Play requires consent

For any game to be a game, to work as play, it requires consent. Everyone has to agree to play, as individuals, and then collectively (or individually) agree the rules by which you’ll play, and the boundaries on the experience – the things that aren’t in the game, as well as the things that are.

You learn this, running live games or even tabletop ones. Playing with other people requires consent from all the participants, in the same way that sex does, and if it’s withdrawn then play with that person has to end. At live events we even set up safe words, ways to stop the fantasy and reassert the real world – we’ve always used “STOP THE GAME” shouted as loud as you can, for the avoidance of doubt – and that’s not just a safety call for injuries. It’s also a “get me out of here”, an “I’m not OK with this”, a withdrawal of consent.

In tabletop games, or at least ones with a good group that might touch on dark themes, it’s pretty common to have a quick discussion of hard limits up front. Some people are fine with body horror in their tabletop play, other people just don’t want to go there during pretendy fun time. Some people are terrified of spiders. Some people don’t want in-character relationships. It’s all fine, as long as you negotiate your boundaries up front and don’t make assumptions. (Sometimes you only find out where your boundaries are in the middle of a game, and that’s OK too. That’s when you step out.)

A fair few videogames forget that consent can be withdrawn, or assume that the act of picking up a controller is consent to anything that happens while playing. They forget to set out their boundaries in advance; they don’t signal strongly enough that this or that theme will come up in play and if that’s a problem you might not want to play on. I’ve yet to see a non-text-based videogame that acknowledges scenes players might not want to participate in, warns them ahead of time and lets them skip those scenes specifically without having to just stop playing altogether.

There’s interesting variations on the rule-setting elements of consent in things like permadeath playthroughs, speed runs, cheats and exploits. Some are players adding extra levels of rules for themselves, defining the experience more tightly than the game does; others are players implicitly trying to break the game’s own defined experience – effectively trying to do things the game itself doesn’t consent to. (Except that by virtue of not being sentient, games can’t consent.)

And there are interesting game spaces springing up in which consent is a serious issue. DayZ and Rust are games in which you can not just die but be taken prisoner, have your avatar’s actions dictated by players, and be put in situations to which you have not consented. The tale of a player imprisoned in Rust is funny, sure, but it’s also something they haven’t consented to. It’s only fun as long as you’re happy to go along with it, within the experience you want to have. It stops being fun, it stops being play, the minute you as a human being want out.

A few videogames that are played in group settings or party spaces sometimes run into problems; I’ve been witness to sessions of Johann Sebastian Joust, for example, in which people not playing were used as obstacles, or otherwise drawn into the game. That leads to issues, sometimes. The boundaries between player and not-player aren’t always as clear as who’s holding the controller, and one player assuming consent to play from a not-player who doesn’t want to can get tricky. It’s irritating at best.

But the worst culprits for failing to understand that play requires consent are not really game creators at all. Gamification in the workplace, which is still around and still annoying me, takes the idea of playful activity and participation and makes it compulsory. By removing the ability to refuse your consent you remove a player’s ability to play. Meta-game mechanics (note: none of these are actual game mechanics) like points, scoreboards, achievements and so on rely on a playable game to function in the game world. Without play, an achievement is not anything like a game, in the same way that an exam certificate is not anything like a game. It’s all just work, which you must now do while you’re smiling.

Game stories and meaningful play

A couple of weeks ago Naomi Alderman, who should quite clearly blog more because she is brilliant, left some extremely insightful comments on my post about stupidity in video games and its link to poor storytelling. I wanted to pull them out and talk about them more, because some of what she says is key to how I think about games and stories. I also need to write about Saturday’s GameCamp, because the big theme of my day was (surprise) stories and games again, but this bears on those thoughts so I’m doing it in this order. Yes! Anyway. Insight!

I can’t tell you how depressing it is to be called into a meeting about a game and told that my job is to “wrap a story around” pre-existing gameplay. The only way to do this well is to involve writers/storytellers right from the start, to give story a place at the table and to keep thinking about what you’re trying to produce until it works for *both* gamplay/level design *and* story.

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I’m going to keep saying this till the cows come home: games motivate action, stories give *meaning* to that action. There’s no intrinsic problem with meaningless action: Tetris gets on fine with no meaning. But if you want people to feel genuinely emotionally invested you need to be involving a storymaker from the moment you start *thinking* about your game. Otherwise the things you’re being asked to do and the meaning of the things you’re being asked to do will always feel at odds with each other (“so I’m supposed to be this by-the-book cop, but I don’t have any problem ramming my car into lampposts, passers-by, other cars?” *cough* LA Noire *cough*).

This backs up the impressions I get when I play a lot of video games – big & small, indie & industry – as well as the impressions I get when I play bad tabletop systems. Tabletop systems are a great way to examine the interplay between rulesets and stories – because (with a few exceptions) any story you’re telling with them is going to be mediated through a GM’s imagination and through contact with the players, the rules have to work with the themes and feeling and general ambience of the rest of the game. Story is integral – you’re building a storytelling tool, after all.

Video games are also storytelling tools, quite literally. There’s different types of story in video games: the story that the player tells themselves in order to make sense of their experiences of play, and the story the game imparts. The story the game tells isn’t just told by the cutscenes or the narration or whatever – it’s also told through the gameplay and the interaction between player and game.

This is what I mean when I talk about story mediating & being mediated by gameplay. The player’s experience of the game mechanics is filtered through and affected by their interpretation of the story it tells; the player’s experience of the story is filtered through and affected by their interaction with the game mechanics.

In later comments, Naomi goes on to talk about character, values and causation as all being important elements of meaning within game stories – important elements to do well in order to create meaningful experiences for players. Choices that feel important, relationships that feel genuine, a story that evokes emotional investment – all elements I recognise as being present in most of the games I keep going back to replay, and mostly absent in the games I set aside. But these are basic storyteller’s tools, drawn from the same workbox as not just other sorts of games but also literature, film, television, radio, theatre. In many ways, when gamers call for these elements, we’re just calling for good writing; there’s no need to reinvent that particular wheel.

I’m thinking a lot at the moment about how Barthes’s Death of the Author applies to video games. It’s long been a staple of literary criticism that there’s no such thing as one interpretation of a story; cultural & critical readings of all sorts abound. In art there’s a running debate about whether meaning resides in the object of art itself, in the web of allusions, connections and contextual & biographical threads that allow the art object to be produced, or in the viewer’s mind, or in the web of similar threads within which the viewer exists. Authorial intent is pretty unimportant when it comes to creating meaning; the text is what matters, not the thinking behind it. So if a video game creator means to make Nathan Drake a loveable charmer but the “text” of the game makes him a genocidal fuckhead, then… the game wins. Canonically, he’s a mass murderer. And the story breaks.

Picturesque selves

This is brilliant. Identity online is multifaceted, and the explosion in popularity of Instagram and Pinterest is in part about performing single facets of identity, mythologising ourselves through imagery.

Instead of thinking of social media as a clear window into the selves and lives of its users, perhaps we should view the Web as being more like a painting.

This is why Facebook’s desire to own our identities online is fundamentally flawed; our Facebook identities are not who we are, and they are too large and cumbersome and singular to represent us all the time. Google+ has the same problem, of course. Frictionless sharing introduces an uncomfortable authenticity – Facebook identities thus far have been carefully and deliberately constructed, and allowing automatically shared content to accrete into an identity is a different process, a more honest and haphazard one, that for many may spoil their work.

As we do offline, our self-presentations online are always creative, playful, and thoroughly mediated by the logic of social-media documentation.

Pinterest and Instagram are built around these playful, creative impulses to invent ourselves. Twitter remains abstract enough to encourage it too, though in textual rather than visual form. Facebook and Google identities are such large constructions that they become restrictive – you can’t experiment in the way you can with other platforms because of the weight of associations and of history – and they’re not constructed in a vacuum. They rely on interactions with friends for legitimacy – but you can’t jointly create one the way you can a Tumblr or a Pinterest board. Group identities don’t quite work. Individual identities are too heavy to play with properly. But Pinterest and Instagram and Tumblr are online scrapbooks – visual, associative, picturesque – and are just the right formats for liminal experimentation with self-construction. Creative and lightweight.

Home Sweet Home: Playing in the streets

Evening News: Home Sweet Home versionThere’s a cake shop next door, a giant hamster over the road and soldiers are fighting zombies on the roof. MARY HAMILTON welcomes you to the new-look Evening News.

Breaking news: the postman has delivered a letter.

That’s how most of the news comes in to the Home Sweet Home offices of the Evening News. It’s delivered by a tall man in short trousers, a flat cap and socks, who leaves the envelopes leaning up against the front canopy of the 20cm cardboard building.

I built the office myself, from flat-pack cutout to fully-fledged busy office building complete with newspaper bundles and Plasticene journalists, sharing glue, card and colouring pens with neighbours and strangers.

I even recreated Bernard Meadows’ eyecatching bronze ball sculptures, carefully rolling and squeezing yellow moulding clay and poking it gingerly with a pencil, before giving the rest of my clay to an excited six-year-old who wanted to make bees for her garden.

It is part of a performance – or perhaps an exhibition – called Home Sweet Home, the brainchild of Goldsmiths graduates Abigail Conway and Lucy Hayhoe, in which participants build their own city from flat-pack parts and then experience its evolution as it fills with people playing along.

Watching the tiny town sprout from a black and white canvas into a riot of colour in the extravagant surroundings of Blackfriars Hall was both surreal and sublime, as bizarre buildings and peculiar personalities developed thanks to the imagination of neighbours.

But when the letters began to arrive the town took on a new and magical dimension, with stories, greetings, and feats of collective imagination all emerging thanks to the postal service and the presenters at the radio station.

My letter reads: “Dear Editor, An escaped swan ate my shoes!  Please put it in your newspaper! Yours, Joz Norris, No. 188”.

Immediately I spring into action. I post a breaking news update on the billboard outside the office – crafted from matchsticks, card and successive layers of paper posters – and dash off a return letter asking for more detail about the attack.

Over time, petitions spring up on the community notice board. A campaign to build a public swimming pool gathers pace. Disgruntled residents try to force an election. A little girl who runs a flower shop donates a sponge-and-cocktail-stick floral display to my office.

A small zombie outbreak spreads and threatens other city properties, so the Evening News drafts in a local militia to fight them off. Other businesses welcome the zombies, selling them vintage clothes and inviting them in to a night club.

And I get another letter from Joz saying that he’s bought another pair of Doc Martens but he doesn’t think he’ll be able to look a swan in the eye ever again.

The whole experience is a testament to the power of play. Adults and children alike tap into the storytelling possibilities of the town, expressing their personalities through their houses and opening them up as the community evolves around them.

While some people come along, build houses and leave, those who stay build stories around their houses, and the whole community evolves and changes as the project progresses.

A giant hamster in the back garden of one house is asked to join the Spiegeltent as a performer. A few hours later he has moved to the circus with signs advertising his upcoming performances.

I spend the weekend doing what journalists do: asking questions, writing down stories, monitoring the notice board and answering letters, preparing for a burst of activity on Sunday night as I put the Home Sweet Home edition of the Evening News together.

The following day, when I return to Blackfriars Hall with a stack of miniature newspapers under my arm, the Spiegeltent has disappeared, replaced by a giant hamster run with tunnels, hoops and a swimming pool.

I arrive at the office to discover someone has stuck a giant red ball to my door, in imitation of the large inflatable ball currently touring Norwich as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. They are planted on the church, the fire station and the city hall, too.

For a short time this miniature cardboard community has been incredibly real. It has had action, politics, feuds, joy, fear and anger, and the people who created it have told hundreds of tiny stories that were, for a while, incredibly important, as they literally changed the way their city was constructed.

As the houses were dismantled and returned to their owners, I felt deeply privileged to have been present at the birth and the death of Norwich’s smallest suburb, and to have been able to tell just a few of the stories the residents created.

A version of this article and its accompanying miniature newspaper
were originally published in the Evening News
(www.eveningnews24.co.uk).