Hubbub has gone into hibernation.

You don’t put a game in a computer; my first column for Bashers

Cruel 2 B Kind

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.

This piece orig­i­nal­ly appeared on Bash­ers in Dutch and was trans­lat­ed by Alex­is Moran Trans­la­tions.

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