Teaching game design workshops is always an experience and I jump at every chance of making another one. So when my friend and colleague, Prof. Michael Wagner from the Danube University in Krems, Austria, suggested to host a biannually Game Design Bootcamp as part of his game studies master course, and that I was supposed to teach it, I was delighted. The three day kick off workshop was in early January 2008. It was fun, it was different. It was an experience I'd like to share with you.
It bordered on the uncanny to have this group of very grown up men play a warm-up round of Sissyfight at the beginning of the three day game design bootcamp at the Danube University Krems, in Austria. Sissyfight is a game about kids (stereotypically little girls) mobbing each other in the schoolyard. But having it played by six men wearing suits and very serious faces was not the most irritating part of the experience. It was the way the players twisted the rules. They refused to mob. They democratically decided in which order they would leave the game. Those who agreed to mob started a team attack on that person, causing him to lose all his self-esteem points and, as a consequence, the game. The mob victim volunteers were rewarded with an earlier trip to the coffee machine. And obviously coffee was more important to them then winning the game. They couldn't get rid of these self-esteem points soon enough.
The undermined Sissyfight game was not the only memorable thing that happened during that workshop. When my friend and colleague, Prof. Michael Wagner, invited me to teach the course, I didn't know what I was getting myself into. I wasn't prepared to be the youngest and the only female person there. I wasn't prepared for ties, either. However, I was most surprised by how seriously they took the workshop, how hard they worked, and how efficient and creative they were at tackling tricky political questions in the game concepts they developed during those three days.
The participants came from diverse backgrounds. Some had programming jobs and others studied pedagogy. There was a guy doing marketing for a big game company and another from the Austrian Federal Ministry of Health, Family, and Youth. Their experience with games ranged from playing PC and console games to designing e-learning games and live-action role-playing games for hundreds of participants. Most of them had some theoretical background in games from the game studies graduate course at the Danube University, which started its second year in November 2007. They seemed to enjoy the mixture of lecture, game analysis, and hands-on work that I had prepared for them.
On the first day, we laid the foundations. We discussed what games were, how they could be defined, and differentiated them from puzzles, stories, and toys. The men (of whom I soon started to affectionately think of as the "serious six") were not happy with the notion of the magic circle (do we ever stop playing a game?) and challenged Zimmerman and Salen's definition of a game being a "system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome." (Salen & Zimmerman 2004, p.80). "War could be described as an artificial conflict too," one argued, "there are certain rules and there is a quantifiable outcome." Hmm. So we talked a bit about voluntariness, and it got hairy. I tried to save my butt by saying that game designers usually didn't sit down to discuss game definitions before designing a game, and that all definitions were just tools to find a consensus about the subject in question. It felt as lame as it sounded. It reminded me clearly that there would probably never be such a thing as a satisfying game definition.
After having talked about games as simulations, things got really into gear when we started discussing the rhetorical power of games. That was something that interested the serious six. We analyzed the McDonald's video game by Molleindustria. The game makes the designers' criticism of this company pretty clear, stating that its goal is to reveal McDonald's "dirty secrets." To win the game you have to make profit, and to make profit, you have to bribe politicians, administer hormons to the cows, clear the rain forest, and perform other ecologically and socially unacceptable acts. "I don't think that if my kids played this, they would stop wanting to go to McDonald's," one participant said, questioning the persuasive power of satire. Satire is for the already convinced, perhaps for the neutral. We all agreed that it works best for those who already share the beliefs of the satirist.
What kind of game would make players realize social or political grievances just by playing it? Is a believable and convincing world key to a persuasive game-play experience? Or will figuring out the rules always dismantle the rhetoric stance behind the game, and so diminish its power as a tool for persuasion? Once you know what you are supposed to do, do you still care about the message, or do you begin to game the system?
The theoretical discussion was followed by a hands-on exercise. The task at hand: "Think of a controversial topic. Articulate a clear standpoint / perspective. Think of the topic you have chosen as a system. Identify the interdependencies between system elements that the simulation should reveal." Having introduced game rhetoric with the McDonald's game, this set the mood for big topics, the serious six decided to tackle the most explosive questions in Austrian politics. They soon settled on developing a game idea around the problem of non-sufficient (and competent) geriatric care in Austria.
In the game, the player would adopt the role of an elderly person whose goal was not just to live as long as possible, but to also keep as much of her dignity as possible. Of course, the game would always end with the avatar's death. Winning would depend on how much dignity one had left upon the arrival of the Grim Reaper. It was a terribly serious game; for example, the player would have to decide how long to wait before calling the nurse to change her diapers. Waiting too long would cost dignity points. Calling too often would fatigue the nurse (demonstrating the shortage of nursing staff in Austria) and she would not be able to help you with more serious matters. I couldn't help but think that such a game, if well done, had the potential to make you cry. Being visited by your grandchild would give you dignity points, but only if she did it without being bribed with pocket money. The core idea contained thought-provoking themes that might make you stop and rethink your priorities in life.
Seeing these six men earnestly ponder this grave topic and convey its complexity into a game concept was the most eye-opening experience for me during the three days of the workshop. I believe in the power of games as expressive medium; I believe that games can be much, much more than entertaining pastimes. Still, witnessing how the participants naturally accepted a game as being capable of dealing with this political theme showed me that the messenger must not be confused with the message, to borrow Scott McCloud's famous statement about comics. There was nothing foolish or lighthearted about the way they approached the development of that game idea. Later, they described the experience as being engaging and insightful, both in terms of teaching them something about the medium, as well as helping them look at the topic from different angles and revealing interdependencies between elements.
They stuck with that game idea for the rest of the workshop, referred back to it for the character development exercise, where they created elaborate backstories for a nurse and a doctor. It grew and evolved and they ended up discussing whether they could get funding to actually develop that game. As one of the last prototyping / level design exercises they built a 2D side-scrolling level based on that theme, using Lego and Play-Doh. This finally reintroduced joyfulness into the workshop; they had genuine fun playing with kids' toys again and the results were great.
We all learnt a lot and it changed our perception of games and each other. A big thanks goes to Michael Wagner from the Danube University Krems for making it happen, and to the serious six, for being lovely and open-minded and game for being subject to my unusual and seemingly silly tasks. Some of them will visit GAMBIT later this year; we're looking forward to having you here, guys!