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Slides and notes for ‘Fevered’ at Mob Fest: Thinking Mobile

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.

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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.

Nordic LARPs

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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.

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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.

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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.

Simulation fever

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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.

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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.


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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.

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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.

Public Space

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

  1. Michiel de Lange mod­er­at­ed the event. []
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