April 3, 2013 11:05 PM | Staff
Play is fundamentally something people do together, and yet there's arguably been a loss of intimacy since multiplayer gaming's gone online and into social media, with interactions offloaded either into an anonymous space or into a hollow network of insistent notifications.
In-person folk games designed for event spaces have caught the interest of so many players and designers in recent years because they engage people with groups and incorporate live, spontaneous moments, but the setup and planning they often require reduces their accessibility -- they're only available to the players who are able to be present at the right time and place.
Analog gaming is seeing a revival in the popular consciousness because of the way that it can bring friends together relatively easily and spontaneously for a tactile, in-person play experience that sometimes even require little more than a small pouch of cards and some dice. But for those that are interested in the intimacy of tangible experiences with the broad possibility of digital games, there's still more areas to explore.
What can the instant access to the digital realm offered by mobile devices do to support in-person physical games? That's the question London-based game design studio Hide&Seek is heartily pursuing with its latest app, Kickstarter-funded Tiny Games, a collection of interactive rulesets for hundreds of small folk games people can play together from anywhere, anytime.
Hide&Seek has a heritage in real-world games -- it's run Edinburgh's New Year Games, which played host to more than 10,000 people, and the multi-day South Bank Festival. It began exploring tiny games with a pilot project in London two years ago, and then as a big campaign as part of the cultural activity around the city's Olympic Games that saw three different tiny games ready to be discovered in each of the 33 boroughs.
Tiny games are stand-alone and site-specific; for example, passersby may happen upon a big vinyl sticker on the sidewalk that encourage people to play in incredibly simple, accessible ways right from that spot: say upon finding one sticker, a person and her companion decide on a vantage point, and then each person picks a stranger in the crowd and tries to see whose choice reaches that point first. Or passing over a little bridge, players can drop sticks into the water off of one side of the bridge and then look over the other edge to see whose stick passes underneath first ("Pooh Sticks," as coined in the Winnie the Pooh novels). There are games designed for friends waiting on a bus, or who've happened upon a fountain -- small, spontaneous experiences of play with easily-grasped rules.
"We love those," says Hide&Seek's Margaret Robertson. "We're always going to keep doing those kinds of projects, but it only solves half the problem, in that they're still super site-specific. The next step was really obvious to us, which is the app. How do you make it so that you can always access this kind of play, without losing the specificity?"
"If you're used to designing video games, it can be kind of scary," Robertson reflects. "Video games are an amazing machine that makes you whatever you need; if you move the games into the real world, you lose a lot of that control. So what you have to do is use everything around you; people can find a stick, or a traffic light, but you need to know where people are at. And you need to know what kind of people they are; when you run a live gaming event you do a lot of calibrating on the fly."
For the app, the team wanted to avoid making something that risked leaving players bogged down in pages of rules or in filling in forms, but simply allows them to tell the app their circumstances -- where they are, how many friends are along -- and what kind of game they want to play.
"Since we came up with the idea, we've been working on the content, the stuff we can generate easily internally. We knew we would do a Kickstarter in terms of the stuff that's expensive: Coding and art design, which is something we couldn't do ourselves."
Mobile-assisted Spaceteam, which friends can play together using voice and interaction anywhere so long as they all have the app on their phone, has received an incredible reception, and simple in-person social games that can be accessed so easily on the fly are going to be in increasing demand, Robertson believes. We spoke to her during PAX, when attendees of the Sportsfriends sessions seemed to come away feeling like they were part of a "movement."
"People are really hungering for that kind of face-to-face," says Robertson. "The board game community, the digital community and the live event community are getting really inspired around giving a more democratic kind of thing, and putting a lot of control back into the hands of players and giving them tools to make their own play, rather than entering a world built to [the designer's] specifications."
Many of the tiny games are folk games with specific cultural history, and this can be a way to preserve and share the heritage of play from different places around the world, she believes. "On one level, we want to popularize them, but we would never want to look like we're trying to take credit for them," she says. "We would love to do what we can to curate and cross-pollinate these games around the world. It's fascinating how much we still don't know about, say, what hopscotch looks like in Thailand. Tech helps you do that more easily."
"I've learned a lot on line, but the seduction quality in that is you can get so engrossed, and it's starting to make us realize, in a way, that there's a kind of machine-fueled, instant-gratification culture we live in right now," says Robertson. She recalls having lost a camera battery just before traveling, and found herself genuinely considering buying a new one for Amazon to ship to her hotel the next day, rather than spending another 10 minutes searching for it. "That's a terrible impulse," she adds.
"The other side of the coin when it comes to the wonderful availability where you can read any book, watch any TV show... in some places we're losing those shared experiences. We're not connecting in terms of the culture we're consuming, we're just becoming atomized and divided up."
Using an app to enable people to play together in small, genuinely social ways is part of the trend that rejects the loss of intimacy in internet culture; note how the popularity of Etsy is driven by the economy of handmade content, almost as a response to the insta-consumerism of Amazon and other online storefronts.
"I do think there are broader trends; if there weren't, we wouldn't be getting the support for this that we are," Robertson says. "It's not just us 'nerding up on Victorian parlour games.'"
Fresh off a successful run of tiny games at PAX and GDC, Robertson says she's felt validated by the unbelievable response and the support of event organizers who get it. In helping with setup, she says PAX organizers even voluntarily got involved in helping playtest some of the games.
One tiny game especially suitable for the fan conference environment's called "That's totally Gabe Newell," in which a player has to convince a group of others that a random stranger is a famous game developer -- points if one of the strangers actually approaches the supposed 'famous' person for an autograph, for example.
These are ideas that anyone can think of -- and in fact probably has, from the time kids on long car trips tasked one another with seeing how many license plates from other states they could count. But an infrastructure that inspires people to organize and play tiny games together benefits the trend increasingly favoring accessible in-person interaction, expands any one individual's knowledge of folk games, and therefore pollinates and preserves their heritage.
Skeptics might say enthusiasts of this in-person movement are just the same 20,000 people showing up to every event. "We think you're wrong, but we can't prove that yet," Robertson asserts. "This last year and a half, for us, has really been about the opportunity for us to prove that."
[Leigh Alexander wrote this article originally for sister site Gamasutra]