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When I found out that today offered the possibility of playing an urban game, I could not say no to the event. And what a feast it was. Playing games like in the old days with your friends but without the pain of chalk fingers and chipped nails. Time to play hopscotch!

My friend Maja taking a turn.

Everdien Breken’s graduation project is just what I look for in a game. To be played outside, drawing in elements from the surrounding (people, architecture) to create the game, and with an eye on the engagement with rules as catalyst for actions and creativity. A project that connects nicely with my research plans that I mentioned before and therefore one worthwhile to follow.

The project is part of Everdien’s graduation for the HKU Fine Art programme. She aims at disturbing people’s everyday lives, if only for a few seconds, by confronting them with playful instances. She favours simple forms in her design.

This month’s Straatnieuws features a lengthy article on her work. Check the project site Spelen op straat (play on the street) for future games if you want to play along, or be surprised by other chalk games that you run into by coincidence.

Reward button after playing (I play along!).

During the Cultural Sunday on Whit Monday, one of the things I visited was the Dance Centre Utrecht. Modern ballet dancers performed an improvisation of which the rules were something as follows (accumulating as time passes):

  • walk forward and backward and lie down on the floor
  • crouch
  • turn around
  • change lanes by shifting sideways
  • introduce another movement
  • turn 90 degrees, allowing movement along the other axis (left, right)
  • move freely, allowing bends and curves

Each new rule would be added when one of the dancers would execute its action (crouching meant that everyone could crouch). The performers were stimulated to copy movements of their neighbours.

The rules lead to a very entertaining whole of movement in ascending complexity. A 3D Mondriaan painting that came to life. The copycat behaviour and later the changing of lanes brought about encounters between the performers, adding a clear game-character to the improvisation exercise. Also, personalities became apparent (or seemed to do so) when dominant dancers forced others to humbly step aside.

A good example of how simple rules, a number of “players” and an outlined space (ball room) lead to interesting game play.

Two modern dancers meet

I’ve been reading Bernard Suits’ “The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia” and will share some of the highlights.

On rules, Suits writes the following:

“Rules in games thus seem to be in some sense inseparable from ends, for to break a game rule is to render impossible the attainment of an end.” (p. 24). And: “I obey the rules just because such obedience is a necessary condition for my engaging in the activity such obedience makes possible.” (p. 31)

Thus, you need to adhere to the rules to be able to play and complete the game. Something that relates to the “lusory attitude” (p. 38) a player has when playing. There are always rules in games, even if they are hidden in agreements over starting times, place and opponent (p. 67). What then, I thought, if the game is as such that you can only win it once you start breaking its rules? I think the definition still holds, because that would imply another rule which states the breaking of the other rules. Indeed, Suits argues that

“it is not these manoeuvres [efforts to mislead in order to gain an advantage] that make the activities in which they occur games; it is the constitutive rules of those games which make these kinds of misdirection the useful manoeuvres that they are.” (p. 152).

Which also says something about the creative interaction that can take place with rules. This is possible because “[g]ame rules are not ultimately binding” (p. 26) and “other rules can always supersede the game rules” (p. 27) or one rule can be placed higher than the other.

A note about the assumption of roles in games is that they should always stay assumed. When the role is adopted as a serious business, the game seizes to be a game (p. 112). A reference to the fact that games are described as being outside everyday life, which Suits touches upon with his term ‘lusory attitude’. A possible outcome of assuming game roles in everyday life could be that the audience is forced to change their behaviour in acting along with the player to not disturb the illusion (p. 124).

This is something that should be remembered when designing urban games that involve the public. An example was the game Snatch Ball that I played at the Cultural Sunday, in which the designers explained a game instance in which one man decided to help the players for a longer period of time, ruining the game premise of persuading by passers in helping you.

This blog article by accident neatly sums up what I’ve been developing to be a continuation of my master thesis on Deleuze and games. I thought: What if I compare Deleuze’s dynamic conception of the virtual to understand game play and confront it with the rigid framework that rules compose? Would one theory win or can they be combined to form another? Realising the difference between digital and non-digital games, I decided that pervasive games would be a fruitful area to look at to provoke answers.

Almost the same questions and premises are posed in the blog post by augmented reality (AR) research Blair MacIntyre. Only he develops his ideas from the difference between digital and non-digital card games. About the difference between them he states:

“I was thinking about the ways games enforce rules, and how board games and card games are fundamentally different than computer games. With board and card games, rule enforcement is left up to the players; they know the rules, and they abide by them.”

“Computer games, on the other hand, encourage players to do anything the game allows to win. Because the system is closed and the rules are enforced by the computer, finding ways to get around the system is part of the fun for many players.”

Rules as restraining element or as source for inspiration.

Besides the consequences MacIntyre sees for game design, he stresses how the challenging question is to be answered academically. Which is exactly what I was thinking of doing as my new project. Good case of synchronicity apart from the difference in subject between his card games and my pervasive games.

This Cultural Sunday, themed “free play” (vrij spel), I played two of the urban games made by HKU students. They were presented after an explanatory lecture by Marinka Copier which featured amongst others the example of the urban screen project “Hand from above” (by Chris O’Shea) that I had seen earlier. See the video below (one of my colleagues at Waag Society was right to remark that the footage sadly does not show the symbioses of screen and people – i.e. both in one shot – what the project is in fact all about):

The first game I played after the lecture, Snatch Ball, started right in front of the Drift university building. A risky place with the canal on one side, because the game included a ball that had to be thrown around. We played the game with two teams of three players. Each had to move to the other end of the street with the ball. The game would be won by the team holding the ball while standing passed the drawn chalk line.

Challenge: you are not allowed to throw the ball directly to your team mates, but only via a non-playing bystander. And nobody was allowed to move with the ball in hand. This resulted in a lobby with whoever was close if they would help us, disturbed by the other team who tried to convince the willing victim to give the ball back to them.

The result was a very social game which was very dependent on outside factors: the location (this time a narrow street next to a canal), time of day and weather, passersby (pedestrians, cyclists, car drivers forcing us to pause to let them drive through), their mood and our convinction talents. Me and my team weren’t skilled enough to win, but of course we blamed this on the traffic going mainly in the other teams direction.

See the video of the game here.

The other game I tried out was Loons, which was set at the Oudegracht near the Winkel van Sinkel. Again two teams, red and blue, of about seven players with one team captain. The team captain was the one blowing up the balloons and tying them to a rope. The other players, like me (me closing balloons would not be a good idea), had to run along the canal with a balloon at a time. Team balloons had to be tied to yellow balloons that were placed in the area. A majority of balloons at the spot after twelve minutes was good for one point. Winner was the team that won most places. Nice details: one mobile balloon attached to a girl walking around, and hidden balloons in alleys (advantageous when the other team had not found them).

According to this review on Kennislink (in Dutch), the expected shake-up of the rule system of the game (the city in this urban game) did not really take place. Marinka Copier had indicated in her lecture that playing games involves the engaging and reordering of its systemic rules. In an urban game, the city can be seen as providing quite static rules with its unmovable architecture, but can nevertheless be interacted with.

I cannot really agree with the conclusion that the city elements were not engaged with in this game. While in Snatch Ball, interaction with passersby could be clearly seen, Loons’ bystanders were mainly positioned at the sunny terraces and occasionally noticing people with balloons running passed like maniacs on such a hot day. Nevertheless, I did experience an input of this public myself as it influenced the places where I would look for balloons. I hesitated to descend the stairs to the wharf feeling slightly discomfited to nose about tables looking for the odd yellow balloon.

Video of Loons played in winter when the HKU students originally designed their urban games.

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