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25 Sep 2011

DiGRA 2011: Gamification, morals, mimes and a hungover LARP

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Last week, I was asked to take part in a panel on board games at DiGRA 2011 at the Utrecht School of Arts in The Netherlands. It's three days of jam-packed, pretty intense debate, discussion and, of course, play centred around academic research into games. Seeing as that sounded like my idea of a GOOD TIME, I attended the whole thing. Here's what I learnt ...

First, I was pretty amazed at the breadth and sophistication of the state of games research, considering how relatively new serious study of games is. There was discussion on everything from meta-analysis of what a game is, to sociological and cultural evaluation of the impact of games, to how they work and communicate with the player. What struck me is that these conversations are pretty rare amongst game designers themselves (from what I've observed), which is odd. I mean, while you don't necessarily need to know, for example, why a great painting works in order to produce one yourself, it does seem somewhat of a handicap.

Highlights of the conference included Eric Zimmerman's frenetic and inspirational opening keynote. He triggered a note of introspection that lasted the duration of the convention. Two themes seemed to persist. The first was how to ensure games were taken more seriously and the other was what to do about "gamification" - starting with the very definition of the word. Gamification is currently the hot buzz-word in marketing circles and that's pretty much the kiss of death when you're trying to build credibility. So understandably there were quite high levels of hostility towards the idea of bringing game mechanics to everyday processes (like Foursquare).

The accusations levelled at gamification are that it's a lazy and crass attempt to coerce customers to engage with your brand. But then, as was pointed out, it doesn't have to be lazy or crass - anything poorly implemented will always be poor; that's not a compelling argument in itself.

I'm not sure where I sit on the matter myself. Reward schemes have been around forever and are a type of game. My main concern is that people should naturally want to engage in an activity - if they're doing it just for a gold star, then that may even supplant natural desires in time. It becomes just about accumulating stuff - an extension of capitalist ideology where nothing has intrinsic worth, only if you slap a value, a prize or a badge on it. In short, games do not improve everything, sorry Jane McGonigal.

I had the slightly uneasy feeling I'd been drafted in for the panel simply to be the living embodiment of everything Reiner dislikedThe board game session on the first evening started with a keynote from Reiner Knizia. I hope Reiner doesn't need an introduction, but just in case you don't know, Reiner is like the China of board games. 90% of all games out there are designed by him. Well, so it seems. He has published an astonishing 500 titles.

Reiner's talk could be paraphrased as "5 rules of board game design". It was interesting, witty and humble, but pretty flawed ... I know, quite a claim when he's sold literally millions of games. Clearly he's doing something right. But these "rules" just didn't hold up. Take #3: "If you're clever and have something to say, you don't need to shock". Well, that's pretty limiting, but OK. The next rule was a poor extension of the same point: #4 "If you're clever and have something to say, you don't need blood". Wait a second, so shock and blood automatically rid something of any artistic, cultural or social value? I guess that's bad news for, well, every artist who's ever lived.

The thing is, Reiner is a *good guy*. He personally walked round the hall before his talk, giving away free copies of his game, Pickomino. - how nice is that? He oozes respectability and is one of those people who genuinely seems not to have a bad bone in their body and to be honest I feel bad picking him up on this as I write. But there was a degree of self-denial in these proclamations of games as upright citizens of the entertainment world. It was a bit like being lectured on game design by Victorian Dad. Sitting there, watching Reiner's talk, I had the growing, slightly uneasy feeling I'd been drafted in for the panel simply to be the living embodiment of everything Reiner disliked.

Sure enough, when the panel got underway, the conversation soon drifted to the idea of games having morals and the morality of game design. Reiner asserted that games should be positive experiences and therefore need to re-enforce positive morality. I should say at this point that everyone on the panel had vastly more knowledge and experience of games than I, but were all far too polite to challenge Reiner. All eyes looked to me and I took up the gauntlet. I recapped Reiner's #1 rule: "Games are about real life" (which he illustrated with a game of his about building a caravan through the desert - and let's be honest, that's real life for a really limited section of the world's population). I strongly agree with this first rule by the way but I pointed out that life is not all positive - it's often complex, difficult and nasty, and those things need representing too, otherwise we're just creating fairy tales. Reiner responded to this by saying that this didn't mean we have to design games where you "fly planes into skyscrapers" - obliquely referring to War on Terror.

What's interesting is that Reiner (who hasn't played the game) raised an objection that we encountered verbatim more than once upon releasing War on Terror from rather reactionary camps who hadn't even seen - let alone played - the game. For some reason, lots of people jumped to the worst possible conclusion they could and made up game mechanics that were far more depraved and far sicker than anything we could ever dream up. And that reminded me of the discussion about gamification earlier in the day. I suddenly understood Reiner's worry very clearly - games that shock are frequently lazy and crass. And while it may have been lazy of him to assume our game was about something so void of value as getting points for hitting skyscrapers, Reiner merely fell into the trap that the gamification critics did of assuming that because a lot of the implementation of a certain idea is badly done, then the idea must be bad in itself.


This is probably the only time you will ever see my name and Reiner's mentioned together in the same tweet. Savour it.

Later in the conference, Mary Flannigan, in an excellent, ideas-packed talk, would sum up this imperative for games to grapple with serious issues far more coherently than I did on stage. She said, "in a polarized world games help people take a position and experiment with it". That line could almost be our mission statement.

Reiner and I argued the point further for a bit in an exchange that someone later described as "enjoyably uncomfortable", before moving onto safer territory. The panel went on for well over an hour after that and it was a real privilege to have such a stimulating conversation with such an interesting group. I got on especially well with Douglas Wilson, co-founder of the Copenhagen Games Collective and designer of the beautiful, balletic game, Johann Sebastian Joust. Douglas likes to play with those spaces in games that exist between the rules; I think that's why we saw eye-to-eye on a lot of things. I'd like to briefly thank Ben Kirman and José Zagal for arranging such an enlightening session and of course for inviting me to be part of it.

As great as our panel was, it wasn't the highlight of the convention. That honour goes - without a shred of doubt - to Antanas Mockus, who delivered his keynote via Skype from Colombia. Mockus is a true radical, a real games revolutionary. He is the ex-Mayor of Bogota and during his time as Mayor he experimented with a number of unusual and daring public games (although he didn't see them as games) that he devised to rewrite the social contract and make the town a better place to live. My favourite anecdote was his solution to the flagrant traffic abuses that the police were too inept, lazy or corrupt to fix. Mockus drafted a small army of 400 mime artists to publicly and visibly call out road users who broke the law. In effect, the mimes - in a playful and comedic way - plastered over the cracks in the social contract and made it socially unacceptable again to run red lights. A bonus side effect of this strategy was that the mimes were so disliked that when the police did turn up, they were greeted as heroes. Citizens and police were united by the common enemy of mime. It sounds like the plot of a Family Guy episode, but this is very much for real. Check out the documentary 'Cities on Speed' for more on this fascinating character.

Last but not least, I was inducted, on the final day, into LARPing (Live Action Role Play). Previously I had a massive prejudice against LARP, understanding it was largely about dressing up in the woods and waving latex swords around with other people pretending to be orcs. That was until I was told about Nordic LARP. Nordic LARP seems to be less about fantasy make-pretend and more about unregulated psychological experiments from American universities in the 1970s. Take, for example, a LARP they did, set in the time of the Cuban missile crisis - except in this game, World War III actually breaks out. They got everyone into a bunker, set up the situation, told them the boxes were full of supplies and then "dropped the bomb". It's at that point they find out the boxes don't contain food, they contain speakers and the ground literally shakes with the "explosion". Then they switch off the lights, cut the power and lock them all in there for 22 hours. Apparently some people emerged with post traumatic stress disorder. Others were crying. Some were too stunned to speak. FUN FOR ALL THE FAMILY! I realised that Nordic LARP makes our games sound weak and feeble in comparison.

Anyway, author of the Nordic LARP book, Jaakko Stenros, lead a "hungover larp" on the last morning of DiGRA. It was a kind of whodunnit, but one that has no resolution. There were ten of us locked in a darkened room with empty bottles lying over the floor and party snacks scattered on the table. The scenario is we all awake after a riotous house party, we all remember different snippets of the previous evening. Oh and there's blood all over the sheets on the bed upstairs. Basically this gave way to 90 minutes of pretty hammy acting, some genuinely insightful moments and many, many laugh-out-loud moments, which makes it tough to stay in character. All in all, it was an interesting experience. I certainly see the appeal now. Stay tuned for the forthcoming Guantanamo LARP from TerrorBull Games!

OK, you've been really good and you've finally reached the end of this epic post. Drawing lessons from gamification, I hereby reward you with the "EPIC BLOGREADER" achievement badge. *ching! ching!* - and here's your special unlocked bonus material .... Kid Koala at the opening party playing moon river. This was incredible so I'm really sorry about the appalling sound quality. Enjoy:

For more pictures of the insane opening party, check out the gallery and also DiGRA's own videos of the event.

Posted by Andy S on 25 September 2011 - 3 comments

Comments so far:

  1. For a good read about the downsides of giving out badges and the like - gamification - see the book Punished by Rewards by Kohn. Lots of stuff about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. I'd be happy to lend you my copy.hamish from cambridge - 27 September 2011
  2. That sounds right up my street, thanks Hamish, I'd love to borrow it.TerrorBull Games - 27 September 2011
  3. Great post! I really liked your admittance of your newfound appreciation of LARP. Although I've never done this in the structured sense, I, along with my family and a couple thousand others, once spent a whole week in character at the SCA "Gulf War" http://www.gulfwars.org/about.html reenacting a middle ages battle between two warring kings. It was one of the most brilliant experiences I've ever had!Estella from Chelmsford - 2 October 2011

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