Tag Archives: exhibition

A Zine in Design Research

Restricted Parlour Games Zine PDF

I recently created a zine containing six games for part of the London Design Festival 2016. The zine forms part of the Design Research exhibition at London College of Communication.

The games explore specific rule types visible in parlour games, board games and card games. This rule types are choice, randomness and interaction which are found in varying combinations in most rule books.

Choices give players control over the navigation of a game’s possibility space. By selecting which state to move to next, the player governs play, they are in charge.

Randomness in games removes control from the players. By moving through the game’s probability space in unknown ways, unexpected situations can occur.

Interaction in games draws the players together into a shared experience. By interacting with each other the players navigate the possibility space together, pushing and pulling on each other changing the outcomes for everyone.

Each of these six games was designed to only use rules of one these three forms. The desire was to see what pure rule type games would look like and what the functions of these rule types are.

Each game is short both in rule length and play time and are presented with images of the components required to play the game.

Here is the conclusion drawn from the zine:

By isolating each of the three core aspects of parlour, board, and card games and creating short games it was possible to gain deeper understanding of choice, randomness and interaction and their potential uses when combined.

In the first two games, Race Track and Letter Spaghetti, only choice aspects were utilised. With the absence of randomness and interaction between players, it was only possible to create solitaire style experiences that functioned like puzzles. The weakness in this type of game is that once an optimal solution is found the game stops being engaging.

Both Lucky Chef and The Longest Cow utilised only randomness. Games like this take the control from the player but do provide a sense of surprise or mystery, which has potential to create interesting unforeseen events. The issue is the lack of agency given to the player that without careful foresight could create a shallow experience.

Finally two interaction only games are included, Hear Say and Tower. When interaction is used by itself there is no deviation occurring, creating a feeling of a well rehearsed theatrical play. There is a sense of action moving throughout the players, each player committing their own performance.

If you would like to read the zine in full you can download the PDF.

I would like to expand this process of creating games to explore specific themes found in rules to create a greater understanding of how it is that game rules functions and the effects that they can have on the player.

 

Restricted Parlour Games Zine PDF

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10 Questions to Consider when Exhibiting Games and Designing Games for Exhibitions

More spaces are showing games for many different reasons. It might be demos for games that are available to purchase, games that are in development or perhaps the game itself was specifically designed to be shown in an exhibition. Whatever the reason there are a few questions that I think we should start asking ourselves about showing games in these spaces. This is not a definitive list but a work in progress, the beginning of a wider conversation we as designers, exhibitors and curators should be having. Games are certainly worthy of a platform and space to be shown, and we can learn a lot from other mediums, art, design, performance and theatre, but there are somethings that games do differently. Therefore we must consider what is special about how people view and experience games and how we can make exhibitions and spaces for games better, for those that attend and those that are showing.

Here are ten questions to start that conversation:

  1. How easy is it for someone else to set-up, are there clear instructions, can you make it automatically load when turned on?

It might be that your game is going to be set-up or looked after by someone else, or you be looking after many different games. Make it as easy as possible to go from a crashed or broken state to ready to play. In the case of games on PCs and Macs put a little extra effort in so the game automatically loads up when you either turn on or reset the system. This will make your life and the life of others a whole lot easier.

  1. Is it simple and clear for a new player to restart the game, do you need a big red reset button?

I’ve seen it happen in a number of places. People play a game for a while and then leave it part way through. If a new player with no experience of the game comes to play at this point they may have missed the ‘tutorial’ or learning experience crucial to the overcoming the next obstacle. In fact people often put down the game when they get stuck, so someone picking up the game at this difficulty spike can stop them getting into the game completely. Your game may well have a menu and a restart option but this may not be clear on its own. Is there a way to have a big reset button so a new player can walk to the system and hit it knowing they’ll go back to the beginning? Something like a MakeyMakey could be used for doing this.

  1. How long does it take to learn to play the game, how long to get a good appreciation of the game?

When exhibiting a game, a player will not necessarily have a long time to play your game. There will hopefully be people waiting behind them to have a go, which will add pressure to them. Is the player going to get a suitable understanding of the games rules or controls and a reasonable impression of the game in the time given? If you are showing part of a larger game choose carefully which part it is you show. If you are creating a game specifically for exhibition take this consideration into account at the design phase.

  1. Does your game implicitly state to allow someone else to have a go, after a certain amount of time, after reaching a fixed point?

Again you are probably hoping that lots of people will want to play your game, but games generally are not designed with systems for allowing new players to enter and old players to leave. Consider changing your game to allow for this. At certain points in the game, controlled by time or achievement add an on screen prompt (or non-digital equivalent) that says, ‘You’ve been playing for a while, can you see someone else who would like to play.’ If there isn’t anyone they can keep playing but if there is someone else can have a go without having to ask.

  1. In multiplayer games, could those who have won be encourage through the game itself to look for someone else who might want a go?

In a similar way, multiplayer games should encourage you to share. After a round, match or turn, specifically consider having the winning player give up their spot. Again this can be an onscreen prompt. I have always disliked the often used ‘winner stays on’ rule for game all this does is give the best player more opportunity to get better rather than allowing less skilled players the opportunity to improve.

  1. Who can see your game being played, should it be private just the current player(s), or should it have an audience?

Depending on the type of game and the subject matter there should be some consideration to who can see the game being played. Should it just be the people playing, perhaps they are being asked personal questions or they need a safe space to fail and get better. Possibly showing someone the game before they play will spoil it for them. On the other hand is the game improved with a audience of spectators encouraging and reacting to the players playing. Either way the space and the way the game is set up should really consider that. You can put a curtain around a game, or hide it in a booth. You can put large screens high so others can see them. You can have secondary screens which show the action to the audience specifically.

  1. Are the controls intuitive and clear, do you need to have all those extra buttons accessible when they’re not going to be used?

The worst thing that can happen when learning to play a game is that there are not any clear instructions for the controls. This leads to bashing buttons and hoping things will happen. This is worse with keyboards as there are so many additional potential buttons to try. A simple way to reduce this complexity is by removing the buttons, or highlighting the buttons that are used with stickers or some other markings. A potentially better way is to make a bespoke controller, which through its design communicates intuitively how to use it.

  1. Can you reduce the potential embarrassment that someone may feel if they are not good, or do not understand how to use your game?

A lot of the time we play games in our own homes or with friends, this is somewhere we likely feel safe to fail and get things wrong, and can slowly learn how to play. Picking up a game in a public space and not being able to play can be embarrassing and frustrating. I am not sure what the best way is to solve this in general as it will very much depend on the exact nature of the game and the player, but it is certainly something to take into consideration. If your game is specifically hard maybe having multiple systems, some with an amount of privacy may eliminate the problem.

  1. Could your game disguise the computer and screen, can you hide the familiar technology in cabinets, tables or other bespoke creations?

It is a big challenge but sometimes it is just a little dull seeing rows of computers lined up showing games. I know it makes life and set-up easier but it lacks a little of the potential magic of games. There is potential, given enough budget, time and effort to make bespoke cabinets and tables to hide the hardware in. Instead of mounting screens on walls, they could be behind cutout windows in false walls, giving a flush neat appearance. Instead of keyboards and standard control pads their could be mounted and bespoke controllers. This I admit is a luxury but I think it would help people focus on the games and design rather than the technology used.

  1. What is the purpose of the game, is it advertising itself or is it something that only exists to be exhibited?

Whether the game you are exhibiting is a short demo of a larger game, a full demo for something you wish to sell or something designed specifically for that exhibition the above notions should be considered and potentially embedded into the game. You can design these elements into the fabric of the game itself or you can add a coat of exhibition veneer to an existing game. To make the games exhibition friendly will definitely require more work but it will give the player an experience greater than something they could achieve at home just downloading a demo.

Exhibiting Video Games in Public Spaces

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I have been to a handful of events where video games are exhibited free to the public: indie arcades, gallery exhibits, end of year shows, demos, etc. Although seemingly a great way of getting games into the hands of potentially new audiences there are a few potential problems with the way things are commonly setup.

Whose Turn is it? 

When ‘static’ art/design (paintings, photographs, drawings, sculptures, objects) is exhibited it is easy for multiple people to appreciate it at the same time. Those that want to stay and linger can whilst not obstructing other viewers enjoyment to greatly. With ‘dynamic’ art/design (videos, sounds, music, theatre, dance) there is commonly a start and finish to the piece. The audience of these mediums are given a set amount of time in which they can experience the whole piece. There are exceptions to these generalisations but as an overview I would say this is a fare assessment.

The participation of the audience starts to change when you have ‘interactive’ art/design (games, interactive design, interactive art) here there is an idea of exploration and play. The audiences understanding becomes clear through their and the objects responses to each other. Unlike a collection of other cultural design objects there is an expectation to ‘physically’ experience these types of pieces for yourself. This is not necessarily what would be assumed with a vacuum cleaner or a chair, neither which would seem out of place on a plinth with “Do not touch” and “Do not sit” written next to them.

Interactive pieces are normally made to exist in this exhibited space, where within the design there is at least some notion of how long it takes to ‘understand’ how the piece works. Their purpose fit the needs of the space in which they exist. This is not true of video games, at least where what could be considered traditional video games are transposed into an exhibition space.

The amount of time it takes to play a game can vary greatly there are of course many relatively short indie games clocking in at around 3-5 hours: Brothers a Tale of Two Sons; Limbo; Hotline Miami; Gone Home; Papa & Yo; Thomas Was Alone and Papers, Please. There are of course even shorted games which can take a matter of minutes: Nidhogg and There Shall Be Lancing, but I would say these are even rarer and often require multiple replays to really grasp.

Here lies the first conflict, when playing a game at home a person can take as much time as they want to experience the full piece as designed. This is just not possible in a public space where other people are waiting to play. The audience is either restricted by a time marshal for how long they can play the game, or self controlled by common curtesy knowing other people would like to play. There is simply not enough time for a game to be truly appreciated and understood. Which is fine were demos are concerned as they leave you wanting more and you become a potential customer. However, it should not be the case that a museum or a gallery become a place for advertising games, they should be there to inform, and allow reflection.

There is no solution to this, time restriction, when the games are hosted in a physical space other than having more machines to play on or longer opening, but just like roads that are made wider to reduce congestion, the demand would outstrip the current availability. Perhaps there is a solution in a online museum where for periods of time games can be played for free. This choice has the downside of removing the capability of using original hardware to display older games in their true format it also takes the framing of the exhibition space away and changes the game from a cultural item for consideration to simply a game that is being played.

Also, this limitation begs the question of can an exhibition show any artefacts as in their true habitat other than items created for that specific space, which is something that is not often done in the gaming community. The only example that currently comes to mind is the ‘Two Big Screens’ installation at Game City 2013 in Nottingham. This is the direction I think games should be moving in, created for specific spaces and times.

Am I Being Watched?

It has been a while since the arcade was the home of the video game, its home is now our home. It was the case that the best players in the arcades would draw crowds of spectators and this is still true now, but with people watching videos of speed runs, perfect runs and competitive games online. However, not everyone wants to draw a crowd, sometimes its nice to have space to make mistakes and learn by yourself. Although this is not necessarily completely rational, failing in front of other people can put players off. As a space for coming into contact with games, judgement (perceived or real) should not be welcome.

You could argue that this is a positive in terms of the previous issue of time management, those that may feel embarrassed by their lack of skill may move on quicker, but I would rather they had the time to enjoy and experience the games at their own leisure.

Simply putting people into private spaces for playing would not be the solution. We learn through observation as well as participation. Having a social and caring atmosphere is as important as peoples freedom from unwanted scrutiny.

There is another custom that comes into play here, the notion that once you fail your turn is over. This practice is something I do not enjoy, its result is that the best players get to play the game longer thus getting better, and those that do not do well do not get the time to get better. I felt this old rule kick in when I was at the Digital Revolution exhibit at the Barbican, when playing Super Mario Bros. and Pac Man, I personally wasn’t too fussed as I have played these games many times but I wonder if this practice is instinctual for those that have not grown up playing video games.

Perhaps the solution lies in the layout of the gaming equipment, with a mixture of open spaces where observation is encourage and more private spaces where people can feel free to make mistakes and understand how to play before moving on.

Where/When am I?

The final issue is a minor gripe but it has a large affect on how games are perceived. Where there has been a looser approach to the exhibition with the audience coming and going as they please, games are often left partway through, and often they are left where people are confused or stuck on what to do next. This means that the next person to try the game jumps in in the middle of a situation for which they have little or no context for. The solution to this is clearly to return to the main menu and start from a new file. Is this really clear though, should the audience have to restart the piece? Would this happen for any other type of exhibition, would the audience have to hit rewind on the video.

In the realm of large demos this is not an issue, the demo will often be designed to time out and restart. This is the experience I had when I first tried part of Skyward Sword at Game City a couple of years ago. The issue with demos in an exhibition is that this is not what the game experience is really like, distorting how they are viewed.

The solution here is gallery assistance, where the game can be reset. With a bit of effort a start again button could be installed, allowing the user the restart the experience themselves. This would completely eradicate this problem.

In Summary

Playing video games at a public exhibit is similar to the experience eating half ingested morsels of food, whilst knowing that the person behind you can not get their taste until you have swallowed and left the table. Leaving you the metaphorical choices of appearing inconsiderate or not chewing properly.

but at least it is a start.