It’s going to be a game-time decision
By Adam Waldron-Blain
Manhunt was invented in Toronto in 2003 by Matt Collins, and for a while it seemed like it was part of something. I started running Manhunt in Edmonton in 2005. Access All Areas was published by the zine Infiltration. Montreal hosted a variant of the increasingly popular and hackneyed “zombie walk” as a hilarious and spontaneous intervention into sword-fighting LARPers at the tam-tams. A couple of kids called newmindspace started running huge capture the flag games in downtown Toronto and New York City and attracting hundreds, then thousands of participants, and you know about flashmobs. Something was happening.
Today my performance practice is in a big way about challenge and competition, even when its not directly about games. Its about arbitrary division and awkwardness, and forcing the audience to make choices. I play the violin and I play hide-and-seek. My work is urgent and political and shaped by its surroundings, and back in those days I thought that all of the games and game-related performances springing up on city streets were too. Nowadays I’m not so sure.
(Right. If you’re interested in games or you just hang out on the internet a lot, this is the point when you stop me and tell me about this fascinating TED-talk you saw by this woman who was going on about how games are an exciting chance to make the world better. Hold that thought, I’m coming back to it.)
The ghost of Guy Debord always lurked in the background of Manhunt. Like me, Manhunt’s first host Matt Collins is an artist and although Manhunt has always been consciously a game rather than art, we all know it’s there. Debord and the Situationist International loved wandering the city in unexpected ways, exploring and offering a critique of the “spectacle” of capitalist society. They tied themselves to the modernist traditions of the flaneur and assemblage, loved playful, funny games and work, set the template for Punk and postmodernism, and their initial influence over the May 1968 uprisings, followed by a steep loss of relevance and infighting is painted by nostalgic olds as a sign of how basically everything is hopeless nowadays because they blew their one real chance to stop the world and instead it’s probably better just to go along with the exploitative power structures of neoliberalism. Their fall was mirrored by one of Collins’ favourites in America, Jerry Rubin and the Yipees.
But the past sucked. Manhunt isn’t about reclaiming the city, because it was never ours. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight for it.
Manhunt is about placing ourselves consciously into the contest for control and definition of our living spaces. You place yourself on the street, and through that action you take control of the narrative: the game’s structure is minimal, classic and effortless, leaving the play open to choices. Do you want to run, to wait, to compete athletically, to hide and sneak, to climb, or to socialise with your friends? Do you want to accept or rebuff the narratives of sport or the social codes of the street? There are no trap choices. Do you want to participate?
* * *
Manhunt is a fun game, but what I really want to talk about is being an artist. Part of my work, like International Espionage which I’ll be running 28 May in Bristol for igFest, or the game that I’ll be developing during the rest of May as artist-in-residence in Woodlands here in Glasgow (5 June, save the date), is about building games that have a little more direction—and my signature. You know, art. The trick is reconciling this desire with the ideals of open-ended play, the whole political impetus of allowing players to seize the narrative. It’s hard. Most games don’t manage it.
Although lots of Manhunters love computer games (we get a nice mix of gamers, art enthusiasts, hipsters, students, teenagers, occasional unexpecting locals, and honest-to-goodness jocks) I do not. Video games are almost exclusively designed around the goal of convincing the player that they have narrative agency while making sure that they actually don’t, because otherwise they could screw up the designer’s lovingly constructed cliches.
Today’s video games overwhelmingly pander towards two extremes: the first the the “bro-world” of the hardcore. The audience for computer games matured from repressed outsiders with a punk-influenced DIY culture into big explosions and bigger tits sold to racist frat-boys who love being told that they are correct and important. It’s given us multi-million dollar overheads, corporate bureaucracy and buy-in and studios unwilling to take political risks like giving names to brown people. Not to mention teenagers calling each other fags on Xbox Live.
Then we have the new world of social casual gaming. Despite the participating in it, the bro-world labels it dismissively as feminine, but don’t be fooled into thinking that this simple subversiveness is its defining feature. Social gaming is about building intentionally bad games, and then selling the ability to skip them. It is about using our social obligations to pressure us into spending money. Often it is undisguised marketing (with points). Facebook games and the like are intentional confusions of work and leisure designed to make players into unwaged employees, generating capital for the creators through affiliate links and referrals not far from labour-intensive MMORPG gold farms.
This is Gamification. Jesse Schell describes the metastasising of the industry as the Gamepocalypse, and makes the case that real game designers need to understand it and to make it not suck. He doesn’t go far enough. We all need to be game designers, and we all need to make it not suck. Just as we need to take control of our streets, we need to take control of our entertainment in order to control our lives.
* * *
Jane McGonigal, PhD is a world-renowned designer of alternate reality games — or, games that are designed to improve real lives and solve real problems.
She recently published a book called Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, and this has helped her to convince people that she’s being honest. The “real problem” she “solved” with her first big hit, however, was that Microsoft didn’t have enough customers (her other employers have included the World Bank and McDonalds). In her contribution to Second Person: Role-playing and Story in Games and Playable Media she tells us about working on I Love Bees, the breakthrough Alternate Reality Game designed as marketing for Halo 2. She observes that strangely enough this astonishingly successful game doesn’t in fact meet any of the previously accepted definitions of what a game actually is.
[Participants] explained to inquisitive passersby, “We’re playing a game.” The core mechanic of which appeared to be: Go exactly where you are told to go, and then wait for something to happen. Don’t make meaningful decisions. Don’t exercise strategy. Don’t explore the space. Just go, and wait for further instructions.
This is a game?
Indeed it is. For many gamers, the August 24th I Love Bees mission was their first introduction to a new mode of digital gaming, one that centers on real-world, live action, performance-based missions. I call it the power play.
Somehow, after examining all the writing about what makes games games from giants like Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois as well as other game designers and practitioners, and finding that the single central element to these definitions is the free will and agency of the player, she doesn’t come to either of the two obvious conclusions: that I Love Bees was a poor game popular for social reasons, or wasn’t a game at all. Instead, she terrifyingly starts to refer to herself as a Puppet Master and to talk about the revolutionary potential of people doing exactly as they are told to by corporations.
This is the enemy–the recuperation of revolutionary impulses that kept the Situationists up at night. This is today’s face of the capitalism that has always controlled our streets. How can we fight back?
* * *
Over the first few years of running Manhunt in Edmonton, talking about it was simple. I excitedly told everyone about players seizing the narrative, the intentionally sensationalist meta-structure (all caps website, problematic name, suggestions of sports culture without traditional spectators), and the direct political action of playing the in streets (especially as opposed to parks and other designated leisure spaces) and confronting private security, advertising, festivals and other spectacle, Edmonton’s outrageous jaywalking bylaws, and occasionally police. I still play for the same reasons, but I want to go further.
I know that not every player considers these things crucial, because I always hear suggestions and feel the pull of some kind of games culture towards things that I am uncomfortable with: capitalist cooperation and paid spaces, trendy iconography of zombies and armed conflict, woodland park-based or “wild” playing spaces, more mass promotion. Sometimes these things are merely not what Manhunt is about, at others they are, I think, dangerous. Increasingly I feel that this games culture is traceable to the bro-world takeover of gaming in the 1990s, and the influence of mass-market video games and cinema on game or generally fantastic narrative.
Gaming culture as we know it first emerged in the 1970s. Wargaming originated as military training exercises on maps in the nineteenth century, and in the mid twentieth century modern American games appeared—Risk, Scrabble, the thoroughly recuperated Landlord’s Game as Monopoly—but despite their success these games were still similar to their earlier Snakes-and-ladders style antecedents, especially in essentially random games like The Game of Life or Yahtzee. This mainstream board-game tradition wouldn’t really mature until German-style games rose to prominence in the 1980s and 90s, followed by redefinition and competitive advancement in American games and of course computer games. But in the 1950s wargaming picked up steam as an important niche hobby and over the next two decades changed forever. In 1959 Allan B. Calhamer published Diplomacy and wargamers embraced an old idea in a new way: instead of merely controlling the pieces, players play the roles of fictionalised characters or forces. By 1974 Dave Arneson had teamed up with war-games rules maestro Gary Gygax to release the pinnacle of geek and gaming culture, Dungeons & Dragons, nothing less than a radical text that conceived of a totally new democratic narrative model, combining principles of improvisational theatre and games with a critical deconstruction of romance and heroic narrative. But something else happened in the 1970s too: Star Wars. Something bad: the triumph of uncritical monomyth over the promise of science fiction.
Interestingly, early D&D, “a game for pencil, paper and miniature figures”, meets the criteria for [a folk game] to a T. Later editions, and especially 4th Edition, with its battle mats and online subscription model and rigid rulesets and now booster packs, have increasingly drifted toward the “institutional” end of the spectrum to the extent that the play experience of what is ostensibly the same game as that produced in 1974 has been radically altered. This makes sense: it’s hard to make money on the shape-shifting dreams of the public domain, which is where any “folk game” will soon find itself, BUT there is an immortality there that any game designer should be happy, on some level, to have attained. D&D has always flirted with that promise, just look at the early Gygax editorials in Dragon where he fantasizes about a future where D&D has an eternal place on the shelf next to Chess, Checkers and Monopoly (a folk game with an institutional veneer), but the (perfectly understandable and by no means to be condemned) desire to make money off the IP has been an obstacle since the beginning. Witness Gygax’s push toward standardization, his hostile actions toward companies that advertised their perfectly legal compatibility, and his increasing stridency in proclaiming what counted as “Official D&D” as the 80s wore on. Of course, things would only get worse after his tenure, leading to an odd tug of war as the years wore on between a game that was special because of its ability to be “owned” by any group that cared to play it and an ever-increasing attempt to change the game so that players needed official products and support to do so.
Aside from the capitalist-derived rules tragedies described here by “Old-school” D&D blog The Dungeon of Thrax, this was the beginning of what came to be called “cinematic” gaming. No longer are mass-market role-playing games about radical democratic narrative possibilities but about realising desire for an autocratic game-master’s (or publisher’s) vision of story and the feeling of being an infallible chosen one on a divinely ordained path. They reassure us that we are right in our privileged inaction, and are doubly convincing because they speak in the languages of radical science fiction and game narratives. Radical game design was pushed to the sidelines, in a pocket community of experimental indie games and more recently an open-source “renaissance” of ideas from early-edition D&D.
We might still be part of something. Even the most trendy and hierarchy-reproducing zombie game, built on exclusivity and technological privilege, like Humans vs. Zombies or the one that’s headlining igFest, is clearly trading on a desire for participation and some kind of perception of authenticity. This desire seems most easily discussed as nostalgia: certainly, with Manhunt the “kids game” element cannot be understated, and the old-school-renaissance D&Ders use nostalgic language to describe themselves and suggest that young folk wouldn’t find it appealing. But nostalgia isn’t really it: in Manhunt it’s mostly an entry point, helping communicate the basics of the game, and the OSR bloggers find themselves struggling to explain that the part of the past games they most want back is that the games carried the expectation that they would be altered, that new rules would have to be invented, as they set themselves to devising alternate futures springing from their nostalgic support structure.
So forget the rest: we’ve got our first principles. The games will have to be altered, by the participants, while they are happening. New rules will have to be invented. Let’s go with that.
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