Here’s the first column I’ve written for Bashers, the premier source of games journalism in the Netherlands. I’m planning to devote subsequent columns to discussions of other pervasive games. Many thanks to Niels ‘t Hooft for indulging me.
Do you know a game called Cruel 2 B Kind? It works like this: the goal is to assassinate as many people as possible by giving them a compliment. They try to do the same. You can keep from being attacked by quickly giving a compliment in return. The problem is, you don’t know ahead of time who the other assassins are, and who are just innocent by-standers. So you might end up complimenting a total stranger on his new shoes, or stroking someone’s ego with the question, “Excuse me, aren’t you Brad Pitt?”
The catch: You don’t play this game on your PS3 or Wii. You play this game outside, on the street, with real, live people. The software is nothing more than a set of agreed upon rules. The hardware is the city, and a number of attributes to make keeping score easier.
These kind of games make me happy. I love their simplicity and the way they play – pun intended – with social conventions and the way we experience our daily surroundings. From the viewpoint of a game designer, if you reduce a game to its set of rules, there is no difference between designing a game such as Cruel 2 B Kind and Far Cry 2. A game wants to be played. The fun that’s unique to games comes from playing them, the pleasure of play. In this way a game distinguishes itself from things such as movies and books. And that’s why I see games not as the newest descendant in a long list of narrative media.
If I were to do that, I would have to make a clear separation between video games and the rest; board games, role-playing games and pervasive games such as Cruel 2 B Kind. Then I would have to perform a mean feat of historic revisionism.
If you look at games as I do, as one big family dating back to at least 3000 BC (the age of an early version of Backgammon), then it becomes clear what it’s really about, and that is the player and what you as the game-maker allow him to do. That is, to me, the most important part of game innovation: which activities, which playful experiences can we offer people with games? What can we let them do that can give them another perspective on themselves, on others, on their world?
As Cruel 2 B Kind shows, a computer isn’t necessary for this. We were perfectly able to play before the arrival of PDP-1 (the computer Space War! was programmed on), and this will always be so. There is, however, such an array of technology today that it would be absurd to ignore it in the gaming world. But the way I see that is inspired by Frank Lantz of Area/Code: a game isn’t something you put in a computer, it’s the other way around: You can (if you want) put computers in games.