Sunday, May 18, 2008

The dark side of coming out to play

I was saddened today to read about a real-world game gone wrong - a Facebook driven "flash mob" watergun fight that destroyed the Millennium Square garden in which it was played. As has been widely reported in UK press, plants were trampled, turf ripped up, fountain mechanics broken, and water features emptied. A documentary video of the event was posted on Youtube before participants and organizers realized how much damage had been done.

It's not that the organizer of this event should be blamed for what happened; they ran the same event a year earlier with no problems. (You can watch a video of the 2007 event.) It was "much more civilized", according to attendees of both events. But I think with virtually no instructions for what to do when you show up, and no win condition for the fight, it's easy to see how it could get out of control.

Some people might argue that concern over a single flash mob game gone bad is ridiculous when there have been thousands with no adverse effects. And that's a really good point. But not to learn anything from this would be stupid. This case points to some important potentials of public games, especially "games" that are more free-for-alls than clearly designed experiences. And we would be smart to consider these potentials, before destructive games become a less rare occurrence. Personally, as a game designer, I'm really inspired to think about how to invent a mass water fight that would be structured enough to engage 300 players in a less chaotic but still exhilarating experience. This is exactly the kind of challenge that gave me the idea a couple of years ago for Cruel 2 B Kind. That game was a direct counter-design to what I think is the completely non-benevolent game design of commercial, week-long, water-gun Assassin games.

Most importantly, I think, the Leeds story is a good reminder of how incredibly powerful play is, and how much momentum a live game can take on, and how hard it can be to contain and benevolently direct that momentum if you don't have a well-thought-out game and event design in place. It is really important for people experimenting with public play -- especially mass public place -- to be ethical game designers, to create play but to do no harm. You can't just think of something fun and choose a public location. To have a benevolent impact on the local environment, the players, and the bystanders, you have to be able to anticipate within a reasonable degree of error how many people will show up, what they're likely to do when the thrill of mass play infects the crowd, and who or what might be in the vicinity and caught in the play crossfire.

I'm all for staging games in public and semi-public spaces where people have a right to congregate and play; I'm even for pushing the envelope and playing in spaces that have a cultural norm against play. But the reason why I love game design is that it allows you to create a safe structure for otherwise chaotic, ecstatic activity. That's the game designer's job -- to put up boundaries that protect the players from harm, or from doing harm.

I'm positive that the games at the Come Out and Play Festival June 6-8, 2008 will be designed with benevolent impact AND awesome crazy fun in mind, and I can't wait! (Be sure to sign up for The Lost Sport of Olympia while you're at it -- that's the game event I'm organizing.)


Der Merzmensch said...

It's really sad story, especially because it undermines the great dimension if ARG or social mass-games like various flash-mobs.

Unfortunately, the participation on such people-intensive activities harbours danger of misuse by saboteurs...

But I have no doubts, Lost Games won't have this fate, just because labyrinth sports are more intellectual and cannot be solve with pure muscle (or watergun) force. :-)

I wish you best success! And what a pity - I'm far from NY. Otherwise I'd be glad to take part on it.


Joe Edelman said...

There is a tension, I guess, between the need for careful design, and the desire many artists have to be surprised by their media and their audience. And by everyone's desire to have a powerful and boundary breaking experience.

From primal screams, to mosh pits, to millions of men walking, heads bowed, in silence, to clowns stationed on every streetcorner in Manhattan... the human swarm wants to see its own power, ubiquity, strength, and voluptuous beauty. Everyone wants to be part of something that makes the national news.

The question, I guess, is whether we can do it such that there are more flowers, more fountains, more beauty when we disperse than when we started.

What would it take for an ad-hoc, unplanned swarm to be creative rather than destructive? 10,000 way walkie-talkies? An ad-hoc voting system? A way to identify leaders?

We have lots to work on, people.