Flow, realism and violence

Diagram of flow states

Challenge, skill and flow, via Wikimedia.

The fundamental problem with this New Yorker piece on the psychology of first person shooters is that the writer doesn’t really understand game design. Now, I’m all in favour of mainstream journalists writing positive articles about video games, but despite its positivity this piece makes some fundamental misunderstandings about the psychology of gaming and the way game design works.

It’s clear that the writer is searching for reasons for the incredible success of first-person shooters, but it ends up in some extremely strange places. For one thing, FPS games aren’t the majority of the market; while the CoD and Halo franchises are very popular, so are World of Warcraft, GTA, Assassin’s Creed, and so on. Even the Wikipedia list of bestselling games the article tries to link to lists Gran Turismo, God of War, Uncharted and Little Big Planet alongside FPS games in the Playstation 3 category. The premise that FPS games are somehow special, justified by the sales figures, just doesn’t stand up.

But the biggest problem is a fundamental misunderstanding of “flow”, and the mistaken belief that it’s somehow intrinsically linked to genre, rather than anything else:

What is it that has made this type of game such a success? It’s not simply the first-person perspective, the three-dimensionality, the violence, or the escape. These are features of many video games today. But the first-person shooter combines them in a distinct way: a virtual environment that maximizes a player’s potential to attain a state that the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”—a condition of absolute presence and happiness.

Flow is not an intrinsic element of first-person games, nor of shooters. It’s not just presence and happiness: it’s concentration and absorption in a task, to the exclusion of all else.  It is often an intrinsic element of good games – perhaps that explains why Kane & Lynch didn’t have the same effect as Half Life 2 – but it’s also an intrinsic element of lots of other experiences.

I get it from working out knotty Javascript problems in Twine, sometimes, from reading fiction, and from doing my day job during massive breaking news stories. I work like crazy to make sure that every player in our live games gets it at least once during the experience, too, because that’s often the clearest mark of a genuinely fantastic game. Whether it’s digital or physical, FPS or MMO, whatever your genre or even form conventions are.

And because of that, I’ve got to quibble with the assertion that “The more realistic the game becomes…the easier it is to lose your own identity in it.” The best flow situations I’ve built myself have come when people forget they’re playing, sure, but that isn’t linked to realism or to shooting or even to a first-person perspective and a sense of control. You can get it from dancing stupidly to disco music, from fighting in slow motion, from matching 3 jewels of the same colours over and over again, from Solitaire.

Realism and violence are not necessary for good game design. And good game design is not an adequate explanation for their popularity.

Ludonarrative Discodance: how to be silly in public

Because if you want other people to look silly in public, you have to get them started somehow

Because if you want other people to look silly in public, you have to get them started somehow

Ludonarrative Discodance is a pun that got really, really out of hand. It’s also, somehow, a game we actually ran this weekend in Melbourne as part of the Playroom at This Is A Door. I’m eternally indebted to Pop Up Playground for the opportunity and the time and the wine involved in making that happen.

Grant’s already posted an excellent write-up that you should read if you want to fully understand (a) what on earth we did at the weekend and (b) why on earth he now has that moustache. (As of current writing, he still has the moustache. He has shaved the rest of his face, but not that bit. It’s possible he thinks I haven’t noticed.)

LD was a bit of a shot in the dark, a silly idea that got out of control, but it worked. The core of the game is performing a silly dance and, across a crowded room, seeing the person who’s performing your dance too – then running up to them, confirming it, and smiling broadly before running off to collect another card. It’s clubbing rendered down into shorthand: a breaking-down of boundaries, feeling more comfortable with our own bodies and the bodies of other people, a game of connections and performance and acceptance. People told me it recreated the poor impulse control of being drunk, too, which I like.

Despite the daftness of it, it is a game which lets you say – “Do you want to dance with me?” and for the answer to be yes more often than no. Which is pretty neat for a lot of people, including me, who are used to the opposite. And for it to be a safe question to ask, too.

The gist of the game is paired charades with dancing. Disco music plays and you dance, while also trying to find the other person doing the same dance as you. Round one is nice and easy: you have to act out disco moves – the hip thrust, the hand jive, the Uma-Thurman-in-pulp-fiction. Round two is harder – the lost keys, the high-noon shootout – while round three has you act out films like the Lion King while trying to find someone else crawling around, roaring, holding small lions up to the sunlight etc.

We didn’t get chance to do a full playtest before we ran in Melbourne, which meant the first few plays needed some tweaking. More disco admin staff, different balances of cards – having both Dungeons and Dragons and Lord of the Rings didn’t really work, for instance, but Star Wars and Pirates of the Caribbean worked perfectly as foils for each other to make the game a little harder. (Both involve a lot of waving swords around, which can also be mistaken for Harry Potter.) I’d like to run other versions, other editions, perhaps tailored to different crowds or different themes. But there’s something about disco that really, really works.

The Matrix, obviously

The Matrix, obviously

Fundamentally, the game’s about being silly in public, and being rewarded for it. The more exaggerated and daft you are, the better you’ll be at the game – if you hold back, you won’t score so many points. So it’s in your best interests to throw yourself into things and shed a few inhibitions in the process. Something about disco music just works for that, somehow; lots of us have mental images of Saturday Night Fever (though not the rape and drowning bit, obviously) and memories of school discos to use as touchstones for that kind of dancing. If you don’t, well, there are instructions on the cards.

It’s equal opportunity silliness: everyone looks as daft as you, so you might as well have fun with it. And it’s a good way to get people mixing and mingling, talking and laughing – you present your silliest, most overblown, daftest self and then someone else dances up to you and there’s a moment of recognition where you both grin.Often people would add little flourishes, dancing together for a moment before coming to hand in the cards – synchronised disco pointing, putting on Cinderella’s shoe, twirling towards the disco admin team in time to classical music no one else could hear.

My personal favourite card from this play was the dad-at-a-wedding. Everyone interpreted it differently, but it was surprising how recognisable it was. I got to see people’s joy as they worked out what was going on and got into the groove; actively encouraging people to dance badly is, it turns out, a great way to get them moving and laughing.

We played perhaps a dozen other games – eight shows in three days, two hours each, with Ludonarrative Discodance just a small part of the proceedings. Rainbow Running has a similar physicality, but it’s competitive in a broad way rather than collaborative, and it’s definitely not silly. Impossible Book Club is all about discussing a book that doesn’t exist, so it’s performative and intellectual and silly in a slightly different way. But my personal favourite from the weekend was The Ride, a game about slow-motion fighting and Valkyries.

Victory. Also Valkyrie.

Victory. Also Valkyrie.

You start with a cardboard axe or sword. You challenge an opponent from the other army. Then you battle in slow motion, not landing a blow until the Valkyries decide who should die. There’s smoke and dramatic music and shouting, and dramatic deaths on the floor. Then you do it again, but this time the dead fighters are spirits who can help out their living comrades, by helping them throw weapons or carrying them across the battlefield or repelling enemy attacks. Even if you lose, you get to lose in the most epic and glorious way possible, and then you get to help your fellow players to achieve even greater heights of epicness and glory.

It is a gorgeous game, absorbing, entertaining and delightful. It is beautifully, wonderfully silly, in a way everyone can get behind, because once again everyone is being silly, playful and physical, in public together at the same time. That’s something we don’t get to do as adults nearly often enough.

Make shit art

There were too many good moments of Freeplay for me to list them all. The whole weekend was a little like a bomb going off in my brain, in an excellent way, and it’s left me with a lot to think about.

I felt, for maybe the second time ever at a games event, unequivocally welcomed and valued. I felt acknowledged for my work and appreciated for my insight, even though I’m not a programmer and I work in liminal places. I didn’t once have to justify live games or LARP or Twine games or text as being worthy of inclusion. The fact that I’m not a full-time game designer, that I’m employed outside the industry, didn’t single me out as an outsider or render my input less valid. I wasn’t a token woman or a token live game person or a token anything.

In the broader world, games like the Gobstopper Job and The Trial and the Twine projects I’ve got running in the background are strange hybrid things that have to fight first to be accepted before they can be loved. But at Freeplay on stage for the first time I used the word “art” to describe Detritus, and it wasn’t inaccurate.

The second day’s keynote was given by Steve Swink, who talked (among other things) about the need to keep creating, to keep getting ideas down. The 10,000 hours theory. He shared an anecdote about a talk in which a designer waded through page after page of comments about how awful his games were until finally reaching a slide that said: yeah, that one was OK.

I am scared of making bad things, things that aren’t legitimate, that aren’t the best thing they could be. I have been in enough conversations where people deride the sorts of things I make as “too niche” or “not interesting” or “shallow marketing ideas” or “not really games” or redefine them as “concept pieces” (as opposed to “solid games”, like that’s a meaningful distinction) and I have internalised some of that, even while being aware that it’s total crap. I have a depth of feeling here that I wasn’t aware of, until now. Becoming aware of it has meant becoming aware that it’s been blocking me from doing some things I’ve wanted to do for a while. Little games. Silly things. Learning new tools. Making shit art, as Steve Swink would have it.

Since we got home I’ve written some other words about Freeplay for the Guardian. That piece focuses on How To Destroy Everything, a talk which is going to reverberate for a while and take time to percolate through the culture, the way all explosions do. Grant’s written about the impact it had on him, which was markedly different to what I experienced, but no less explosive.

And I’ve made a start on some other things. ibis, fly! had stalled badly; now it’s moving again, albeit slowly, because the structure needs some work. I’m going to be writing more regularly about Twine games here – if you have favourites, please send them my way. And the Boobjam project I didn’t think I knew enough to make – I think it might work in Unity. If I can work out how to make Unity work, if I can learn enough about those tools to encode what I know about game design and systems and play in a new medium. Which means making shit art, and not caring if it starts out shit, and not caring if other people don’t think it’s art.

The Gobstopper Job: stereotypes, shortcuts and stealing sweets

The Gobstopper Job. Because everyone’s wanted to run a heist at some point in their lives.

We ran the Job in Bristol at the Interesting Games Festival, in Castle Park. We were part of the fringe – a raft of oddball, interesting, quirky games that worked in public and that could be played fairly casually, in a pick-up-and-play sort of way. I didn’t get the chance to play any of the others, due to being on duty in a large plastic police hat with a flashing blue light on top for most of the afternoon, but I saw a balancing game with hand turtles, a slow-motion combat game, a coloured-water-shooting game called Rainbow Rain, and a game about phone hacking that had people in trilbies running around the park looking for mobile phones. It was all rather bonkers and lovely.

Gobstopper Job

A very few of the sweets

Gobstopper worked in part because of the space we played in – bonkers and lovely – and because of the costumes and props Grant put together. I mean, it worked because of a load of other things too, but Grant (who was the main designer on this one) has already written an interesting post about froth and emergent stuff and verbs and what have you, which is well worth reading and has more pictures. This, by contrast, is a bit of an epic.

A note on live gaming vs LARP

Despite appearances to the contrary – such as the name Zombie LARP – I don’t really think of what we do as LARP any more. It differs in some pretty major respects from what I’d instinctively label “traditional” LARP – though I’m certain that’s the wrong label – it’s fundamentally neither plot nor character driven, but situation-led and responsive to player/character action. Its worlds are small, not entirely internally consistent, and exist only for short periods before they are dissolved; their parameters are fluid and they are never fully realised. The lines between player and character are deliberately blurred.

But neither does the term “live game” or “pervasive game” (whatever that is) suit us. Most live games I see on the scene at present offer limited or no opportunity for player characterisation beyond the opportunity to nebulously pretend. They are mostly unaffected by character action beyond the mechanical, and function within the real world – without a need for suspension of disbelief.

Cops and robbers

Cops and robbers

In Gobstopper, as in Zombie, I saw the emergence of distinct play styles. Some people come to Zombie to LARP – they bring characters, immerse themselves in a story of their own making, and use our world and mechanics as a way to play that story out. This is improv theatre with rules. Others come to live game – they are uninterested in roleplay, preferring to focus on the mechanics of the game rather than the story, and lose themselves in the adrenaline of the moment. Some come to do both.

The Gobstopper Job, like Zombie and like a few other games – 2.8 Hours Later and Incitement spring to mind, in different ways – operates on the lines between those two categories. There are no good terms for what we do, and it’s difficult to suggest any that don’t imply that other games that fit the genre boxes more neatly are somehow deficient. Story-driven live game might be one option; emergent short-term LARP might be another. Both are clumsy. At present, we lack the right terms.

Everyone gets a gun on the mantelpiece

Gobstopper was the first time we’ve really run a game outside a dedicated game space. We had a kiosk – the sort you get in parks, that might sell water or ice cream or sweets – at one end, and a base station at the other. Players dressed as robbers (well, with masks and maybe hats) had to get the swag bag into the kiosk, steal as many sweets as possible in 30 seconds, then get them back to base, all the while avoiding the police – four or five people patrolling outside, who could arrest them if they could catch them.

Policemen helping up a player disguised as one of their number

Policemen helping up a player disguised as one of their number and feigning injury

The players for each run had to pick a character class – a single thing they could do – and with it came a prop with which they could do it. Gunmen had a little bang-flag gun that let them incapacitate one policeman. Demo men had a bouncing cherry bomb with the word BOMB on it that could stun people in a radius. Conmen had big ridiculous white masks that disguised them as “Young Gavin”, the rookie, or “Old Bob”, who was only a few days from retirement. And Bag men had the swag bag, and had to get them into the kiosk – essentially a very low-tech hacker analogue.

Chekhov’s gun – the concept that if there is a gun on the mantelpiece in the first act of a play, it must be fired by the end – is a metaphor for foreshadowing, simplicity and dramatic necessity. It’s also a useful way to think about Gobstopper, and why it works. Each player gets a verb – a single mode of interaction with the game and with the world it creates – and extremely limited opportunities to use it. Every player gets to be their own dramatist, timing their climactic moment in their own personal trajectory through the game. This only works if players believe in the power of their gun to affect the world, and understand its importance. Oh, and remember to use it. Occasionally people forgot, in the excitement of the whole thing.

The Familiarisation Effect

A fundamental design problem for us is the necessity of blurring the boundaries for players between the states of being, doing, performing and playing. What we’re after is almost the opposite of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt. Rather than using realistic props and costume to draw attention to the unreality of the performance, we’re using unrealistic, very stylised costume and props to create a sort of shorthand of familiarity. We are reliant on caricature and stereotype as tools to build identification between the players and the world we need them to inhabit – not a perfectly realistic, immersive environment in which they can lose themselves, but a working reality with fuzzy boundaries but basic concepts and rules to hold on to.

One of the Gobstopper Job teams post-game, with their bag of swag

One of the Gobstopper Job teams post-game, with their bag of swag

So, giving players a tool they can use matters, but giving them a tool they can instantly understand and relate to is even better. Using sweets to tap into the part of an adult that’s still six years old; using BANG-flag guns and BOMB-painted bombs; letting the only people who need to improvise a conversation hide their faces beneath enormous saucer-masks that both make it easier to act and also render it unnecessary – these are all tactics that tap into familiar childhood games, helping to minimse embarrassment and flow-jarring moments. That’s before we get into the psychology of costume itself, and the impact it has on roles – here, we wanted playfulness and fun, a cops’n'robbers feel, whereas when we want to make something more serious we’ll make it look and feel more lifelike and realistic.

Public play as performance

One convenient side-effect of this approach is that it gives the audience a simple way to relate to the game. With crew in giant police hats and players in robber masks, there is an obvious metaphor for viewers to grasp and to buy into. We found both sides got cheers from passers-by, depending on who seemed like the underdog at any given moment. As policemen, we spent a fair amount of time talking to random people who saw us wearing daft hats and wanted to know what on earth was going on. We fielded a couple of people who were oddly thrilled that someone was using the kiosk for something, and directed a few folks to the sign-up desk. Policeman hats and a slow walk seem to create an aura of helpfulness around you – and serve as useful ads for the game, too.

The carnage after players swept through the kiosk

The carnage after players swept through the kiosk

The other big thing they did was help the players feel less weird about getting dressed up. They were absolutely guaranteed that the people running the game would look even dafter than they did. Obvious signalling and the familiarisation effect combined together, along with a healthy dose of physical and mental activity, got players focussed on the game and served to make it easier for them to enter that peculiar place where being, doing, performing and playing all merge together and stories seem to naturally emerge, without anyone deliberately designing them, from the seemingly natural actions of all the participants.

The moment where I knew it had worked was when one run ended and it took five minutes of listening to the players talk through exactly what had happened when and how before I could get a word in edgeways.

Next time

We’re going to be running The Gobstopper Job again, given how well it seems to have worked – and given the fact that we still have about 15kg of sweets in our front room. London somewhere, probably. We’ll be putting out info on the Facebook page as soon as we’ve made up our minds when and where. Do come.

GameCamp 5: belated thoughts

I meant to write up GameCamp 5 the week after we went, but what with work and writing and venue hunting for Zombie one thing drives out another, as Barliman Butterbur would tell you.

It was different this time. For one thing, last time we felt fairly out of place as live game designers rather than video game designers; it wasn’t unpleasant, but there was a definite sense that we were in the minority. This time round lots of people were talking live experiences, and mixed sessions didn’t carry the same assumptions about the group. That’s a little fascinating – does it reflect a wider uptake in live gaming generally? Certainly seems so to me – there are lots of folks starting to do pervasive games and interesting live experiences, a burgeoning scene that seems to be moving towards LARP from other disciplines and landing somewhere in the middle. Critical vocabulary is missing here; lots of people (like us) are drawing on all sorts of theory and work in other fields and applying it to making games in the real world. That’s exciting.

The other big change was in the way people at GameCamp talked about stories in games. Last time around, Grant and I ran a session about emergent story, discussing the concept of procedurally and structurally generated narratives that emerge through player interaction with the game, but aren’t “told” by the game. This time I think every story-related session I went to invoked the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic stories, usually with an understanding of emergence. Again vocabulary is missing here; I heard the same (or similar) dichotomy expressed as extrinsic/intrinsic, imparted/created, creator/player, and even cutscene/gameplay. Perhaps that’s a reflection of the greater proportion of live gamers there – the split is much clearer when you’re playing with stories in that space, and it becomes impossible to ignore that the story you’re telling is not the same as the one players are experiencing. But I’m hopeful that it reflects a shift in thinking by video game creators too. Not every writer needs to engage with debates like the location of meaning and the nature of narrative – but if none do, the medium will stay shallow. GameCamp made my literary brain happy and my game brain excited.

Oh, and we made some games, too. Hostage was the most fun. I’ll try to write up the rules soon, assuming one thing doesn’t drive out another, again.

LARP design and the problem with geography

We’ve been running Zombie for more than five years now. We don’t really know where it’s going next – our main venue is likely to be occupied every weekend for the rest of the year with Zed Events, which we’ve been helping to organise crew for. That means we’re back hunting for spaces again, which most likely means reinventing the game from the ground up again to work with the new geography.

Level design is very tricky when the physical arena of your game space is laid out in advance for you. Many of the most serious challenges in creating our type of game stem from the constraints of physical space. Navigation, staging, set dressing and crucial game balance issues all arise from location. Different venues take different concentrations of survivors and zombies; they necessitate different objective types; they change the balance between mass play and individual play; they change the ranges and dynamics of combat in many ways. That’s all before you even start on the aesthetics and the safety issues.

Because of all that, each space needs a different approach to the game rules that puts the emphasis in the right place for the venue. (This is also what makes the game difficult to franchise – it doesn’t translate easily across venues without some serious thinking about scenario design.) In reality we’ve built at least three quite different rule sets now, all under the Zombie LARP umbrella, each one tailored to a different sort of space and player base. Now we’re moving again I strongly suspect we’ll end up with a fourth.

Game making at Kitacon

Playing at KitaconAt the weekend Grant and I were invited to give a NERF panel at Kitacon. We started out thinking we’d talk about story in Zombie LARP again, as the crowd there are mostly unaware of what we do and are pretty into their storytelling, retelling and reimagining, from what we know. But when we realised we had a whole hour and a room to ourselves, we wanted to do something a little more interactive.

These days Zombie is a pretty massive affair, with 130 or so players at each event and more different NERF guns than you can shake a stick at. Way back when we started, though, it consisted of about four of us running around each other’s tiny student digs waving two NERF Mavericks and a Buzz Bee Double Shot, and dying messily in kitchens while disapproving flatmates tried to make dinner.

The process of making the game was, in itself, playful. Fun. It’s fun to run around with NERF guns and pretend to be zombies, but it’s also fun to turn that into a game with rules, like we all did when we were young kids. Making a thing you can play with your mates is its own sort of play.

So, we thought, what if we turned that into a panel? 20 minutes to make a game, with everyone in the room taking part; 20 minutes to play, and then some time to clean up and debrief and work out how to make it better?

We put together a set of questions to act as a game machine – a series of decisions to help a group of people get from zero to minimum viable game in as little time as possible, then iterate quickly between short rounds of play. We stuck with NERF guns as a basic mechanic, because they provide an easy seed for ideas, and because we find their “toy” status makes adults more likely to forget they’re adults and get into playing in the real world. We tested the system with my nieces and nephews while on holiday and ended up with Teatowel Panic, a team-based capture-the-flag-style game with wandering monsters, which we thought was a pretty good sign. The players also developed an unexpected extra mechanic when my dad started wandering around picking up ammo and then giving it to the teams at random.

The folks at Kitacon were brilliant and got what we were trying to do very quickly. I think it helped that we were in a place where normal rules of behaviour were at least partially suspended, with people who were quite happy to play for the sake of playing. We ended up with a game tentatively titled “Make the Geneva Convention Cry” in which players had to get a bomb into each other’s team bases and the best way to win would be to kill as many medics as possible. After round 1 we introduced a couple of new mechanics, and the second one went well enough that we left it as it was for the third game. Team Laser Explosion won the first two, but Team Monkey Pirate were the last ones left alive in the third.

We’re going to do it again, I hope – possibly at Gamecamp as we had such fun with Zombie there last year, and possibly other places. I hope – and I’m pretty sure – we’ll end up with something completely different every time.

Journalism, advancement and level design

Spinning off a tweet by @jayrosen_nyu, I’ve been thinking about levels in gaming and what journalists could learn from them.

For the record, I don’t think that levels in the sense of levelling up are a particularly useful way of classifying news readers or users or players or whatever paradigm we choose to use today.

For many video gamers level grinding removes the fun from a game and turns it into work. In tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons unequal leveling within a group can cause such huge balance problems that small disparities between characters can prove insurmountable. And in both, leveling is an illusion – while the character’s powers and abilities increase and improve, so do the challenges they have to overcome. Much of the time leveling is simply a numerical way of forcing characters to go and explore before they can advance the plot.

Essentially, I’m not sure what useful lessons we can learn from leveling per se, apart from the lesson that it’s hard work and tends to encourage grinding as a form of competition – not meaningful engagement with content.

That’s not to say that every leveling system is evil, you understand. It’s just that these days there is a wide range of advancement systems to pick from – points-based cash-in or free-form systems, for instance, or activity-based systems, or good old achievements – and if we’re going to talk about user advancement systems we should talk about all of them and work out which ones are relevant for what we’re trying to do here.

But level design is a different matter.

Level design is about balancing technology and art. It’s about pulling together huge swathes of pretty content (pictures, video, audio, in this analogy) and making a coherent, structured narrative which makes it clear which way players are meant to go while giving them room to explore if they want to – and doing that within the confines of the tecnology available. That’s not a bad model for news online.

There’s a quote from this article that’s worth teasing out:

A level designer is not just an architecture monkey or a guy who throws “cool stuff” into the pot of development. Above and beyond everything else they need the ability to judge what is fun, what gameplay elements work and what do not. He needs to judge what content works in any context while making sure his work is cohesive with the rest of the game.

If you accept that the “game” is what we’re calling the “story” (or, more precisely, the “topic”) at the moment, then level design theories about pacing, controlled freedom, risk and reward start to become relevant to engaging the reader/user/player in what we’re trying to get across.

What do you think? Am I in a theoretical hole with no practical applications, or is there an analogy here that online and multimedia journalists could find useful?