Having conducted my 'system analysis' of a 4 lane highway, Clay set me another challenge: This time to design an actual functioning game, rather than just coming up with an idea for one. Whenever he sets this task for students, he always imposes certain constraints that limit the physical materials that can be used and, in my case, we agreed that I should design a game using a deck of cards. So i set to work by asking myself what I might make the game about. Clay and I had been discussing students' fixation with academic results and earning 'extra credit' and I'd been thinking about an idea for a game/drama about school, so I decided to make a game on this theme.
In the same way that I had done a system analysis of a highway, looking at the objects it contains (vehicles), their attributes (slow/fast etc), their objectives (get from A to B) and their relationships with each other (steer clear of crashes and cops!) - I thought about the constituent parts of a school system. Obviously, 'school' is a massive subject that could comprise parents, politicians, teachers as well as students, but I decided to keep it relatively simple and look at teachers and students. The conventional goal of students is to do well in their classes to earn academic attainment, but there is also the possibility of doing well in sports and other extra-curricular activities, not to mention the social question of popularity, being cool or uncool, being a bully or a loner.
After looking at the parts within a simple school system, I had a look at the deck of cards to see how the various aspects of the school could be represented. The deck has four suits, so I broke this down into 4 subject areas (Arts, Science, Sport and Social Period - represented by Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs and Spades). The school day is measured by 10 classes represented by 10 cards lying face down in a row. The first one is turned over and that's the first class of the day. Let's imagine its the 6 of Hearts - that means its Arts class. Players score points if they can play a heart card. If they can't play a heart, they get a penalty for non-completion of the assignment. They can also score 'popularity' points by playing a spade which means they 'rebel' against the class, or steal someone else's work by playing a card of the same number of a previous player. Last but not least, players can 'bully' someone else by playing a spade of higher value than the card their victim has played. I could go on explaining the minute detail of the rules, but you get the idea. Basically, I wanted to create a system where players could achieve positive things for themselves, but also act destructively towards other players who gain too much of an advantage. There's also a 'Teacher's Pet' penalty for players who do 'too well' in their classes which, I think, reflects a real phenomenon that talented students often face if they're seen to outshine their classmates.
It was good to take the 'system analysis' process forward into the design of an actual game and the next step will be to test it. I suspect that the game I've made will be a bit too complicated and will need simplification, but Clay and Lien have both said that its good to try out a flawed prototype early, then made adjustments and continue iterating.
Yesterday, we play tested another of Lien's games, 'Make a Move' which is a serious game about immigrant youth in the United States and the choices they can make to help them stay in the country legally. We tested the game with staff from the Immigrant Children's Affirmative Network (ICAN) who work directly with young people who are being 'processed' by the authorities after gaining illegal entry to the U.S. They are keen to use the game to educate these children about their options and, in addition, to looking at the formal properties of the game, it was really good to look at a piece of work that can potentially have a direct and beneficial impact on some very vulnerable young people.
We also discussed the possibility of doing some Forum Theatre and/or drama games as a way for these kids to tell their story and explore their aspirations for the future. I'm hoping that next week we'll be able to organise a workshop with some Acting students at the University of Miami to show Lien and her colleagues from ICAN how improvisation games can work as a means of exploring a problem or as a means of developing narratives. The extent to which this work will integrate drama with game design is unclear but I'm excited at the prospect of making a contribution to the project, even if its a small one. They're having a Thanksgiving event at the Immigrant Youth Hostel next Friday and I'll be going along to play a game or two with the kids. Hopefully, it'll be a good way to conclude this visit to Miami.
Thanks for reading...
So I've been in Miami for 3 days and plenty has happened. I'm wearing flip-flops, my accent has taken a decidedly American tilt and I'm ending most sentances with - you know? right? Just kidding. I'm not turning into Paris Hilton. Joking aside there's been a good deal for me to chew on as I take my first steps into the world of interactive design. On Monday, I attended Clay's class which was looking at the design components of Pong! the classic arcade game. Clearly, I'm not a coder and never will be, but when looking at the basic 'objects' that Pong is made of (a ball, two paddles, two walls off which the ball can bounce and two walls which represent 'goals' for each player) I got a practical introduction to looking at games as 'systems'. Later in the class, after Pong had been built and played, Clay was talking about mini-projects the students could take for 'extra credit' and one of them was to describe a real world system (the Catholic Church, for example) and try to imagine how that system could become a game.
I thought this sounded interesting so decided to do the project myself. At first I thought about trying to describe school as a system (I have an idea for making a drama/game about school) but it seemed like this might be too complex to start with, so I opted for one of Clay's recommendations, a highway system. So I started to describe how a highway works. It contains 'objects' like cars, motorbikes, trucks and police vehicles and all these objects have internal relationships with each other. The cars want to get from A to B quickly but they have to be careful not to bump into each other and they have to avoid going too fast or the cops will pull them over. From this 'system analysis' the idea for a road game started to form. Basically, players choose a vehicle - either a car, motorbike or a truck and try to get from point A to point B faster than the other players. Motorbikes go fast and move easily through traffic but they're more susceptible to fatal crashes. On the other extreme, trucks are slow and clunky but they're solid and you're less likely to die when driving one. These variables combine to form a complex system of checks and balances that inhibit players from driving easily off into the sunset. They want to go into the fast lane but that puts them at risk of being stopped by police. They want to weave through traffic to avoid getting held up but that risks crashes. They might want to go slow to keep safe but that puts them at risk of falling behind. Essentially, this is structure is exactly the same as the balance in drama between a character's objective and the obstacles that hold them back from pursuing it.
Definitely a fun and challenging exercise to go through. I'm still waiting for Clay's feedback though so I'm in no position to congratulate myself! In addition to looking at systems, we looked at some 'twines' which are essentially 'choose your own adventure' style text games and in Lien's class the following day I gave a talk about the building blocks of drama. It was nice to offer something to the students as well as absorbing things from their work. I talked about the basic concepts of 'given circumstances' (the contextual details that are the foundation of dramatic scenarios). These are 'Where is the action happening?' 'When is it happening?' 'Who are the characters involved?' Beyond given circumstances i talked about OBJECTIVES and OBSTACLES (the things that we WANT and the things that hold us back). I then talked a bit about Augusto Boal's Forum Theatre. It amazed me that practitioners in Interactive Media had never heard of him and for those of you who don't know him either, he was a Brazilian theatre practitioner who enabled the audience to be active participants in dramatic scenarios rather than passive recipients. So I talked about Boal's work and his desire to democratise the process of making a theatrical moment and this seemed to generate a bit of spark in the students, opening up a consideration of why interactivity is important. There seemed to be a general agreement that interactive design can be useful as a way of enabling people to pursue the things they want rather than being told by someone else what they need.
Its probably time to bring this conflab back to DRAMA. Today we play-tested a board game designed by Lien called Vanity which is about actors trying to get lots of big parts on TV. The downside for the actors is that in order to get parts they have to have sexy tanned skin and in order to get tanned skin they run the risk of getting skin cancer. So this is a serious game about skin cancer. But in the playing of the game - your focus as a player isn't on cancer, its on being a star! I made the point that the focus of the game was too much on the OBSTACLE of health risk and not enough on the OBJECTIVE of being famous. This experience of playing Lien's game not only helped me understand the mechanics of how a game system is structured and how a narrative context gives flavour to the game, it also reconfirmed my understanding of how core dramaturgical principles of Objectives and Obstacles are fundamental to the design of games in the same way that they're fundamental to drama. Every time is see the connection between dramatic concepts and game concepts, I get more confident about what I can do to combine the best of both worlds.
I arrived in Miami last night and, after a fairly tortuous two and a half hours getting through passport control, I made my way into town to the apartment of my gracious hosts, Clay and Lien. Now, after a good night of sleep I thought I should make another blog post to get my thoughts in order before the working week begins tomorrow.
In the last blog post, i talked about the idea that narrative in a game can 'emerge' from the actions of players and this concept of EMERGENCE is one of the central concerns of Salen and Zimmerman's book 'Rules of Play'. S&Z argue that good games are 'complex' systems that either contain a large number of interconneced elements or a small number of elements that relate to each other in many intricate ways. 'Complexity' ensures that there is a large 'space of possibility' within the game system, enabling meaningful play for participants. 'Emergence' occurs when a game generates unpredictible patterns of complex activity. Essentially, this means that players have enough freedom to do unexpected things within the rules of the game to create patterns of play that could not be predicted.
Tied into this concept of 'emergence' is the notion of 'uncertainty'. It may sound obvious but uncertainty is a vital aspect of what makes games compelling. If the outcome of a game is pre-determined the actions of players cannot constitute 'meaningful play'. The uncertainty of the outcome means that players actions have a decisive impact on what happens next. If a good game has 'emergent uncertainty' how can game designers work to design emergent behaviour in players? The truth is that they can't! S&Z argue that Designers can only indirectly design player experience. They create a system of inter-related parts, a set of rules and goals to pursue but they can't predict how people will engage with this system. However, they do say that good design involves trying to anticipate how the formal system of a game can function as an experiential system. A big part of this involves thinking about 'core mechanics'.The core mechanic is the thing which players DO to exert influence on the game. Essentially, game mechanics are the 'levers' which players can pull to make things happen (like the racket in a game of tennis). Game mechanics don't have to be singular though. Players can combine more than one 'lever' of influence to make things happen (like a cricket captain who puts on his fastest bowler AND puts a fielder right next to the batsman to create additional terror). By providing a range of game mechanics that allow players a number of ways to affect the game, the chances of creating emergent complexity are increased.
Continuing with the 'lever' metaphor, forms of leverage always involve conflicting forces. A lever that pulls an object off the ground is always working against gravity and a tennis racket lever is always working against the racket that is being wielded on the other side of the net. So we're talking about 'conflict'. Again it may seem obvious to talk about conflict as a fundamental aspect of games, but Rules of Play is a book about game design fundamentals so...its worth stating that conflict either with the system of the game (beat the computer) or other players within it is an essential component of what makes a game a game.
Anyhow, its becoming traditional at around this point in these blog posts for me to relate some of these game design concepts back to dramatic concepts. Conflict is an easy one to start with. In dramatic narratives a protagonist is always in conflict with something or someone. The climber scaling Everest is in conflict with nature (like the game system) while the two lovers trying to score points against each other are conflicting players in the game of love. Uncertainty is also and important aspect of most dramatic stories: we're compelled to follow the action to find out what happens next. Unlike the uncertainty of a game, however, most dramatic narratives have pre-determined outcomes that only appear uncertain as the are unfolding. The challenge for bringing narrative into a game system that has 'emergent uncertainty' is how to create a good story that has some structure without having so much structure that the 'space of possibility' is reduced and meaningful play is limited.
Salen and Zimmermen draw a distinction between two forms of narrative in games: 'embedded' narrative and 'emergent' narrative. Embedded narrative is pre-determined storytelling while emergent narrative is the story that emerges from player actions. I have thought quite a bit about these two types of narrative and how to combine the two - so here are some initial musings on how this might be conceived.
Emergent narrative is formed by the moment by moment decisions that players make within the game. There are so many possible actions that this cannot be pre-determined or pre-scripted. This could also be described as 'micro-narrative'.
Embedded narrative provides a story context for the game and as players move through the game, further installments of embedded narrative are needed to keep players aware of the larger story world within which they are playing. This could also be described as 'macro-narrative'.
Think for a moment about 'Big Brother' - the TV show not Orwell's novel. Big Brother is a game in which players compete for a cash prize by pursuing public support and avoiding being disliked by their housemates. Emergent 'micro-narratives' evolve in this game system through the day-to-day interactions of players. The designers of the game have very little control of this. However, embedded 'macro-narratives' are also implanted by the designers at various points (ie - half the house-mates are forced to live in a separate house, or one house-mate is chosen to spy on others).
Leaving aside subjective views on how good or bad Big Brother is, this combination of emergent micro narrative and embedded macro narrative seems interesting to me. As a dramatist, i'm interested in stories that have some degree of structure but as a fledgling game designer I want to facilitate emergent play. By figuring out a way for emergent micro-narratives to have an integrated impact on embedded macro-narratives, there is scope for achieving a happy medium.
Thanks for reading!
In preparation for my trip to Miami, Clay Ewing recommended that I should read 'Rules of Play' by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. He described it as the 'Bible' of game design and, at over 600 pages, it certainly is a fairly epic tome!
Having said that, its certainly been a useful read to give me a foundation in some of the core concepts of game design and I'm going to attempt to regurgitate some of the things that seemed most useful. As much as anything else, the process of writing about the book is an interesting test of how well I've understood it so I have to warn you, dear reader, that this blog entry may sound more like me 'working stuff out' than presenting a lucid thread of thoughts!
Perhaps the best place to start is with Salen & Zimmerman's definition of a 'game': "A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict defined by rules that results in a quantifiable outcome."
There's obviously loads to chew on in that definition but let's begin with 'system'. Basically S&Z describe games as systems in that there are a set of parts that inter-relate to form a complex whole. Think of a basic game like Rock, Paper, Scissors. Within this game, the three objects are the 'parts' and they have specific relationships with each other that make up a larger game system. This game system is not naturally occurring in nature, it is a 'designed' construct that's been invented by a person or group of people. The term 'design' is full of ambiguity but for S&Z, a game designer creates a context for play by creating a GOAL for players to pursue and set of RULES that limit what they can do in pursuit of their goal.
So the game designer creates a system of inter-related parts, a goal to pursue and RULES. Now its time for the players to do their thing. S&Z talk a lot about this moment when a player crosses the boundary between the 'real' world and the 'artificial' space of the game, using the term 'Magic Circle' to describe the literal or metaphorical space within which the game takes place. On entering the 'Magic Circle' players voluntarily accept that they are entering a space that has a unique set of rules. This acceptance of rules that limit player action is called the 'lusory attitude'. The lusory attitude basically means - voluntarily accepting limitations on what you can do because its more fun to do so. For example, a child playing a skipping race accepts the rule of skipping over her rope from start to finish, even though it would be more efficient to drop the rope and run. Why does she skip? Because under the 'lusory attitude' its more fun to encounter the challenges that the RULES provide.
So a player has entered the Magic Circle that the game designer has constructed. They've got their goal and they accept the rules. The next thing is to take ACTION in pursuit of the objective. This brings me onto the very first 'core concept' in S&Z's book: 'Meaningful Play'. They define meaningful play within a game system as ACTIONS that produce OUTCOMES that are clearly 'discernible' and 'integrated'. What this means is that, in order for game play to be 'meaningful' the player has to see the outcome of his action (discernible) and this outcome has to have some kind of knock on effect on the overall game system (intergrated). This idea of 'meaningful play' links closely into 'interactivity' which is such a hot topic of debate in a theatrical context. As I said in the last blog, most interactivity in drama is not 'meaningful' because even if your action as a participant creates a short term outcome, its rare to have a sense of that outcome being 'integrated' within the larger system of the drama.
The challenge for me as a fledgling game designer/dramatist is to create game/drama systems of GOALS and RULES which promote meaningful play by ensuring that player actions can have discernible micro outcomes, moment by moment, but also contribute to macro outcomes within the larger game structure. This is a huge challenge.....I'll say it again.....this is a huge challenge. Salen and Zimmerman describe the range of possible actions and outcomes within a game as the 'Space of Possibility'. As a dramatist, the idea of creating a conventional story structure with all of the flexibility of the 'space of possibility' of games seems pretty much impossible. So this project is challenging me to re-think the ways in which narrative can be constructed, moving away from singular 'authorship' to a more free flowing sense of narrative 'emerging' from the actions/outcomes of players.
Wow, its not easy trying to conflate hundreds of pages into a short and pithy blog. I hope what I've written makes some kind of sense!
Thanks for reading!