Herewith my first day attending Wonderlab, a summer-school for the ludocracy run by Hide And Seek, the ambitious game design studio in London. About ten of us, and not entirely male (thank god), are occupying one of the elegant Regency rooms upstairs at the ICA (which I've besmirched in various forms, as both speaker and heckler, for about 20 years now).
I'm reunited with my bohemian doppleganger Momus/Nick Currie – who sports a most excellent pair of cloven-hooved sneakers – and I'm meeting a range of fluent players and gamesters from the worlds of computer games, design, theatre, dance, academia and performance/improv. Hide And Seek have just been swarming over the South Bank with their Weekender festival, providing a “chaotic but supported” experience; we're here to use that as a springboard to think critically about how playspaces like this can be sustained, scaled up and propagated.
First time I've ever heard the phrase “interactive work” as a general term for all this stuff - and not sure about it either. But glad to hear H&S's Alex Fleetwood asking us to think about how to design institutions/institutes that can make the “niche” of gameplay become a mass, even a “revolutionary” phenomenon.
There'll be videos of our presentations up soon. But I'm fascinated straightaway that four of the opening presentations (including my own) head straight for that nexus between evolution, consciousness and play I've been ever more obsessed with in recent years. It's a busy and contested crossroads, though...
We hear a story from Margaret Robertson about toxoplasma gondii, a virus that survives by changing the chemistry of mice so they're friendlier towards cats (and thus more easily consumable), then takes up residence in the lower feline intestine, and eventually comes out into the world of our speaker's back garden as cat shit. It turns out that gondii has the same effect on humans – and so the question is, does she love the cat because of empathy, or because she's been infected?
We're asked to compare this with games-making – where one little technique, like one little virus, can change a game experience quite radically. “So how do we make things/games that change the way people behave?” concluded Margaret. Hmm. “Behaviour change” is not a happy phrase in my mental mansion at the moment – too reminiscent of the “nudge” philosophy of the behavioural economists and marketeers, and so beloved of Cameron's New Tories, which literally assumes that the fatally impatient “Homer Simpson” is the default model of human nature. (Though I'm glad to see there's some debate beginning about the political usage of these sources).
Could we make games that, for example, brighten our understanding of the complex systems that make up our world - rather than ones that presume we're a collection of psychological mouse-traps waiting to be sprung by magisterial game designers (or Coalition ministers)? I'm guessing Margaret knows about neuropsychology beyond the "choice architects" of nudge-thinking - for example, neural plasticity - when she argues for "responsiblity" in games-making: "the many hours being put in by gamers will change their brains". At least this presumes some kind of dynamism about our neurological response to gaming, rather than just the accessing of our inner schlub.
I was much more in tune with voice artist Melanie Wilson's account of an installation which uses nesting birds to trigger faltering, Morricone-like soundtracks, or Momus's paen to the ambivalence and ambiguity of play, its equal potential for liberation or the subtlest of oppressions. I'm a wee bit anxious (maybe over-anxious) to communicate to the contingent of gamers here that play ≠ game. That is, games are a subset of play – and play is a wide and broad spectrum of realities-taken-lightly (everything from rock'n'roll to social carnival to superstitious gambling to religious creation myths to jokes-and-gibberish), that aim to mimic or mock the stresses and strains of survival. Contestive, rule-bound games are only ONE of the ways that play's “adaptive potentiation” (Brian Sutton-Smith) can express itself.
I guess I've been through too much discussion recently – particularly the Internet as Playground and Factor conference in New York – where alarm-bells have been rung about the “interpassivity” of much computer game-play. And particularly about the semi-addictive “playbour” that can be so easily extracted from those playing social network games like Farmville on Facebook, or the endless participative toil demanding by online worlds like World of Warcraft.
Jesse Schell's now infamous speech at the DICE convention earlier this year lamented that game-makers who wanted to make money should stop idealistically trying to “find the fun in clever game ideas”, and start “brainstorming about new psychological locks and keys” like those found in social network games like Webkinz, Club Penguin and Mafia Wars, making millions through the adroit offering of “external rewards”. Schell's closing dystopian view of a thoroughly game-pervaded, endlessly-point-scoring world is almost Orwellian in its satirical and cautionary power. And we haven't even gotten to the military-ludological complex yet...
So right now, apart from a few honourable and predictable exceptions, I need some audacious hope about computer-games-as-culture – some encouragement that the art-form will be heading out of its early-printing-press stage of penny-dreadfulness sometime soon. Luckily the rest of Wonderlab's first day was an impressive and mind-opening training seminar in the elementals of games-making.
After some excellent word and chair parlour games, we were set up by Alex to play two rounds of Peter Guber's game Nomic, a game where changing the rules is the point of the game. Half way through this rather beautiful experience – where I ended up under the gaming table with a New York academic lady playing the part of Robert De Niro, asking me for good ideas about how to embarrass the other players – I realised that out of this piling-up of rule upon rule (some petty and some profound, some logical and some shameful) we were actually composing our own mini-civilisation. (Guber is a philosopher of government and legislation, and created Nomic (from the Greek for “law”) to explore some of the procedures of law-making).
I've no doubt we were exhibiting, and in some cases even trying to apply, some of those “psychological locks and keys” that make up a potentially profit-making game in the early 10's. But I've never experienced a mainstream digital game world that has remotely the same openness and flexibility as Nomic (though I see from Wikipedia that it is a staple of an earlier era of text-based online gaming). And to be desperately analog and fleshy about it – a dimension of play which Hide And Seek completely understands – there was an embodied, performative and (certainly in this heat) perspirational “reality” to this game. I'd be intrigued to think about – and who knows, maybe build - the digital correlate to this uproarious experience in a room.
More presentations from some extremely sharp people tomorrow. And I'm hoping that the opening plea for some “critical thinking” about the future for gaming can fuse with some of the richly playful souls in this process – and maybe some new games, rather than just critiques, might be the result. Let's see.