Crafting Meaningful Play: Care and Meaning Making in/as/of/through Games

Casey O'Donnell


Meaningful play has served as a useful analytic category for game design researchers. Drawing on Huizinga, who asserted that, "[a]ll play means something," (Huizinga, 1955, p. 1) Salen and Zimmerman set out to construct a productive framework for what they deemed, "meaningful play" (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004, pp. 31-36). In their mobilization of meaningful play, Salen and Zimmerman outline a framework for evaluating "successful game design [as] the creation of meaningful play" (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004, p. 33). The framework advanced includes two vectors for thinking about meaningful play. The first, the define as "discernible," meaning that a player's actions result in an identifiable shift in the underlying systems of a game. Players need to be able to recognize that their actions have identifiable effects. The second is "integration," meaning that actions ought to be larger than simple action/reaction. Put another way, actions should also "affect[s] the play experience at a later point in the game" (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004, p. 35). They also recognize that meaningful play will undoubtedly exceed even the formal systems of a game, that often meaningful play occurs in and around games.

From this foundation, the authors then elaborate on three core concepts, "design, systems and interactivity," (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004, p. 36) as the kind of Legos through which meaningful play is constructed. This perspective is particularly focused on players making sense of games and the world through their experiences of play, which is logical, considering the text is about making games. What I am arguing here, however, is that meaningful play, analytically, is a two-way street. Players do experience meaningful play. At the same time, developers actively constructing playful experiences by making meaning out of the world around them.