Hello Reader (s)
After nearly a year of radio silence on this blog - here is another post. The news is that my interest in game design has moved forward into an interest in larp (live action role play), thanks in large part to the Larpwriter Summer School, which I was very fortunate to attend in July this year. The experience of attending LWSS deserves a blog post all on its own - but that will have to wait. At the moment, I am making a larp project with a guy called Duncan Hay called The Lowland Clearances which will be playing at Camden People's Theatre in January, 2016. Like me, Duncan is a newbie in terms of larp experience - but he has written a great article about how his 'Outsider's Perspective' on larp has changed through working on this project...over to you Duncan.
Could larp Change the Face of London?
Ask most people about Live Action Role Play (larp), and if they’ve got anything to say about it, they'll probably mention costumes, rubber swords and people pretending to be elves. Which to be honest, if you’d asked me about it six months ago, is what I would have said too. My impression was that Larp was mostly about escapism and fun, but since I’ve been working with Hobo Theatre on their forthcoming production The Lowland Clearances, part of Camden People’s Theatre’s ‘Whose London is it Anyway?’ festival in early 2016, I’ve learnt that there’s a whole other side to Larp - Nordic Larp - that’s quite different.
There are some big differences between Nordic Larp and the sword-and-sorcery games more familiar to English-speaking audiences. Nordic Larp is primarily about story and character. As a player, you don’t have to worry about Hit Points, Armour Bonuses or defeating an opponent: it’s about working with a group of people to create a compelling, shared narrative experience. And whilst there’s a strong strand of science fiction and fantasy in Nordic Larp, many games are set in real-world settings and explore complex issues. For example, a game such as Lindängens Riksinternat (http://nordiclarp.org/2013/03/11/state-boarding-school-of-lindangen/), explored power dynamics in boarding schools; whilst Brudpris,(http://nordiclarp.org/2015/01/23/brudpris/), a game set in a fictional 19th-century Nordic community, allowed players to investigate how patriarchal societies evolve and sustain themselves.
Nordic Larp designers aim to create experiences that allow players to identify strongly with both the game world and their character’s place within it. This can be as low-tech as the use of simple props or character-building workshops, through to something on the scale of College of Wizardry (https://killscreen.com/articles/i-spent-weekend-castle-poland-doing-harry-potter-larp-and-it-was-awesome/), where a Polish castle became somewhere very similar to the school attended by a certain boy wizard to allow players to indulge their magical fantasies for a full weekend.
Nordic Larp gives people the opportunity to become someone else for a while, be it for a few hours or for a few days. Yet as the range of subjects tackled by Larp designers suggests, one of the most powerful things about it is that it allows people to look at problems or political questions from different perspectives. Our game, The Lowland Clearances, is about housing, and is set in Victorian Somers Town, the area in which Camden People’s Theatre is located. Housing is an extremely pressing question in the UK, and in London in particular. A combination of factors including successive Government policies such as Right to Buy (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right_to_Buy), insufficient house building, and a growing private rental sector have led to a situation where more and more people are finding London too expensive to live in or are being moved to other parts of the country. Yet when we talk about the problem, we often do so from our own perspectives as tenants, landlords, builders, or home owners, and from our own time.
Researching the history of Somers Town brings up uncanny correspondences between the Victorian era and our own. If HS2 goes ahead, large numbers of people, their communities and businesses, will be displaced from the area. Yet this won’t be the first time this has happened: between 1800 and 1890, Somers Town was transformed from countryside to a densely-populated urban landscape, and the building of the stations of Kings Cross, St Pancras and Euston displaced thousands of people. Moreover, the language that characterises so much contemporary discourse about who gets to live where and why - the government’s rhetoric of ‘shirkers and strivers’ surrounding the Bedroom Tax (or ‘Spare Room Subsidy’ as they prefer to call it), for example - is an echo of Victorian talk of the deserving and undeserving poor, resonating across two centuries.
By giving them the opportunity to take on the roles of some of the people who inhabited Victorian Camden - landowners and industrialists, dustmen or costermongers - The Lowland Clearances will help players think about how Somers Town has come to be the way it is. We hope they’ll think about who benefited and who lost out, why decisions got made, and how those decisions still have an influence on the present. Yet more than this, we hope that exploring the past will illuminate the current housing situation in London, and give people new ways of thinking about what sort of future they want for their city and its people.
Hello Reader, is that you?
It is? Okay, on with the blog!
After making some good headway in the summer workshops with Alex I was keen to find another outlet to keep things going and, hey presto, up popped a little commission opportunity being offered by Camden People's Theatre. They were making an open call-out for projects for their 20:20 Vision Festival, a small theatre-fest celebrating the theatre's 20th birthday. The brief asked for project ideas that considered how the world has changed in the last 20 years and how it might change in the next 20, so I pitched an idea called Archipelago, a game about how the world has, arguably, become increasingly inter-connected and also increasingly divided in recent times.
Camden said yes to my pitch (woo-hoo) and offered a small grant to support the project (good egg). Next was to think about how to make something happen and it occurred to me that a) I would need some actors to help me develop the piece and b) I would need a designer to realise something functional but elegant for the game. It then occurred to me that I had wanted to work again with Bern Roche Farrelly, the guy who had made the game-like play, Determine, at The Yard, so I asked Bern if he might be keen to work on Archipelago and he said YES along with a fantastic group of my former East 15 students who conquered their initial bemusement about the fact that I wanted to design a game and put great effort into developing the project.
Following on from the summer workshop plan of starting small, the development of Archipelago started with a board game. The first version of the game involved players on three separate boards (separate islands) trying to gather enough resources to feed and shelter themselves and also educate themselves so that they could make new scientific discoveries! The scientific discovery bit was geared towards the islanders gaining the ability to travel, discover each other's existence, trade and, potentially, go to war with each other. Unfortunately this took such a long time that most players were very happy to just carry on doing their thing on their respective islands. Design fail.
The next iteration was about three islands who already knew about each other and who wanted to outdo each other to be the best in the Archipelago. This got cracking more quickly and was a much better way for the relative values of the resources to come into play. Essentially, the game was become a mix of resource management and diplomacy.
After the board game part, I designed a physically mobile game across a network of 12 rooms, representing the territory of the islands, but this time I added another strand to the game, with 2 superpowers vying for influence over the islanders. The physical dynamism was fun with lots of rushing around to get tasks done alongside the social interactions that the game required but the addition of the superpowers really enriched the whole thing. Basically, once the players had got a handle on the nuts and bolts of how the game worked, the superpowers would arrive and stick a rocket into everything. The main design idea was that the two superpowers were bent on destroying each other, so if an island formed a relationship with one of the big boys, they became a target for the other big dog. Cue - Drama!
All together, I think we did 8 play-tests. 2 on board game versions, 2 on large scale physical versions and 4 on playing the game in a single room (cos we knew this would be the scenario at Camden People's Theatre) but retaining dynamic physical tasks. Working with Bern on the development was great. He wasn't around for that many play-tests but offered feedback on all of the rule-set documents which I sent to him by email like secret service papers. What was amazing was the fact that although the previous project we'd worked together on wasn't a game, he seemed to pick up very quickly what the game terminology referred to and what various tweaks to the design would do to the play experience. The actors were great too. They were very suspicious about the project at first (a game?), but it was very heartening to see them recognise that the social interactions that emerged from play were inherently dramatic.
Moving into the theatre itself, I was pleasantly ignorant of who would be coming. To be honest, I hadn't made a huge effort to promote Archipelago, I was more busy making the thing alongside handling production tasks for The 100 We Are at the Yard. So, it was brilliant to see a good crowd of people I had never met before come in and get stuck into playing it. The majority of the crowd were like rabid animals vying for domination except one set of islanders who decided not to engage with any of the big superpowers and consequently won because neither of the superpowers tried to squeeze them! Peace won! For one of the playings, at least.
We didn't expect any press for the show cos it was a very short run but we got a nice write-up from The Upcoming. More than anything though, it was great that the audience participants actually played the game and got into it, applying themselves with vigour to the task. At the end of it all, the actors provided a good litmus test for how 'dramatically' successful the project had been. They were beaming. They seemed to be totally surprised and delighted that a metrical game had produced so much colourful behavioural interaction. I was delighted too, but not surprised. I knew that a game system could give rise to rich social interaction because we see it every day on the stock market floor and in the fruit market and in the debating chambers of every country. The main thing, for me, was that I had made my first game/drama project and it had WORKED.
Driving home on the last night, with a car full of buckets, paper, cardboard and other game stuff, I felt satisfied. Then, once satisfaction had passed, I was eager for more...!
In the spring this year, another thing happened. I randomly came in touch with an artist/designer called Bern Roche Farrelly who was planning to make a game-like piece of theatre at The Yard. I spoke to Bern and told him about the game design stuff I was doing and he asked if I would help out with his show as a sort of dramaturg. I readily agreed.
His show was called 'Determine' and essentially offered the audience a chance to explore the inside of a character's head and control her actions by 'determining' which of her memories would be played out on stage. It certainly wasn't a game and the extent of meaningful interaction between performers and the audience was limited, but I liked Bern and we agreed that it would be good to work together again at some stage. More on that later...
In the summer, Alex Crampton and I ran a number of workshops over a period of about three weeks - looking at making some game/dramas from scratch. Alex, like me, is a theatre director and, having spoken to her at some length, it seemed that, like me, her previous experiments in interactive drama had often prioritised the story-telling over the 'play' experience of audience/participants. So - when we agreed to do some workshops together I was firmly of the opinion that we should come at it from a game design perspective first and only think about narrative and any sense of 'performance' secondarily. We started by picking a theme, more or less at random: the UK immigration system. We then did a system analysis of UK immigration, looking at the various agents within this system, their attributes and their internal relationships with each other. We then set ourselves the task of independently inventing a series of games based on our preparatory system analysis. The first game was to be a card game, the second was to be a board game, the third was to be a physical game and the fourth was to be a social game involving behavioural interaction. The plan was to play-test these games and give each other feedback on our inventions.
Our card games and board games went well, despite the initial puzzlement of the actor friends who were helping us test them - but they didn't really break any new ground beyond what I'd done in Miami. Things got interesting, though, when we got into the physical and social games. I invented a game called 'Workin Hard to Be Hardly Workin'. This game cast players in the role of immigrants who had to work to earn money, pay for accommodation and take night classes while also keeping the authorities at bay. The basic set up of the game was metrical, with sums of money changing hands to enable characters to pursue their goals but what was interesting were the social dynamics that developed. People formed alliances and built their trust in each other, pooling resources for mutual benefit. It was the first time that I had seen a metrical game system (that I had designed) produce dramatic social behaviour. That felt like an important breakthrough. The other breakthrough was the idea that 'Performers' in a game/drama should not just be there to help the designer/director to tell a story and steer the audience - they should be players themselves. So often in immersive theatre events, the actors are just there to shepherd people around - but I felt that if my actors are to have meaningful interactions with player/participants, they have to be playing the game too. If everyone is playing the game, their interactions will be inherently truthful since they are interacting to facilitate the pursuit of their respective goals. So - two good discoveries: Metrical systems can create social systems + actors should be players alongside the audience/participants.
Meanwhile, I got offered the chance to do some game design work in a corporate context. Create Network, a creative consultancy, asked me to design a game for a group of Network Rail Executives and also to lead a workshop on systems thinking. I designed a game for them which went okay and led them through a system analysis of their area work (the Rail Construction industry). Similar to the workshop with at Theatre Deli at the start of the year, it was great to see that people with no game design knowledge could apply system analysis tools to find a new way of looking at a real world system. The Creative Network guys then asked me to set the participants the task of inventing their own games. I counselled against this but they insisted! As you'd expect, their games didn't really work that well but it was interesting to see them try! More importantly though, I was pleased that I'd been able to get the execs playing as a way of opening their thought process and using game design ideas to think rigorously about the structures and relationships within their industry. So - by the middle of the year I'd done a little big of game design (art) and a little bit of game design (corporate). A decent effort, overall.
Hello Dear Reader,
I've now finished the second part of my Churchill Fellowship project on drama and game design at the University of Miami and I'm a bit embarrassed that its been over a year since I've written anything on this sporadically updated blog about what I've been doing. So here goes: I'll write a few new posts to talk about what has happened since the first visit to Miami in the Autumn of 2013 up until now.
After I got back from Miami in December 2013, I started looking for opportunities that would allow me to use or disseminate what I had learned during the first part of the Fellowship project. The first thing that popped up was a call out from Theatre Delicatessen for proposals for projects for their SPACED 2014 Festival. Essentially, SPACED was a Festival geared towards the making of 'Immersive' theatre projects and in spite of my aversion to the term 'Immersive', I made an application with the plan of designing and running a functioning game/drama for the first time. Hobo's very first production, 'Roundabout' at the Bush Theatre was made for Theatre Delicatessen and, given T-Deli's prior knowledge of Hobo, I thought this Festival would be a perfect place to try out a game idea.
Unfortunately, the application got turned down! Disaster! But - Roland Smith, who runs T-Deli, invited me to come in and run a workshop on applying game design principles in theatre/drama. So I planned the session and it went really well. We started by playing a game, then I talked about the game design process of system analysis, identifying goals for players and providing core mechanics. The most interesting bit, though, was splitting the group up and inviting them to develop an idea for a game based on a real world system. One group had the idea of a game about an A&E Department in which a Doctor has to balance patient welfare alongside waiting time targets and financial limitations. Another group had an idea about Evolution and another group had an idea about a game set in a laundrette! What was interesting to see was that a group of artists from a range of disciplines were able to understand the wordy terminology of game design and apply these terms in thinking about a real world scenario that they'd like to make a game from. Essentially, game speak felt accessible and relevant to the work of theatre makers. Good stuff! Some very nice comments came through on the Twitter after the workshop:
Touchpaper Theatre @TouchpaperT Feb 27
Thanks for a great masterclass @hobotheatre last night @theatredeli - lots of thinking about rules, systems at play today!
Still reflecting on yesterday's Theatre&Gaming masterclass from @hobotheatre. Very inspirational! Asking ourselves lots more questions!
We love games and we love theatre, who knew they had some much in common! Amazing masterclass with Jamie Harper. @hobotheatre @theatredeli
Playing with wires and plugs at @theatredeli and feeling part inspired part daunted by @hobotheatre
Another excellent masterclass @theatredeli today! Interesting and fun insight into gaming/theatre. Thanks Jamie Harper! @hobotheatre
Anyway, that's enough smug self-congratulation from me. A few weeks after the workshop I was at an art gallery seeing the work of a designer friend of mine (you know, visting a gallery, as all ARTISTS do) and I got a tap on the shoulder from a girl called Alex Crampton who had heard about the workshop at Theatre Delicatessen. We talked a lot about games and our frustrations with current interactive or 'immersive' theatre practice and discovered that we had a lot in common. Consequently, we decided to find some time later in the year to do some game design / drama workshops to see if there was any scope for us to work together. More on that later....
In March, Lien emailed to say that she would be in London for a conference and we decided that since she would be in town we might as well do a little series of drama workshops in support of one of her ongoing projects: the Immigrant Youth games we worked on briefly during my first visit to Miami. These workshops involved testing a couple of very simple games and doing improvisation scenarios that might be useful for creating a more narrative focused game on issues pertinent to undocumented minors in the United Sates. Lien told me that one of the big things they're trying to do is get immigrant kids to use their interpreter when they're in court. Often they try to speak directly to court officials and end up not expressing themselves clearly or failing to understand what's being said to them. So - I invented a really basic game called 'What Did He Say?' This game involves standing in a circle with a facilitator in the middle. The facilitator asks someone a random question like 'What's your favourite colour?' The person who is asked the question must turn to the person on their left and ask 'What did he say?' The person on their left with then repeat the question. Then, the player must turn to their right and give their answer. The person on the right then gives the answer to the facilitator. If anyone makes a mistake they get knocked out. Stressful but fun! Its a basic game, but people's natural tendency is to answer the person who asks them a question and it was often hard to let go of this impulse and follow the rules. Lien liked the game as a very simple tool to get kids used to the notion of answering questions through the interpreter process and it has been used successfully by ICAN (Immigrant Children Affirmative Network). I'm still waiting for my royalty cheque. It's probably in the post.
After testing this game, we did two days of creating improvisations on scenarios that are common to the experience of immigrant kids. Things like their desire to go to school versus a feeling of obligation to work for their surrogate family etc. On the second day, we weaved a series of scenarios into a 'twine' narrative in which a single player navigated her way through the story - trying to get to college while negotiating lots of other social and economic pressures. It was good to show Lien how narrative creation work could supplement the design of a game but, sadly, I couldn't go back to Miami again to help carry this work further. Nonetheless, it was good to have done one or two things in the opening months of the year to carry forward the momentum of my first trip to Miami.
Blimey! It's been over two weeks since my last blog post. The last week in Miami went by quickly, then I was travelling and now I'm back in the UK. So, it is high time I set fingers to keyboard to recount the things that happened towards the end of my time in Miami. The 2nd week started off with a play test of my card game 'Rule the School'. As i suspected, the rules were way too complex. The students in Clay's class who volunteered to play were straining every sinew to try to digest all the details as I explained the game and, in the end, I abandoned some of the rules to keep things simple. The play test went okay, I thought. The game worked pretty well and the players seemed to get into it. There were some good learning points, though. If players ended up with a bunch of useless cards (its no good having diamonds (science cards) if the class you're in is arts (heart cards)) they got frustrated - so it would be good to have some way that they could swap cards or ditch some of them. They also thought the scoring system should've been simpler. What was good to see, however, was that the game generated some discussion on the pros and cons of being a good student as opposed to a rebel or bully. Some of the players thought it wasn't 'fair' for the mean kids to do well by cheating and bullying but some commented that life in school is often distinctly unfair.
I had hoped that later in the week I would be able to do an improvisation workshop with some University of Miami acting students but unfortunately the Head of the Theatre School couldn't find a way to free the actors from their regular schedule at such short notice. This was a real shame for me and Lien as we had hoped to use the session to look at the possibilities of weaving narrative and games together, with a specific focus on her Immigration project. But - it wasn't to be. Instead, I decided to work on a 'twine' game based on some immigration research. A twine is basically a text based digital game in which the player navigates their way through a narrative, making choices about what they want to do next (very much like a Choose Your Own Adventure style book). The first thing I needed was some story material and I found a great piece called Enrique's Journey, a Pulitzer Prize winning book about a boy who travels from Honduras through Guatemala and Mexico to try to enter the United States and find his Mother. It was a brilliant but harrowing story. Enrique and all the others heading north have to avoid many hazards on the way. There are immigration authorities (La Migra), corrupt Police and brutal gangs to contend with, not to mention the dangers of riding freight trains and basic problems of food, water etc.
Having read and digested the story, I started picking out the parts of it that could be written as story 'units' with choices for the player to make in each unit. These units were then sketched out on post-it notes and laid out on the floor to form a rough structure. As I started doing this work, I was constantly tempted to create binary choices that would lead to alternative outcomes. The problem with this type of structure is that you very quickly start having to write myriad stories to account for an A or B choice at every stage. The theory that I wanted to try to explore was to make a relatively linear story in which the choices you make don't necessarily alter the 'destination' of where you go next but DO alter the 'way' in which you go there. Hmmm, that wasn't very clear - let's try again. The choices you make don't affect your destination 'quantitatively' but they do affect your journey 'qualitatively'. For example, Enrique will decide to ride the trains through Mexico to the U.S. and the player's choices cannot 'quantitatively' affect this destination. However, the choices made about how to say goodbye to members of his family, for example, will affect the 'qualitative' state in which he begins the journey (if he says a sweet goodbye, he may be given money, if he decides not to talk to his family about it he may go off feeling guilty about abandoning his loved ones etc. etc.)
By Wednesday of the 2nd week, I realised that the design process I had started was VERY complicated and that I couldn't conceivably finish a first draft of the twine before I would have to leave. The 'qualitative' approach can be done through the twine programme but it requires a bit of coding ability which I have yet to master! The other thing about twine that I don't like is that its based on 'choice' and in life we're rarely given 'choices' like 'Hey Jamie, do you want to do A or B?' Most of the time we try to get what we want and either succeed, fail or change our minds and try to get something else. Essentially, the twine structure is not that realistic but its a good tool for looking at building interactive narratives so I'll keep working on the Enrique's Journey twine game.
On Thursday, we did another play test. This time it was Lien's 'Cops and Rubbers' a game about sex workers making choices about their sexual health while trying to avoid corrupt police. The game is largely based on the Condoms as Evidence policy which posits that possession of condoms is evidence that a person may be engaged in prostitution. It was pretty shocking to hear this! You start the game with a character identity (you are a sex worker) and you have 2 objectives: Make a certain amount of money to help you make your life better (enrol in education etc) AND keep yourself safe from sexually transmitted diseases. To help keep you safe, there are kindly folk who give out condoms but if the cops catch you with one you get penalised (a night in jail, for example) AND you have to decide whether or not to have unprotected sex with clients. I was super careful and never had unprotected sex but it meant that I didn't make any money for my education course. It was a good game and certainly an eye-opener but I wanted some kind of reward for making 'good' decisions and I felt that there should have been some cops who weren't total scumbags!
On the final day, I met up with Lauren Gutman from ICAN (Immigrant Children Affirmative Network) and we went to a special Thanksgiving session with about 50 UUIM (Unaccompanied Undocumented Immigrant Minor) kids. They were doing a class about the Mayflower and it really struck me how strange but also fitting it was for these kids to be learning about people who did the exact same thing as them 400 years ago. The pilgrims made a hazardous journey across the ocean to reach America and many of these kids (mostly boys) made a hazardous journey across the railroads of Mexico. Lauren brought a group of about 15 boys outside onto a grassy area and we played one of my 'classic' games: 'Speedball' (unfortunate title). This game involves passing a ball around so that everyone in the group touches it and the aim is to make this happen in the shortest time possible. Lauren translated into Spanish for me but pretty soon I felt we were basically communicating with gestures and, as the boys took ownership of the game, I stepped back and let them work out how they could improve their time. Some boys were confident, some were more quiet but they all played and each time they made a quicker time they applauded which was cool. In the debrief afterwards they reflected on the game and how it related to other things. One boy talked about how you sometimes don't try to do something because you decide in advance that it won't work. One boy said that the game felt important. I asked him why and he said 'Because we had a goal'. I've played this game with middle class drama students in the UK, boys with 'challenging' behaviour in New Hampshire and now a group of teenage immigrants from Central America. Everyone liked playing it. After spending the week working on the twine game based on Enrique's Journey, the visit to ICAN felt like a very fitting way to finish the time in Miami and I really hope I can come back and work with them again.
Thanks for reading...
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!
Hello Dear Reader,
Welcome to my first Hobo Games Blog. Let me try to explain what this blog is all about. Earlier this year, I was awarded a Winston Churchill Trust Traveling Fellowship to do a research project on Serious Game Design and this blog is intended to describe the things I learn on my travels. Now, whenever I tell people about this Game Design project they're always slightly confused. I can see them thinking 'But you're a theatre director...what has theatre got to do with game design?' Well, one of my aims in this blog is to show that games and drama are actually pretty similar. Both take place within a physical context (a football pitch or a stage, for example) and both involve players or characters overcoming obstacles and pursuing goals.
But before going any further into what the Fellowship project is about, I want to give a bit more background on how I've ended up on the GO square of the Monopoly board. I come from a fairly traditional theatre background. I trained as a director at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) and I started out doing plays, you know, with a script. Then in 2007 when I was working at the National Theatre Studio I decided to try my hand at making improvised plays where there is a narrative structure but NO script. A couple of years later I was doing a production of one of these non-scripted plays and a guy called Andy Pawlby came to see it. Andy runs a company called London Quest who specialise in interactive experiences and he asked me if I wanted to make a play where the audience interact with the characters in the story. I said 'yes' and we made an interactive show called Beyond the Pale at Southwark Playhouse.
When we started working together, the first thing I said was that if there was to be meaningful interaction between the audience and characters, the audience members would have to have OBJECTIVES to pursue in the same way that characters pursue OBJECTIVES in traditional plays. Essentially, this makes people 'participants' or active 'players' in the action rather than passive observers. Many of you will have gone to shows by companies like Punchdrunk, Shunt or Secret Cinema that create immersive experiences that seem to offer a bit of 'interactivity' but most shows that claim to be interactive aren't really interactive in a meaningful sense. You might be able to have a wee chat with an actor but do your words or actions have a quantifiable outcome? Usually not.
I should say that this criticism of half-baked interactivity is a criticism I would also apply to myself. In my work with London Quest, we struggled to develop narrative structures with enough flexibility to allow participants to truly affect outcomes and at times I asked myself 'Is interactivity really necessary? Is it important? And if so, why?' The answer I found to these questions took me back to my very first job out of University. I worked for a youth organisation called The Mayhew Program in New Hampshire in the U.S. and one of the main things we did was play games with the kids (think team-building style games). This game play made a huge impact on me because I could see the children learning a huge amount about themselves specifically because they weren't being told what to think; rather, by choosing their own actions and seeing tangible outcomes, they formed meaningful conclusions about how to live with each other. Connecting this back to interactive drama, I'm excited by the prospect of participants finding their own sense of meaning by being able to take action within a story and see the outcome of that action.
So I knew that I wanted to make interactive drama that had the narrative richness of a great play but also the flexibility of a great game. But how to make it happen? By chance, a guy called Ben Mason (who runs a company called The Tom Sawyer Effect) invited me to a conference called Digital Shoreditch where lots of boffins meet to talk about games. Most of them were talking about digital games but there was a guy called Clay Ewing running a workshop on designing Serious Games for non-profit organisations and some of his games were non-digital! As a theatre director, face to face contact with other human beings is pretty important for me, so it was great to meet someone who valued games that take place in real world locations, but above all, he was making games about big serious stuff: the U.S. healthcare system, dengue fever, HIV in Uganda... When you think 'games' you often think of frivolous things that are just for fun, but these were some serious topics. Hence the term 'Serious Games'. I was impressed. And excited.
About 20 odd years ago, my sister (who is a textile artist) was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to study weaving techniques in Croatia and my Mum was always saying to me: 'Why don't YOU apply for a Churchill Fellowship? Think of what you'd really like to do'. Well, now I had something I really wanted to do. I asked Clay if he would support me in the event that I received a Fellowship. He very kindly said yes and the Churchill Trust very kindly said yes too.
So what am i actually going to do? Well, in November this year, I'll be traveling to the U.S. to work with Clay and his wife Lien (who is also a game designer) at the University of Miami where they both teach. I'll be looking initially at the fundamental structural building blocks of games, then at some point next year I'll pay Clay and Lien a second visit to work on the practical play-testing of a 'yet-to-be-determined' game. I'm really looking forward to starting my Fellowship project and I hope this blog will be of interest to other curious folk who are working at the intersection of games and drama. I've just finished reading the epic 'Rules of Play' by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. This book is described as 'The Bible' of game design and that will be the subject of my next blog entry.