At GDC, I attended two talks — both by Spore developers — that were long on insight, but kind of short on hard takeaways.

Chris Hecker started his session with a clip from kutiman’s “Thru You,” which is as good a way as any to kick off a talk on user-generated content. Hecker looked at a number types of UGC, measuring them on two axes: aesthetics vs. behavior and creation vs. parameterization. Final Fantasy XII’s gambit system is heavy on parameterized behavior, while Spore is all about aesthetic creation.

A lot of time was spent playing the “is this UGC?” game: Counter-Strike, a player’s gear loadout in Diablo, the political map in EVE, a t-shirt design on Threadless, and a 3D printed figurine of a player’s WoW character may or may not be UGC, depending on how broadly you define it.

From there, Hecker went on to talk about different models of meaning creation, and how the unidirectional “message model” is not so much where gaming’s strength lies. As an example of players creating meaning for each other, he showed a clip of a come-from-behind victory in a Street Fighter tournament and the way that the crowd was able to read, appreciate, and respond to nuances in the players’ performance that would be lost on an outsider. This kind of collective experience around improvisational play (borrowing a term from Hocking’s talk) is at the center of games as a “platform for meaning,” which is presumably what he and the rest of Maxis were hoping to achieve with Spore.

That’s all good, but Hecker’s show was stolen in the middle, when Will Wright popped up to deliver one of his digressive “Russian Space Minute” bits. Them Maxis folks, they crazy.

Chaim Gingold is more crazy Maxis folk, and like Hecker’s, his session, entitled “The Human Play Machine,” was a barrage of ideas and illustrations that left the brain feeling stuffed and a little punch-drunk afterwards. Gingold’s talk centered around play as an attitude or stance, and the way in which play affects or is affected by other parts of the human experience. He drew a sort of network of concepts — seeking, bodies, space, make-believe, physical senses, social relationships, language, and culture — describing some of the ways in which they can be played with, or the ways in which play can help us to develop or better understand these concepts.

It was a little hard to keep up with Gingold at times, especially as I had a hard time resisting the urge to think about overlaps in the areas that he was describing: playing with our senses to extend them or achieve a synaesthetic state could also cover the proprioceptive play that goes on as we explore the limits of our bodies; seeking (or exploring, or learning, or orienting) pretty much by definition involves moving through various sorts of spaces; any time you have social play, you end up playing with cultural structures and norms, either by creating them or tweaking them.

While it didn’t do much for my attention span, the fact that I was playing around with connections between the ideas that Gingold was presenting might have been the kind of attitude that he was getting at. Towards the end of the session, he talked about moving away from “game design” and towards a discipline of “play design,” an idea he didn’t go into very deeply, but that I think means a shift away from the highly structured, interpellative, often static experiences that we associate with rule-based games, and towards looser, more free-form, possibly oppositional experiences.