Earlier this summer, I stumbled upon an elegant, and wisely captioned, drawing in the August issue of the San Francisco Bay Area Puppeteer's Guild newsletter. It is the perfect expression of the tricky, collaborative relationship between puppet masters and players of a puppet mastered game.
I'm currently working on an essay called "The Puppet Master Problem: Design for Mission-Based, Real-World Gaming." It has much revising and editing ahead before it (hopefully) is published in a new MIT Press collection this spring. So ignore the sometimes clunky prose. But I wanted to post an excerpt here, to get some of these thoughts into the collective consciousness of my fellow gamers.
I made my debut as a puppet master (PM) on January 19, 2002 as the lead writer and mission designer for an 80-player Go Game in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco—a year and a half before I started organizing flash mobs and two and a half years before I took my place behind the curtain of I Love Bees. That day, on the winter-green lawn of a public city park, I experienced a spontaneous rupture in what I had imagined would be a smooth and uncomplicated PM-player dynamic: We tell the players what to do, and they do it. Since that day, the same little Go Game kink has emerged again and again in many different genres and contexts. It is a pattern I now recognize as the highly complex, and consistinently collaborative, texture of a puppet mastered game.
A bit of background: The Go Game is an afternoon-long urban adventure in which competing teams receive clues over their cell phones to specific locations around their city. When players arrive at each location, they download a superhero-themed performance mission: assemble undercover disguises using whatever you can find at a nearby thrift store; make a secret agent waiting for you on the #30 bus laugh by any means necessary (not that you have any idea which of the dozens of people on the bus the secret agent is); conduct a séance on the floor of a crowded café to improve the psychic atmosphere; figure out how to get onto a luxury hotel rooftop and attract as much attention as you can; get a whole barful of strangers singing and dancing along with you to any song you want to play on the jukebox.
That day, we were putting up only the second Go Game ever—Wink Back, Inc. has produced hundreds of games for over 20,000 players across the U.S. since—so as puppet masters, we were still experimenting and making last-minute tweaks to our scripts. Just before the game started, another Go Game writer decided to revise the opening text message I had prepared. My text was a bit dry: “Welcome, superheroes! Press GO when you’re ready to start the game.” We both agreed it would be better to set a more playful mood, so she added a colorful interjection to the welcome message: “Howdy superheroes—hold onto your hats, it’s time to drop your pants and dance! Press GO when you’re ready to start the game.”
I had already forgotten about this minor text change when the teams assembled in Washington Square Park to receive their first set of instructions. I hid in a group of park-goers and watched as the players huddled in small groups, switched on their phones, and downloaded our welcome message. I was waiting for the teams to scatter and hit the streets—once they pressed “GO,” the first round of clues would send each team off in a different direction. But that didn't happen.
Instead, half a dozen players began unbuckling their belts, unzipping their jeans, and showing off their underwear while waving their arms in the air. This caught the attention of other players, who quickly realized—A ha! ‘Drop your pants and dance’—this is our first mission! So they, too, dropped their pants and started dancing. Before long, most of the players were dancing merrily in their underwear. And they were busy taking photos of each other to ‘prove’ their success in completing the mission.
Of course, the opening message “drop your pants and dance” wasn’t a mission at all. But by the time the park was full of pantless performers, my fellow puppet masters and I were already behind our curtain. There was nothing we could do to intervene. We just watched from a distance, with our mouths hanging open.
The first time I told this story at a lecture, an audience member challenged me: “You puppet masters must really get a kick out of manipulating these players to do whatever you want. That must be such a power trip.” But in fact, the opposite was true. We didn’t get a rush of power when the players misinterpreted our simple welcome message. We actually felt completely out of control. We had worked so carefully to craft just the right text for our mission scripts, and yet from the very first moment of gameplay, our actual, effective authority was stripped away. Yes, we could give the players a set of instructions—but clearly we could not predict or dictate how they would read and embody those instructions. We were absolutely not in control of our players’ creative instincts.
In Washington Square Park that day, as the players danced in their underwear, I turned to another puppet master and said, “It’s their game now.” He nodded, and that’s when I realized: No matter what it looked like to outsiders, we were not pulling these players’ strings. Yes, the players were following our commands, but their interpretation of the commands left them fully in charge of their own experience. The scripts had been delivered; the actors were putting on the show. In that moment I realized that the players in a puppet mastered game are not performing objects; they are performing subjects. And that performing subjectivity is never ceded, even in submission to a puppet master’s orders.
The willful subjectivity of a performer is in its own way a kind of self-determination, a co-authorship with the writers. Media critic Thomas De Zengotita acknowledges this when he discusses the flash mob phenomenon as a kind of middle ground between reality and optionality. In the middle of "so many flash mobs… you were being the phenomenon as you were seeing it represented, in real time, unfolding before you. You could see the impact of your role on the national stage in essentially the same way you can see the impact of your button-pressing in a videogame. You were the agent, you were the star" (152). As De Zengotita points out, performing in the public eye gives players an expressive visibility and an audience that provides the same quality of feedback a digital game offers. The audience reaction becomes the new metric, equally capable of giving players a sense of responsibility for a given outcome.