April 27, 2012 2:00 PM | John Polson
Kurt Bieg and Ramsey Nasser, the creators behind this week's Swordfight, used "plain, stupid fun" to breathe life into decades-old peripherals and to test the boundaries of players' comfort.
With crotch-mounted Atari 2600 joysticks, a player in Swordfight must touch the other's action button, while their arms are (optionally) bound behind their backs. The duo learned this awkward, intimate interaction can be fun, to the point of being emotionally releasing, as long as the rules of engagement and tools used keep the game "safe".
Subverting, or re-purposing, technology isn't anything new. Die Gute Fabrik showed the world two very different games people can play with PlayStation Move controllers: the award-winning Johan Sebastian Joust and Dog the Wag.
Bieg, being particularly fond of subversion, jumped at the chance to make Swordfight a reality, even though it started out two weeks ago as an inappropriate conversation between him, Nasser, and friend Kaho Abe. Swordfight was then developed and playtested at the Eyebeam Art + Technology Center and eventually was taken to the street for public exhibition.
In the following Q&A, Nasser and Bieg tag-teamed their responses to provide extra insight into their experiment.
Tell me more about this conversation. What started it all?
I don't remember the exact conversation but we were talking with Kaho Abe in the lobby just before heading out and for some reason Kaho mentioned that there is an "Arse Electronika" conference and when she tells people about it they mistake it (understandably so) for the real Ars Electronica.
We all started joking back and forth about mentioning to people that we had a project in "Arse", and how shocked they would be when they accidentally assumed we had said "Ars" and found out what it was. We were joking about crass blatant sexuality games we would submit and it totally hit me that it would be fantastically amazing to make a game where players wear really old Atari controllers in strap on harnesses over their private areas and try to stab each other.
I couldn't stop laughing. Ramsey was sold on it. Kaho was speechless.
That was pretty much the end of the conversation.
Once that came out, Ramsey and I realized we had to make it. On the walk home from Eyebeam we were talking about how it could actually be made. Getting the controllers to keep score, where we could find them, that sort of stuff.
By the end of that walk, we had the game pretty much finished.
But where did this inspiration come from?
(Kurt) It's pretty much how my brain works. There's a lot going on in there, lol.
Really, it's about having fun. Plain stupid fun. We were laughing when the idea came out, and when we really thought about it we figured it really wouldn't take much to get a working game.
What really enticed us, though, was the prospect of taking that archaic controller and making it sexy and exciting. When I found those controllers, they were lying in a bin collecting dust. Now they're in strap-on harnesses and the heart of a really unique experience.
I wonder what those Atari controllers are thinking, lol. "What the hell is going on, I thought I was retired?!"
How intimate is the Swordfight experience?
Swordfight is an extremely intimate physical game. During our first playtest a pregnant woman and her friend were the first ones to publicly try it. It was really funny because her friend had no idea what they were doing until I started to help her into the leather harness. She quickly looked at her friend and you could tell that this was really hitting a weird place.
The amazing thing though was how immediately playful and intimate the space between the two players became. They grabbed each other's hips once they realized how difficult it would be to win and they started this awkward dance where they were shifting their balance and their hips trying to hit the other person's button. It's kinda cooperative in the sense that both players have to get close, but then it becomes competitive because one person wants to win.
It's a very intimate place to have a game, between two people's hips, but the controller acts as a buffer, and the novelty of it allows players to engage with each other in a way that would normally be off limits.
Really, all the different parts of the game create that safe environment. The fact that they are old Atari controllers and that the implement is calling out the blatant phallic aspect of those old controllers. Also, these classic controllers are encased in a sexual harness that few people (at least that we know of) actually have worn. As soon as you put on one you are effectively wearing a costume of sorts that brings its own energies and thoughts. Then, when players are unleashed on each other they engage in a physical conversation that culminates in a very unique experience. People aren't used to being touched (especially in such a private place), and when they finish they have this very relaxed expression on their face, like they had this emotional release of sorts.
I think it works so well because by putting on the harness, players are inviting each other to invade their private personal space so long as it is within the rules of the game. It's a game that really shows the potential interactions a set of rules can create. While both players are in the figurative circle of the game they are free to experiment (pun intended). Players are comfortable with exposing themselves because they understand that only the joysticks will be involved in the play. The rules of engagement ensure that everyone can play safe.
Could you discuss how you modified the joystick?
The controller beeps loudly for seven seconds once the button is pressed to signal a hit.
Our initial idea was to have the controller send some wireless message to an app somewhere that kept score. That was scrapped for being too overthought and complicated. Our next idea was to build an Arduino and speaker into the controller, and have it generate different tones for each player. That was scrapped because there's almost no space in those things! We finally arrived at a stripped down timing circuit and piezo speaker glued into place, with a 9-volt battery connected outside in a pouch on the harness.
What has been your experience so far with two guys getting together to touch joysticks? Girls? Mixed partners?
When we tested it ourselves, it was extremely awkward. We know each other very well, and it was such a strange way to move your hips around and towards someone like that. We backed off, laughing a lot when it got too hot. Pretty quickly, though, you start to accept the experience as a game that you're equals in, and it becomes much more comfortable.
In the four play tests we did, the girls seemed to be most enthusiastic. All the pairs were friends, and had a blast dueling with one another. One couple even recruited another couple off the street to try the game! The only people who turned down a play test were a pair of guys.
Our only guy/girl couple was also our only pair of strangers. They started out cautiously, backing off and laughing frequently, but slowly got up the courage to dive right in.
When they ended the guy cordially said, "I guess I should ask you your name."
What other peripherals are ripe for the picking?
Swordfight is less about the controllers and more about the right idea at the right time. We love to subvert interfaces. Misusing something is one of the best ways to making something. Previously we worked on Twirdie together, and that was about subverting Twitter data to make a game, so I guess it's really about what we would contort for our next game.
Also, it sounded fun to make this and totally new, so we built it as quickly as we could. It took about 3 days from digging around finding old Atari controllers to suiting up.
When will Swordfight make its first public exhibition?
Soon! We're entering it to Come out and Play this June/July and are hoping to bring it to Indiecade. But anywhere else that will have us should send us an email.
We also do weddings.
Any last words?
Don't tell our parents we made this.