The slides to my opening keynote for the Hide And Seek Weekender conference, 'Playing in Public', at Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre, London, 17.9.12. Any thoughts, responses, questions, let me know. (It's much more legible in full-screen, btw).
Below are the slides to my presentation to the Young Foundation, a social enterprise think-tank in London founded by Micheal Young, exploring the concept of the "Big Society" - the UK Conservative Party's big idea for its Coalition government - in relation to my evolving theories about play, human nature and governance.
The slides may need a little context. My subtitle as announced on the day was "48 hours in the life of an London ideas merchant". The day before my Young Foundation presentation I'd had a meeting with a commercial digital agency to see if we could devise some useful strategies about convincing advertisers and marketers that they should approach a game/play based approach to their expenditure. We cited the work of game analyst Sebastian Deterding, from whom the test of a great game experience is that it allows "meaning, mastery and autonomy".
That evening, while preparing for next day's presentation, I was reading the Conservative MP Jesse Norman's The Big Society on my Kindle - when I came upon a passage where he talked about the Big Society's motivational drives being that of "autonomy, mastery and purpose/meaning"... Thus alerted to a synchronicity in the world of ideas, I tried to follow through the consequences...
All comments welcome below. (An extended article will be available over the next few days).
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.
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...
A muggy afternoon on Day 2 of Wonderlab, the huge windows at the end of the Nash room in the ICA opened as high as they can be, so we can gulp in a little air. And I, along with my fellow Lab technicians, am going to design my first ever game.
Which is immediately untrue. I'm sure that when I was a child, with Lego and soldiers strewn across my toyroom floor, I was inventing games and scenarios incessantly. As a father, when I got a chance to hear my children at play with their pals - particularly up until about middle of primary school - I was always thrilled to overhear how they would roughly compose the rules of a game among themselves. The materials to hand might be pop songs, or a found object, or something they were wearing, or the staples of rope or ball. I simply know that children are natural game-makers, as well as players. The promise of these few days, for me, was about learning a way to recover that innate capacity.
Was it my first technologically-inspired game? Even then that's not strictly true – every game is determined by the materials it faces and the setting it's in. If it's a half-broken branch on a tree that affords a little springyness before it snaps entirely... well, there's your technology. I'll have to settle for “first game created according to explicit game-making methodology”.
As it was laid out by H&S's Margaret Robertson, the methodology was fertile and productive. What's the verb that describes what happens in a game? (I had a little dispute about whether crown bowls – my father's favourite pastime – had “target” or “shoot” as its core verb. In no way was John Kane a sharp-shooter at the Blairhill Bowling Club). We considered the three layers of game design: mechanics (the basic rules that specify action), dynamics (what things possibly happen in the game when you play it), aesthetics (what it feels like to play it, what its culture is, what's the "fun"?). If we knew the objective for a game, what would make it “interestingly hard” to meet that objective? And finally, how do you know you've won – what does “victory” look like? We were sent off in groups of three to create our game. As well as the verbs, we were asked to each name our greatest fear: from both of these elements, our game would spring.
I think the most charitable description of our team's game was that it was an instructive failure. Our three fear words were 'ignorance', 'confidence' and (my own) 'fascism' – and immediately, the whole question of how a game could articulate or explore something as horrifying, but substantial, as fascism gripped our over-intellectualised minds. We all shied away from trying to create a “serious” game – one where the gameplay was at the service of a message (say, transforming the attitudes of BNP half-sympathisers) – and tended towards making a set of rules that implicitly or abstractly tested the exclusiveness, the antipathy, the power-relations of fascism. How could you be made to feel or act like a fascist, even if you didn't want to, using an aesthetic symbolism which was far away from the obvious signs of that creed? How could you obliquely explore the dangers of that psychology and behaviour?
And so, building up from what seems to be the initial move in game-design – ie, reduce the psychology of your player to a basic series of binary decisions about yes/no, stronger/weaker, happy/sad, mine/thine – we began the intense, strange journey to “Lifestyle Nazi”. The crucial, indeed hilariously weird moment, was when our team was sitting in the ICA cafe. I was spluttering out some game scenario which involved Seinfield's Soup Nazi gag; plus the inevitable arrogance about sensibility and taste that came with membership of the creative class; plus a kind of weekly social network game, where your job was to try and guess what your friends' excellent consumption and service choices were, so you could join them as a...Lifestyle Nazi! At that point, one of our team did the oddest thing. “I'm sorry, I can't get involved in this conversation any more”. Why not? “I'm in a situation where... it's a patent thing... you really have to carry on without me”. And with that our colleague sat silently, literally cast speechless by some far-off Non Disclosure Agreement. Copyright Nazi had just entered the room.
I looked up at the wall, more than a little frustrated - and there, as a giant photo in the ICA cafe, was the simplest game about fascism imaginable. A white working class woman in a St.George's-flag-bedecked neighbourhood was peering at a tent on a lawn, which had Arabic script across one side of the sheet. “What's In The Tent, Sharon?” I muttered to myself, my mind running on the rails of a game-logic that was beginning to take me over.
The games from the other two teams – a card game where people auction themselves to establish greater personal worth, another one using Plato's cave as a device to explore chaos and imposition – were also thoroughly determined by the fears used as the starting-point for creation. Though it was an enjoyably demanding process, I'll admit my heart sank a little at the pinched, petty image of human subjectivity that sat at the heart of each of these games (ours included). If our initial question had been, “what do we love most?”, would our gaming have been different?
At some point in our Lifestyle Nazi making, it struck me that the way many people use Twitter is as a love-game, or at least an attraction-game - a positive, indeed helpful display of their sensibility, a showing-off but also a sharing of their internal and external resources. Could the reason we embrace these networks be much less about farming or Mafia games, and much more about the way they enable easy self-expression and rich discourse, the way they amplify the sharing dimensions of culture? A conversation depends on the abundant resources of language, which is fuelled by intersubjectivity, and in principle never needs to end; a game (at least one which aims at a “clear win-state”) deliberately limits its resource base, which equally delimited subjects scrabble over, to get to something "that feels like victory".
(I kept bringing up James Carse's Finite and Infinite Games in the course of these days – though he's a scary reference. Carse says that a finite game can be in the service of an infinite game – we're winning these victories so we can learn better how to sophisticate the rules of the game, include more people in the game, learn about ourselves and our culture through the game. But one of his definitions of evil is that of an infinite game in the service of a finite game: that is, a never-ending, war-of-all-against-all commitment to victory. Funny enough, he calls that Fascism/Nazism...).
All this brings a different take on Jesse Schell's bemusement – quoted in my previous post - at why these “crappy, flash-based, turn-based games” on Facebook and other social network platforms have been so successful. The answer is, they're just finite (indeed, crappy) little pretexts – alongside other pretexts like gift-giving, sharing/curating, commenting/expressing – to help us engage in the potentially infinite social communication that something like Facebook (or more generally the internet) affords.
I've never come across a more synoptic framing of play than Brian Sutton-Smith's seven rhetorics – and he places “play-as-power-and-contest” as only one mode of play among many others, one instrument in the evolutionary repertoire (and in no way the most dominant) by which play helps us complex mammals to adapt and flourish. So much of Wonderlab seems like a self-conscious deep-dive into the rhetoric of 'play-as-power', with all the other rhetorics hovering around as the lovely assistants to the main magician. A very useful exercise, but a very particular experience.
Such was the quality of curation at this event, though, there were always grace notes against the main theme. Aleks Krotoski's charming presentation spoke about three instances of delicious anticipation – her participation in a volleyball competition, a roller coaster ride, a promenade theatre experience – when she had “put herself into something, knowing that something was coming along to surprise or shock me, but also feeling completely safe”. Knowingly I'm sure, Aleks described there the primal moment of developmental play, what I was trying to show with my laughing/biting baby clips in my opening presentation (turn the soundright up) – play as a place for ultimately safe and healthy experimentation.
But as with the biting baby, who simply wasn't able to calibrate his strength over someone else's flesh, play in the shape of contestive games can always threaten to go too far. There's an intoxication when power gets amplified by a sense of ultimate possibility, the “spiel macht frei” etched invisibly over the door of DeSade's boudoir, or the Abu Ghraib torture room presided over by the fun-loving Lindie England. (My friend Momus nodded imperceptibly at that one).
Of course this must be part of art's armoury, what it has to do to map the perimeter of our human condition. One of our Wonderlabbers Melanie talked about her theatre experiment In A Small Town Anywhere, which cast the audience into two groups in a town – the Wrens (New Labour) and the Larks (Conservative) – who the dramatists then consciously “gamed” or catalysed (by urging them to get a Mayor elected, by strewing a poison-pen letter writer in their midst, by inducing them to scapegoat and then murder someone). “At some points I have to say it was sheer anarchy, pretty dangerous” said Melanie, citing the Kent State experiments by Philip Zimbardo. (Though see this correction by a co-producer of this experience, Tassos Stevens, in comments below).
So contestive game-spaces crackle with energies which demand a lot of monitoring - which again for me raises the question of the governance, even the "parenting" of a healthy play experience (and to be fair, exploring that topic was something that Alex from Hide And Seek's wanted from this event at the start). But after two days of nerve-jangling rule-making, it was a total joy to hear a presentation from games maker Tassos Stevens which completely re-asserted the necessity and primacy of play, and the way that games are only ever secondarily dependent on play's wide, messy field of free conjunction and connection. I'd be happy to quote you the entire text, so thoroughly do I endorse it, but here's a favourite passage:
Game arises from play. A rule-set crystallises a set of actions distilled from an experience of play. That crystal can be popped in your pocket to be played with again and again, any time, any place, with anyone entranced by its sparkle. It gets chipped and scratched, then rubbed and polished. It becomes a lens that focuses action in time and space and for one brief encounter let’s us act as if we lived in a simpler world, the kind of world that can be described in a rule-set. But the very best thing about it is that if we want to, we can smash it up and grind it into paste to make believe anew. Even if let alone, its inherent ephemerality will let it pass; like a playful version of the second law of thermodynamics, people stop playing attention and soon the game dissolves into flux. It’s the playful spirit of the game that’s more important than the letter of the rules.
Maurice Suckling's second presentation on how storytelling and narrative work in games was worthy of an entire post to itself - which I will attempt over the next few days. But in essence he was laying out a complex map of how games should (and shouldn't) use the power of story; and that perhaps theatre was a better cultural analogue for games makers than blockbuster movie – a sense that games similarly set the scene, allow the attention to rove around the stage, and develop dramatic potential within that.
Our day closed – I presume with intentional mischief – with exactly one of those blockbuster-aspiring games makers: Richard Lamartin from Naughty Dog, makers of the Uncharted series, on a Skype line from California. Apart from his confession that at some point he'd like to stop making “popcorn munchers”, and start thinking about a cross between Tetris and Beckett (“I'd call it Waiting for a Straight Piece”), the relevant question was again put by Momus: was his games-making imagination being subsumed by Hollywood, or was he actually on the way to being the dominant new paradigm?
Richard mostly demurred at that one. But one thing that perked my interest was their embrace of machinima – players getting their hands on games-making tools as part of the game experience – at the heart of Uncharted. The news that all it had been used for was by fans making rave vids about the game itself was a bit bathetic (I prefer what Xtranormal is making possible for all the new generation of comic-strip detourning situationists).
And so day 2 of Wonderlab ended. My one thought as I left the ICA, head bubbling and reeling: You know what, Kane? Ten years after you named them, the soulitariat has actually turned up. Now, be responsible about what you wished for.
Here's the second of my regular 'Ludocrats' podcasts - a conversation series with people interested in the power and potential of play, captured on an iPhone (and Brando mike) as I go about my business in media, consulting and music.
A new, hopefully fortnightly feature on The Play Ethic - a series of podcast conversations called "Ludocrats".
Who's a ludocrat? Someone who's interested in the power and potential of play, as it operates in their lives and their projects - and who also believes that an awareness of play can shape the public realm for the better. Why the podcast? Well, I'm having these conversations anyway - so I thought I may as well record them, smartphone in hand, and share them with the world.
Our first ludocrat is Ren Reynolds, otherwise known on Twitter as RenZephyr. Ren's day job is helping government get the best deals from private IT contractors. But his day-and-night job is thinking quite brilliantly about the philosophy, ethics and governance of computer and online games (usually through his think-tank, Virtual Policy Network, but also on the collective blog Terra Nova). Ren also advises national and international bodies about how the law and politics should relate to what goes on in virtual worlds - and how not to crush, whether through fear or ignorance, the emerging potential of these global, creative spaces.
My thanks to Ren (and the clarity of his good Northern tones in the hubbub!). Here's some links that Ren mentions in his piece:
Key quote: "[games are] domains of contrived contingency, capable of generating emergent practices and interpretations.".
Ren adds: "My argument with Malaby is that I think the definition is incomplete without that game acts are backed by a ludic intentionality. This I think is critical and is not necessarily entailed by his definition."B