Rosie and myself were fortunate to attend the Playing For Change event at the Manchester Metropolitan University on the 19 February. The event was organised by Scott Gaule and Nicola Whitton to mark the creation of the Games and Social Change Network, a project funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council. Nicola Whitton is a Research Fellow in the Education and Social Research at MMU and recently ran a game-building workshop for us here at the Library.
What is the Games and Social Change Network about? Well:
Outside of the world of sport, the potentials of play and games as agents of change are seldom acknowledged and explored. However, the landscape of game making and playing is undergoing a radical transformation. Recent developments are highlighting the possibilities of game design in engaging wider social processes, aligned to activism, journalism, public pedagogy, interpersonal communication and community development, for example.
Playing for change: The transformative power of gaming
The keynote was by Joost Raessens from the Center for the Study of Digital Games and Play, Utrecht University. Joost spoke in some depth about how to validate whether gaming is having a societal change. Joost used the example of Darfur is Dying, a viral computer game where you play a Darfurian refugee who must forage for water. The idea behind the game is to raise awareness of the plight of Darfurian refugees and to encourage people to help in some way. On an individual level you might be able to measure how many people have played the game and how many of those donate money, but he began to demonstrate how hard it is to measure societal change as a result of such games. Joost covered discourse analysis and George Lakoff’s concept of framing. Framing is the idea that in most situations we have an expectation of how things pan out; a script that is followed. Depending on how we frame gaming will effect how we can begin to measure any societal change. He questioned whether games should incite change. Are we using coercion or being duplicitous in using games to try and affect behaviour? It all got quite deep quite fast!
Alternate reality gaming as a support network
I attended this session by Fran Ilich, at which point all lines between real life and virtual got rather blurred. Fran is a Mexican writer and media artist who has created a virtual community and bank to go with it. Fran spoke about an Alternate Reality game he (and possibly his virtual community) created called Raiders of the Lost Crown. However, the game could get very real, as hinted by this disclaimer:
You have been chosen to participate in the “Raiders of the Lost Crown”, an Alternate Reality Game. By hitting the return button, you will automatically sign up for the game. You will not be charged for this service but you will need to travel to Austria, where the play exercise will become very very real.
So, this game appeared to be about raising awareness of an Aztec crown, taken by Cortez in the 16th century, now residing in Austria, which should be repatriated to South America. Or is that what the game was for? I wasn’t really sure. Fran spoke about his wider activities and how elements of the virtual world he created has real life benefits. People spending real money to invest in Spacebank are somehow supporting Zapatista communities through the purchase of coffee. I admit I was getting lost at this point and when Fran said he had been followed and warned about his activism by a Mexican special agent, I really didn’t know what to think. But maybe that was the point?
Obscuring physical play: How to make digitally enabled folk games
Luckily I was brought very much back into the room in the following session run by Patrick Jarnfelt and Ida Toft of the Copenhagen Games Collective.
It was a great session where we thought about analogue versus digital gaming and the different ways these functioned and how we felt about them. The Copenhagen Games Collective are very much about humans playing humans in real life, but with some of their games enhanced or just changed by digital elements. For example, we played a game using Playstation Move controllers where you have to push each other about to try and knock each other out of the game. We played and compared that to an analogue game, Turtle Wushu, a game where you also have to push each other about but this time try and knock a plastic turtle from the back of the other players hands. The participants concluded you don’t always know the parameters behind a digital game, whereas it is more obvious whether the turtle is going to fall from your hand.
We played a mass blindfolded newspaper jousting game, into which we introduced the Oculus Rift. The Oculus Rift is a VR headset to which the Copenhagen Games Collective have hooked up a laptop back pack and webcam. Two people donned the Oculus outfit and replayed the newspaper joust, but this time they saw through their webcam, which we could choose where to affix about their person. Watching two people edging cautiously towards each other because they are seeing out of their knee is strangely absorbing. The Copenhagen Games Collective would be great people to have at a party and they’ve certainly given me some ideas. (As an aside, for about £250 we should look into getting an Oculus Rift to help with our investigations into Augmented Reality.)
Super Political Street Fighter
Over lunch The Larks solved various political questions through the medium of Street Fighter. This was a surprisingly good way of solving arguments.
Games are conversations
The closing keynote was by Matt Adams from Blast Theory, a group of interactive artists who have created some particularly immersive gaming experiences. Their work includes Ivy4Evr an ‘interactive SMS drama’ commissioned by Channel 4 Education and aimed at teenagers. After signing up you receive texts from Ivy following her day to day life until she falls pregnant and struggles to deal with the situation. Matt was able to demonstrate the depth to which participants became emotionally involved in the game through their replied texts, perhaps not realising they were only ever replying to a computer program.
He also spoke about I’d Hide You, another merging of the physical and digital. A number of ‘runners’ fully togged out with cameras streaming footage from their headcams made their way around the streets of a real city chasing and evading each other. As it happens this game was played in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. Online players, from the comfort of their home, could then choose a runner from whom to view the live stream and begin to interact with that runner. The online players score points by snapping a photo of competing runners through the online interface.
And possibly the boldest game was A Machine To See With:
You sign up online and hand over your mobile phone number. On the day, you receive an automated call giving you the address you need to go to. Once you arrive on your allotted street corner your phone rings. From there a series of instructions lead you through the city. You are the lead in a heist movie; it’s all about you.
Which was exactly as is sounded. Incredibly the bank you are lead to in the climax of this heist is not in on the game. Left me questioning the distinction between game and life, if there ever was one.
It was a very interesting day with some profound ideas about what exactly a game or playfulness is or means, or whether it matters if it means anything. It made me realise that in the digital world where gaming is so pervasive we don’t yet have the tools to measure the societal changes it may be causing. Whilst Farmville probably doesn’t mean everyone will start keeping chickens, casual and social digital gaming will doubtless be having some kind of effect on society.
What does all this mean for BookedIn? Whilst I would love to write a PhD on the societal changes BookedIn may instigate, we should for the moment concentrate on the quantitative and qualitative data that we will gain from the project. We might not be able to save the planet, but if it can help facilitate the discovery of resources between students working in groups then it will have achieved something.
Playing for Change also had a wealth of ideas that could be weaved into workshops or sessions you might be running; Turtle Wushu could make a great ice breaker in a Project kick-off meeting…