Maui pool party
How the kids in the pool play: Find a base game or paradigm, then explore the nearby space of mechanisms and gimmicks. When local variations are exhausted, change the template and repeat, rotating the cast, switching into different pairing-offs and arrangements, each game giving rise to new alliances and rivalries. Games, or “shticks,” are often discovered through the steady accumulation of mechanics and gimmicks, which through their bundling give rise to emergent patterns and interestingness.
Some shticks are relatively narrow in possibility, and stable in arrangement—like tossing a football—but these activities are also the site of improvisation and variation, in throw style and effort exerted, in subskill explored and worked on. Children, especially children who play together regularly, are able to switch fluently between shticks, often without explicit communication; that is, stigmergically. But you can also tell who feels less comfortable together, more rigid, by the rigidity of their definition of the game, and their reluctance to stray outside the bounds of agreed-upon play, or to renegotiate the contract of play in vivo, or to trespass too much upon one another.
Older participants (older siblings, parents)—and the more experienced parties, which ages correlates with—tend to facilitate challenges for younger, less-skilled players. Play by these facilitating parties is often geared around creating and maintaining the right level of difficulty for their opponent. Third-party players who are, or feel they are, relatively close to the level of the facilitating party, may momentarily intrude on or participate in (what are informally understood to be) two-party games in order to reaffirm their matched skill status by playing “for real” what, in the two-party setup, is largely mock.
A large group of siblings, mixed age and sex, Von-Trapp style, are playing with a nerf football in the shallow end. Two of the boys, age 14 and 12, being playing toss. A third, age 10, emerges from the jacuzzi and becomes the “monkey in the middle,” trying to intercept the throws. When he does, the boy whose pass he caught switches out to the middle. Their two younger sisters, 8 year-old twins, begin jumping up on their older brothers, attempting to wrestle the ball, but in vain. To get a better angle over the 12 year old brother, who is now the “monkey,” the 14 year old stands up on a shallow step, so that he is a few feet above the surface, with a better angle to make and catch throws. Now, the young girls try a new game, to pull or wrestle their brother down from the step, so that he falls back into the pool. He dispatches each with ease, but you get the sense that they are not actually trying to push him, more that they enjoy the thrill of being picked up and thrown themselves by their brother. One tries to grab at his waist, and receives a very specific kind of grab’n’toss back into the pool. The next twin, immediately behind her sister, then replicates her sister’s grab, looking to get in on the specific game mechanic, and is treated to the same toss. In the midst of this, the brother is trying to catch and throw the football back and forth to his brother, and prevent its interception by the 12 year old. The 10 year old is getting somewhat tired of his available mechanics, and now tries to climb up the side-stairs, jumping off them into the water to catch his brother’s throws. Meanwhile, one of the lightweight younger sisters, on a particularly high toss into the water, nearly catches the football tossed her 14 year old brother’s way. Now, this becomes the gimmick: she asks him to launch her, and then she tries to complete the throw from her 10 year old brother across the pool. The goals and provisional relationships—who is competing, who is coordinating—have morphed radically.