Cultural historians and social scientists have variously defined play as: activity that absorbs a person intensely despite having no or very limited real life consequences; a way for organisms to practice survival skills in low-threat environments; behavior focused on means, rather than ends; and activity that is guided by self-directed and mutually-agreed upon rules.
We’re playing, then, when we explore the world and our own creativity or skills but in a way that minimizes the consequences of failure and or performing poorly. Play becomes sport when the focus is on performing and competing, not exploring and imagining.
Under that definition, I think there is no more pure distillation of ‘play’ in video game form than Garry’s Mod, a 2006 Steam game that began as a Half-Life 2 mod but which has grown into so much more.
“Garry’s Mod is a physics sandbox,” its description on Steam reads. “There aren’t any predefined aims or goals. We give you the tools and leave you to play.”
Those tools include access to every object, NPC, weapon, etc. in any Source game you own, which can be spawned in, moved, angled and modified as much as you want. Before Source Filmmaker, the game was a popular tool among YouTubers for constructing animations (it still gets some love from that crowd).
It’s also spawned hundreds of bizarre and entertaining mini games, role play communities, and even servers where you walk around a recreation of a virtual movie theater and can watch films through your character’s perspective.
The game uses Valve’s Source engine, which fuels the Half-Life series as well as the Portal, Counter Strike, DOTA 2 and countless really strange niche indie games as a framework to mess around in. There’s no story or overarching goal to achieve. You can either fire up any level from a Source game you own and jump in, or join a multiplayer server that can range from giant cities to a faithful recreation of Bikini Bottom.
Playing Garry’s Mod single player is an exercise in playing God. A small army of the game’s user-made content lets me whip out a light saber, fly around in the Starship Enterprise, skip through important plot scenes or go places the developers didn’t intend me to see, and otherwise liquefy the game into a million other kinds of glorious, chaotic soup.
And joining a server in Garry’s Mod really feels like an adult version of first graders playing at recess. There are groups of people crowding around a monstrous scene someone made using ragdoll models and props. Two folks are chasing each other in jury-rigged flying cars that leave marijuana leaf symbol trails from their exhaust pipes. The entire server is lagging because a bunch of people spawned 200 zombies in the lake. Somebody’s scream-spamming chat with song lyrics.
Garry’s Mod is like a thick, warm blanket. Even within a medium that prizes fun above all else, it is notable for how much it eschews competition (unless you seek that out in a server) in favor of letting your imagination run wild. I can sort of turn my brain off, knowing that the game literally has no way of winning or losing, and start playing around the the physics engine. In other words, I can do nothing but play… and that’s just how I like it.
Words simply don’t do the game justice. So here’s a brief snapshot of my misadventures.