I spent last weekend playing in London, at the 2008 Hide and Seek Festival. It was probably one of the top 3 fun weekends of my life. (in this photo here, can you spot me having lots of that awesome fun?)
The festival, which was founded a couple of years ago by the really brilliant Alex Fleetwood, is 72 hours of literally around-the-clock urban adventure and social gaming. In spirit, it’s a mash-up of Cannes, SXSW, the Game Developers Conference, Foo Camp, and Burning Man. Intense friendships formed, neuron-exploding industry conversations, gorgeous urban setting, hardly any sleep, the feeling that you’re surrounded by amazing artists, really clever curatorial oversight of the program, extremely cool and helpful volunteers, the sense that you’re seeing “what’s next”, and of course lots and lots of gameplay.
A real highlight for me was the fact that I spent so much time running, chasing, parkouring around the Royal Hall Ballroom and the Southbank streets of London that I felt as physically exhausted at the end of each night as if I’d hiked 20 kilometers in the mountains. There was something truly awesome, in the literal sense, of how tired I was, how much my bones ached, in SUCH a good way, from all that playing. It was so fun, you had no concept of how tired you were getting. Like my dog Meche, when she chases Frisbees at the park. She will play until you MAKE her stop, and only then does she realize that she’s too tired to walk and needs to be carried the two blocks home. The game makes you keep playing. And I loved feeling so exhausted, it was exhilarating in a paradoxical way, like I was spent, like I had cashed in every bit of energy in a splurge of experience.
Like all great festivals and conferences, it’s really the community that makes Hide and Seek. You’ve got several interesting groups colliding: smart and adventurous game designers, alongside clever no-tech, low-tech, and high-tech interactive designers who are exploring less structured kinds of play; people who don’t self-identify as gamers who are really curious to see “what’s all this live social gaming stuff about?”, alongside (and most importantly) a ton of really, really enthusiastic and happy gamers. And these groups really, really clicked.
I’m not sure I’ve ever been surrounded by so many people working so wholeheartedly to show each other a good time, designers and players alike. There was just this constant, positive vibe that the designers were working really hard to give people fabulous adventures. And the players were completely open to any experience the designers wanted to provide. As a designer, there is NOTHING that knocks my socks off more than players who are truly “game” in every sense of the word.
It also really helped that you could drop by the festival HQ, the Royal Hall ballroom, at basically any hour and find somebody playing something, or get directions to a game starting outdoors nearby. The central, hangoutable hub made the weekend extremely cohesive and easy to stay completely immersed in the festival.
If you are a fan of live, social gaming, there is NOWHERE in the world better to be than in London during the annual Hide and Seek Festival. Plan now to be there in 2009. But if you missed Hide and Seek or can’t get to London, the great news is that all of the designers run these games lots of other places, year-round. So here are some highlights, my favorite play experiences from the festival, and if you see these games coming to a city near you, go play! Or even better, organize a game yourself! (If it’s starred, you can play it on your own anytime, anywhere! – assuming you can work out the rules, which are typically posted online on the game website, and you’re willing to learn how to be the game master!)
*Checkpoint – The goal is simple: smuggle a giant tableau of 100 objects (including a plate of messy pasta and sausages, an oversized chair, and a“passed out” young woman) from the 3rd floor to the ground floor ballroom, without getting stopped by inspectors who would confiscate your contraband. Once safely in the ballroom, you had to recreate the tableau perfectly (lots of digital photos from every conceivable angle really helped.) The first time I played, I focused on smuggling; the second time I played I was the captain in charge of receating. This was a very lightweight, low-strategy, high-social game that players dropped in and out of over the course of an hour – you could play for 15 minutes and have a really cool, complete experience. Or you could play the whole our if you were hard-core. Besides this excellent drop-in, drop-out dynamic, what really interested me about this game was how the “bad guys” (the inspectors) had to essentially conspire to help the players succeed, modifying how aggressively and vigorously they were stopping players so that it found the sweet spot between too easy (never stopped) and too hard (always stopped). Because this game obviously felt like the designers and plants were conspiring with the players to win, you weren’t ever really afraid that you would lose. What made it intense and spirited however, was competing with your teammates to move the most impressive objects in the most clever ways. It was about showing off. You knew you would get away with something if it was clever enough; and then you could do a victory dance and earn the respect of your fellow players. A really interesting dynamic here, when you take away the possibility of a true fail state.
The Comfort of Strangers – a big crowd game, wandering around a particular circumscribed public space (just like C2BK). Every player is using an HP mediascapes player, and is on one of two sides: lovers or strangers. You don’t pick a side, you don’t get told what side you’re on -- instead, you wander around and wait to hear little earbud whispers that “a dancer is nearby!” or “another lover is nearby!” Real-time GPS data is figuring out if you’re in the vicinity of other players, and if so, which team they’re on. You must first deduce who you are from the syntax of the game: most people (accurately) decide that they’re the same as whatever there’s “another’ of, but about 15% according to the game’s creator go the other way—super interesting!! Then, your health goes up and down each time you “bump” (3 meters) into another player of the same and the opposite team, respectively. What you wind up with is clumps of same-team members prowling the streets and fleeing clumps of other players. You can’t reliably attack someone else – you lose points for the “bump” as well, so it’s more like a giant game of magnet physics: attract and repel, attract and repel. Fabulous. A totally different mechanic and dynamic.
Hip Sync - All the players have individual mp3 players and identical playlists, set to shuffle. Wearing earbuds, each player presses “play” at the same time, and then starts dancing VERY demonstratively to try to communicate the song they’re listening to. Players wander around the dance floor looking for others dancing to the same song. It’s awesome to see the hip hop dancers find each other and bounce to the same beat, while the electronica dancers shake a lot and look less certain that they’ve found the right partners. We played this at a nightclub, and it was perfect – exactly the right excuse to start dancing, in case you’re not quite brave enough on your own, and the thrill of self-recognition in another dancers’ steps is a supercool and totally unique experience. There was quite a line to play this game, superpopular and superawesome!
*Cruel 2 B Kind – I wasn’t producing this game for the festival, the fabulous Minkette was, so I got to PLAY! (for only the second time ever) I teamed up with Alex Fleetwood, we figured we were equally likely to get killed right away owing to us being so recognizable at the festival and not really in any kind of disguise. Yet somehow – could it be our AMAZING stealth skills and uncanny ability to recognize players pretending to be ordinary tourists and passersby? – we managed to come in SECOND place out of more than 50 teams! We wracked up four kills right at the start, all by sneaking up behind some unsuspecting player or team, usually at full sprint speed, and blasting them with a “beautiful eyes” compliment or a happy birthday serenade before dragging them back to a secret hiding spot where we could regroup. We did eventually get killed, when a captured team insisted that running to hide was too “obvious” – we were killed within 30 seconds of being out in the open. Ultimately, after a few more benevolent assassinations, we wound up in a group of about 40+ people roaming around constantly getting picked off by solo C2BK ninjas. No matter, thought, because of the cleverly designed scoring system (ahem) -- you don’t get points for surviving, you only get points for assassinating. So there’s no incentive to hide out ‘til the end and kill a more active player group. Anyway, Southbank Centre was a perfect location for the game, we attacked way more non-players than players, but it seemed to be a fairly fun experience for all those innocent bystanders. Especially the non-players that our 40+ member group “attacked’ with a serenade of STOP! In the Name of Love, complete with synchronized hand movements. Funny enough, everyone stopped when we did that, and when we realized they weren’t playing, we stepped aside so they could go on their way. Super fun.
*Lost Sport of Olympia – 100+ athletes, a new world record for the 7-circuit labyrinth (2:21), the best dikaiosune I’ve ever met (hi Rachel!), and some all-star repeat players from previous training sessions in San Francisco, New York, London, Bristol, and Leeds. It was so much fun, a real honor to play with everyone who turned out. And it looks like London is going to now do some regular training leading up to August 24, as they’re hoping to be one of the official cities for the cross-continent labyrinth run.
*Stag Hunt – I will let photos and more photos do most of the explaining here. One of the many things I liked about this (besides the novice parkour it inspired among players chasing the stag) is that it borrow the classic bejeweled mechanic of arranging baubles in 3’s. In this case, a player on your team with a balloon in your color is a bauble – so it’s not enough to chase and keep up with the stage, you have to get your other players to keep up and work with you in very close coordination. No mobile phones allowed! This gets really interesting when a group of hard-core players sprint off after the stag and disappear, and other team members get lost in a slow jog and have to FIND the stag again. I sweat like crazy in this game. I ran A LOT and leapt over a lot of concrete structures too. Awesome.
*Gype – (see the fourth urban dictionary definition at previous link) - Harkening back to HG Wells and GK Chesteron, this is a total surrealist exercise in pseudo-gameplay. No rules, you just play as if there are rules. (Search Gype on this page.) Very similar to improvisational theater – you have to “accept” whatever another player offers as a feature of gameplay. So it’s collaborative in the “make-believe” play sense. Normally, this is not really my cup of tea - -I like actual rules and careful design, but as a way to decompress from the hard-core games and act silly, it was very cool. We played two rounds of Gype: Speed Gype, and Fort Gype. To play Fort Gype (check out this awesome Fort Gype photo set!), we basically competitively built a fort out of stackable soft furniture. No one of course was exactly clear what we were doing, but the game seemed to be won when all the furniture was stacked and all of the players were on top of or under the fort.
*Werewolf – we had lots of Werewolf in the evenings, four circles going at a time in the same ballroom, exclusively “no reveal”, with some of the crowd very eager to experiment with weird, weird villager strategies for beating the Werewolves. A couple of my favorite mods – “the mark of death” and ‘the medical examiner” – allowed the villagers to do some really weird data sharing and speculating, which I’m always super-interested in. The best games were so villager-intensive that one night, in 6 hours of gameplay, we got through only THREE games with only 2 werewolves and 7 villagers each! Super small games, but the daytimes were lasting well over half an hour each. Awesome.
*3rd Bus – this was a game a small group of us made up after the festival had officially ended. 10 of us – none of us knew more than 1 or 2 people in the group before Hide & Seek – decided to keep the game going with a simple nightlife hack: we agreed to meet after dinner on Westminster bridge, and as soon as everyone is there, we all get on the 3rd bus to arrive, regardless of where it’s going, and then we get off immediately after we’ve collectively finished telling each other 3 stories about the sights we pass on the bus. The game started at 8 PM and finished at 8 AM, with of course no sleep involved. I can’t reveal all of the secrets of what transpired, but let’s just say we now have a very active Facebook group specifically for the 10 survivors – I mean, players -- of the game. ^_^
Now that you are jealous of all the awesome games I got to play, I want to spend a little space here thinking out loud about a few ideas that the festival crystallized for me.
Besides all the fun, Hide and Seek was an important professional “gut check”. It definitely confirmed for me why I am so interested in live action gameplay. It has to do with community and reception. In my experience, live (real-world) players are often more “game” than online players – more open to playing in new ways, more supportive of other people playing, and more invested in the experience. As both an artist and as a “persuasive technology" designer, that’s a really important quality to seek out and cultivate in a playing community.
I have a lot of theories about why real-world gamers tend to be so exceptionally “game”. Clearly there is a higher threshold to show up to play a live game than an online game – and that means generally you are almost always dealing with a highly motivated crowd. I also think that for most people, if you show up to physically participate in something, you want to be able to say “That was cool”, because you spent part of your day or night doing this thing, and you want a story, you want an experience. Online, people are happy to say “that sucked” and get over it, because it just doesn’t feel like it was that much of an investment and it’s easier to move on to the next thing. But perhaps even more importantly, and more subtly, there’s a big difference in the social norms of online game spaces -- where critique, complaints, griefing, and trying to break the game are often the main sport -- and the social norms of physical spaces -- where people tend to give it a good try, don’t complain out loud, and try to make it work instead of trying to break it. If a game has problem (and new live games almost always have problems!), live action players are much more likely in my experience to try to come up with a solution to make it work than they are to try to exploit the problem, which is a common online response. For me, all of this makes live, social gaming more collaborative in lots of interesting ways than even the most collaborative online game, and it’s much faster to make rapid, iterative improvements to a game design. It’s one of the most important reasons why I want to keep focusing on reality-based play, or at least always including a real-world component in online games.
And of course, I like gauging the mood of a crowd, sensing what’s working and not in real-time, harnessing the emergent energy, and otherwise applying as much live event, theatrical, real sport background as I have to the occasion. It’s like the actors who say they prefer doing live theater to film, because of the immediate feedback, because of the energy of liveness, because of the adventure of doing a run with no stops. All of this, I like about live games. And it’s like hosting a party! All of this, let’s call this interface-to-facing the players. I think my dream job would largely be to travel around the world premiering live action games and then creating online content and systems that allowed anyone to play and run the same games themselves, wherever they live, and to use wikis, videos, blogs, etc. to share with each other new strategies and levels of the game, to trash talk other cities, to share stories from live events and compare experiences, to conduct virtual competitions and to organize real-world meet-ups of different player groups. As you may notice, I have pretty close to my dream job now. ^_^
Finally, more fun is coming! If you can get to Bristol in September, a similar social play & pervasive gaming festival – IGFest, the Interesting Games Festival – will be debuting, organized by the wicked cool (and OBVIOUSLY a werewolf) Simon Johnson.