worst it is considered unprofessional.

More importantly, video games, generally speaking, should be toys.  Portal was called a toy by the designer, and it is a very appropriate appellation. People enjoyed the story and jokes, but it was the toy element that truly resonated.  Even now, people toy with the idea of “What if you had a portal gun in [situation]?” This also indicates the tepid reception of Portal II in many circles. In Portal II, you got some new toys, but people felt too limited by their main toy. The narrative and writing was as strong as ever, perhaps stronger than the original, but, being less of a toy, people loved it just a little bit less.

Shadow of the Colossus is considered a milestone for the “Games are Art” crowd, as it’s achieved a solid, if delayed, reception.  Pretty much universally, the game is hailed as an example of video games being art. While I certainly concede the atmosphere and world building and all those other artistic elements, my most memorable experiences had little to do with the overarching themes or nuances.  What I remember most from the game are the epic set pieces that were the Colossus fights – puzzles combined with more traditional platformer challenges, all on such a large scale.  The one that particularly stands out is the fight against the flying colossus over the lake. To taunt the beast, grab hold, and take it down in flight as it struggles to shake you off – there really hasn’t been a similar experience in any game I’ve played.  But this experience has little to nothing to do with the artistic merits of Shadow of the Colossus.  Shadow of the Colossus is an excellent game because it is artistically relevant, but it is also an excellent toy. If it weren’t a good toy, it would likely have been forgotten, or at best a footnote.

Of course, video games don’t need to be toys, and they can still be good and memorable if they aren’t toys. Shadow of the Colossus needed to be a toy, because the theme was focused on the subversion of the toy. The danger, however, lies in the fact that a game that is not a toy can begin to feel like work. One of the big buzzwords right now is “gamification.” Gamification is applying the “toy” functionality/interpretation to something that is not normally considered a toy. If gamification is applying “toy” to “non-toy,” then an attempt to make a video game that is art without being toy is essentially an application of de-gamification. The key value of gamification is to provide an incentive to engage.  To what end should we attempt de-gamification? Is it a push for legitimacy? If so, it is no more meritorious than an attempt to impress the “cool kids.” As any uncool kid knows, attempts to impress the cool kids often fail miserably, and alienate the people most willing to accept you as you are.  If the “Games are Art” people can’t even learn the lessons of a Saturday Morning cartoon, how do they expect to have anything to say, much less anyone to listen to them?

There may be a reason for a non-toy video game.  Arguably, there are already several worthwhile non-toy games.  In each case, however, they likely answer the question “to what end?”  The natural function of the game is “toy.” If you remove that interpretation, you should have something compelling to put in its place.