Wednesday, November 19, 2008

These Games are Experience Grenades

Just Do It
Originally uploaded by What What.
Okay, I had a revelation.

Games like Superstruct and The Lost Sport and World Without Oil and Reverse Scavenger Hunts and Tombstone Hold 'Em and SF0 missions and The Go Game are "experience grenades".

That's a new term. I throughly Google-checked it.

Experience grenades: You play them, and that's like pulling the pin on the grenade. Nothing has to happen right away. Nothing has to change or be solved right away. Then, you wait. It's later -- an hour later, a day later, a week later, a month later... it goes off in your head, like the delayed explosion of a grenade.

You realize: You've learned something. Your cognitive patterns are different. Your view of the possibilities in the world around you has changed. Your sense of your own potential is changed. You're ready for something you didn't even know was coming. You understand something intuitively that seems alien or confusing to others

The thing is: This doesn't necessary happen DURING the game. During the game, you might not believe the game is working. in the best case scenario, you might think you're JUST having fun. Worse, the game might seem silly. You don't trust the design, it seems to be asking things of you that you don't naturally want to do. Or it might seem abstract -- what's the practical takeaway? IOr even worse, it might seem wonky or arbitrary or broken from your POV.

But it's working. If you're playing, the pin has been pulled. If you're really participating and immersed in the game, the work is happening in your brain. It just is. I've seen it again and again. The experience happens now, the payoff comes later.

Sometimes I know what the payoff will be, sometimes I just trust that a good game will produce something interesting. And the best thing that can happen in a game community is for players to trust that something interesting will happen, and to play as if it's an experience grenade, rather than instant satisfaction.

That's a strange thing to say about a game -- something we play to produce in-the-moment fun. But some games are fun later. They just are. Like trying adventures you have that you hate at the moment but looking back they are the adventures of your life, the stories you cherish, the bonds you made and the way you discovered who you could be.

Yes, that's a different kind of fun, a different kind of payoff. But games can be that, and it feels different in the moment than immediate and obvious fun (like Rock Band or pinatas).

I see a new class of trusted game designers who are like personal trainers. The trainer tells you to do something, and you do it -- even if it HURTS! Even if it isn't fun in the moment! And the benefits come later. Not necessarily during. You trust the trainer's process and you do it to be a better person and a happier person in the long run.

There are a few designers that I trust like this. Simon Johnson, who made the Comfort of Strangers and Hip Sync. The SF0 designers. Kati London at AreaCode. If they make it, I know I can show up and play it and I will have an experience that explodes later in my mind and stays with me. I trust them and don't care what they want me to do. I know they have a design process that works and that they're tring to make people happier and more aware of the possibilities in the world around them. And I am trying to be that kind of trusted designer myself to as many people as possible.

So I thank people who show up to play my games and trust the process. People who played Superstruct -- I know that experience grenade will be going off literally for months and years to come. We've already celebrate how much we've achieved during the game - -but the real effects will unfold for years. That's just how they work. That's just how they're designed.

Someday I hope game designers really are seen as trusted personal trainers, and that we have the chance to take people through proven processes that pay off in the long run. More gamesight, a surprising social safety net and support system, a more engaging environment, a higher quality of life.


David Sahlin said...

This is -exactly- my experience with Superstruct.

I remember thinking to myself once, as I talked with the folks in IRC, that there's a hugely passionate class of people out there that were just waiting for something like this to bring them together.

Now that the initial explosion occured, the potential for change has increased due to all of these new contacts and friends. With a little bit of guidance, I think Reconstruct can become very useful.

I feel like I want to make some sort of obvious connection to the Butterfly Effect. With Butterfly Grenades, however, the effect seems to feed on itself - or at least have the potential to.

Justin Pickard said...

Okay, but what if the game-designers aren't personal trainers? What if the experience explosions aren't necessarily good? There's no guarantee that the same experience will affect different people in the same ways. Do we need to define the ethics of game design?

Jane said...

David: awesome! i'm really glad to hear that. and secondary triggers as a concept is a REALLY cool thing to think about.

Justin: I see you still have your Outlaw Planet on! awesome. ^_^ So, to answer your questions 1) well, yeah, of course games can and will do things you don't expect that you don't want -- that's why you playtest and prototype attempt to understand how they work before you do them at a scale. that's part of game design ethics that most experimental designers (at least the ones I know!) practice... and yes naturally we need game design ethics! and GDC and IGDA folks do talk about that stuff a lot, even though it's not the most popular topic of conversation I will admit ^_^ anyway, it's also why I mentioned MY trusted game designers... you don't trust all game designers. you develop trust over time. and the trust can be broken, so designers have to work hard not to break that trust. (Elan Lee and Sean Stewart have a great talk about game designers and trust and how you can earn and lose it) Also people love to imagine evil game overlords (Ender's Game types) and that's not a crazy idea, if games get powerful and mainstream enough as interfaces for reality. So I agree, it's good to be prepared. That's a big, long-term thing. In the meantime, we need to develop a real, working body/industry of trusted game designers! So we will know who to trust in the future when these hypothetical malicious puppet masters try to manipulate people toward undesirable ends.

Justin Pickard said...

Cool. Thanks for the resource tips!

Chris Havranek said...

I actually talked about this in my presentation on ARGs. The fact is that we develop such an emotional bond to these games and the ideas behind them because of the time/energy we spend in them and relationships we create with others even only if on a virtual level. There's no doubt in my mind that when you spend mental resources like that you develop a new mindset even if only slightly. I was in boyscouts for 8 years and I still retain a lot of the ideas and tricks I learned. Even if speaking on a promotional sense you could create deep bonds between massive amounts of people and a product.

RadamR said...

Hi! Interesting post. I was curious as to whether or not you could expand on this concept further, or provide some more concrete examples. I'm not sure why this phenomenon needs to be relegated to game experiences. Other media are fun to engage or challenge us in peculiar ways (and can be dreadfully boring at first ;). For instance, if I read a particular author, whom I may not like at first, her work, at a later time, may seriously impact my "cognitive patterns" and give me a perspective I might not have had.

I guess I just don't get why you're privileging games with a phenomenon (heightened awareness? learning?) that's available in other media. I will grant, "experience grenade" does sound fun ;) Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Hey Jane!

Some of my students and I were talking about this, and one of the questions that came up is this: the "experience grenade" concept arguably could be applied to any medium or experience, from books to sports to ARGs.

What is it about games like Superstruct and The Lost Sport and World Without Oil in particular that makes them experience grenadey? Or, put differently, what is it that makes the delay and/or the explosion more intense?


Patrick said...

World without Oil definitely changed my worldview completely. With Superstruct, I had that explosion go off in like 2004, so perhaps it was a time-traveling grenade. I heard you though.

I'd like to design a game that's like an exploding bullet, it shoots you in the head and then completely liquidates your brain almost immediately. So metal.

IneffaBelle said...

Superstruct was a gift. Not only did it give me something to do for 6 weeks, but it gave me a sense of purpose and renewed my faith in my ability to be productive despite personal obstacles. I did things in Superstruct I didn't know I still had in me. As the name "Reconstruct" takes on new meaning for me, I now know that it is only the beginning of what I can accomplish. Already Reconstruct is echoing into the present real world.

The fact that Superstruct was a game is a merely incidental. It opened windows of possibility for me, unlocked potential I didn't know I still had, and broadened my horizons. I played as myself in the future, but it changed how I see myself in the present. And that is truly a gift.

Superstruct wasn't perfect, but I personally couldn't have asked for a more rewarding experience. Thank you Jane!

infrarad said...

I often compare myself to a personal trainer when I am teaching. I explain that math is *supposed* to hurt, because we are building problem-solving creases into their brains.

My cognitive patterns being different? Only if you count having to completely rewrite my five-year plan! Superstruct persuaded me that cooperation is so interesting that I need to try and reinvent math education, instead of heading off into pure math research like I expected. Jane, you have kicked me into a full-fledged existential crisis, and it's both terrifying and awesome!

Anonymous said...

I think that is great terminology, and also a good concept. Do you design with this in mind, or is it a side product ... ?

Bobby said...

I'm not sure I understand why the experience grenade is unique to this kind of game--or even to games in general.

Is it not the same thing that happens when a book resonates with you long after you've read it? Maybe Baudrillard took a few years to sink-in but suddenly seems relevant in a new context. Perhaps you see a homeless person holding a sign one evening driving home from work and that image sits in the recesses of your head until one day it helps you construct an image of your world. Or are you just saying that your games fit into that familiar experience?

Experience grenade feels like a loaded metaphor because it implies the magnitude of effect. It's a level of effect that designers can't guarantee. I understand how it's effective in terms of time-release, but that period of delay is in reality so short. Superstruct doesn't have to be life-changing to be effective.

Though not as sensationally exciting, maybe it would be better to turn to botany than war for a metaphor. Games striving for change plant idea seeds, grow at different rates, become useful at relevant times. At the beginning you enjoy the process of planting your garden, much like the immediate act of playing a game, but in the end something much more complex has been born out of that act.

It's hokey, I know, but it seems appropriate.

Andrew said...

How does one become one of these personal play trainers? Is there some sequence of experiences that lead one into this area? Would you have to start off as a player and work your way up?

Matt Arnold said...

Good insight.

While I have not had this experience with "a non-open-ended set of rules for competition with a winner", such as board/dice/dexterity/card games, I have had this experience with the other group that I have called "interactive imagination", such as roleplaying and ARGs. I hear others describing similar experiences with re-enactment groups such as the SCA. Generally stressful or difficult while you're in it, but the reward is on time-delay.

By contrast, I just got through a whole weekend of board/dice/dexterity/card games at U-Con, and was having very relaxed fun the whole time, but my years of experience with board and card games leads me to expect no time-delay payoff from them.


Anonymous said...

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Sorry to contact you in this way but I can't find an email address for you.
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Marti McGinnis said...

Jane uses the term "trust the process" which is precisely the same phrase I use for myself when creating art. There is a letting go, a suspension of doubt one must allow in order to reach new levels. I think you can assign whatever quality you like to the impact of this allowing; butterflies, bombs - and any other descriptor you care to employ. Once engaged a participant is going to experience a novel version of themselves because these constructs allow us to condense ourselves into participant packaged archetypes of our own selves that have the side benefit of letting us ignore large swaths of whatever else it is we get sidetracked by - at least for the duration(s) of our involvement. From this, 'aha!'-style self-revelations can occur as we process our experiences from extra-ordinary experiential planes during or even months after. Brava/Bravo to people who prepare these platforms. To those who do so carefully, mindfully considering the greater good - you have my deep admiration.

WriTerGuy said...

First of all, I love the term "experience grenade," it's a great descriptor for the experience.

Second, I do think the game experience differs from similar experiences with books or movies. Books and movies put a layer of abstraction between you and the experience that games don't; in some sense you are always "in" a game in a way that you aren't with a book or movie. And ARGs in particular really enhance being "in the game" - there's no avatar, etc. And when there's no set narrative except the one being created by the players - a la Superstruct or World Without Oil - the immersion gets stronger still.

Anonymous said...

Damn good job of selling. Im over here googling superstruct. Think about what the character of Lara Croft developed into. Angelina Jolie-Pitt becomes the actresss. The can be deep on a cognitive level in reference to what your saying.