Street Games, Theatricality & Technology

I’m pretty notorious for not doing post-mortems of our games, while being fully aware that I really ought to. Gentrification: The Game! will be no exception, mainly because it’s still around and kicking. So this is a pre-mortem, if you will. This seems timely, since G:TG! just won a couple of awards at Come Out and Play. It seems we’ve blindly stumbled, in our wildly thrashing sort of way, into some kind of good design principles, so now’s the time to try and sound smart if there ever was one.

Gentrification was borne of a desire to not do everything we’ve done before, kind of. I actually pitched another game for our next project, which has now been relegated to the backburner. This game involved GPS and chases, which in addition to being terribly unoriginal, disavows one of our secret half-truths: sometimes we get into arguments with technology, and don’t return its phone calls. More on that in a moment. Instead, we thought, let’s try and make something simple, festive, and deeply atmospheric. Let’s make something that uses chalk instead of cell phones, and which is full of tightly crafted bits of flavour.

Deep, lasting flavour.

Flavour is an interesting term. As a game designer, it’s my tendency (and job) to get hung up on the intricacies of gameplay. I think deeply in terms of mechanics and dynamics, and look at aesthetics as a sort of wrapper to the systems I create. This sort of thinking doesn’t necessarily devalue aesthetics, but it does sort of put it off on its own pillar. I find the distinction becomes more pronounced with games that are supposed to “do” something. What many of my games are supposed to “do” is to create a new experience of space and place, to recontextualize everyday environments, and turn them into something new and exciting. It seems very natural to believe that if it’s going to be a game that’s doing this, then the effect should largely be realized through the experience of performing gameplay. Themes, words and pictures further this intent, but there’s a reason a lot of game designers call it flavour.

Situated games, big games, pervasive games — whatever you want to call them, working with them complicates matters. First of all, the very existence of complex gameplay becomes problematic. Anything involving any amount of “reality” is inherently much harder to execute and much harder to understand. The effect is combinatorial. If you’re trying to run a game on a busy street, you’re kinda screwed: not only will the simplest tasks become difficult for designers to plan and manage due to outside factors, but players will be expected to digest unconventional information in an unconventional context without about a million other things going on. If there’s one problem that I keep seeing at CO&P games, it’s that after a game is explained, most of the players generally have no clue what they’re supposed to do. Designing around this is a whole other topic worthy of a separate post, but the thing I want to say now is that this limitation imposes dramatic limits on the possible depth of gameplay.

But the other thing about these games is that they inhabit a domain with a rich history of loosely structured, highly theatrical experiments and strategies. We all know about pillow fights, zombie walks, and alternate reality games. Public space hacking or reality hacking is traditionally contained within art circles; and art, as inevitably distinguished from games, thrives on unpredictability and chaos. Theater, architecture, and other artistic disciplines contain rich discourse on appropriating facets of reality because each of them speak directly to inextricable components of everyday living. If you’re going to design a pervasive game, you’re going to be thinking about architecture and theater and whatever else, whether you know it or not.

These guys know what I'm talking about.

Coming back to Gentrification, one of the big “a ha” moments for me was realizing the essential theatrical components that have always been a part of our games. With my obsession over gameplay, theatricality was something that never really concerned me. But that was my loss, because theater has a lot to teach gaming about how to use spaces, people and media. Gameplay is difficult to parse and often takes time to resonate; theater, when done right, has immediate impact. Theater can be a fantastic way to contextualize gameplay, or transform it. Gentrification itself has solid strategic gameplay at its core, but things like the parades and the protests add a level of engagement and excitement to what would otherwise be an interesting, but dry game. Perhaps more significantly, they entail an involvement in the street and the community that you don’t get from pure gameplay. That’s important when your goal as a designer is to affect relationships with the space, as it is for us.

On an entirely separate note, the technology issue: we’re not really on poor terms with technology (we would, for instance, say hello to it at a party), but its relationship with our games has changed over time. In Gentrification’s case, the technology acts as a facilitator, of sorts. Although Gentrification is a street-game, it’s driven by a computer. That’s because it’s a fairly sophisticated game, and the computer does all the hard stuff and keeps everything fast and simple for the players. The players tell us what to do, and then we tell the computer, and then the computer tells us what’s changed, and then those changes are reflected in a couple of ways. First, we track everything on a big sidewalk chalk map, because sidewalk chalk is awesome. Second, players can access a mobile web-app to get updates and the current game status directly from the computer. Using the web-app isn’t strictly necessary to play the game, but it makes it a lot easier and more fun. It allows players to keep track of everything that’s going on and strategize effectively, which can be tricky when you’re playing a fast-paced, nuanced game amongst the hustle and bustle of a crowd.

The computer and the web-app allow Gentrification to scale, both in terms of our ability to manage the game, and the players’ ability to understand/interact with it. The technology here serves as a kind of glue that holds things together, rather than as the centrepiece. It’s very easy to make technology the centrepiece, and let it drive design; it excites people, and makes you seem really innovative. We’ve done the Bluetooth, the GPS, the large-screen display, and found that they all tend to introduce a degree of instability that is perhaps more than they’re worth. With Gentrification, we said, “Okay, how we integrate technology in a meaningful way, but where if it fails it doesn’t break the whole thing? How can it support the experience, rather than define it?”

Mobile phones: so 2007.

Moving forward, our plans for iterating on Gentrification map directly to the issues I’ve discussed here. We want to find ways to bump up the theatricality and the spectacle — to make the game as much of an experience as an activity. One of the interesting challenges here is navigating the invisible border between good plain fun and LARPing; LARPing gets a bad rap in North America, despite being pretty close to what a lot of people already do. We could, for instance, encourage teams to roleplay either as developers or locals, but how far can we push that before players get uncomfortable? Our other immediate goal is to round out the web-app a little, and make it more than the tech demo it is now — while at the same time, of course, preventing the game from becoming dependent on it. We have some good opportunities to try out our new ideas, since Gentrification will be running at Hide and Seek on July 11, and PS Kensington on July 25 (full details on the game page). Hope to see you at one of them!

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