Internalized Play

Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of books. A big pile slowly accumulated on my desk and I couldn’t watch it anymore. Slowly, I’m arriving at the bottom of the pile so soon I will be able to… buy new books!

I have learned a lot of stuff and I will talk a lot about it. One thing however is so cool I wanted to write it down very quickly. The book I’m reading just now is “Psychologie des Spiels” (”Psychology of Play”) by Rolf Oerter. It deals with (drumroll) psychology of play but more explicitly it is a book about “Entwicklungspsychologie” (”Development-psychology”). It is a book about children. Never the less, I find it extremely interesting and highly relevant to game design.

The aspect I found so outstanding is a suggested connection of speech acquisition and play patterns. Speech acquisition is a fascinating subject I already read about. The subject is more important then it may seem. What little people realize is that for children, speech acquisition goes hand in hand with cognitive development. The two things are so tightly integrated that it is futile to talk about the one without talking about the other. Speech affects the way we develop our understanding of our world and vice versa.

For example. In the very early stages (less then a year old) a child has a poor understanding of anything else then its own needs. It’s thinking clearly seems to revolve around itself. It a very egoistic way of thinking. Likewise, the first uttering of such a child are very peculiar: they are only imperatives. At this stage of cognitive development thinks of speech a a tool to express desire: “mama”, “papa”, “more”, etc…

With time, the child develops a gradual understanding of the world around itself. It recognizes objects which exist independently of acute needs. It goes hand in hand with the first understanding of words as carriers of meaning – of symbols. This leads to construction of first (semi-)sentences and “real” communication. It is important to realize that language is not only a symptom of this development but it also augments and accelerates it. This becomes clearly evident if speech is somehow impaired.

The shocking thing is that the same is true for play patterns. In the egoistic phase, play patterns revolve around using object to create desirable effects: using a rattle to create noise for example. Later, the child is more and more able to play without the need of a specific toy. For example, it can pretend to drink from a cup although the cup is empty. Even later, no cup is required just the symbolic gesture is enough.

So what? Well, speech is considered THE singe most powerful tool in the way we humans harness the power of our mind. The mentioned example of play as a different way to gain insight into the way the world works may be a hint that there is something different and possible equally powerful besides speech: play.

It this is not enough, there is a kicker. During child language acquisition, the thought process of a child of often externalized. Children tend to speak aloud what they think and plan to do. One theory is that as we grow up we learn to internalize this spelling out of our thoughts. I assume everybody knows what I’m talking about: the internal voice we sometimes refer to “what we think”. The stuff that appears in comics written in the cloudy bubbles.

In the book, it was mentioned that the same process happens with play, especially with children’s role-play. With age, it becomes more and more symbolic until it somehow looses it’s appeal. The theory is that, like thinking aloud, it is being internalized and manifests as daydreaming for example. This internalized play helps us to foresee future events. We can imagine us in different situations doing different things without actually acting and thus, we can solve problems and make decisions.

Internalized speech has clearly it’s advantages. However, it is also a dead-end. Internalized speech leads to lots of mistakes and problems. A good example is something I witness on a regular basis. When preparing a speech for a public presentation, unexperienced speakers tend rehearse their speech internally. Although this certainly is better then no rehearsal at all, it is MUCH better to find a seculed place and practice speaking the speech aloud. Internalized speech prepares poorly for the difficulties of pronunciation of words and public delivery.

But it gets even worse. A frequent advice for young academics who have to write a theoretical paper is to start writing early, even when the thinking is not finished yet. Putting your words on paper helps to structure your thinking and aids in recognizing mistakes and omissions. This is the same reason why people write diaries – putting your thoughts into externalized words helps you deal with them much better then internalized speech does… oh yeah and that’s why I find this Blog so helpful ;-)

Funny enough, there is this social pressure for internalizing speech. People who speak to themselves aloud are considered crazy.

So what if the same is true for internalized play? Our fantasies and our daydreams must clearly suffer from the same inadequacies as internalized speech. From this perspective, games can greatly enhance our ability to use our brain just as putting thoughts into words can help structuring them. And thus we arrive at the same conculsion as Jonathan Blow and Will Wright did before – this time, a bit more scientifically underpinned.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

One response to “Internalized Play”

  1. axcho

    Ah, very interesting. I like the punchline. :)

    “Our fantasies and our daydreams must clearly suffer from the same inadequacies as internalized speech. From this perspective, games can greatly enhance our ability to use our brain just as putting thoughts into words can help structuring them.”

    I’ll have to think about this…


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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