Emergent Play

An essay by Dr Sadie Plant in response to the first iteration of Emergent Game

Musicians do it with their instruments. Hackers and chancers do it with systems. Children do it all the time. But what does it really mean to play? Is it – as the notion of homo ludens might suggest – our most natural means of expression, the default mode of human activity? Or is it merely the stuff with which we fill our leisure time, the things we do when we’re not at work?

Whatever criteria are used, it is clear that play is what is chosen, rather than imposed: it is, by definition, something on which one freely embarks and voluntarily pursues. And yet, whether what one plays is a game, an instrument, or a system, much of the purpose and the pleasure of play is derived from the following of rules. Once inside the game, one is not free at all, but deeply embedded in whatever requirements, challenges, and limitations the game provides. Much of our fascination with games and play stems from this tension between liberation and deliberation, which is also, perhaps, why games of all genres and media, old and new, can become so addictive: we volunteer to be fixated; we choose to be compelled.

It’s a big step from the earliest computer games like Pac-Man and Space Invaders to on-line multi-player games like World of Warcraft, involving massive numbers of players all over the world. It wasn’t long ago that this kind of complex, screen based reality appeared to be the future of computer-enabled games: put your head around the door of any Chinese, Thai, or Japanese cyber-café and it still looks that way. But the recent proliferation of portable, wireless technologies, together with that of digital social networks, have made another, even more dramatic step possible. They bring the potential to take games out of the cybercafe or the bedroom, beyond the screen, and into the streets and the pockets of their players.

Several different models for these games are emerging. Some, like those developed by Blast Theory, use a small number of players on the street directed by a larger number of on-line directors: these can be very exciting to play, but also tend to encourage a rather militiaristic dynamic between passive puppets on the street and masters with remote controls. Others have a small team of puppet masters, the developers of the game, and a large – potentially massive – number of players. This approach might seem to be even more dictatorial than the first, but in fact has the potential to be much more open ended and dynamic: instructions can be widely interpreted or completely misinterpreted, and new dynamics can emerge from the interactions of players themselves.

All this is especially true in the case of Nikki Pugh’s Emergent Game which, as the name suggests, has been expressly formulated in order to allow something to emerge, rather than to be a closed system, a fixed game simply waiting to be played. Emergent Game explores the dynamic between puppet masters and players; the question of how open or closed a game can be in order to function as a game; the notion that this kind of play may not, in fact, be a game at all; and the potential of games to inject a sense of play into a wide range of social contexts and so to answer this question: “How can we frame socially-engaged projects so that people are motivated to participate in, engage with and take ownership of them?”

Emergent Game laid down only the most minimal rules when it was first played in the summer of 2008. Over several weeks, its anonymous players faced a series of challenges posed by the puppet masters. Their responses to these challenges were surprisingly creative. The anonymity of the players was ensured but also enlivened by the use of cuddly toy avatars, whose personalities blossomed in the course of the game and allowed a distinctive game culture to emerge, with its own dialect, humour, and aesthetics. Places were renamed: Cannon Hill Park became Can On Hillp Ark, for example; and when July4th was suggested as the last day of the game (“the Grand Finally”), one player wrote: “maybe weMerican themed it and go invade someone?” Although the game was established with some forty missions for the Ludens – players – to complete, one of the missions was to invent a new mission, and several new quests did indeed emerge. When one avatar disappeared from the game, for example, posters appeared all around Birmingham: “LOSST: have you seen Dave_the_mouse?” At one point the avatar crèche (or rather the “avatari creysh”) was set up after a Ludens-less toy was found at a location chosen as an avatar drop-off point.

It is clear that the open-ended nature of the game and its missions were crucial to its success as a zone of emergent activity. But Emergent Game thrived on the limits that were imposed as well: “restrictions force creativity”, as Nikki Pugh has said. It was because communication was confined to the use of Twitter – with only 140 characters per message – that the use of language became so inventive. And the fact that the avatars were cuddly toys not only ensured that a certain kind of playful atmosphere emerged, but also dictated the kinds of activity that could be recorded and explored.

These are valuable experiences for future iterations of Emergent Game and all such multimedia experiments – which, for the moment, we can call Pervasive Games: the term Alternate Reality Game, which is sometimes used for this kind of play, is rather too reminiscent of a screen-based virtual reality to suit Emergent Game. However they are named, such games use all available technological resources but are by no means computer games, and they do not engage with alternative realities, but rather alternative activities. And are they games at all? They are certainly playgrounds, sites of play, but they often lack the goals and mechanisms necessary to a really competitive game. It is often more a question of encouraging a certain kind of collectivity, a mode of sociability which is often difficult to cultivate in an increasingly atomised and disengaged world.

For developers like Jane McGonigal, who worked on “World without Oil” and “The Lost Ring”, herein lies the great potential of such games. There is what she calls “a hunger for engagement” which is completely unsatisfied in modern consumerist societies, and games are the way to get people involved. In “Saving the Real World through Game Design”, a presentation made to the New Yorker’s 2008 Conference, she points out that many computer game players feel that they are much better at playing games than they are at living real life. Games provide satisfying activity, offer the experience of being good at something, a chance to engage with people one likes, and the chance to feel part of some bigger network: they are “the ultimate happiness engine.” Part of the impulse behind the emergence of Pervasive Games is the thought of what can happen if some of these elements can be brought off the computer screen and integrated into everyday experience. Jane McGonigal even envisages this kind of gaming as becoming a dominant modus operandi for dealing with large-scale political, social, and environmental problems, as demonstrated in her own game “World without Oil”.

This is a fascinating line of thought. But several factors suggest that the impulse to make life as exciting as a game is not without a certain naivety: Alternate Reality Games are compromised by their proximity to current fashions in corporate advertising – viral marketing, for example; their resonance with the military tendency to render war games real; and the simple but inescapable – and by no means undesirable – fact that life is not about scoring points, jumping levels, and zapping enemies. More intriguing and richer in possibilities, not least because it is so much harder to grasp, is a broader sense of playfulness of the kind cultivated by Emergent Game, which is remarkable for its ability to get people to play together, but not necessarily to play a game. Although it calls itself a game, it has little of the competitive spirit and goal orientation implied by this term, and far more to do with the cultivation of a ludic culture, a matter of learning how to play in the loosest, broadest senses with which we began: the playing not simply of games, but of instruments, systems, and of the kind at which children excel but which, as we age, we tend to forget. Perhaps this, rather than the development of games per se, is the task for anyone seeking to encourage players to participate in social projects of any kind. The success of Emergent Game suggests that high levels of the most creative collaboration can be achieved by establishing just enough – but not too much – of a framework for something unforeseeable to emerge in the course of an adventure which is allowed to play itself out and run its own course. And as the puppet master asked at the end of Emergent Game: “Was fun an much citements yesno?”

Creative Commons License

Emergent Play by Sadie Plant is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at ludogeography.npugh.co.uk.