Like many others out there, I am both a new parent and a 90’s kid. And like any (nerdy) new parent, I keep looking at my own childhood with freshly critical eyes. Which of my experiences, and which of my parents’ many decisions, led me to become the person I am today? Obviously it’s far too complicated to tease out – though some early pictures of toddler me pretending to write grand stories at a plastic writing desk bear remarkable resemblance to my current task and posture. But as the parent of a small child solidly in the entertained-for-45-minutes-by-an-empty-box phase, I am thinking a lot about play.

Current research on the value of play, and the opposing trend toward highly structured toddler classrooms, has a lot of people crying out for increased playtime. And not just games or sports, but open-ended, unstructured play. Research has shown the value of unstructured play for future adaptability – from rats to robots – but humans get the special additional chance for pretend play.

Pretend play involves coming up with a mental model for what would have happened under a set of circumstances other than reality. This can be anything from imaging the outcome of winning a game you had lost to ruling over a magical kingdom that doesn’t actually exist. As a kid, I remember this being effortless and natural – it’s the reason the aforementioned photo shows me writing in a crown and yellow, floor-length dress. Pretending gave me the chance to try my hand at creating rules, facing challenges probably unsafe for my age, and engaging in moral dilemmas that my own reality did not necessarily provide. 

But there was also a part of my memory where traditional play and pretend play seem to have crossed over: computer games. I will admit that I did not play a huge amount of video or computer games as a kid, but what I remember the most are not the games themselves. What I remember are the hours and hours spent on the free-play and level-building options that served as supplements to the main game.

I remember a back level of an amusement park game that allowed you to design your own roller coaster. Presumably the game would have wanted you to design a coaster that would be fun (and survivable) for park patrons. But for me, and I imagine so many others, the best part was testing the boundaries to find the most extreme coaster you could build. How fast would it go if you built the hill so high that the game stopped you? How hard could you bank a turn before it failed? Building it in the game was like getting a chance to – kind of – test out all of the crazy ideas in my head.

My husband has extremely fond memories of playing with the level-builder on Half-Life. While I have never played it personally, watching him dissolve into laughter when describing the various glitches he’s produced makes it sound right in line with my roller coaster experiences. Mistakes with the X/Y/Z rotation led to doors flying across the room or slamming into the ceiling rather than opening on a hinge. Water could be dropped into the level in cubes and would retain its shape without a barrier, meaning the character could just walk into it from the side. Why not see how many doors you can get flying around in various directions in rapid succession?

But for me, nothing can compare to the time spent – and the happiness gained – using the Free Form Mode on The Incredible Machine. The Incredible Machine is a 1993 game, in all its pixelated glory, that gave players a series of objects and asked them use those objects to solve a problem. You might need to get a baseball in the lower-right-hand corner of the screen up onto a platform in the upper left. When you press start, gravity engages and the baseball falls off the bottom of the screen – game over. So then you get to use some platforms, a ramp, maybe a bucket or a cannon, some candles, a mouse in a wheel, and a giant boxing glove to build a Rube-Goldberg-style machine to get the ball to that upper-left corner.

As you play you get to know the attributes of each object. Bowling balls are heavier than tennis balls, but both will roll down a ramp. Cats will chase after mice, and mice running in a wheel can power a conveyor belt. Balloons will float up, buckets will fall down, and cats that run into a candle flame will fly – upside-down and slightly charred – in a predictable arc and distance across the screen. While solving the problems in the actual game was fun, building elaborate machines with unlimited resources in Free Mode was the real prize.

Pretend play lets nine-year-olds imagine a vast contraption of conveyor belts, mice, cats, and candles that results in a balletic cascade of singed cats flowing down the screen. Free Mode on The Incredible Machine lets that nine year old build it. All the finicky testing, the detail work of seeing how far a mouse has to be placed from a cat for the cat to chase it, but not to catch it. How steep the ramp should be and how the platforms should be arranged to allow for the cats to soar all the way off screen. Perhaps the original idea lacked a mechanism to trigger the cascade of actions, and a seesaw, bucket, and pulley get added in. It lets that kid become an odd sort of expert – one who can come up with new ideas because of fresh understanding and newly open mental doors.

And while my parents didn’t directly tell me to focus on the free-play mode of these games, they did something vital. They didn’t tell me that I was being ridiculous or that I was wasting my time. They cheered on the crazy contraptions and would suggest ways to cram more on to the screen. My husband’s mom sat there with him, cracking up as the doors flew in unexpected directions, the plot of the game entirely forgotten.

When I look at the toys on the market now, toys targeted for parents exactly like me, they have all the right buzzwords. They tell me that my child will learn the basics of coding, fundamental engineering concepts, problem solving, etc. But then I wonder, because those weren’t any of the reasons I had for playing the games I did. My parents were probably faced with their own generation of buzzwords, but in the end my husband and I played with the things that were fun to start and stayed interesting over time. Yes, both my husband and I learned the value of building primitive simulations in those ridiculous game platforms. Yes, both of us ended up interacting with simulations as part of our PhDs. And yes, he now has a career building intricate, multi-scale materials models. But at the time we weren’t thinking about building our skills; we were playing for the sake of playing.

So I am looking at new technology that will be as novel to me as computers were to my parents in the early nineties, and I will try to remember that my kid will find a way to use that technology to play. And just like I want to encourage building forts and roaming in the woods, I will try to be as supportive as my parents were in those odd technological pursuits. And I will look for my own keywords: showing boldness in trying new approaches, applying a critical eye in piecing apart a problem, embracing creativity in using available materials, possessing the patience to practice, and fostering the diligence to keep working at it when things don’t work right the first 67 times. So let’s play.