Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Lost Sport Olympics are Coming! Are you Ready to Play?

Yes, that is a blindfolded young woman RUNNING through a 40-foot wide 7-circuit labyrinth, with the help of her humming teammates. What are they doing? They're training for the 2008 Summer (alternate reality) Olympics.

The real Summer Olympics start on August 8, 2008. But the Olympic moment I'M waiting for is August 23/24, when players of The Lost Ring alternate reality game will run their own world championship race in the Lost Sport of Olympia.

Back in February 2008, the lost sport was just an urban legend. Now, thanks to the online community that researched the legend, found historic artifacts detailing its ancient gameplay, and created a wiki for reconstructing the rules of the game, we know how to play it.

Teams everywhere from Beijing and Singapore to Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires and Madrid have been perfecting their strategies and training their athletes. A team is even being formed in Capetown! Here are a couple recent videos from experienced teams in Shanghai and Tokyo:

We've been practicing all summer and all spring. Here's a video from a training camp in Northern California, where team captains from New York City, Vienna, and more gathered to compare strategies.

So, what's the endgame for these athletes? On August 23/24, six cities will race virtually on six continents, and right now, it looks like Team Wellington, New Zealand is the front runner for the gold.

YOU CAN STILL PLAY! Other teams with a lot of training and skills accumulated this spring and summer include Team San Francisco, USA and Team London, UK. If you live in Wellington, San Francisco, or London, they can still use some team members for the championship race. Email me at my first name at the name of this and I'll introduce you to their team captains! There are no front runner teams in South America or Africa yet, so if you are going to be on those continents on August 23/24, you should jump over to and introduce yourself to one of the bloggers and let the world know you are ready to compete at the Lost Sport Olympics!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Memories of a Dead Seer: Werewolf at Foocamp08!

Werewolf at Foocamp08
Originally uploaded by nickbilton.

Foo Camp, a.k.a "shangri la for geeks", is, among other things, the premiere laboratory for Werewolf hacks.*

We get to play A LOT of Werewolf. Typically at least 12 solid hours of Werewolf play, divided over two nights. This year, we played 10:oo PM until 3:30 AM (Friday) and then 11:00 PM until 6:30 AM (Saturday). It's the perfect way to interact with people who might otherwise intimidate you with how awesome they are, and to crush your own introverted instincts if you have them. That's why, I think, it's become such a staple at tech and geek events.

But nothing compares to the Werewolf @ FOO. We play it iteratively -- usually more than one circle is going at at time, in nearby rooms, and we move across circles and rooms, ultimately playing many, many games together in different combinations and size groups. We also play with a lot of history -- many of us have played dozens or even hundreds of games with each other, and we have a lot of information accumulated over those games that we use to try to analyze each other.

The end result is an extremely high level (you might say professional level!) of Werewolf gameplay. A lot of people stand around watching the games like a spectator sport (cool) -- at least 'til midnight (And by sunrise, it's only the hard-core players playing). Newbies get brought up to speed VERY quickly and are expected to play quite well (and actively) or get picked off early by the villagers ("Lynch the quiet people! They're not contributing!"). The expectation for elite gameplay can be seen on the Foo schedule in the photograph "new players welcome; experts really welcome!!"

It varies from conference to conference and year to year how well we hit the "sweet spot" of newbie/expert balance, but if you're curious, after this year's Foo, I can say pretty confidently that we've determined the ideal ratio for Werewolf innovation is between 25% and 33% first-time players in any given circle at the start of the night, and working it down to less than 10% first-time players in any given circle in all subsequent rounds. It's good to have some first-time players around because sometimes they think of weird ideas unbiased by previous experience. It also makes it more challenging for experienced players, since the new players' tells haven't been learned yet. (Yes, Werewolf players have tells just like poker players -- and learning to control and misdirect others with your tells is one of the most important meta-stratgies!) Most importantly, to spread the Werewolf phenomenon, you have to let new players play! And a big part of the fun is finding out who is surprisingly awesome. You never know who will turn out to be an amazing player... Last Foo, I thought Kati London was the big surprise star player. And this year, for instance, I was particularly impressed by the gameplay of newbie Nick Bilton (R & D/Future thinker for the NY Times).

As may already be apparent from the discussion in this post, in addition to the gameplay there's tons of theorizing. At previous Foo Camps, we've held extremely useful informal game theory lunches to discuss and create charts and tables of "optimal villager strategies" and "optimal werewolf strategies" and most controversially "optimal seer and healer strategies" (often very dependent on each other). We always say we're going to start a wiki to share these, but we haven't yet. Last year, we held a formal session to discuss Werewolf game strategy and thought just a few people would show up for an intense conversation; instead we had one of the biggest rooms packed and overflowing with people on the floor and out the door. I might be crazy, but I don't think it was JUST curiosity about game theory -- I think there's actually a little bit of social currency and prestige involved with being a good Werewolf players in the tech community. I don't think that's the main motivation of Werewolf players, but you certainly do have an easier time striking up conversations and meetings with fellow players if you do something clever in a game. For me, I usually throw out business cards I get at conferences (whoops, did I admit that?) but I always Google/Facebook friend/Twitter follow people who were interesting Werewolf players.

So, what happened at our Werewolf hacking lab @ FOO this year? Well, last year, at FOO ’07, Avi Bryant and I worked out on paper an Ultimate Optimal Villager Strategy for a Small Village playing “no reveal” (12 or fewer players, with both a seer and a healer). This is basically a PERFECT strategy that would work ruthlessly well to detect and lynch all of the Werewolves every single game, in almost any circumstance. We did all the math, we ran all the scenarios, and then we tested it in a bunch of games with lots of different players. And in ~20 games, the villagers won every time. (Since then, I’ve only seen the Ultimate Optimal Villager strategy fail once, more on that to come).

Here’s how it works. But before I walk you through the logic, please note: this is perfect from a GAME THEORY perspective only. It only works when 1) all of the villager players accept the premise and agree to play according to this strategy and 2) all of the villager players are acting rationally, in the best interest of the village. As we all know from attempting to apply game theory to real life, people are often irrational and don’t follow optimal strategies. So, while villagers win 95% of the time in an ideal mathematical/game theory world, in reality I would say that irrational actors and recalcitrant healers could probably drop the success rate as low as 80%, but only if at least several players were acting like complete and total idiots in combination.

Okay, so the BEST village strategy EVER:

1) The HEALER must heal him or herself on the first night. This ensures the healer is alive on day one, and everyone in the village will know that.

2) The SEER must reveal him or herself on the first day, immediately upon awakening, assuming they have not been killed. (WEREWOLVES have only a 1/10 or 1/9 chance of successfully killing the SEER randomly on the first night, so in the vast majority of games, the SEER is still alive.) There should be no discussion, no thinking, the SEER must simply REVEAL their identity. They should also say what they learned in the night (who they investigated, and what they found out.) At this point, one of two things will happen: Someone else will claim to be the SEER, or no one else will claim to be the SEER. If no one else claims to be the SEER, no problem, the village trusts the SEER. (Keep the other option in mind for a moment, we’ll come back to it)

3) At this point, the OTHER VILLAGERS should accept that this is the real SEER and trust all information the SEER provides for the rest of the game. The SEER becomes a de facto leader of the village. The VILLAGERS can advise the SEER on who to investigate based on their suspicions.

4) The HEALER must heal the SEER every single night, no matter what.

5) If the VILLAGE attempts to lynch the HEALER, the HEALER should out themselves as the healer only as a last resort if it looks like they are going to lose the vote. They should plead not to be lynched, hopefully save themselves from the lynching, and then alternate between healing themselves and the SEER randomly each night, thwarting WEREWOLF efforts to get one of them and prolonging the number of rounds the seer has to investigate.

6) The SEER must reveal what they found out straightaway every single day, no matter what. The VILLAGE should reseat itself, for visual clarity: safe “investigated” players who are proven villagers sit together with the SEER, uninvestigated/unsafe players sit together awaiting their fate.

7) If the WEREWOLVES got the SEER on the first night, then normal Werewolf odds apply. This would be 100% effective if the SEER couldn’t’ be killed on the first night; averaging normal village success rates (~55%) with the perfect success rate at the right weights (90% of the time the SEER isn’t killed the first round) results in a success rate of 95.5% for villagers under this strategy, NOT allowing for awesome and unlikely Werewolf counterstrategy. Which goes as follows…

If a VILLAGE plays this way, the WEREWOLVES have only a few viable strategies to stop their inevitable discovery and lynching.

So here’s the counter-strategy that rarely works, but are the only viable options if a VILLAGE really has its game together:

A) It goes without saying that the Werewolves must always kill “investigated” players so that the pool of “uninvestigated” players remains as big as possible, for them to hide in.

B) After 2-3 nights, they should attempt to kill the seer in the hopes that the healer has died. This is really their only chance to get far enough in the game that enough uninvestigated villagers remain.

C) One of the WEREWOLVES can claim to be the SEER immediately upon waking up, either before the real SEER does, or right after, claiming “WAIT A MINUTE! But I’M the real SEER…” At this point, they have to out-perform each other to earn the village’s trust, and in a best-case scenario, the Werewolf has a 50% chance of winning the village’s trust. The villagers know one is the real SEER and the other is almost certainly a Werewolf. (Well, they could be a drunk, reckless villager – see the note on “irrational players” and game theory above. ^_^)

From my experience, however, this gambit almost always fails. Here’s why. 1) Most Werewolves REALLY don’t want to draw attention to themselves, so they VERY rarely claim falsely to be the Seer, even though it means they are doomed not to claim it. In that first day, they have a powerful instinct to try to “fly under the radar” and an aversion to being called out right away. So you very rarely see two battling Seers. However, if they do take the risk, villagers almost ALWAYS can tell the difference between a real seer and a lying werewolf. You have to trust my observations on this, or try it yourself. It is pretty easy to tell the difference in the first daytime between an honest seer and a lying Werewolf. The Werewolves almost always fail on this gambit.

Having played nearly 100 games with the Ultimate Optimal Villager strategy, I have only ONCE seen a Werewolf play this strategy and pull it off. (In games where the village isn't playing by this strategy, it's actually quite common for a Werewolf to successfully claim to be the Seer.) It will probably hurt me in future games to admit that this was a game in which I was the Werewolf and Jimmy Wales was the Seer and investigated me on the first night. So, um, forget that I said that. There is ONE advantage the Werewolves occasionally gain by this gambit, even if the villagers correctly identify the Werewolf as a liar. In an imperfect world, the villagers will decide at this point to abandon the strategy and lynch BOTH the so-called seers, knowing they will get at least one werewolf out, guaranteed. This is not technically a valid move in the optimal strategy, which says you just HAVE to play as if you believe the seer is the right seer. But it happens, and it mildly favors the villagers, so even in an irrational world, it still helps to have the seer come out round one.

D) Alternately, a Werewolf can claim privately to be the HEALER to the SEER, through whispering or eye contact or such. The advantage that could be gained here is that the SEER might forestall investigating the Werewolf because the SEER now trusts that person and concentrates on investigating others. I’ve never seen this work, but it theoretically could improve the Werewolves’ odds of surviving long enough to get the SEER and outplay the rest of the VILLAGERS.

(by the way, how awesome would it be to teach a beginning game theory class using WEREWOLF instead of that idiotically simplistic prisoner’s dilemma?)

So, the cool thing about FOO is that more than half of attendees from year to year are new, and hardly anyone in my Saturday night Werewolf circle had been persuaded of the Ultimate Optimal Villager Strategy the year before. So I had to try to persuade a whole new set of players of how amazingly effective it was. THIS WAS A HUGE CHALLENGE. Mostly because it’s totally conventional wisdom that the seer and healer should keep their identities secret as long as possible, so they don’t get eaten by werewolves.

So, one game, sometime after midnight, I got the Seer card in a small village, was nominated for lynching the first round, and so of course I outed myself and said “But don’t worry! This is fine! This is perfect!” At which point I tried to introduce the other players to the Ultimate Optimal Seer Strategy. It was NOT well received! OMG. They thought I was crazy, crazy wrong. It was SO counter-intuitive. (And hard to walk through all of the game theory and get people to listen and not seem crazy while actually playing a game, lol.) They went through all the arguments: It was too dangerous for a seer to come out in the first round, you couldn’t count on the healer to heal them, the werewolves could be too tricky and the village would fall for their lies, and so on. And naturally, the healer refused to heal me that night, the werewolves got me, and on it went. I was so mad that I scrawled across the whiteboard “THE HEALER NEEDS TO LEARN MATH!!!!!” in the middle of the “night”, and once the healer got picked off, he and I and another dead villager went out in the hall and had a raging argument. REALLY raging. Friendly, but wild. The argument was only settled 5 games later... five games in which we had agreed to test the strategy and saw the villagers win perfect games lasting about 10 minutes each (that’s really short!!!). In fact, after that point, when it was conceded by all that from a game theory perspective this was really ridiculously effective, we had to stop playing with that strategy. It was too boring to be that good of a village! (And really stressful to be a Werewolf in that environment) So we told the Seer to do something crazy, abandon that strategy, and on we went for another few hours…

I could write for hours more about the interesting Werewolf phenomena at this camp, but I’ll close with just one more story. With the help of co-conspirators Cal Henderson and Kati London, I decided to moderate a final game at 6 AM – what we called “The Meta Game”. I would put ZERO Werewolf cards in the deck, and NO Seer and NO Healer. But the PLAYERS would be told that there were 2 werewolves and a seer and a healer. They would each get a VILLAGER card and assume the special roles had been received by others in the group. I would go through the night as usual, “waking” people up, getting their input, and so on. I would just decide who to kill based on who was actively participating (I killed off the least active participant from the previous day each night.) So I faked the whole game that way. I killed Kati first so she could “welcome” each killed/lynched player and convince them to keep quiet while the rest of the game played out. Cal I kept alive a few rounds because he’s funny, but eventually I had to kill him so that the endgame could play out with truly “in the dark” players.

When there were only 5 players left, I decided to announce no deaths in the daytime, thus convincing them the healer was still alive and had saved himself or herself. They were quite flustered when no one would admit to being the healer! (They assumed the seer was long dead). They descended deeper and deeper into truly spectacular confusion, and we played to a final endgame of 3 people, which in normal Werewolf would mean that there was 1 werewolf in the circle and 2 villagers. They went nuts trying to persuade each other that they were really villagers and not werewolves. This was great, because they were all telling the truth! They were so infuriated with each other they were throwing food and such. Literally. Throwing food. At each other. It was awesome beyond awesome. They finally settled on one last person to lynch, at which point I perversely announced that the Werewolves had won. Meaning they would have lynched the wrong person. Their jaws dropped, they stared at each other, frantically trying to figure out, “Who was it? What just happened?” It was pretty priceless. At which point all was revealed. To much celebration. The next day, one of the final 3 players came up to me still excited and said he hadn’t been able to sleep for an hour and a half, he was so keyed up thinking about the final game. AWESOME.


* One of the first Werewolf hacks that the FOO/O'Reilly community has been really active in propagating is the fact that we call it "Werewolf" instead of "Mafia", which is the original variant's name but was re-proposed by this guy as Werewolf. I love this, because I spent about a year observing the difference in roleplaying strategies that emerge when people play "Mafia" versus "Werewolf" versus "Vampires" versus "Witchhunt" versus "Zombie Village." I find that Werewolf killing seems to be taken less personally -- players are less offended being eaten by Werewolves in the night than picked off by the mafia in the night. Because there is the potential for a little bit of actual bullying in a game like this and a lot of potential for hurt feelings (why did you kill me??!!!), I think it's important to stick with metaphors that de-personalize the process. Werewolf also seems to evoke the least amount of fictional role playing/posturing and the most game theory and real-person interaction. All of this probably sounds hard to believe -- why would the game metaphor change interaction so much, and is it really consistent across groups? I haven't done a scientific study, these are only ethnographic impressions, but I have a gut sense they are pretty valid. Chat me up about this sometime, I have lots more to say on the subject! At any rate, some of us would like to see wikipedia stop redirecting the Werewolf article to the Mafia article, but we haven't really made a good case for that yet to the wikipedia elite. Maybe at Foo '09 we will stage our wikipedia revolt!

UPDATE: First, in the comments of this post, some EXCELLENT ideas and strategies. Take a look! (And thank you to everyone for adding them.) I am particularly enamored of the "neighbor" strategy, which I have never encountered in Werewolf play. I will DEFINITELY be trying it at the next Werewolf night! Second, this is a really interesting analysis of this post from the angle of "What does it mean to 'solve' a game?" Maybe it's a little meta to link to it, but I'm just such a geek and who could resist a blog called "Geek Out New York"? Third, I just wanted to add that I love playing in different combinations of characters: Seer/No Healer, Reveal/No Specials, No Reveal/No Specials in REALLY small groups, like 5-7 (we call this "Speed Werewolf"), Medical Examiner (my own invention, play with me to find out how it works!) and so on... the great thing about Werewolf/Mafia/etc. is that there are endless variations, and EACH has its own optimal strategy. So the game theory and the geeking out never has to end!

Hiring: Community Leaders/Game Masters for Superstruct - UPDATED

UPDATE: We're no longer accepting applications for this position. (We already have 20x as many qualified applicants as we can hire.) But we do still need collaborators! If you'd like to be involved in Superstruct as more than a player -- for instance, if you'd like to throw a Superstruct party or workshop or camp; or if you'd like to organize a team of Superstruct players at your company, or your school; or if you'd like your blog to host a feed of advance game content; or if you'd like to rally your online community around a Superstruc theme; email as let me know! Jamais and I and IFTF would love to collaborate with you.

The Institute for the Future is hiring five community leaders/game masters for the upcoming future forecasting game Superstruct.

It’s an eight-week position beginning September 8, 2008. You can be a game master from anywhere in the world (outside of US is okay; we will have players from all over the world, although primarily playing in English), and it will require ~ 12 hours of online work per week. You’ll work very closely with me (Jane McGonigal, Avant Game) and Jamais Cascio (Open the Future). This is a non-profit game with no commercial sponsors; the position comes with a stipend of $2500.

Skills required: Great forum writing skills; online storytelling experience (blogs, videos, photos, Twitter, etc.); curiosity about the future; some expertise in issues related to sustainability, global health, environmental or climate issues, global business, social networks, or anything else you think might be useful to solving the problems of the future. We're open to considering anyone with great writing skills and a desire to investigate the future! No technical skills required, just great Internet skills.

Your job will be to lead a team of players (at minimum, hundreds of players; more likely, thousands of players) in creating a collaborative online forecast of the year 2019. The forecasting will take place through wikis, forums, videos, blogs, Twitter, online comics, photo sets, and whatever else our players use to depict and talk about the future. You'll be reading and watching lots of player-created content, in addition to making your own content. You'll give the players feedback, and you'll synthesize and summarize the most interesting things in a short weekly story. You'll be moderating forums and wikis dedicated to solving a particular future-problem. You'll have to help your community manage a careful balance between "wow, the future might be scary" storytelling to "you know what, we might actually be able to solve this problem before it kills us all" optimism. Because the game isn't just about imagining the future. It's about inventing the future. This game is a kind of working prototype for the year 2019!

Each game master will focus on one of five "superthreats", ranging from a devastating disruption of the food supply chain, to a pandemic, to "global weirding" weather patterns to create millions of climate refugees. (Depending on your interest and area of expertise, we'll make sure you get the right topic!) In the two weeks before the game launches, we'll give you a crash course in the IFTF research that is guiding this game, so you'll be an expert on your area when the game launches on September 22, 2008.

To apply: Send a letter to me at explaining why you want to join us on the Superstruct team. Mention any previous experience as a writer, or thinking about the future, playing or making games, running online communities, or being an interesting person online. Include a CV or resume if you think it will help explain who you are, but most importantly, in your letter, answer this question: It's the summer of 2019. You are yourself, but 10 years in the future. Describe where you are having for dinner, what you're eating, and what you're thinking or talking about. How did you wind up there, compared to where you had dinner most often in the summer of 2008?

Superstruct! Play the game, invent the future.

This fall, the Institute for the Future invites you to play Superstruct, the world’s first massively multiplayer forecasting game. It’s not just about envisioning the future—it’s about inventing the future. Everyone is welcome to join the game. Watch for the opening volley of threats and survival stories, September 2008.


This is a game of survival, and we need you to survive.

Super-threats are massively disrupting global society as we know it. There’s an entire generation of homeless people worldwide, as the number of climate refugees tops 250 million. Entrepreneurial chaos and “the axis of biofuel” wreak havoc in the alternative fuel industry. Carbon quotas plummet as food shortages mount. The existing structures of human civilization—from families and language to corporate society and technological infrastructures—just aren’t enough. We need a new set of superstructures to rise above, to take humans to the next stage.
You can help. Tell us your story. Strategize out loud. Superstruct now.

It's your legacy to the human race.

Want to learn more about the game? Read the Superstruct FAQ.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Make a game with me! I'm hiring 2 PHP programmers!

Help me invent a brand-new genre of online gaming!

The Institute for the Future is looking for two PHP programmers to help build Superstruct, our first ever MASSIVELY MULTIPLAYER FORECASTING GAME. Players will work together to forecast the year 2019, and the game focuses on real-world threats to the survival of the human species.

Basically, it's an exciting and save-the-world kind of project. Join us!

(Find out more about Superstruct)

Here's what we need:

FRONT-END: A WEB INTERFACE PROGRAMMER who can build highly interactive web pages in PHP/Javascript/CSS and work with the game design team to spec the design and with the graphic design team to implement the design. UI Flash skills are a plus.

BACK-END: A DATABASE PROGRAMMER who can work in PHP. Tasks will include integrating web forms for capturing blog posts, setting up forums, doing simple surveys, computing survey results, and feeding results to graphic displays. Drupal knowledge is a plus.

Both positions are short-term positions that start immediately and are expected to last through September. San Francisco/Bay Area individuals are preferred, but remote work is possible. Salaries commensurate with experience.

This is an opportunity to work with a game pioneer and a world-renown non-profit research institute to help address the problems we face as a global society over the coming decade. We expect this game to be groundbreaking and receive a lot of attention, not to mention extremely fun to work on.

Send me an email and tell me about yourself and your experience - write to jane @ the-name-of-this-blog dot com!

Monday, July 07, 2008

Hide and Seek 08 Rules Me – and why real-world players are so game

Losing it clearly!
Originally uploaded by KaiChanVong.

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 Strangersa 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.

Friday, July 04, 2008

I made a 5-mile Vienna city labyrinth! UPDATED WITH PHOTOS

Tracksticks are awesome, the perfect outdoor gaming toy, but storms make them skittish. So my five-mile Vienna labyrinth walked on foot in a storm (in Favoriten, apparently what is considered a "rough and tumble" neighborhood by the locals) with GPS data recorded continually appears quite chaotic on the Google Earth display.

Originally uploaded by Avant Game.

Now, from the looks of this labyrinth, you might think that I was being chased by the bad guys the entire way. Well, maybe I was... in which case, Eli Hunt will forgive me for the fact that the inner two circuits look really, REALLY un-save-the-worldy. (Despite the fact that I bought a 5 Euro "Save the world" superhero t-shirt just for the occasion!)

With a diameter of 4.1 stadia and 4 circuits, I was hoping for an omph strength of 2.93. But with the inner two circuits so messy, it might be a lot lower, more like 1.5. Guess we'll see what the omphaputer has to say about it!

You can see more city labyrinths here, for example. Or just get the whole Lost Ring KML layer.

UPDATE: Flickr photos of the adventure are here! Note that while making the labyrinth, I encountered A TON of secret signs that I was on the right track: a toilet-seat omphalos, six rings, a sign for Ariadne, graffiti warning of the "rapid" continental shift, and MORE! Amazing how many lost secrets of the Olympiad are hidden in plain sight when you know what to look for...

Vienna - Lost Sport of Olympia! Tracksticks! July 5

Lost Sport of Olympia
Originally uploaded by rubberdreamfeet.

Finally -- the Lost Sport comes to Vienna!

We're meeting up this Saturday July 5, at 3:30 PM, in Stadtpark. We'll play the lost sport in the skate park (what's a little chalk labyrinth admist all that street graffiti?).

Come play with us! All the information is on this Upcoming page.

I also have a trackstick II to give to the most awesome and enthusiastic lost sport player. You can use the trackstick to make city labyrinths in Vienna, or wherever! (I made a 5 mile Vienna labyrinth yesterday, it was super fun.)

Saturday is going to be a bit of a public play double header with Monchrom, the coolest art collective in the world and the amazing inventors of massively multiplayer thumb wrestling (which I am happy to teach you anytime YAY!). They're doing a noon sculpture mob at museumsquartier. So we're hoping that our lost athletes join the mob, and the mobbers join the lost sport!