Sunday, August 03, 2008

Gameplan: strategies for survival in a digital future

Game playing has never been much my thing. I never really enjoyed playing board games and I detest cards - it's the Devil's game, don't you know!? I've never really liked team sports either. Apart from being an ex-Tetris addict, I have never played computer games either. Despite all this I was quite excited about participating in an interesting games lab (iglab).

What, you ask, is an interesting games lab? In their own words:
The Interesting Games Lab offers the opportunity to play some interesting games, meet some interesting people and look at some interesting ideas.

But that doesn't really explain what goes on at their events, especially to someone like me who only had a flyer saying we would be playing the following games: The Comfort of Strangers, Lost Sport of Olimpia, hypSync and OMMRPG (Korean laser-mirror game).

Don't you just love the way they decided to include a short explanation of OMMRPG (which actually stands for Offline Multi-Mirror Reflector Positioning Game) and that the this only made everything sound even more cryptic? I was certainly intrigued and as I began to find out more on these games online I became more so.

I want to get straight into explaining about the games, but I also want to briefly draw attention to the fact this was a collaboration with the good folks of Dorkbot, the Pervasive Media Studios, ished, Watershed and many more...

I will explain more about that later, first things first!

Let the games begin
Arriving at 7pm at the luscious quarters of the Pervasive Media Studios, I was greeted by a free bar (this should not be the reason why you should want to go to their events!) and quickly started mingling with people, which led to being roped in to a wii [sic] game of virtual bowling. This was fun and waaaay to easy, you probably need to drink a lot more wine in order for it to become challenging. After a few strikes it was announced that we would be going outside for the first game: the Lost Sport of Olimpia. Now, there's quite a bit of lore on this game and it has a huge following worldwide. The name refers to the fact that, for some unknown reason, the ancient Greeks banned this game from being played. It is only recently that the rules have been rediscovered.

This is how we played it:

Our group of 30 or so people was split into two and with a chalk two simple 3-circuit labyrinths were created on the pavement.

Standing on the lines we created a human labyrinth from which a blindfolded 'runner' had to escape from using only sense of hearing - no touching allowed. The human wall provided the directional que by humming so the runner would know which direction to move towards.

It sounds easy, but believe me when I say it is extremely disorientating! Although, having only tried it the once, I'm sure you can quickly get the hang of it. It took a few seconds to re-adjust my senses, there was also an odd claustrophobic feeling and a strange intimacy coming from the trust you were putting into these strangers. I thought it was a really good game for developing team work and trust. There is also lots of potential for increasing the difficulty and improving wall tactics. I am still wondering why it was banned from the Greek Olympics 2000 years ago...

The comforts of self-organisation
The second game was completely different. It was probably my favourite one that we played that evening. Mainly because it uses a technology that I'm a great fan of and get very excited about - Mscapes (I also gave it a mention in a New Scientist blog). It is still in its early days, but boy oh boy has Mscape or similar innovation just waiting to be taken advantage of.

So you can imagine my excitement when I found out that the game we were about to play - The Comfort of Strangers - makes use of this interesting mobile gaming platform. In danger of being accused of laziness, I am going to let the inventors of the game describe the gaming experience simply because I think they've done a fantastic job and I would only end up plagiarising it!

In this game there are two teams: Dancers and Lovers. Before the game started we were split into two groups, a mixture of Dancers and Lovers, then we were told to run off and turn on our PDA after 10 minutes - after that, the game was on!

You walk through the busy square, headphones hidden beneath your hood. A voice whispers in your ear, "there's another Lover nearby...;" you steal a look around trying not to be too obvious and you hear the voice again: "...your life is now at level 6..." You must be a lover and you need find that other person in the crowd, team up. You set off, weaving through the crowd, trying to blend in.

"There's a Dancer nearby..." you stop to read a sign and look around "...your life is now at 5..." Damn! Gotta stay away from the Dancers; If they find you before you find another Lover you could be in trouble; if your life drops to zero you are out of the game. But how do you discover the other players hidden in the crowd and, when you do, how to you know who they are? You could ask them "are you a Lover or a Dancer?..."

The Comfort of Strangers is a street game that uses ipaq PDAs, mscape software and adhoc wifi networks to create a series of social encounters driven by risk and common interest. Players use anonymity and group formation to live and survive urban experience. They find comfort in strangers.

The Comfort of Strangers from Simon Evans on Vimeo

I think this is a brilliant idea. But I did feel the game was lacking a focus, some kind of aim. A 'Capture the flag' goal seems a bit tame, but it would certainly be a start... I can imagine this game being played on a massive scale, I'm thinking worldwide. Most devices nowadays have GPS, you could always be playing it and run into all sorts of Dancers and Lovers on your journey back home from work. Imagine if there were different tasks you had to accomplish, something fun like (from the top of my head): Find 3 other Lovers and release a 100 McDonalds balloons. Anything really.

What is even cooler is that the whole game is a research project in how swarms work! This is another favourite research area of mine. My dissertation was in this field and focused on an aspect of self-organisation called stigmergy.

I am definitely planning to get in touch with these people and see if I can get involved.

Next up was the OMMRPG (the Korean laser - mirror game). Now this was probably the, in my opinion, least successful game.
Two teams, with six players: one is the 'shooter', two/three 'blockers' and two/three 'reflectors'. The shooter uses a laser to score points in the other team's goal, but only through reflecting the beam using the mirrors... Now bear in mind that this is one of those laser pen pointers, so you haven't got a very wide beam or anything. The goal is about the size of a 14" pizza sitting high up on the opposite wall some 8 meters away, the mirrors fit neatly into your palm and people are jumping up and down in front of you - some of them much, much taller than you. How the hell is that ever going to work? Well apparently it does and I am just no good at Korean laser games... So this one was definitely not a winner for me. Plus you had to wear stupid gold head bands. I have since then found out that we did not actually play the real thing. You actually wear the mirrors... Although perhaps rules aren't that rigid because this video is a fine example of how it went down at the Pervasive Media Studios (this video is from PICNIC '07):

Take a chance, have a dance
The final game was a dancing game (hypSync)! It was a bit like silent disco, in that we were all given mp3 players with four different songs on them and headphones (I am sorry to say I have forgotten what the songs were). We had 20 seconds to guess which of the four songs other people were listening to by checking out their grooves and form a group. If you were in the wrong group you were out of the game. The second round was only 10 seconds long, the next 5 seconds and the winner was the last person standing. It was a pretty enjoyable way to end a wholly fun, interesting, wine-fuelled and thought-provoking evening.

Dancing away at the Pervasive Media Studios - we could have done with a bit more atmosphere...

Making the connections
As promised at the start of this article, I also wanted to point out the extent of collaboration that goes on between the various organisations.

Originally I came across the event through Dorkbot. I have yet to attend any of their events, however, in the future I most certainly shall. Dorkbot is an international organisation for all kinds of people who like to play with electronics and go somewhere to show, tell, share and learn from and with fellow 'dorks'. So on the first level this is a collaboration with Dorkbot Bristol. Iglab, and The Comfort of Strangers in particular, is funded by the Pervasive Media Studio as part of Media Sandbox, which has partnership with HP Labs. Pervasive Media Studio is an aspect of dshed - a sub-section of Bristol's cultural hub the Watershed. Also, iglab was inspired by something called Hide and Seek Fest, But hang on, we're not done yet! There are more connections to be made, because the games themselves, especially The Lost Sport of Olimpia, has a huge following and all kinds of spin-offs. One of the most interesting, to me, is Find the Lost Ring. I am not even going to try to explain it here, the post is long enough as it is, but I would also much rather actually have a go at playing it and then write about it. My only concern is that it might be a bit too 'Dungeon and Dragons' like, which really isn't my cup of tea.

It is very exciting for me to find this whole world where sociology, technology and art intersect.

The good people at iglab are putting on their own street games and pervasive games festival: the igfest on 19-21 September Harbourside Bristol, UK. I'm certainly getting involved - are you?

One more final note - I promise! This is just something I came across while finding out about all of the above and I think it would be great to get involved in PICNIC - a conference in Amsterdam in September that "...spotlights cutting-edge products and services at the intersection of media, technology, arts and entertainment, and brings together entrepreneurs, investors, creators as well as scientists, and other industry leaders..." Sounds like I would fit right in! Unfortunately it does have a hefty price-tag. But I will try to see if I can volunteer in some way.