Hubbub has gone into hibernation.

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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