When Games Get Big

At the end of this month, the second annual Come Out and Play Festival will be occurring in Amsterdam. I went to last year’s inaugural festival in New York, and it provided an excellent introduction to alternate reality games, street games (for folks of all ages), and “big games,” as they’re sometimes known. I attended COaP to do a short ethnographic film exploring what this gaming culture is about and what it’s like to actually play some of these things.

Perhaps you’ve heard of some of these games before, like the game where people dressed as Pac-man characters chase one another around Manhattan to collect virtual dots, or the three-week long, watergun-based assassin game. To find out more about these sorts of games, check out MIT’s Project New Media Literacies Big Games Exemplar videos, Henry Jenkins’s post on “Big Games with Big Goals,” and Jane McGonigal’s Avant Game, the weblog of one of the form’s preeminent designers and scholars.

I was largely ignorant of this world when I arrived at Eyebeam for the beginning of the festival, camera bag slung over my shoulder. I had signed up for a couple games on the web site, but there were so many things I wanted to see firsthand that I knew I would have to sit out of some things just to cover more ground. In the end, though, the version of the project I made for class focused on three games I spent a lot of time with, as that seemed to be the best way to give a sense of what it was like to actually be involved in this sort of weird and fun urban experiment.

The resulting “ethnographic digital video,” The Space Invaders (low-res version), turned out to be more about geek cultures than I expected it to be. I have had grand plans to do something with it for awhile, but shortly after finishing a version for class, I moved straight into comprehensive exams, revising papers for publication, and working on my hundred-page dissertation proposal. I’m hoping to have a chance soon to cut a longer version that shows some footage of other games between the three main segments, perhaps suitable for sending to film festivals or showing at game conventions. For now, feel free to give any input you might like.

I’m hoping the movie works well enough on its own that you wouldn’t need to hear the background of each portion, but I can’t help myself from filling in some details I’m itching to share. So:

  1. The nighttime stuff showing during the title sequence is Space Invaders being projected onto the wall across the street from Eyebeam, being controlled by people’s body movements below. (You can actually tell this in the high-res version.)
  2. The fellows talking in between the major segments, in order, are Area/Code‘s Frank Lantz, festival co-organizer Nick Fortugno, and a friendly player named David (from Colorado). I have lots of other interviews that didn’t make the cut for this version, though I do intend to have them see the light of day by the time COaP returns to New York.
  3. The first game I played is actually the second game in the video. SF0‘s “Journey to the End of the Night” was something like a race mixed with a nighttime game of tag, spanning a decent portion of lower Manhattan. My footage of this introduces my friend Jordan and his friend Justin, who were a huge help to me for much of the weekend, and who were crazy enough to run the entire length of the race. Sean from SF0 was also kind enough to explain to me about some of the intellectual history behind street gaming as we traveled from the starting point at Eyebeam (in Chelsea) down to a checkpoint in Battery Park. (See The Conflux Festival and the Situationistst.) This game also provided an early example of how gaming in an urban setting has very real logistical issues which can be both frustrating and fascinating: One checkpoint had to be moved at the request of police, and many people had trouble finding an earlier checkpoint because they had been told to look for three girls in a park—but the three girls had to be replaced at the last minute with one guy.
  4. Jane McGonigal and Ian Bogost’s “benevolent assassins” game Cruel 2B Kind debuted at COaP last year. It involved receiving instructions via text message about which kindly act you would perform on others to defeat them, and which kindly act would defeat you. Of course, innocents frequently get caught in the crossfire. As we were encouraged to use disguises, my team, “Three Girls in a Park,” involved me with a camera and Jordan hanging close with a pair of headphones plugged into nothing. It was a pretty long time before any other team realized we were playing and started shouting out friendly attacks at us. The game design itself has long been “open source,” and as announced just yesterday, C2BK is now fully do-it-yourself, with instructions and resources at the official website so that anyone can run it anytime, anywhere.
  5. The last game of the weekend I played was The Go Game, which provided an interesting comparison and contrast with the other games in my video. While the first two (and most of those at the festival) were created without expectation of reimbursement, the Go Game is a for-profit endeavor largely used for corporate team-building. The age range of participants skewed a little higher, in part because some of those there had played the game for work and were excited to play again for free. The edition at the festival was geek-themed because the designers figured that’s the crowd COaP would bring them. I wasn’t able to get any footage of the end-of-day wrap-up, when the footage and images that teams took on their video cameras would be shown to the crowd, but I did get to spend time with two different teams and one of the hired actors.

I regret that I won’t be able to make it to Amsterdam to participate in this year’s festival, but I’m hoping to make it to next year’s when it returns to New York. The event presents an energizing and fascinating combination of active scholars and everyday game-players, with great potential for involvement by those who wouldn’t even consider themselves “gamers.” I had expected to go in and make all sorts of comments about the non-commercial appropriation and radical transformation of public space, only to find out that that’s precisely what the people behind all this have been talking about all along. Even more interesting to me, Jane suggested that moving “play” from television screen to the streets could have major implications for how we perceive our urban environment, making us more tolerant and even welcoming of those things we once dismissed as “noises” and “strangers.” (You’re probably better off reading her stuff if you want that to make any more sense.)

And finally, I’ll close with an odd bit of trivia: If you reload the current Come Out and Play site a few times, sooner or later you’ll see a high-angle image of a fellow with a a red balloon addressing a big crowd. I’m the guy with the video camera right in front of that nice fellow’s mouth. Check out my video to see me taping the photographer while that picture was being taken. Weird. For you anthro nuts out there, I briefly considered titling this post, “How to Look at Us Looking at the Gamers Looking at Us.”

4 thoughts on “When Games Get Big

  1. I thought COaP was a great event and I definetley want to go again. One issue that I left with mixed feelings about was that the games I played there were mostly played “for the sake of the game”. In other words, the actual winning was sort of de-emphasized. I can’t decide if I like this or not. On one hand, it’s nice to be more relaxed in games (I’ve been known to get so into games of Catan that I am visibly shaking). On the other hand, I felt kind of confused after games like “Journey to the End of the Night” and and “Spy School” when I put alot of energy into it and then got to the end and felt like it just fizzled away.

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