I was lucky enough to be invited to take part in the Wonderlab a few weeks ago. The official site described it like so:
[An event that brings] together some of the smartest creatives from the digital, gaming, theatre and performance fields, to spend three days exploring where digital tools and the ethos of play will take us next.
Ever since I got back from it, though I’ve mainly been asked what the Lab actually was.
Now that I’ve decompressed from the intensity of those three days, it’s easier to both write about the event itself, and answer that question. The short video above may provide some hints, but might also just look like a bunch of grownups talking and playing games. It deserves a more detailed explanation.
The Lab was a small event, with 10 invited participants from a variety of backgrounds – performers, artists, designers, technical types. We all were, however, connected by our interest in play or games. Given the tiny size, and that it was invite-only, it doesn’t feel fair to label it as a conference. And though there was a great deal of freedom in our discussions and sessions over the three days, the Lab differed from a conference in that a definite outcome was required: as a group, we had to present “our findings” – whatever they’d turn out to be – in the format of a card game.
You could have called it a three-day game-design workshop, except it’s not entirely fair to call it a workshop, either: the format of our conclusion may have been dictated, but what conclusion we were aiming for was not clear to begin with. We had a trajectory, the event shaped by tiny, five-minute talks from each of the participants and a range of guest speakers, all talking about something that “blew their mind”, and leading into subsequent discussion. We had a few sessions where we raised topics we felt relevant to the discussion of play and games, and as the Lab went on, definite themes emerged. And then, we would have to stop talking, and make things – tiny, prototype games to prove a point; collaborative rulsets in a session of Nomic; slowly putting what we “thought” and “believed” into practice. And then, from a practical session, back to discussion and analysis.
The term “Lab” eventually proved to be the most succinct explanation of affairs. It was a space that encouraged both exploration and experimentation, not favouring one of the other, and definitely emphasising the value of thinking through making. By the end of the three days, we’d designed about two-and-a-half games each, and explored countless others. Nothing focuses the mind like having to put your discoveries and beliefs into physical, playable form.
The Lab fostered a growing literacy of games, considering “literacy” as Alan Kay did – the ability to read and write in a given medium. Early on, we played a simple parlour game called Chairs: the goal being to stop a slowly walking player from sitting down on the last available chair by moving between chairs yourselves. It’s a simple game, and yet as a group, we were terrible at it. But after the initial burst of hilarity, we took it apart: what’s going on, why are we failing, what are the simple guidelines to ensure success. We were still lousy with our newly considered perspective – and I would love to build an AI simulation just to prove how dumb you can play to win the game – but we were beginning to understand our lousiness. And thus the Lab continued: talks, discussions, or games would be presented, taken apart, put back together. I valued being asked to prove or embody a belief; the test was not to succeed, but merely to try.
What did I actually get out of it that I can explain in a concrete sense?
One overriding theme was the ethics of game-design. It’s a huge topic, especially in this post-Jesse-Schell universe, and we explored it very thoroughly in some of the sessions. By the end, we’d designed both a game you could only lose, and a game where everybody would win. We created rules that were, in the real world, entirely unethical, but within the closed system of the game we were playing not only ethical but effectively irrelevant. We considered ethics of structured, rule-based play – games themselves – versus the ongoing act of unstructured play.
For someone so interested in games as systemic media (to quote Eric Zimmerman), I was surprised by how enamoured I became in the performative aspects of games. That was no doubt in part down to the insight brought to our sessions by the numerous particiapnts with performance backgrounds. In my notes, I wrote
Games don’t have to be performance-based, but games that don’t afford performance are weaker for it
This is, I guess, what Matt J has previously described as toyetics – it’s the fun you can have with a system, the ways it affords non-structured play, the ways it encourages you to interact with other people in a social capacity. It’s the fun you can have just playing. Games aren’t just rules – they’re rules you can play with, and the best games often afford the best play.
I also finally became convinced of the value of MDA [pdf] as a framework for understanding games; previously, it had never really clicked with me. In particular, I came to appreciate the value of rules and Mechanics emerging from Dynamics – often in the form of exploration or improvisation. If the act of play isn’t fun, or challenging, or interesting, why should a game that demands non-fun actions be any good at all? Guest speaker Tassos Stevens put this much better than I currently can in his wonderful short talk, Make Believe:
Game arises from play. A ruleset crystallises a set of actions distilled from an experience of play. That crystal can be popped in your pocket to be played with again and again, any time, any place, with anyone entranced by its sparkle. It gets chipped and scratched, then rubbed and polished… the very best thing about it is that if we want to, we can smash it up and grind it into paste to make believe anew.
Make Believe, by Jimmy Stewart (by Tassos Stevens).
What we were doing at the lab was learning how to make games arise.
The game we eventually presented, to a small invited audience, was Couple Up: a site-specific parlour-game, based on getting the guests invited at the final session from one room (where they were socialising) to another (where there was booze). It used cards as a social token, but the game was played in conversations between players. From the video above, it might seem slight, and whimsical; it’s certainly a little bit broken, and needs some revisions. But at it’s core are a few things we wanted to explore: designing ethical games; designing games that forced you to learn to “read” them; games that afford performance; games that exploit hidden knowledge (both on the part of the players and game-makers. That explorations happened not only in the making, but also in watching our guests play the game, and subsequently discuss it with us afterwards.
The standard of discussion and quality of the participants and speakers throughout the lab was fantastic. The fact we were reigned-in, asked to stop taking and start explaining ourselves through making, was an important challenge, and a visible reminder of the value of thinking through making. And, of course, though our subject matter was play through the lens of games of all forms, I can already see the ways many of the lessons I learned apply to my work in design.
Some of the output of the Lab was very immediate – new colleagues, new ideas to take away. Some of it is lodged into my brain, not taking form right now, but burning away, and will no doubt nag me for the rest of the year. It acted like so many of my favourite conferences – not a reminder of things that I’ve failed to do in my work, or things that have to change immediately, but things to be thinking about in the long term, and to be incorporated into future output. Not One Big Idea, but a hundred ideas, percolating away, growing and mutating until they’re ready to use. I’ll be making use of what I learned in so many projects, and so much work, from here on out.
As such: it was a privilege to take part; thanks to Margaret, Miranda, Alex, and everyone at Hide & Seek who organised the event, not to mention LIFT and the Jerwood Foundation for their support – and, most of all, to the other participants, who all brought something wonderful to the mix.
(You can see all the participants’ short talks, and a succession of more general videos, at the Wonderlab 2010 Youtube channel. My own five-minute talk, on the German boardgame Waldschattenspiel, is here)