Here's my Independent review of Jane McGonigal's Reality Is Broken, her long-awaited opus on how computer games can motivate global change - about as pure a manifestation of The Play Ethic as it's possible to express. A short review, nowhere near adequate to the content of the book, but hopefully it'll jar you to buy it.
Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change The World
It has been strange to read a book which claims that reality is listless, uninspiring and broken compared to computer games as the Arab revolutions swarm across our screens. We watch real citizens defy real riot police in order to achieve real control of public space and institutions. At this moment, it's not that easy to hear Jane McGonigal tell us that immersion among the trolls and space warriors of virtual worlds is a way to recover our sense of epic idealism and heroic altruism.
But even in the blazing context of the new Arab dawn, McGonigal might have a point. One of the cheekier posters held up by the Tunisian youth in their mass protests was "Game Over": and we know generally how much cyber-culture enabled the fall of Ben Ali.
Even though Mubarak in Egypt was sharp enough to hit the off-switch early, it didn't seem to matter anyway. Digital-era protestors were already planning to play around with the oppressive reality of Egyptian public life. Remarkably like the "alternate reality games" that McGonigal has created in the streets of major cities for corporate clients, young activists began to stage creative protests that subtly reclaimed their streets. They flash-mobbed in city centres to sing the national anthem; they dressed in black and stood silently beside the Nile.
Egyptian street tactics for the initial "day of rage" on 25 January - in the words of activist Ahmed Salah, aiming "to be multi-polar, fast-moving, and too mobile for the amin markazi [central security forces]" - sound exactly like the kind of collaborative, laterally-thinking play that McGonigal (and others, like Steven Johnson and Tom Chatfield) celebrate as the core cognitive benefit of computer games. Sociologists, here's a brief: how has interactive culture shaped a new sense of civic confidence among Arab youth?
Reality Is Broken is the most powerful justification yet for computer games as one of our central literacies - parallel to literature or movies in the way they connect our motivations and energies with the challenges of understanding and intervening in our social worlds. As with literacy in the first Enlightenment, the huge popular embrace of this medium provides a rich test-bed for new grand theories about human nature and society.
Armed with an impressive bibliography in psychology and neuroscience, McGonigal makes the claim that the huge rush towards gameplay is a kind of exodus from what Theodor Adorno called "damaged life" - work that doesn't satisfy, relationships that don't persist, societies that don't find a place for hope or ambition. She brilliantly links the growing scholarship on happiness to the gimmicks and tricks that commercial game designers devise to engage their febrile audiences. Games help us get off the "hedonic treadmill", in which our consumer choices are fated never to satisfy us, and help us build up what she calls hedonic resilience.
The tough challenges we willingly embrace in computer games generate an internal sense of satisfaction that spills over into other areas of our lives. For example, and counter-intuitively, she cites numerous studies that heavy social gamers display greater levels of community-mindedness than non-gamers.
Ambitiously, McGonigal wants to take that emerging swell of human engagement and connect it to the solution of real-world problems. She has been involved in games about peak oil and other global instabilities, where the fun comes from playing out possible futures, using comic strips, web videos and elaborate avatars.
McGonigal begins and ends her book with Herodotus's tale of the Lydians, who turned to dice games to help them get through their 18 years of famine - and then played one final, giant game, drawing lots to choose which half of the population would leave the country to seek prosperity elsewhere. Her point is that games can both raise spirits and build collective understanding, particularly at moments of extreme crisis.
As Arab activists grapple with the grown-up difficulties of a free public sphere, they may currently have a less-than-ludic take on their "broken" reality. But there was an imaginative component of these protests which took its cue from something other than the usual verities about civil rights. As McGonigal might say: watch this game-space.
Pat Kane's 'The Play Ethic' is published by Macmillan
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.
Day two of London game designer Hide And Seek's Wonderlab sessions, and it's a morning to be substantially impressed by the taste and sensibilities of the organisers. (The videos of all our presentations are piling up here).
Maurice Suckling, a computer game scriptwriter, first delivers us a small conceptual tap-dance around the idea of infinity. It involves Hilbert's Grand Hotel Paradox, the infinity of decimal points between 0 and 1, and our own coming longevity crisis when we figure out how to switch off cell decay.
Maurice's charm overcomes my long-standing maths anxiety, though I find myself prodding away at my iPhone Google to look up Antonio Negri's elevation of eternity over infinity: “It then becomes clear why the eternal is not equivalent with the infinite. Love, indeed, is not infinite but eternal, it is not a measure but rather measurelessness, not individual but singular, not universal but common, not the substance of temporality but the arrow of time itself.” Luckily the poor man escapes before I can regale him with this counter-mathematical thesis.
Yep. It's one of those kinds of events. Godel, Escher, Bach and Italian Marxists in a baking hot room in the Pall Mall.
We then have a refreshing round of what is effectively Call My Bluff – give two statements about yourself, one a lie and one true, and subject yourself to the audience for verification (mine's is: I was once a Lord [true: I was the Lord Rector of Glasgow University 1990-93]. And: I have a Polish great-uncle – false, it's actually my mother's father). Thoroughly rubbish at dissimulation and easily rumbled, I'm given two great techniques for lying well: tell the fake story in the wrong order – liars always try anxiously to make their stories sequential. And lie with as much natural unevenness in your presentation as possible. And I won't tell you whether I ever apply these (or not).
Then Nick Ryan, a music and sound design consultant, gives us a startling tour de force of his work (all videos here). He shows a 1944 Polish animation rendering a classical choral in graphical shapes (though I do remember Disney's Fantasia making the same move a few years earlier), and some elegant materialisations of sound: a bucket that you make noises into, which you can then physically pour out; a psychedelic projection of graphic shapes onto a vapor cloud, matching the howls and roars of the crown; and a textured wall piece where your touch on its surface modulates a mutant orchestral wail.
The only lurch into inelegance is a piece called Bicycle For Two Thousand, where Ryan used Amazon's Mechanical Turk – a site where you do little bits of informational piece-work – to make a bellowing, lurching version of Daisy, Daisy from over 2000 tiny contributions (never did “the wisdom of the crowd” sound so unattractive, which I guess was the point).
I wanted to know whether we were getting anywhere near the Cantina scene in Star Wars, where the alien bands play new instruments; Nick replied that he was reverse-engineering musical instruments from any sound you could imagine, using CAD to visualise the cavity in which they'd sound most true (a project called The Shape of Sound for PRS). Tom Armitage of Berg sidled up to me and showed me a musical sock puppet they were designing, in which a blues scale could be expressively performed by opening and twisting its knitted maw (all this inspired by the Japanese tradition of musical toys, exemplified by Maywa Denki). It's been quite a few days for casually sharing the motivating obsessions of capacious people, as we take respite from the rule-dominated juggernaut of the games-making process.
Jason Anthony gave a thrilling presentation on how games and religion could have an amazing relationship together in the 21st century (see video), as exemplified by his own Ten Year Game project. I've been fascinated by play and spirituality since the Play Ethic book in 2004, and it was a delight to hear such a theologically informed talk. The core of his notion – that religion is both deep truth and active ritual, both logos and praxis, and that games might be a new medium to extend and develop the second term – is summed up by his beautiful axiom: “the Jews have preserved the Sabbath, but the Sabbath has also preserved the Jews”. (And as the Buddhists might retort, mindfulness surpasses all reality anyway).
The comments came thick and fast: if we think about religion, are we thinking about system design rather than game design? Is the difference that games are played for a short time, but religions has to sustain themselves for a long time? “While technology evolves forwards”, quipped Jason brilliantly, “religions evolve backwards”, reflecting endlessly on their originary moments. But that hermeneutic dimension doesn't mean religions can't be gamed – it just shifts the nature of the gaming. Both the Olympics (as an originally religious event), and gambling (where the Gods of luck are propitiated), are both games where skill and strength wrestles with chance and cosmic luck.
I wanted to know what Jason thought of the 'basic rule set' of all Axial religions as outlined by the theologian Karen Armstrong, in her attempt to bring about some peace among the fundamentalisms: that Buddhism, Islam and Christianity are all founded on the Golden Rule of com-passion, doing to others as you would have done to yourself. Too soft a rule to generate something ludic? Someone suggested the board game Pandemic – where players have to collaborate to stamp out a whole range of different diseases – but is a game of collaboration the same as a game of compassion?
I asked whether Scientology was a caution to Jason's ambition for the religious opportunity for games – a pyramidial belief-system, founded on ever higher levels of adeptness, cynically invented by a bad SF author in California! Tom from Berg gave the characteristic designer's response: as a religion, Scientology is just a terrible game, where participation is stratified and kept at its appropriate levels. Where's the fun in definitively knowing you're a lesser being? But essentially, he conceded, there's no difference between Scientology's world-imagining and a game designer's.
Momus leant over to me and whispered a distinction between orthodoxy (which compels Western Christians to feel guilty when they violate the deep truth of their religion) and orthopraxy (which means that Confucians feel shame when they're caught in a misdemeanor, but hope that a speedy apology will return them safely to their web of relationships).
That was useful (as Mr Currie endlessly is). I sometimes wonder with this lot whether their game orthodoxy is too limited - “where's the win-state in this?” I hear all day, as if there hadn't been thousands of years of koans, paradoxes and non-zero-sum games where “winning a game” is at least an exercise in irony and hubris. And that, indeed, they don't think enough about their game orthopraxy – the fact that games are not little abstract machines for sorting out winners and losers, but are always embedded in the thick physical-emotional soup of multitudinous humans interacting with each other. That was my lesson from playing Nomic the other day – how an open, rewritable rule set generated conviviality, performance, laughter, social capital among us. Where a game of Monopoly, a very tight and competitive rule set, often just generates – at least in my family experience - the worst fights and the most unpalatable behaviour.
I'm writing this before the beginning of Day 3 of Wonderlab, so I'll stop here at our lunch break on day 2. But look out for the next post on the afternoon of day 2, in which some of my real misgivings about the culture and mindset of gaming gets put through both spinner and tumble-drier, and comes out feeling crumpled but definitely cleaner. In any case, all props to Hide And Seek - a genuinely demanding and illuminating event.
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 themilitary-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.