Sunday 28 September 2008

Dirty Pretty Words #1: Game

Number one in an irregular series of musings on terminology. I did warn what kind of fun this place would be.

Game is a fundamental term.

Whether we call it a game or not, if we are making any work for any medium where an audience is actively playing in any shape or form then understanding of game-design is going to make the work better.

But if you call it a game, everyone knows the word, so it's an accessible description in a confusing linguistic environment.

But game is a pretty potent word, with a lot of meanings packed inside it for potential players.

Being game
If you're game, you're up for something. The beauty is that playing a good game can itself make you more game.

It's just a game
Playing a game, we choose to follow its rules and therefore to transform our behaviour so that we agree to be governed by those rules, which means we transform reality for us who are playing. But there's an implicit understanding that the game is bounded, it will only go so far in location and duration and players. It's only temporary, and this makes it safe to play. A safe 'what if' zone is perhaps one of the primary functions of play for the human animal. Of course its purpose is the chance it deepens our understanding of our continuing reality. But the flipside of it being not necessarily for keeps is that it can be dismissed as being 'just a game'.

And if the primary aim of making is fun, then by definition it is light-weight. I hate saying this because I feel like such a fuddy but fun is a means, however important. It cannot remain the only end.

Games are for kids
There are communities of adults who are game to play games in public. But they currently remain a minority, converted by one good experience and/or knowing others who play. For most, games are seen as being for kids, something kids will enjoy... and be happy to expend possibly enormous amounts of energy and risk looking silly in the pursuit of something that is 'just a game'. And those are huge barriers to being game to play. Particularly that performance anxiety.

If you make an event that calls itself a game, most people will assume it's for kids. Trying hastily to recruit likely-looking candidates to play Checkpoint at Village Green yesterday, I got many variants of 'that sounds like a lot of effort', 'think I'm a bit old for that'. A couple of families openly pushed their kids into playing it because it would give the adults some time off for themselves.

Even Hide & Seek at the South Bank this summer, prime location, PR to die for.. if you took away the pre-existing Hide & Seek community of around 100 twenty-thirty-somethings (makers and hard-core players) who did everything, the remainder seemed to be largely families looking for ways to occupy their kids. One challenge is that watching other people play and lose themselves in temporary high-spirited fun and silliness can itself be a barrier to potential players not yet warmed up. Watching a few of the games this summer, even I felt like that and I am meant to be one of the converted. Damn that performance anxiety.

One exception: Sleeveface was the Hide & Seek event I saw many adult non-gamers actively seek to pick up, and therefore one of the smartest bits of programming. Why? It didn't call itself a game, watching it you understood exactly what it was about and could see that it looked cool. *And* you got to hide your face.

I think this is a really big challenge for any who make or promote live games. Of course, the more get played, the larger the community of converted* players and full power to anything that is genuinely about making these communities happen.

*just noted that I keep using this word. And one of the crueller outsider observations I've heard on the gaming community (like any zealous community, mind) is that it can look and feel like a religious cult.

Gaming reality; gaming the system
For all the evangelical calls to game reality, to play as if it were a game when it were not designed to do so, and however brilliant and joyous this can be for those inside, there's a really big but: how is it for those outside the game, not choosing to play but affected by the game? And even how can the game make those on the inside transform how they view the outside? Here is a brilliantly sceptical post by Momus with assorted comment. I was the director and co-designer on the Soho Project, and yes, I feel weird watching the videos Momus has interrogated. I won't digress (now) into how TSP was trying to explore this fault-line and how and why it relatively succeeded and failed.

The real dark side is gaming the system, to play reality not only as if it were a game, but to play to win no matter what. From watching the Enron film recently... Enron's USP was converting systems into markets and playing them as such. Their biggest was the market of energy supply, and their traders would deal energy to make money... and yes, free-marketeers, make the systems efficient and affordable... and yes, there is a sanity clause... Of course playing the market is akin to a game, and Enron's traders gamed this system particularly in California, exploiting a bottle-neck in the state's electricity supply to the extent that a few would lean on the managers of power stations to have an unscheduled outage, leading to black-outs across the state, increasing demand, hiking prices and therefore profits. And the resulting crisis helped do for California Governor Gray Davis, leading to the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger, consequence fans.

Arnie disgression aside. In play, you are temporarily unencumbered by responsibilities and other meanings in the system. You can play that to cynical advantage, and that too is bound into game, however loosely.

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