November 10, 2003

“What Is a Game” Conference

by Andrew Stern · , 10:42 am

I’ve given myself an hour to writeup my impressions from the LevelUp conference, which will be a challenge because it was a busy 3 days. I’ll give some highlights, anyway. (Here’s a WSJ article previewing the conference. And here’s some pics courtesy of Reality Panic.)

It was an energetic event in a pleasant city called Utrecht, at that town’s University, about 10 miles south of Amsterdam. The city center had pretty canals lined with restaurants, cafes and shops, an clean and efficient train and bus system, and lots of well-dressed people on bicycles. Our weather was pretty warm, making our 20 minute walk to and from the hostel enjoyable.

I arrived at 7am local time (1am body time) on an “overnight” flight from Boston, and the conference started at 9am — and I made it on time! (Just a wee bit tired, but the sunlight shining through the large windows of the Rem Koolhaas building where the conference was held helped keep me awake.) Everyone was surprised at how many attendees there were — about 500 in total, perhaps 20% American, and overall probably half students (grad and undergrad) from northern Europe. The lobby was lined with GameCube, PlayStation and XBox game consoles, so games and gamers were always in your peripheral vision as you chatted between sessions.

The first keynote was given by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, authors of the new play & game design / theory book, Rules of Play. In their presentation they talked about how games relate to the cultural environments they are played in (I had seen them speak last year at GDC, where they talked about how players might be able to break the rules in digital games, a topic I enjoyed even more.) They gave a definition of what games are, and talked about the magic circle — the frame within a game is played, i.e. the shared psychological play-state you’re all in when you’re playing a game — and about how some games challenge the magic circle (or, as later discussed in a panel about pervasive games, a panelist called “trangressing” the magic circle). Case studies included the online A.I. movie mystery game, LARPs set in the real world, and a subversive game set in a real office “designed to undercut the existing power relationships at work” called Suspicion.

At one point they had the entire lecture hall stand up and play a MMGRPS — a massively multiplayer game of rock-paper-scissors. You find a person next to you and keep playing rock-paper-scissors until someone wins; the loser sits. Then you find someone else still standing and play them, etc. etc. until there was only one winner. It took about 3 minutes until all 500 people were whittled down to one winner.

They also launched a game called Buzz to be played throughout the conference, where they printed out conference buzzwords onto cards, one per card, and each person took three. My cards were “pervasive”, “iteration” and “intelligence”. If in conversation you hear someone say your buzzword, you can “sting” them by giving them your card; the goal is to get rid of all your cards. (Later in the conference, desperate players began stinging lecturers in the middle of their talks, prompting one lecturer to cry out against being “exploited” and dramatically rip up his cards and throw them in the trash; also I was entertained when Janet Murray privately took Eric to task for starting this “disruptive” game. All I can say is I enjoyed conspiring to sting conference chair Frans Mayra at dinner one night.)

Next I attended a session by Gonzalo Frasca who managed to get an entire 90 minutes to himself — quite a feat at a conference where they are typically 6 parallel tracks at a time, each with 4 presenters, requiring us to hop around from room to room to catch everything we wanted to see. Gonzalo’s presentation was two parts; first he asked if we could lay the ludology-narratology debate to rest (reminiscent to me of Rodney King’s plea “can’t we all just get along”?), suggesting the debate never actually properly happened in the first place, that in fact so-called ludologists do not reject narrative, that some so-called narrativists (e.g., Janet Murray, who was in the room) do in fact talk about gameplay, and that the idea of a “radical” ludologists is unfounded. (Generally I agree with him, and in fact thought the various presentations at the conference discussing “what is a game”, including Janet’s keynote, helped to do that.) Gonzalo then went on to a more interesting topic — talking about the idea of ideological games, i.e. “games with strong opinions”, using his newsgaming.com Sept 12 political game as case study. He gave design tips and pitfalls, which served to suggest to the audience “you should be building these games!” He points out that in such games, every little detail of gameplay and design will be politically interpreted one way or another, so no decision can be made lightly. Several times he mentioned how he has received quite an array of feedback from players of Sept 12 from all over the world, including the Middle East and from people who lost loved ones on Sept 11, that range from praise to accusations of trivialization. (No death threats though.) Also Gonzalo will soon be doing another intercontinental move, this time from Uruguay to Europe, to start a PhD in Espen Aarseth’s group! Work on newsgaming.com will continue in parallel (or in coordination?) with his research.

To see Gonzalo’s talk(s) I had to miss Michael’s talk on AI, in which he suggests we need a better and more complete way to talk about the behavior of games, of the objects and characters in the games. I’m very excited by that direction in Michael’s theoretical work, and will read the paper in the proceedings cdrom.

In the afternoon session and a few other sessions throughout the conference I had trouble finding stuff I wanted to see — but at other times there were too many good things to see at once. I sometimes wished there had been fewer parallel tracks and slightly more selectivity of papers; others felt that even more strongly, that there wasn’t enough rigor in rejecting papers that weren’t quite ready for prime-time. But, hey, it was the first major game studies conference, and perhaps it’s better to err on the side of inclusiveness than not? Also in their presentations a few people read their paper from start to finish, an unfortuate tradition I’m told is carried over from other academic displicines, but one I hope will not take root in game studies.

I jumped around from room to room to catch a few minutes of Espen Aarseth presenting a multi-dimensional typology of games, including dimensions such as perspective, topography, dynamic vs. static environment, realtime vs. turn-based, savability, determinism, etc. Actually many presentations at the conference were about “what is a game”, highlighting the fact that game studies, particularly digital games studies, is a new discipline. (We later hear two remaining conference keynotes by Janet Murray and Jesper Juul on the same theme.) I caught a few minutes of Mary Flanagan talking about the tradition of children (mostly girls) playing with dolls in subversive ways, and how people do similar kinds of play in the Sims. The day ended with Eric Zimmerman conducting a projected teleconference with game & play theorist Brian Sutton Smith, who is now 80 years old but as lively as someone half his age. I was dozing in and out due to my jetlag but was awake to hear Sutton Smith say one reason we play in general is to soothe ourselves from the fact that “life is crap and we’re all going to die in the end anyway.” I’m told I must read The Ambiguity of Play, a later Sutton Smith book that encapsulates many of his ideas on the nature of play.

The next day I continued to jump around from session to session. (Part of that day Michael and I had to skip out to set up our demo of Facade that would occur later that night.) We saw a few minutes of ludologists analyzing Super Monkey Ball; in the future I hope to see more sessions like this, where time is spent analyzing individual works. Janet Murray gave a keynote presenting her work-in-progress analysis of “what is a game”. Particularly nice were her suggestions that we’ve got several encompassing frameworks to deal with — play, games, narrative, maybe more I’m forgetting — and the many ways of framing things, such as play as a superset of games, or games as a superset of play, or narrative as a superset of play, etc. etc. The point being that each can be the superset or subset of the other, that all these perspectives need to be taken, not just one.

We saw an interesting presentation by Mirjam Eladhari and Craig Lindley of the Interactive Institute in Sweden’s Zero Game studio, where they are building an AI architecture to create more advanced semi-autonomous avatars for RPG games. This was one of the few system-building presentations we saw, and enjoyed talking with them afterwards. They have written some great articles (including Lindley’s own “what is a game” Gamasutra article) and I look forward to seeing the fruits of their research. Robert Nideffer and Celia Pearce of UC Irvine presented their new Game Grid research environment, and a call for proposals for massively multiplayer online world research projects. Looks like a great opportunity (if only my work weren’t focused on single-player and a few NPC’s-in-a-little-virtual-room research)! At dinner that night I got the chance to grill Robert on the state of new media art, the artist-programmer issue, and to suggest that AI-based art is a largely untapped direction, which I think he agreed with.

That night at the GameFest party at a dance club Michael and I gave our first real interactive demo of Facade (picture1, picture2). Although pre-alpha and still pretty buggy (only 50% of the content was included in the demo), the demo went well and we got lots of good feedback. About 30 people got a chance to play it over the course of 5 hours, and we had a pretty big crowd straining to watch throughout. We ran Facade in a development mode where the text of Grace and Trip’s dialog appears above their bodies; sound, had we had it (we don’t yet, since we’re still finishing voice recording) would not have been heard since we were only 25 feet from the dance floor. (Janet Murray winced to the beat as she tried to enjoy herself.) On the whole, hopefully the demo will help dispel any confusion about if Facade really exists :-), since we’ve been talking about it for so long but it’s not actually done yet. We got nice comments like “coolest thing I’ve seen” or “I’ve been waiting so long to finally play this”, etc. (Conferences like this do help give us motivation to slog through the pain of finishing the damn thing.) Ears ringing, we got back to the hostel at 3am and ate a bowl of scandanavian Super Smacks. (Today I’m analyzing all of the logged traces from the demos, to see what worked and what didn’t. So it was also a really useful user test.)

The next morning I attended an interesting panel on pervasive games where a handful of projects that involved real players on the street, players at terminals, and sometimes virtual characters, all interconnected via cellphones, GPS, etc. Cool stuff. That afternoon Paul Catanese gave a useful survey of video game art — would have loved to see an exhibition of game art at a conference like this. Then I attended a poster session that included one by Chaim Gingold highlighting key points from his thesis, and an intriguing poster by Stephan Grunvogel, Richard Wages et al of the Lab for Mixed Realites discussing the problems with making games too realistic, suggesting that abstract or non-realistic games will actually be more effective, believable and fun for players. Later that night they gave a private demo of an interactive narrative authoring tool they’re working on, a kind of hierarchical StorySpace, that they’re offering for use to other research groups and media labs.

Finally Jesper Juul gave a very good keynote lecture presenting his well thought-out answers to “what is a game”, defining a series of abstract characteristics of games, including the admittedly fuzzy but interesting “negotiable consequences”, useful for example as a way to distinguish Traffic and War as non-games, since their outcomes are non-negotiable. Various combinations of features (rules, variable quanifiable outcome, valorization, etc.) offer a way to understand games as a spectrum from games that are definitely games, to borderline games that are missing one or two features, to true non-games. He also presented the concept of game-state being kept in cards vs. a game board vs. the player’s mind (e.g., blind chess) vs. the computer’s memory. Overall I liked it; it was probably my favorite answer to “what is a game” presented so far.

The conference ended with an dinner party where I got the chance to chat with many I’ve been wanting to talk to for a long time, such as Espen Aarseth, Jason Della Rocca, Ernest Adams, Mary Flanagan, Ian Bogost, William Huber, Susana Tosca and Lisbeth Klastrup. The wine and conversation flowed freely. I took some pictures with my rusty ol’ analog film camera that I’ll scan and post at some point.

I flew home to Boston the next morning, and therefore sadly didn’t have a chance to enjoy much of Utrecht itself, or Amsterdam for that matter. Gotta get back to work — but now all the more energized and inspired.