Russell Davies presentation on "pretending" and "barely games" from the Playful conference is a wonderful exploration of the importance of pretending to fun and games, a subject often missing when we talk about why and how games work.
But it's not just a matter of dressing up. A successful pretending object has to delicately balance pretending affordance with not making you look like an idiot. That's why so many successful pretending objects are also highly functional. As anyone who's been down the Tactical Pants rabbit-hole can tell you it's easy to obsess for ages about exactly the right trouser configuration for your equipment (ooh-er), all with a perfectly straight face. But every now and then you have a moment of self-awareness and realise you're just pretending to be a cop or a soldier from the future or Val Kilmer.
And of course, what you're really doing is both things at once. You're being practical and thinking about function and you're pretending. But you need some plausible deniability – the functional stuff needs to be credible. Which is why pretending objects that are too obvious don't work. You're no longer pretending in your own head, you're play acting in the world.
Another thing – I've always wondered why software/OS makers don't do more with the power of pretending. Look, for instance, at the average desktop. It's using a pretending metaphor – but it's not much of an imaginative leap is it? It's a desktop on your desk. I can see how this would have been useful in the early days, getting people used to interfaces and everything, but surely there's more opportunity to have some fun now – to make software more compelling by adding some pretending value to it.