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Making physical games at Playgrounds Festival

Over the years, I’ve run a variety of game design workshops, both standalone and as part of larger events.1 They’re typically aimed at creating simple, analog games that can be played inside or on the streets.

I enjoy doing workshops because I get to see how others deal with the unique challenges of designing physical games. Things like recruiting players to an ongoing game, or considering the role bystanders. I learn something from both the successes and the failures of participants. It’s also a challenge to create a workshop program with just the right amount of guidance (not too much, not too little, much like finding the right balance of rules in game design).

The most recent workshop we ran took place in the days before Playgrounds Festival. There were several on offer to students of art schools from the region. Other workshop facilitators included Vlambeer and PIPS:lab.

The workshop was about designing games for the main conference, which would take place later that week. So the audience was conference-goers, always a tough crowd to get involved into a game. They’re usually too busy running from session to session and chatting in the hallways. It turned out this also applied to this conference, even though it was called Playgrounds. (It’s about motion graphics, animation, that sort of stuff, mostly.)

The brief allowed for a variety of forms, such as street games, conference games and party games. We also allowed participants to choose their own location in and around the conference venue.

We had three days, and divided it up in equal parts: introduction to the field & ideation, prototyping & design and finally testing & evaluation.

An impression of what was made

I was really happy to see the variety of games that emerged. I had collected a bunch of example games to get the participants started: Mafia, Cruel 2B Kind, Capture the Flag, Prui and James Wallis’s GameCamp minifig game. We also played a game of Ninja Tag to warm up. I’d like to think this underlined the idea that there are many ways to create interesting play experiences.

(Watch this video on Vimeo.)

In order of appearance the video shows a Tron light-cycles inspired game where you try to surround your opponent, a tagging game, a game about hunting foxes, a paint-with-your feet game, and a drawing game using markers tied to cycling helmets. Like I said, a nice range of games offering quite different kinds of play.

Some observations

Concepts that rely on spontaneous audience participation have an immediate disadvantage. In particular when the act to be performed is slightly theatrical and/or silly. Best to have a sign-up booth and have players come to you. You don’t want to put people on the spot, much less in front of their friends. Play is voluntary after all. You can and probably should go out and do promotion for your game and draw people to your booth. When promoting your game it is very important to have a clear and short description of the game experience you’re offering.

A common pitfall in the design of physical games is that the activity created is evaluated on how amusing it is to observe, in stead of how interesting it is to do. There’s a difference between what a US or UK audience and a Dutch audience are willing to engage in. Within those national groups there are again massive differences from subculture to subculture. This is an issue because the current state of the art is mostly influenced by creators from the Anglo-sphere.

Playtesting highlighted these issues for many of the games and as such it was a massive learning experience. It takes courage to put your game out there at a conference, to ask a complete stranger to have a go. I admire the participants for having the guts to do this, even if not all games were as successful at drawing in players.

Where to go next

I have the feeling that the street gaming scene has become somewhat conservative. So I would like for future workshops to push at its boundaries. This means setting new briefs, perhaps more focused briefs, ones that deliberately break with current street gaming form. One idea that has been on my mind for some time is to look at toys, and focus less on rules design. This is inspired in part by Doug Wilson’s work on Johann Sebastian Joust, and projects like Ringg, which came out of the Utrecht School of the Arts. A workshop about rules-light, open-ended tools for play. You’re welcome to steal this idea for your own workshop, or invite me to come and run it at one of your events. Either way, I’d be happy to hear from you.

I should thank Sarah Lugthart and Leon van Rooij for inviting me to their festival, and all the workshop participants for their enthusiastic involvement. In addition I should point out the significant contribution to this particular workshop by occasional agent of Hubbub Arjen de Jong.

  1. For example, here’s one for Utrecht School of the Arts students in the lead-up to the NLGD Festival of Games 2009, and here’s the one I ran at NLGD Festival of Games 2009 itself. []
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