Wednesday 26 November 2008

Meme-game: Page 56

Page 56 Rules:
* Grab the book nearest you. Right now.
* Turn to page 56.
* Find the fifth sentence.
* Post that sentence [in a comment here*and*wherever else along with the rules]

Here's mine:

'The manufacturers say it should take twenty seconds,' she explained, standing up and dusting off her knees, 'but I can halve it.'

The Game

I just lost it.

Sunday 16 November 2008

Space Station Dana

An event of Coney's, at the Dana Centre on Thursday night. I had little to do with its construction beyond an insight into the teams but pleased to attend it as an observer. It did well to support the indisputable main attraction of the evening - a panel of experts including a real-life astronaut, the animating Jean-Francois Clervoy.

And a startlingly good game presented by space psychologist Iya Whiteley. This is really part of the ESA recruitment programme for astronauts, based on the fact that normal conversation between Earth and astronaut is tricky because of the lag in transmission, 22 minutes if we ever get to Mars. As played on Thursday... three teams of strangers each gather round a table on which are post-its and paperclips. The winning team will have built the highest freestanding tower from those materials in 10 minutes. With a catch. For the first 5 minutes, teams can talk but not touch the materials. For the second 5 minutes, they can start building but must work in complete silence. It's probably already in corporate training programmes all over the shop but I loved it.

Saturday 15 November 2008

Stuff seen and played recently

Once And For All We're Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up And Listen
Scintillating performance from Ontoroed Goed staging a line-up of live-wire teens in what appears simply to be them at play but reveals itself gradually in repetition as not only *just that* but also an exquisite formal sculpture of youth. It is as the title says. What happens in Ghent to make this so good?

On Emotion
Another theatre essay by Mick Gordon, this time collaborating amongst others with my mate Mark from Blind Summit to examine how we are 'puppets of our emotions', I was won over by Mick's previous On Ego and On Religion, but I found this dire - a simplistic equation of dialectics, with unmoving narrative and quite rank comment on abortion.

The Tragedy Of Thomas Hobbes
My mate Adriano writes for the RSC, an epic in blank verse about the birth of experimental science and the English revolution. A curate's egg perhaps, somewhat stifled by an as yet too polite production that needs to find higher gears, but an engaging story, some fine performances and grand flashes of A's rhetoric brilliance. And you have to love any piece with two commenting characters *actually* called Waldorf and Statler. I'll be back to see this again when it's oiled and write more then.

Mesmeric dance and mask miniature by Yael Karavan at the Shunt Lounge.

Hey Mathew
Startlingly intimate performance from mates Chris and Jonny, with Jamie and Cis supporting. It's a reverie on Paul Goodman, a work-out of the thoughts surrounding An Apparently Closed Room, with the ever-watchable Jonny as if in rehearsal for all the roles an 'unruly youth' can take. I'm not sure I agree with Chris on the absence of boundary (and you have to know what I mean to understand this) but the work had heart-felt integrity on its own terms and was fun to spend time with. For the blog... Chris was inspired by Dennis Cooper's personal arts centre of a blog with an extraordinary comments section as social space but inevitably the HM blog was itself more like a rehearsal room, and therefore much harder to comment in.

Last Will
Prototype game/theatre by Alex Fleetwood and Felix Barrett. Two players enter the same room - one a real-world installation, one online - to solve the last will of an eccentric recluse in Crystal Maze puzzle form. I was a real-world player with no online equivalent, but I gather real-world can hear the online, online can see the real-world. I solved it and had much fun doing so. It's impressively executed, with a sumptuous final image that's stayed with me. But I wonder if it's still fun if you get stumped? The narrative is paper-thin - penitence in motion - and there's no sense of why this old man needs you to hear his story, or even what actually happened. Less why this story demands this form and what the relationship between real and online players means to become more than a gimmick. But... early days here and if they get it right, it'll be fantastic...

Invent the future and help save humanity by dreaming stories from 2019. I really want to like this - a truly serious game with serious aims - but I'm sceptical. I think the What-If-Can-Do format - building on that of the successful World Without Oil - is very difficult to keep playable beyond the first response for all but the most committed. The forest of possibilities that other players open up in their responses is incredibly exciting but rapidly becomes bewildering. I'm also not keen on the terminology - SEHI, Emergensight... all a bit Ayn Rand - and it feels over-gamed for the casual player, but well aware that this is my taste.

ARG criticism

ARG. It's a dirty word and one of these days I'll write #2 in that series about it, if it's not pipped to the post by Interactive. I'm going to overextend it in this post just the way I hate it, to mean any online/crossplatform interactive.

There isn't any forum or space, to my knowledge, where ARGs are criticised seriously and robustly. This isn't healthy. No art-form has the chance to grow tall without criticism nourishing the good and weeding out the poor. Works and artists define themselves and develop by failure as much as success, by discussion as much as promotion. Not only that but the fog of secrecy that tends to drop over most 'traditional' ARGs means that - without the critic as documenter - there is no record even of what actually happened. Other than by the two types of documenter least likely to remain disinterested, makers and fans.

Any player who stays the course will likely be a fan. The traditional ARG tends to last for months, has its narrative broken into little pieces scattered and hidden across platforms and media, and discovered and played by its audience. If you're going to experience anything approximating a reasonable chunk of it, you're going to spend a lot more time and effort than the 90 minutes spent sitting watching the 'traditional' event of contemporary new theatre.

Adrian Hon and Jane McGonigal are two high-profile (and most excellent) game-designers who have started a trend for blogging about their own game. These posts are invaluable as documents and often insightful, but invariably and inevitably they deliver a positive spin on the game. Why should they do otherwise? It's not in their own interest to highlight relative failings. But I worry that these well-meant pieces are contributing to a certain public puffery and hyperbole whenever we talk about ARGs and their ilk. 'Yeah, they're amazing!' Because the audience to this hyperbole are the commissioners of the next work. So everyone is afraid to break the magic circle.

It's still such early days for the medium that any new work is talked up as ground-breaking, where the discussion about the work becomes itself the best PR for the work and the brand backing it - viz We Tell Stories, a neat portfolio of beautifully-rendered digitally-told short tales that attracted amazing column inches in print and the blogosphere, hundreds of thousands of first hits but a big tail off towards tens of players for the ARG beneath (according to one of them).
I am reminded of a commission my brilliant friend Chris had from Pizza Express to make a theatre miniature version of The Godfather to play in restaurants for diners. Chris has made hugely acclaimed work that plays in the houses of the audience - I had the quite perfect We Must Perform A Quirkafleeg! in my living room - and so it was natural for Pizza Express to commission him for this and then equally natural for the press to write about this as a phenomenon, how you as a diner might be surprised by innovative theatre at your table, or in-tertainment in brutal PR coinage. The first performances played to tables of only press all over the country. And then PR job accomplished, you can perhaps guess how many performances for the public actually happened.

Is the quality of an ARG reflected in its metrics, the numbers of playing audience that engage? If it is, the problem is that no one is telling just how many players they get. Again this is partly so as not to discourage the commissioners, and because simple numbers don't yet tell the full story. Received wisdom in the industry quotes Jimmy Wales' 10% power law or 90-9-1 as the ratios of players in levels of activity termed casual, immersed and hardcore (although yet to know how and if the numbers from this particular power law extend across all interactive participation or just Wikipedia)

So an interactive Emmy-winning TV ARG - The Truth About Marika - quoted figures of 300,000 viewers but only 3,000 online players. The Lost Ring had 500,000 viewers for its first (well-marketed) trailer on Youtube (comparing very well to 850k for the latest Bond trailer) but only 60-odd players worldwide running the Lost Sport in its finale (from a guessed head-count in the broadcast video which had itself 1200 views in Youtube). In comparison, The Gold-Bug that I worked on had 4,000 site visitors and the two finales had attendances of 60 and 80-odd.

It isn't just about the numbers, of course. But it'd be nice to know more of them so we could see. And an understanding of what players would have to do to be counted at a particular level.

Plus... I wonder if we need to lay a time axis for the length of event along the power-law figures too. The longer an event goes on, the harder it is for players to enter, not least because if it's using the player forum of the traditional ARG, the sheer volume of player posts generated is itself a barrier.

Monday 10 November 2008

While I've been away...

I've done a Crossover Lab Docs, run a pilot game at Sheffield Doc/Fest, a pilot game at London Games Fringe, finished a massive Arts Council application and almost been in touch with astronauts.

And then some.

Thursday 2 October 2008

Pistol Police

It's a small world. My lovely temporary housemate Jonny B Good Liron knows Louisa, one of the E15 gang who were happily recruited into People-Watching at Village Green on Saturday. She'd been a girl with a water pistol in one playing, and I'd witnessed her being escorted by a group of policemen through the park. J reports that actually she'd persuaded the policemen to pretend that it was them using the water-pistol so she'd avoid being got back by wet players. Nice work, L.

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.

"It's up to us"

I went to Village Green yesterday, a event for and with a local community brilliantly curated by Metal in their new base in Chalkwell. I went with Annette Mees to run People-Watching, a game I co-designed with her for Come Out & Play in Amsterdam last year but which I'd never seen happen yet.

is pretty simple. Teams are given a letter from 'Sam' to search a crowd to find Sam's friends and pass on messages which act as clues to finding them. There's a little interaction where a team gives a piece of heather for luck to someone they think might be one of Sam's friends, and if they are right, get a piece of heather back. Get the most heather and you win.

I'd been moved to make it after first playing Cruel To Be Kind. I love how C2BK can provoke lovely encounters with strangers in a public space, but not liking how when it invariably ends in a few very large teams chasing each other it can risk a non-interesting rupture of that space, freaking out passers-by. The starting-point in PW was to make a game that encouraged players to be nice to strangers but would remain completely discreet to non-players. It's a sweet game, it doesn't have the thrill of the chase. But it was heartening to see how well it played for teams ranging from groups of excited teens to elderly couples to (especially) families with small children.

Also along with us was Andy Field to run Checkpoint, the game of smugglers trying to get the entire contents of a living room past border guards. You've got to love any game that can flaunt the word 'dastardly'. CP is a perfect example of a mission game - here is your mission, you know exactly what you have to do (should you choose to accept it) but it's completely up to you *how* you do that. That space round *how* brilliantly enables player creativity.

But this was the first time I think that CP had played away from a grown-up gaming community and most of the smugglers were under ten years old (more on this in another post). When Andy was telling the class of smugglers the rules, I was struck how it is completely reliant on us owning up to a border guard's formal accusation that we are indeed carrying contraband. We could just lie (and when Kevan 'Hawkeye' Davis tapped me on the shoulder, was I tempted...). But that would wreck the game. It demands our complicity to remain playable. I admit I wasn't certain at the start whether our Smuggler Babies would resist that temptation but they did, scrupulously. And I wonder whether because the game so transparently needs our complicity to become an adventure, that is irresistible. And then having gained that complicity, it can get us to do almost anything.

My favourite moment yesterday... actually it was to record this that motivated my writing this post. The living room was dominated by an enormous old telly. A lad probably around ten, certainly not much bigger than the telly itself, was struggling to carry it and asked his friend to help.

His friend: "But it's too big for us, we'll never manage it that distance".

The lad's heroic reply: "We have to get it across. The other smugglers are only 5 years old and they'll never. It's up to us."

Thursday 25 September 2008

This place

I'm writing this place for me. I'm promising to make a place where I can mouth off about the work I make and my thoughts around it. My work is becoming more and more centred on play, an intersection between theatre and games and (even) psychology which is some of the places I'm coming from. I promise to write about any and all of those whenever I feel like it. And I promise to remember that all play and no *play* makes Tass a dull boy.

If that sounds like any kind of fun, you're a dear reader and very welcome here to say whatever you like.