I remember my first frustration with being "taught" to play soccer. I said, "Why do we need rules? Can't we just kick the ball around?"
Today I was at a picnic at Lake Burley Griffin, where I had the opportunity to observe that same casualty of maturity in action. A group of six boys under the age of nine were kicking a soccer ball around with a older friend, who was maybe 14. Play proceeded for about a quarter-hour, until the older boy stopped the ball with his foot and declared that his side was winning.
Much has been written about the evolution of play behaviour. Chris Bateman has an article on the concept of paidia that's well worth reading; dealing with the pattern of play that results from children encountering an environment and experimenting with the objects in that environment. When a child encounters a new play space for the first time, they don't ask, "What am I supposed to do?" They simply do things, and see what results.
So why do we so rarely build games that way?
The dominant paradigm of contemporary game design is top-down design. Creation starts with imagining a challenge scenario that will be electronically simulated, with one or more implicit or explicit goals built in. We decide we're going to replicate the experience of flying a lone spaceship through the heart of an alien fleet, that we're going to do it in the form of a 2D scrolling shooter, and that the goal will be to complete all the stages of the game and survive. Or we're going to replicate a Tolkien-esque fantasy milieu and the goal will be to save the world by means of defeating the evil overlord.
It's a given - that's the normal way to design games, today. But it's nothing like how we did it as children. I don't recall ever designing a game for my sister and I to play by saying, "Let's play something where the aim is to get an object into a goal defended by an opponent." We said, "Let's play a game using this ball." We'd get the ball, we'd kick it or throw it around, and we'd start to get a feel for what was easy to do in the environment, what was challenging but possible, and what was too hard to achieve. And slowly, some or all of the things that were challenging would become the explicit goal of the game.
I had the same experience during my brief time as a modder. I spent hours designing levels for Doom, Duke Nukem 3D, and Aliens v Predator 2. Never did I start from the perspective of designing a gauntlet for players to run. I always was drawn in by the challenge of creating an interesting environment, and then making a game out of it.
A couple of house-moves back, I replicated the house I was living in as an AVP 2 level. I think anyone who's ever played with a level editor probably tries that at some stage. It was a pretty decent replica, as these things go. I had heaps of fun just running around the building from the perspective of an alien, crawling on ceilings, bouncing around on the roof, scuttling down hallways. Eventually I decided it would be even more fun if I was a colonial marine and the house were surrounded by various types of alien, which I had to fend off in a desperate last stand, counting every valuable round of ammo as the hordes closed in. It started to actually look like a game, but that certainly hadn't been the plan from day 1.
So often when I play a game today, and decide that I don't like it, I'm left with the perception that it was a great idea that was sadly short on enjoyable gameplay. And it's a one-way street. As a gamer, you're rarely left complaining that a game had fantastic gameplay but poor story or graphics. And when you do, it still doesn't stop you playing the game.
So if gameplay's so important to the success of a game, why don't we design that way? Just create an environment, with objects you can interact with, and let the play develop. Eventually someone will put their foot on the ball and tell us who's winning - let's let it be someone who's already enjoyed the game enough to care.