games and things

I'm a game designer. I run Matheson Marcault with Sophie Sampson - we're a new company making games that engage with history, physicality and public space. 

Most of my work is over at the Matheson Marcault website, but there are some personal projects here.

My Not-games of the Year

I've been working full-time at Hide&Seek for three and a half years; freelance for a couple of years before that. Since we announced late last year that the company was winding down, a lot of people have asked me what I'm planning to do next.

Well: more games. More play in public space. More "work at the intersection of game design and other cultural forms", that slightly awkward phrase that was the best I could come up with to describe what I did at Hide&Seek.

And I've been thinking, of course, about what type of games I want to make, and why, and what games I most admire. The things I played in 2013 that made me think: oh, this is amazing, I wish I'd made this. (Paying attention to the things you're jealous of is the best way to figure out what you want to do, right? Or at least, it is for me.)

But I'm not going to write about those games. There have been plenty of great Game of the Year lists over the last month or so, and I don't feel like I need to add to them, a week into the new year. Instead I'm going to write about things that weren't games, but which felt like they could inspire them; the experiences I had and things I saw that I want to think hard about this year. The not-games that feel like they're going to influence the games I want to make in 2014, and why.

The Curve, Barbican Centre, London, 24 September 2013 – 05 January 2014  Installation shot by Jane Hobson, 2013, courtesy of Barbican Art Gallery 

The Curve, Barbican Centre, London, 24 September 2013 – 05 January 2014 
Installation shot by Jane Hobson, 2013, courtesy of Barbican Art Gallery 

INTERVALS BY AYSE ERKMEN

The Curve at the Barbican is a weird space: long and narrow, a semicircle corridor of a gallery. The exhibition that's just closed this week, Ayse Erkmen's Intervals, is a set of huge paintings in the style of stage backdrops, hanging from the ceiling, crosswise against the gallery path. They're so huge that they block the way through completely, in fact; but they move up and down slowly, from the ceiling to the floor, suspended from chains.

So if you wait, you can pass. And while you're waiting, there's nothing to do except look at the paintings - much more closely than you would if you weren't physically prevented from moving on.

Which is an amazing gating mechanic, as well as a way of enforcing attention to the paintings: using them as actual physical blocks to forward movement. People stood right up next to the paintings, staring at the grain; or they ducked under as soon as they began to rise; or they'd wait till the painting was about to hit the floor and then rush under with Indiana Jones daring. Groups of friends and strangers split up and recombined as the paintings rose and fell. Once I found myself alone, separated from the crowd and my companions, trapped between two paintings, just looking and waiting and looking.

The key thing for me: a mechanically changing space can make its rules of interaction implicit, encouraging people to play without any need to explain the rules. Obviously there are plenty of digital games that do this, but it's still rare in physical games.

During the break (these men are not playing cricket)

During the break (these men are not playing cricket)

CRICKET

Yeah, okay, cricket is technically a game. But I didn't play: I watched, twice, once the third day of a four-day match at the Oval, the other the Davidstow National Village Cup Final between Rockhampton and Cleator.

I don't think of myself as someone who watches sport. In 2012 I saw a few events at the Paralympics, and a midnight ice hockey match in Brixton (with four spectators total), and that's about it. In 2013, it was these two cricket matches - and both times I went it was with friends who explained what was going on, why people were applauding at particular moments, how different playing styles worked, what arcane rules and tactics were manifesting. And suddenly the game was a story unfolding in front of me.

Better still, it was a story unfolding in front of me that I could take in while sitting in the sunlight, having unrelated conversations, and drinking gin and tonic. I could pay as much attention as I wanted, with scoreboards and audio cues to tell me when to pay attention; surrounded by other people paying as much attention as they wanted as well, talking and taking photos and napping and reading and yelling.

I was surprised by how nice a time it was.

The key thing for me: One of the most important things that games in public spaces can do is make themselves interesting to bystanders. Some sports are so good at being spectatable that people watch them a lot more than they play! So they must be worth learning from.

pumpkins.jpg

PUMPKIN PATCHING

I went to visit friends in Portland near the end of October, and they took me "pumpkin patching", which it turns out involves looking at huge numbers of pumpkins, choosing your favourite pumpkin, lugging your pumpkin around until someone measures it and tells you how much it will cost, paying for your pumpkin, bringing your pumpkin home, and then going to more effort than I had ever imagined to carve alarming faces or tranquil scenery into it. You scoop out terrible pumpkin innards with your hands, you cut out patterns, and scrape and scumble and then scrape out more from the inside so the light comes through better, and test it by shining a torch through.

You use the special pumpkin tools that everyone owns to do this.

And then eventually, each of you has a pumpkin with a candle inside, glowing a strange pattern out in orange. And you put it on the porch. And the people at the next house over have some as well, already sitting on their porch; and the house next to that, and the one across the road.

I've played (and curated) plenty of games where there's a making element - a player token to customise, a picture to draw, a story to add to - and the structure and context of the game rules can help people to create things they never would otherwise. It's an excuse; it narrows down the choices, and makes the demand to make something less overwhelming. The set of conventions around pumpkin patching and carving does something very similar, but on a vast mass scale beyond what I'd imagined.

The key thing for me: oh my god if you just give people an excuse and a social context then they will sit and make things for EVER.

 Party Printer's face

 Party Printer's face

PARTY PRINTER BY ED JEFFERSON

Party Printer is a twitter bot connected to a big old receipt printer. If you tweet something @partyprinter, the receipt printer prints it out. If you send it a picture, it'll print that too.

(It's not on at the moment, though, so don't send it anything just now.)

My housemate built it one Sunday afternoon, and mentioned it on Twitter, and it immediately received a flurry of tweets - funny pictures, messages, complaints about being trapped inside a receipt printer. It was really neat.

But Party Printer really came into its own when it appeared at an actual party. And by "came into its own", I mean "printed out a constant stream of messages from people who were at the party and from people who couldn't make it and from a surprising number of people nobody at the party even knew".

It turns out that we're still really excited by the opportunity to cause physical actions at a distance - to do something small and easy here, and make something big and silly happen in the real world over there. To make our impulses tangible. It's like being given a strange tiny magical power, and it's so great.

(If you're curious, it was a couple of hours before anyone sent a picture of a penis.)

The key thing for me: translating a small local action into something big or far away is really good fun. Also, the best time to make people feel drunk with power is probably when they are also drunk with drink.

 One of the small urban spaces that the book looks at

 One of the small urban spaces that the book looks at

THE SOCIAL LIFE OF SMALL URBAN SPACES  BY W.H. WHYTE, 1980

This is a book that looks at small urban spaces (parks, squares, plazas, footpaths, bus shelters, whatever) and what makes them work, and why. 

It's based on a huge amount of research and observation and time-lapse photography and question-asking, and it's got everything from graphs about average sitting time on different benches to grand moral statements of what a city should be: "It's not right to put water before people and then keep them away from it. But this is what has been happening across the country. Pools and fountains are installed, then immediately posted with signs admonishing people not to touch."

It's great at pointing out the difference that tiny changes can make to a space - food placement, step depth, proportion of seating to overall space. But it also makes it clear that a really, really good urban space isn't just a little bit better than an indifferent one. A really, really good urban space is something wonderful and transformative. 

The book doesn't deal with games explicitly, but as an approach and a statement of what a small urban space can become, it's excellent. And it represents the depth of thought and research that can be put into how to make places encourage different types of behaviour, and that game designers need to be aware of if we want to have a full understanding of how our work exists in public.

The key thing for me: the shift between a public place that encourages play and one that discourages it can be small physically but huge in terms of how it changes people's behaviour and attitudes. Of course if you're designing in play from the outset, you can accomplish more - but it's interesting to think about the smallest effective interventions that can be made to existing spaces, and the sort of rigour we still need to put into observing and assessing how that works. 

 Picture by Cake in Milk.

 Picture by Cake in Milk.

GIRLS ALOUD

In March, I went to see Girls Aloud at the O2 for my housemate's birthday. At the time, they hadn't announced that they were splitting up for good - but everyone knew it really, even as we hoped otherwise, knew that (absent any future reunion tours) this was it. 

They were so cheerful and energetic and lovely and sang so many songs and went through so many costume changes, and just kept going, and then they FLEW OVER OUR HEADS on a sign reading "GIRLS ALOUD". Amazing. Thousands and thousands of people yelled. (Later in the year, I saw Ke$ha, who rolled around in a paddling pool filled with glitter; and JLS at their very last performance ever, culminating in ten minutes where they and thousands of teenage girls cried and sang together).

It's not often, is it, that something makes so many people in the same place so happy, all at once? But a lot of the feelings that a big concert full of excited people can evoke - community, attention, exhilaration, excitement - overlap a lot with the feelings that event games like to play with.

The key thing for me: in ten years, it would be nice if big event games had stopped fucking around and had found a way to make that many players that happy, all at once. Not as their main purpose, sure - but as one of the things that the form is capable of. There's no reason intrinsic to the form that makes it impossible - we had twelve thousand people at the New Year Games, after all. And even if nobody ever manages to be as good as Girls Aloud (let's be realistic: the only thing as good as Girls Aloud is Girls Aloud), it's worth remembering just how joyful and huge and excited an event can be. It's worth measuring our long-term ambitions about what event games can do against the biggest and most exuberant examples of mass joy that we can find.

brisac.jpg

WALKING UP A MASSIVE BIG HILL NEAR BRISSAC

Spending an hour and a half walking up a massive hill to a statue and a view: fair enough. Walking up a massive hill to a statue and a view, only to find that the last five minute stretch has been made deliberately twice as difficult: what.

There's a hill near Brissac with a big statue on top. A friend told me to walk up; rightio, I thought, sounds like a nice idea.

The statue shows Mary holding a baby Jesus, so perhaps it shouldn't have come as a surprise that the very end of the path is meant to represent the Stations of the Cross - and that to make sure the experience mirrors the theme, the final path is narrower and steeper and more winding, and covered in rubble.

It wasn't a fun final ten minutes! But it was amazingly well measured. Half the distance, and it would have felt like a joke rather than a chore; twice the time, and I might well have just gone "you know what, the view from here is FINE". And it made sense: the sudden difficulty wasn't arbitrary, it made sense in the context of what the statue was for.

The key thing for me:  The path's sudden increase in trickiness felt coherent and well-judged, and made the summit feel more important. I sometimes forget that not all difficulty is arbitrary.

 Picture by Roger Barker

 Picture by Roger Barker

ALTON TOWERS 

Rollercoasters are really, really, really good, right? And a day going on rollercoasters over and over again is even better. I went to Alton Towers in late April with our Head of Production at Hide&Seek, and we went on Nemesis eight times and Rita four and and Oblivion twice and - look, you don't need all the numbers, but we went on a lot of rides and it was a pretty great day.

And: really, really relevant to game design.

I'm going to write more about this later in the year, but take theming, for example. The themes in rollercoasters often seem a bit... thin; overacted video intros, ominous flashing lights, unlikely in-world claims. But compare the themes for Nemesis and Oblivion, say ("something about an alien?" and "a dystopia about making people vanish??" respectively) to Sonic Spin-Ball - a really neat rollercoaster themed around Sonic the Hedgehog that we almost didn't go on, because come on: a Sonic rollercoaster?

The comparison makes it clear how much the themes add, and how their apparent thin-ness is what makes it possible to take it in while waiting in a line, talking to people, possibly soothing children, not really paying attention. The themes are atmosphere and setting and visitor recruitment, and you only really notice how much they're part of the experience when you compare them to a rollercoaster that's gone "remember Sonic? Nah, us neither but look the carriages are kind-of blue and reddish, what more do you want?"

I could write about this for thousands of words - I probably will, at some point - but in short: rollercoasters! Fun AND informative.

The key thing for me: rollercoasters are just astonishing, and they're made by people who have a whole lot of practice at designing big real-world experiences. What isn't a key thing for me? It's not just that I want an excuse to go on more rollercoasters (though it is partly that I want an excuse to go on more rollercoasters). It's that the design of the overall experience - the peaks and troughs of excitement, the winding of the queues, the way the most fun parts are made visible to attract more riders - has so much built in that real-world games can learn from.

 Picture by Adam Bowie

 Picture by Adam Bowie

LIGHT SHOW

I went to see Light Show, the Hayward's exhibition of art made with and about light, on a crowded day; my co-visitor and I concluded that some of the less showy pieces would have worked better if we'd had better timing. But as it was, the things that struck me the most were the pieces that made the light feel physical, something to move through and in and around in a way we're not normally conscious of. 

Sometimes that was strobe-lit fountains freezing in the air, sometimes it was the hot glow of massive incandescent bulbs fading on and off again; sometimes it was arcs of light moving through fog, dividing the room into planes that you could shift between through, standing on tip-toes to look at the light from above and below, like bobbing underwater in a swimming pool.

The key thing for me: I don't know where or how or who with - I'd definitely want to find someone who works with light to collaborate with - but I think I want  to make an installation game about movement and dark and heat and smoke, and areas of space delineated and transformed by light.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

And of course there were other things. A rose garden that could have been a game, with a FAQ and grid references and the feeling of having found the best rose. Ridiculous dance lessons, where we started out knowing nothing and by the end had learnt a bouncy routine to JLS or Taylor Swift or Britney, a compressed arc from confusion to "ohhhh, that's how it goes" with a perfectly judged difficulty curve. Every book I read or movie I saw about heists. Standing in a park at night at the end of a drunken picnic when someone looked at an app and realised the International Space Station was about to go over; jumping up and down and waving and yelling HELLO SPACE, so excited. A path that led behind a waterfall, and a bridge with a sign saying "hey this is probably safe as long as only one person goes on it at a time". Massive memorial urns beneath Somerset House, person-sized, implicitly inviting people to choose the one that should house them. All the best physical sensations - fireworks, snow falling on a warm swimming pool, rolling down a hill - as constant reminders to design for all the different senses, not just for thinking.