Last day of Wonderlab, but more than a few of us are feeling like it's mid-week at summercamp. Particularly since we are given the starting injunction that “now we're on a deadline, with an important audience coming in later on, and we have to produce an original game by 6pm”. Phrases like “invisible prototyping” and “games that embody their challenge in the rule set” are flying around, even before coffee and buns are properly ingested.
I'm trying to locate that strange tension in my neck, and then it clicks: school sports day, third in the relay team, shitting it that the baton won't slip from my sweaty fingers at the last. Sometimes in this space, the distinction between play and games feels very clear indeed.
Before we split up into two games-making teams, who will magically morph their ideas into one clear platform after lunch, we hear a presentation from Mark Earls (click on name for video of presentation), who wants to talk to us about the importance of copying in culture, beginning with the Oscar Wilde quip, “most lives are quotations from the lives of others”. Mark's work is lauded and admirable, and he's had many nice things to say about my stuff on play in the past.
But I have to confess: I've always had a problem with a busy and active advertising man telling me, from a range of psychological and behavioural findings, that my sense of unique selfhood is an illusion, and that I am much likelier to shape my behaviour by copying others than by proceeding from my own cognition or reflection. Doesn't that mean marketing just shifts its focus from the individual's identity to the conversation they're involved in – a subtler field, but surely just as (maybe even more) determinable than older appeals to class, gender or region?
Citing his work with a very ubiquitous family food brand (who shall remain nameless), Mark says that the brand's meaning now belongs to the consumers – the company's job is now to host and enable their conversations, rather than weld consumer desire to produced object. But this raises again the whole question of how much power resides in the hands of the “referees of social games”. The softer and less coercive capitalism gets, the more it tries to engage consumers through hosting games and discourse, the more it diffuses itself into every corner of our interior and exterior lives. Thus, again, Jesse Schell's nightmare vision.
It felt like a purifying, light-hearted act of play to then sit down and learn some nerdy card games. This was training for our closing act of game-making, where our main prop was a pack of blank playing cards, ready to be inscribed as tokens in our rule-sets. With others, I got lost in a very abstract game called Set – very similar to the 'Snap'/Twist games I play with my daughter regularly. As I've been wanting to reduce my anxiety about performance-in-competition throughout these days, I found myself adhering to one single internal strategy – pick a winning set of cards that are as different from each other as possible – and judged myself internally as to how well I was doing, than bothering in any way about victory over others.
Many of the other games were ingenious, and sometimes beautiful: Labyrinth, through a very simple arrangement of tokens, made the path of the game itself morph and change; Lost Cities wove a flickbook narrative across its gaming cards; Lightspeed turned cards randomly scattered onto a table into an almost 3D-action space. But my own abiding motivation for playing is to use the game as a pretext for finding out the depths (maybe also the shallows) of my fellow players. For me, the contestation enables the wider, broader sociability.
So we split off into our two groups, and our group was guided by one participant's declaration that “we should remember we're making a game for London media wankers – like us!” Thus followed much discussion about Neil Strauss's seduction manual The Game. What rules and scenarios could we devise to subvert the stylish sovereignty of the thoroughly capable and self-possessed people coming through the door tonight? Battering together something along these lines, we met up with the other group and delightfully discovered that (no doubt under the guiding intent of that old Marxist Momus) they had come up with a partnering game, under the rule of love and attraction, in which nobody really wins. Our task in an hour was to try and fuse these two games together – one aiming to dent the arrogance of those media selves in a Regency room, the other aiming at the fusion of souls based on part luck, part flirting, part real empathy.
Coupling and De-Coupling Up
Under Margaret Robinson's guiding hand, we managed it. We called the game "Couple Up". And it was, first of all, utterly specific to the space itself: two large rooms, an adjoining passageway which controlled access to each. It was also specific to the event: a group of people whose relationship varied from friendship to acquaintance to being strangers, coming to witness the result of a gaming process. The first move was to herd them into one bare empty room: the other room - roped off - was visibly full of wine, chairs and nibbles. The room of plenty - called, with crushing crudity, the "Upper Club" - was protected by a Maitre' D (Momus in a pink Post-it bowtie). Then two cards were given to each of the players – one card from a number set of 1-4, another a “fortune” card which described a personality trait or behaviour.
Armed with these cards, the attendees had to “couple up”. First numerically (their cards must add up to five), and then in terms of character traits: you asked a potential “coupler” questions based on the personality trait on your card (eg, likes coffee/hates Arsenal/indifferent to Lady Gaga, etc). But the game constraint was that you could not use any of the words underlined on the card (eg, coffee, Arsenal, Lady Gaga, etc).
Once you had gone through that bit of social fun and forged yourselves as “couples” (all mixes of ages and genders permitted), you were able to march up to the Maitre'd and ask for permission to the “Upper Club”. And then the exclusions kicked in. For our Maitre'd had a secret rule for turning couples away from the Upper Club, denying them access to the revelry. This was decided by observing the guests gathering, and picking out some obvious regularities in their sartori (eg, either or both had to wear glasses, or have their sleeves rolled up). And as couple after couple presented themselves and were rebuffed, the challenge for them was to deduce what arrangement of themselves would allow them to make the cut.
How did it play out in practice? Well, Momus could not have been a more gracious and polite Maitre'd (I was posted as his Coatbridge muscle, ready to repel any game-trashers). But I certainly saw him wilt under the burden of his authority, and let some couples through who decidedly did not fit the criteria. And while some couples enjoyed figuring out the door-entry policy, one or two at the end were getting visibly frustrated and annoyed at not being able to guess the hidden rule (we let them in before tempers began to escalate).
Did we labour mightily in the fields of game-making theory, and bring forth a veritable mouse? Unfortunately, I think so. One of the shaping concepts of this final day was whether we could imagine a game where “the topic was embedded in the rule-set”. Undoubtedly, if this was a game being made by media wankers for media wankers, then it's perhaps no surprise that the joys of social association were made to thump straight into the severities of social exclusion: Toughen up, folks, this is a world for fluid networkers, not stiff-backed dullards! For all the (often brilliant) consideration of the abstract components of game-making in the previous days, and the grand ambitions about “behaviour change” erected upon such abstractions, we ended up expressing the tedious “culture” of our time and place all-too-predictably.
And there it was, "Couple Up". Probably not coming to a conceptual arts venue near you anytime soon.
Wondering at Wonderlab
Coming down from this experience over the last few days, I'm struggling to say whether a greater understanding of games-making techniques has made me more sympathetic towards, or more critical of, this cultural form as it currently stands. I'm happy not to drive to a conclusion at the moment – usually best to let these things work themselves out through more thinking, talking, or “iteration” (as the designers love to say). I'm enough of a play scholar to know that games are as eternal as the human cultural record, but also that there can be a contestive fundamentalism in thinking about games which is all too easy to fall into (we do live in a competition-oriented, market-dominant society after all).
As a corrective, apart from grumpy leftists like Momus and myself, I'd certainly suggest that the next Wonderlab builds an ornate Lego throne and royally installs the great Bernie De Koven (founder of the New Games Movement in the 70's, and currently blogging at Deep Fun). Bernie has devoted a lifetime to thinking about games (and toys) that evade the obvious and coarsening effects of zero-sum competition. A quote from one of his recent posts will suffice (with a nod to Tassos):
...No matter how new the game, a game can be no more than an invitation to play. It’s not the game itself, it’s play that renews us. Play without goals, rules, reasons. Play per se.
And the quality of the game, the well-playedness of it all, frequently has little to do with the game itself, little to do with the goodness of the players themselves, and everything to do with the unqualified goodness of being in play.
Play is a taste of health. A momentary engagement in the natural exuberance, exhilaration, ebullience of life at its liveliest. An affirmation of our boundless wisdom, limitless capacities.
And when play is especially good, transcendentally, transformationally good, it’s because of the people with whom we are at play, in play. The community of players. The people with whom we play community. The people with whom, when we are at one with ourselves, we are at one.
But after the event, I came across two stories which express my genuine ambiguity and ambivalence about games. This weekend, the FT magazine reported on the pre-eminence of board games over computer games in German culture. Tim Harford gave an account of the difference between a major “Euro-game”, called Settlers of Catan, and You Know What:
The Settlers of Catan superficially resembles Monopoly. The board is assembled from hexagonal tiles, but the components include wood houses that look much like Monopoly buildings. The idea is similar, too: players use resources (money in Monopoly; timber, wool and other commodities in Settlers) to build property; the property then collects further resources, and the process of expansion continues.
Yet after Monopoly, Settlers was a revelation. Monopoly ends in the slow strangulation of the weaker players and usually feels stale long before the official end, assuming it isn’t abandoned along the way. Settlers didn’t take long – perhaps an hour – and even as it was coming to an end, every player was still involved. In Monopoly, many choices can be made on autopilot; in Settlers, there is scope for skill throughout a game: the decisions always matter and are always interesting. Settlers has its own elegant economy, in which the supply and demand for five different commodities are determined by tactics, luck and the stage of the game. Players constantly haggle, wheedle and plead. It’s convivial experience, a game of incessant banter. In the course of an evening, I was hooked.
The game as generator of “banter and conviviality”, as a means of “tasting the health of play... as we play community”, is precisely the kind of game that I, and I bet many others, would like to see emerging from the computer games sector. I've no doubt Hide and Seek, and others who are thinking at this intense level about the aesthetics and ethics of their sector, are on the case with this.
My other cultural moment – which falls on the negative side of my ambivalence about games – came from watching Christopher Nolan's new movie Inception. There's no doubt this is a movie for the gamer generation. The thieves who enter other people's dreams conceive their territory, the dream space of a person, as comprising of different levels or worlds, in which the rules can be self-consistent, but utterly arbitrary – gravity failing at certain points, injuries not really being injuries, etc. So far, so game-like.
Even the group which comes together to do the dream-exploring – charlatan, teen maths whiz, bureaucrat, mad scientist, intense hero - feels like the cast-list of a particularly nerd-esque team adventure movie. But David Denby's review of Inception in the New Yorker nailed precisely why all this dazzling elaboration left me intellectually charged, but emotionally unmoved. There are two breathlessly mentioned realpolitik referents in the movie: i) the fact that “the military” developed this dream-surfing science. And: ii) their mission is to manipulate the dreams of the heir of a massive energy empire, so that he can decide to break it up, preventing its total dominance of world energy. But as Denby says:
Why would we root for one energy company over another? There’s no spiritual meaning or social resonance to any of this, no critique of power in the dream-world struggle between C.E.O.s. It can’t be a coincidence that Tony Gilroy’s “Duplicity” (2009), which was also about industrial espionage, played time games, too. The over-elaboration of narrative devices in both movies suggests that the directors sensed that there was nothing at the heart of their stories to stir the audience. In any case, I would like to plant in Christopher Nolan’s head the thought that he might consider working more simply next time. His way of dodging powerful emotion is beginning to look like a grand-scale version of a puzzle-maker’s obsession with mazes and tropes.
Might a “puzzle-makers obsession with mazes and tropes” be a way of “dodging powerful emotion”, rather than taking it on? I am always struck by how rare it is when gamers can say that a game experience made them cry – and the wonderment in the voice when they do so. I sense that there is much thought and practice to do in exploring the emotional dimension of game experience, beyond the exultation of a “win-state”. (Brian Sutton-Smith's newest turn of play theory addresses precisely this issue - download this article). But I hope that will be a topic for future Wonderlabs to come. For now, I'm extremely grateful for the experience. Hope you get the next golden ticket...