Archiving play with a town

As I mentioned in my previous post, I have been commissioned by the Creative Recovery Network to create a locative game with a regional town in Queensland. It involves a location-based experience that is very low-fi, along with archiving stories of the town. To get the link between the past and the present and the need to ground players in the space, I decided to explore archiving play: how people have played in the home, school, streets, and paddocks over the generations.The design is heavily inspired by Hide & Seek’s ace Tiny Games.

I think when I mention I’m archiving play, people assume that I’ll be archiving how people play right now with video recordings. My plan was more about what they play (the rules) rather than how. But as I discovered, there are ways to draw out the rules and the nuances that are critical.

So today I had the first session with the school kids (grades 4, 5, and 6). I started off by talking about what a game designer is and got them to brainstorm what you do when making a game. Of course, their responses were about creating the graphics (“images”), characters and sounds. So we talked about the designers job to come up with rules, like with chess: how there can be people who make the board and the pieces and someone who comes up with the rules. They came up with a list of rules for chess. I spoke about games that can use apps but are about live playing, and showed them some examples. To move them away from the concept of games being (to them) Minecraft, Halo and Grand Theft Auto, towards what we’ll be doing, we played “Head’s Up“. This worked well.

Then we played some live games, and I got them to come up with a list of the rules for the game. I then asked them what games they play in the schoolyard, and we came up with a list of twenty immediately. I tried to get the instructions/rules, but they were often lost in the garbled excitement of explaining them.

We then went for a walk around the town, with a town elder sharing stories of the games she has played around the streets. This opened up other stories from the kids, such as how they make “cubbies”. There was one kid who spoke about having a tree with branches you can lie on. The problem is, “there are six branches and seven kids”. We got to the main park area and after morning tea I invited them to show me one of their games. Some of the kids didn’t know the rules, and so they learned a bit from the instructions from the other kids but mainly from doing. How the game works was infinitely clearer seeing it played, as there are small nuances that are forgotten when describing them. So embodied passing on is important.

Part of what is important about embodied play is the discovery of game set-up and fair-play rules. For instance, when I asked them how they know who is ‘it’ earlier, they gave me two rhyming methods “blue shoes” and “21”. But when they actually played the game, their immediate response was to throw their hand to the grass and yell “touch ground, not it!”. There are other nuances, like how you “have” to tell someone if you’re “it.” There are different ways to do that. When they had described it earlier, they gave me the hand signals you use to indicate if you’re “it” or “human” (“not it”). But then when they played, it was simply yelling “Are you it?” “Yes I’m it!”. All of these kinds of play rely on an honesty system, and what Bernie De Koven talks about with in his book The Well-Played Game.

I loved hearing the games created according to the almost-impossible obstacles you have around you. Such as “Don’t ask a question” or my favourite “Don’t let the dog lick you”. The second one “is tricky because we have 3 dogs and 2 puppies”. It is these bits of context that add to the meaning behind the games, such as “Run away from Ryan’s big brother,” “Let’s clean up my room,” and the “quiet game.”

Other games we have listed so far include: T-run, Tiggie, 21 Home, Dragons, Gang-up Tiggie, 1-2-3 Home, Elastics, Hopscotch, Red Rover, Bullrush, Skipping, Tennis, Soccer, Touch, Brandy, One colour, and “Don’t touch anything”.

What I found fascinating too was that in talking with the Principal we discovered a game he used to play as a kid had the same name as one they play now, but has different rules. This is where the generational aspect of archiving play is interesting. When did the rules change and why?

Another discovery today was being told about the school’s previous experience with kids and play. Two years ago the school found that the students didn’t really know how to play with each other. They didn’t know how to play in the school yard. So they got funding and brought in a P.E. teacher who spent one day a week teaching the kids how to play (not just sports). I tried to figure out how this can happen, and it turns out the years preceding this intervention involved terrible flooding of the area and a long-term dispute with the government. I have asked to speak with this teacher to find out more, but it seems that the stress of community trauma affects the kids ability to play. Good to see the town cared about the kids ability to play, and good to see the kids have come back from that, just like the town has.



Freeplay, Invisible Buttons, Street Play, Blind Spiders, and Books

On the weekend I had a great time being on a panel for the Freeplay Independent Games Festival.  Along with ace designers Kate Raynes-Goldie and Holly Gramazio, we spoke about “Games with Invisible Buttons” and it is now archived online:

Three designers whose work straddles digital and non-digital, technology, and form, discuss the relationships at work with games with invisible buttons.

At the end we quickly spoke about some of the current projects we’re working on. I mentioned two. I’ve been commissioned by the Creative Recovery Network to create a locative game with a regional town in Queensland. It involves being a location-based experience that is very low-fi, along with archiving stories of the town. To get the link between the past and the present and the need to ground players in the space, I decided to explore archiving play: how people have played in the home, school, streets, and paddocks over the generations. I’m really excited by this idea, and the design is heavily inspired by Hide & Seek’s ace Tiny Games (that Holly worked on!).

The other game I’m working on is my next original major game. It is a digital game, though I have come up with two different versions: a purely digital single-player version, and a 2 player local co-op. Both excite me, but I’m keen at this stage to explore the former as it involves more challenges for me. The premise is this: The Blind Spider and Guide Fly. It really is a character adventure, where it is all about your interactions with your ‘buddy’ and your shared foes. For the single-player version, I’m developing conversation mechanics that involve proximity, context, and combat. I’m inspired by Elan Ruskin’s 2012 GDC talk about AI-driven Dynamic Dialogue for this. One of the things I’m playing with is going with poetic voice-overs rather than realistic dialogue or emotive sounds.

One of the big things I’m doing differently with process in this project is an investment in proper development. In all my projects, I pay every person who works on the team (of course). I pay for every prototype, every iteration. Everything has a price-tag. Most people who spend their time doing indie projects either do it themselves or have a team of people who dedicate their time for free towards a common cause. But for me, I dedicate my own time for free doing the designing, writing, directing, and project management and pay everyone else. What this means is I can only afford so many iterations. I cannot afford to pay for 3 prototypes for instance. I can only afford small iterations. This has been great for learning how to produce as good as you can in as short period of time with little iteration (but also iterating a lot pre-tech and in low-fi ways). But now I want to spend the time iterating properly. How?

I don’t know. I will begin by spending as long as I can with the design and writing before I bring on the whole team. Once I bring on the team I find I spend more time doing project management than anything else. I want to give myself the time to play with design and writing for a while. But of course I need to test. There is only so much I can do in documentation, in my head, and with paper prototypes. So I’ll see what I can learn to put together in Unity myself too. Then, once I have a good starting prototype I’ll call on others and see if the project may attract some development funding… Either way, I’m really excited about spending the time refining and getting the most out of the idea.

Lastly, I have come across a great game design book. In fact, I would call it the best I have read. I love game design books. I love design books. I love lots of different books. I have plenty of books inside and outside game design that influence what I do. But it is only recently that I have come across a game design book that approaches design like designers from other disciplines.

In 2009, Jussi Kuittinen and Jussi Holopainen wrote a paper for DiGRA: ‘Some Notes on the Nature of Game Design’ [pdf]. They analysed key game design books and compared them to key design theories. In conclusion, they found the books don’t address the nature of design:

Judging from the selection of the game design literature we analysed, game design is heavily governed by the object of the design, games. Although this may seem like an overly obvious statement, it carries with itself the connotation that the activity called design, is left to too little attention. Whereas the books concentrate on teaching the reader the principles and elements of game design, at the same time they leave aspects of design activity such as representing, moving and reflecting to little consideration.

This is why I am excited by Tynan Sylvester’s book. Designing Games: A Guide to Engineering Experiences talks about (among other things) the psychology of making games. How you think as a game designer? He also does some welcome busting of a few game design memes. Other books that look at the ‘why’ that I love include The Kobold Press Guide to Board Games, and Bernard De Koven’s The Well-played Game: A Player’s Philosophy. I do love many game design books out there (I especially love collections of mechanics), but there has been a need for this kind of approach and I’m glad I’m stumbling on more them. Do you have others in this ilk?