After speaking at an Ignite a while ago I returned to Mediamatic’s wonderful Arcade exhibition last week. I was asked to present at the first evening of Mob Fest, a 3-day mini festival on mobile games in the broadest sense of the word. Below are my slides and notes for the talk. The evening was nice and intimate, with some great talks by Richard Birkin on the awesome Chromaroma and Duncan Speakman on his lovely cinematic subtlemobs, and a good crowd who asked some sharp questions. Thanks to Sophie and Jelte for inviting me.
Today I will talk about how to use ‘mobile’ games (actually pervasive games) to affect players permanently, similar to how a fever can change your immune system.
A while ago this book came out. It is a gorgeous collection of articles on live action roleplaying games (LARPs) created in the Nordic countries. It’s big, coffee-table sized, with lost of nice photos. I can recommend you get it.
What’s fascinating about the form of LARPing that has emerged in the Nordic countries is summarized in one word: ambition. On the one hand these LARPs are ambitious in terms of their production values. One fantasy LARP involved a huge robotic dragon that breathed actual fire. On the other hand they are ambitious in their scope. Nordic LARPs dare the go beyond orcs in the woods and address ‘serious’ topics.
Here’s an example. System Danmarc is a game created to address issues of social injustice. The creators call it a political action LARP. Players spent a weekend in Copenhagen in a purpose built slum set in the near future and were subjected to all kinds of unpleasantness. Their characters were not allowed to end the game in any better condition than they began, underscoring the hopelessness of their situation.
By juxtaposing this dystopia with everyday life in Copenhagen, the game’s designers created friction between what players as well as audience considered to be real. Players gained empathy for the social underclass, the audience was confronted with a situation that magnified what was otherwise happening out of sight.
This friction is what I think games applied to social issues should look for. Game designer and critic Ian Bogost provides us with a helpful concept in his excellent book Unit Operations, in which he proposes a theory that can be used to analyze video games.
Bogost says that all games in some way are simulations, and that any simulation is subjective. The response people have to this subjectivity is one of either resignation (uncritically subjecting oneself to the rules of the simulation, taking it at face value) or of denial (rejecting simulations wholesale since their subjectivity makes them useless). Taken together, Bogost calls these reactions simulation fever. A discomfort created by the friction between our idea of how reality functions and how it is presented by a game system. The way to shake this fever, says Bogost, is to work through it, that is to say, to play in a critical way and to become aware of what it includes and excludes.
So let’s look at a game Bogost uses as an example of a thoroughly subjective game that gives rise to powerful feelings of simulation fever. September 12 is a newsgame by Gonzalo Frasca which models the futility of the US response to the attacks of September 11. You control the reticule and can fire rockets at the terrorists. The rocket, however arrives with a delay, this making civilian casualties inevitable. Civilians mourn the deaths of their kind and subsequently convert to terrorism themselves. People’s reaction to this game, and its colored portrayal of the situation are telling. Games like this can affect people strongly and I think lastingly.
What’s exciting about Nordic LARPs like System Danmarc is the fact that the simulation inducing the fever coincides with the reality it critiques, thus amplifying the confusion for players and audience alike.
A game that takes this to new extremes is a cross between a pervasive game and a LARP called Momentum. It is even less separate from everyday life. Players start the game as themselves and play at becoming possessed by the spirits of deceased historical figures such as cybernetician Norbert Wiener. They went and acted out rituals at various urban sites to assist these spirits, and were of course confronted with unwitting audience. The question then becomes: am I playing at being possessed, or actually possessed, and what is the difference anyway? Momentum was a vehicle for providing players with a new perspective on the machinations of consensus reality.
A traditional idea amongst games people is that games are apart from reality, that they are a ‘safe place’. It was first popularized by Johan Huizinga in his book Homo Ludens. That actions in the game do not affect our lives outside of it. The previous examples show that the edges of the magic circle are blurry.
But also in a traditional game like MTG you can see people bring things to the game and take them from the game. Magic: The Gathering’s designer Richard Garfield calls this the metagame. Magic games include stakes in the form of cards and those are quite real. They represent cash money. The economy around the game is also very real and not tied to one time and place.
So what does that mean for those of you interested in making games for public space? Simulation fever and the permeability of the magic circle show that games can be used to effect meaningful change. It is vital however to think about games in non-utilitarian ways. The game doesn’t have to be the change itself and the change doesn’t have to be limited to people’s skills, but can include their mental states. So let’s turn our attention to applied pervasive play in public space.
In a recent report on a conference called Wireless Stories, Michiel’s1 colleague Martijn de Waal mentions this project. Climate on the Wall by the Digital Urban Living Lab was an attempt to facilitate a conversation about climate change using an interactive urban projection. It turned out people didn’t talk on the wall (and in fact subverted it for their own ends) but they did talk amongst themselves.
Martijn points out two things creators should take to heart when they want to spark debate in public space: involve people, and make it open-ended. I have some suggestions for how to do this, using games. (He also laments the lack of scaleability of locative stories, something I myself, from a business perspective am also constantly thinking about.)
The way to involve people is to make it about people, and what people do. Make it ‘readable’ for outsiders. Allow for entry-points. When we went to play Bocce Drift in the city, people could immediately see what we were doing and could join in. Technology often requires conscious design for it to be embodied in this way.
The way to be open-ended is to resist over-specifying (parts of) the design. A common pitfall for novice game designers is to make intended player behavior the goal of the game. The challenge is to have this behavior emerge from a game’s goals and constraints. Maguro, but also Change Your World, a game we did for the Rotterdam Youth Year are about coordination within large groups. We don’t tell them to coordinate, we create a situation within which the way to win is to coordinate.
And when it comes to scaleability, draw inspiration from Wanderlust’s elegant design. It’s locative storytelling, but less specifically coupled to locations and as an added bonus, it uses no proprietary technologies. It runs in a browser.
Some design guidelines
To summarize, here’s some guidelines we’ve been using in recent projects, like Maguro, which I can’t talk about specifically, but can discuss in general terms. Maguro is an applied pervasive we’re designing for a large government service. The aim is to ignite an organizational change through a game is mixed up with daily work activities.
So Maguro is a game that is half-real (similar to Momentum) that do not set themselves totally apart from reality. We do this because we want to seduce players to draw lessons from their game experience for real life. We want to infect them with simulation fever. So Maguro’s game mechanics are inspired on the daily work of the players. The setting is also one step removed from their daily reality.
It’s fine to say you play this game and then it changes you and then we’re done, goodbye. But we don’t want to leave the players empty-handed when the game is done. That would be a cop-out. We want to support them in sustaining this change. So what we’re looking at, is creating tools that are first introduced in-game. Things that are useful for players, that let them play the game more effectively. If a game is about collaboration for instance, you can imagine a tool in the form of social currency that allows players to rate each other’s effectiveness. (That’s a crude example of course, real solutions would be a little more sophisticated.)
These tools, however, exist at the edges of the game and reality. We design them in such a way, that once the game is over, the tools, and their associated behaviors, can continued to be used by players. In this way, a game’s intended effects can be sustained more easily beyond it. So the aforementioned social currency could carry over into post-game reality, and continue to affect people’s behavior in interesting ways.
Like I said, I can’t show you the game in question (yet) but we’ve seen promising results. I am convinced that this way, we can do games in public space that are more than just fun, that do create change outside of themselves – by means of simulation fever – and that enable players to sustain this change, using tools that exist on the edges of game and reality. Thank you.