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Field Report: Come Out And Play 2012

July 19, 2012

Field Reports feature reporting on events and activities I’ve attended or taken part in.

A lot of the games represented at Come Out and Play come out of experimental theater companies, and in some cases the influence shows pretty clearly. Typically, these games are designed more for spectacle than mechanical coherence. One such game was Target Act, a sort of charades-basketball hybrid that I never quite understood despite watching several games. Others, like Gargoyles seemed more like a dancer’s exercise in the generation of negative space than a game per se. The point of Gargoyles is to stand around your opponent such that they’re unable to move (and thereby escape) without touching you. It felt more than anything like a 3D version of Twister, where the thrill of unintended contact is part of the appeal. A fine ice-breaker perhaps, or parlor game, but not something anybody would confuse with any kind of sport.

Another game, “Balloon Wars”, similarly evoked childhood rough-housing. It consisted of a number of activities performed with a balloon tied to one ankle. Lose your balloon, and you’re out. Rather like playing Mario Kart’s Battle Mode, if that’s a helpful point of reference. “The Game of Posts”, on the other hand, purports to be “the bat-and-ball game for modern America” and “steeped in strategy, risk, and drama”. Unfortunately, by the time I went to try it out it appeared to have wrapped up for the day. I was able take part in a few of the games on offer though, and have more detailed impressions on those games below.

Staccato

Billed as a “playground game”, Staccato is, of all the games on offer this year, probably the most game-designer-y. Every part of the game was clearly carefully considered and obviously play-tested and refined over time. The overall feel is of a polished, coherent design, but also a very controlled and prescribed one.

Staccato is played by 2 teams of two on a small square play field, similar in dimensions to one used for four-square. Each team takes turns on offense or defense, switching out after 60 second rounds. Offensive players occupy a ring around the outside of the playfield, and try to get a ball into a hoop in the middle of the field. When on offense, a player cannot move his feet while he holds the ball, although his partner can move freely. While on defense, players can only move their feet while the ball is in the air. The overall effect is of a relentlessly stop-and-go experience, providing some insight into the origin of the game’s name.

While the rules are fairly easy to explain, playing it is a rather complex experience, and not necessarily in a good way. Players must keep track of the state and of the ball at all times, a task which doesn’t provide much in the way of interesting mental activity, but is nonetheless a distraction from the core gameplay of trying to score or defend. It’s a fundamentally frustrating experience to want to move your legs but be unable to, except now you are, oh, oops, too late, oh, and they scored. I think the intent was that this frustration be enjoyable, and generate a guessing game, but it all happens too quickly for the player to really decide what actions to take next, and the play field seems somewhat too small for the foot positioning to really matter. Additionally, going back to a favorite topic of ours, there’s no defined penalty for what happens if you do move your feet out of turn, either on offense or on defense, which is perhaps fortunate, because as a first time player, it’s nearly impossible to avoid doing so.

In some ways, this is probably a limitation of the venue as much as the game. I talked briefly with some of the volunteers running the game, who indicated that after several rounds, the sense of when you could and couldn’t move becomes second nature, and the game reduces to only the more interesting parts of the, well, staccato gameplay. Which is all well and good for people familiar with the game, but as a game festival entry, there has to be an acknowledgment that most of the players won’t have familiarity with the game, nor the opportunity to develop it. This may be a pitfall of the careful design and apparent iteration I spoke of before. The more a designer plays his own game, and the more familiar he becomes with it, the less able he becomes to design for the new player. It’s a sort of grognard capture: designer capture, if you will, and it seems that this or some other similar effect acted to reduce Staccato’s accessibility to new players.

Banner Outs

Banner Outs probably has the best claim to being a sport of any of the games on display at Come Out and Play, not just for the rules of the game itself, but for the structures that support it (more on that in a moment). It also appeared to be one of the more poplar games of the day, or at least one of the most continuously active. The popularity likely stemmed from a number of causes: good placement directly facing the sign-in booth, a large, clearly visible play field, rules simple enough to be easily explained to new players, and pacing such that new games were able to start continuously with just a little sign-in sheet management.

Banner Outs is basically an inversion of a typical game of catch, as played with a frisbee. Each team is given command of a large rectangular zone with a neutral zone in between. Points are scored by throwing the frisbee such that it lands inside the opponents zone. If they catch it, or bat it down out of the zone, no points are scored, and the other team returns the serve. That’s pretty much it. In addition to being charmingly simple, it also lends itself well to a range of different skill levels, making it an ideal festival game. While placing a frisbee correctly is fairly hard, throwing a frisbee wildly and unpredictably is much easier, and can be done by almost anybody. Similarly, while highly experienced and athletic players may be able to field more effectively on defense, in many cases there’s little apparent difference between wild jumping and swinging of arms and a well considered interception. While it’s likely that a more athletic, more experienced player would win more points in the long run, and particular throw or defense attempt by any player has a reasonable chance of success. The game itself feels un-serious and playful, and so well suited to simply messing around in the park on a beautiful afternoon.

But, oddly enough, the game appears to pretend to rather more than that. Alone among the games on offer at Come Out and Play, Banner Outs has an “Official Rules Book”, complete with a page long prologue describing the history of the sport, which reveals it to be about as stereo-typical a creation of a north-eastern liberal arts college as you can imagine. The sport was invented during a River Revival Festival, and named for banners that lined the parade route that defined the first play field. The team’s territories are officially called “realms”, and play is initiated by the serving team announcing “Love is all around”. The penalty for a shot failing to reach the opponents realm is that the offending team retrieves the frisbee, hands it to the opposing team and, and this is specified in the rules, “mak[es] sure to apologize to their opponent for their transgression.” I can almost feel the mellow-ness from here. Also, it features a frisbee. Oddly, although the rule book makes specific reference to tennis and the game includes a requirement that the winning team win by 2 points, none of the volunteers were able to help me remember what this rule is called when it was on the tip of my tongue (it’s deuce).

Nonetheless, Banner Outs does have at some history, and it even features bi-coastal “leagues”, admittedly founded because one of the games founders moved to Los Angeles and introduced it to that area. Even so, the West Coast Banner Outs League was popular enough to hold a Championship Series. Given our previous acknowledgement that “sports” are defined culturally as much as mechanically, the simple act of creating “Leagues” and the organization of structured competition are a sound first step towards that sort of cultural recognition, even if on a small scale.

FiiWa

Perhaps my largest disappointment of the afternoon was FiiWa, a system of sporting equipment for the visually impaired. I’ve had something of an interest in accessibility in games every since I saw an article on art-design for color blind players some years ago. It isn’t something that I’ve really pursued, but I’ve always made it a point to check out related initiatives when they’re available. FiiWa, an acronym for Freedom in Interactive Wearable Art, thus making it one of those rare acronyms that means nothing in either form, is comprised of a ball, net, and vest that provide alternate sensory feedback to a player with the intent of allowing the visually impaired to form a mental model of the play field, and ultimately play appropriately designed sports. The ball itself is foam, but emits a constant low pitched beep, allowing player to locate it. It also include sensors which change the pitch while the ball is in motion, allowing a player to distinguish between a thrown ball and one at rest. The vests apparently (more on that later) include vibration motors that indicate, with various pulses, the location of other players and either goal.

It’s a rather clever bit of engineering, and seems like the design of each component was rather well considered. The equipment also packages nicely with it’s own setup and carry straps. It’s clearly a piece of industrial design that’s seen many iterations. From my brief conversation with the designers, they appear to want to market it to youth physical education programs, and have a curriculum including both familiarization with the equipment, as well as a game design component such that the students would be able to design their own games.

Which, really, is where my disappointment came in. While it’s a really fascinating project, and a laudable goal in its own right, it wasn’t really quite the right fit for an outdoor games festival. There was just too large of a learning curve, and the paradigm shift of listening instead of seeing too large for participants to be able to do anything more than be introduced to the concepts before moving on to something else. As a result, the only “game” that any participants seemed able to play was little more than a game of blindfolded catch. Which again is a fascinating project in terms of appreciating how different the world must be for a blind person than for a sighted person, but it isn’t a very compelling game. I said apparently when describing the vests above because the vests weren’t in use when I visited. There was difficulty enough in explaining the core concepts of the ball and the setup time required that trying to calibrate to the multiple variations of rhythmic buzzing from a vibrating vest would have been just too much information for the recreation minded festival attendee.

Furthermore, since the equipment was designed specifically with a game design curriculum in mind, I wasn’t able to determine if there was a game that had already been created that really makes good use of the unique features of the equipment. One of the designers mentioned that they had over 50 different activities invented, but since we didn’t really have the ability to use the equipment in any meaningful way, we weren’t able to explore these designs. I’d love to be proven wrong, but from what I did see, I feel that the equipment is design more with providing alternate ways for the blind to experience traditional sports than for a way to create really new, unique sports that rely on their limited sensory inputs as a core feature. It didn’t make me re-think sports, it made me re-think sight. Again, quite an achievement, but not really what I had in mind going in.

For a more design oriented critique, I also feel that the overall goals of the project may be a bit over-ambitious. While teaching game design to school children is a fascinating and potentially important topic, I feel like it isn’t really compatible with the primary function of the equipment. Even more so than adults, I feel like children would struggle simply to understand the inputs they’re being given, and hardly have time to then consider how they might design games that take place in this new sightless space. Also, I think sighted children would be a hard sell for this equipment, so you’re sort of narrowing your audience to blind children who are interested in game design. While I certainly wouldn’t want to stand in the way of anybody who hopes to cater to that segment, it seems like a difficult market to build a business plan on.

I hate to end on a critical or down note, since overall, the entire field day seemed like a great success. Come Out and Play was never designed to be a testbed for airtight game design, or for the creation of new sports. In fine field day tradition, the games were all fun, and invited people to lower their guard and celebrate the freedom of play in open spaces. New Yorkers aren’t all the in your face wise-guys that TV and movies like to portray us as, but we aren’t the friendliest people in the world either. And yet, throughout the afternoon, a bewildering array of people walked up and simply wanted to know: What’s going on? Can we join in?At the end of the day, that’s what the entire festival is about.

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From → Field Report

One Comment
  1. Tracy permalink

    So sorry to hear that you didn’t enjoy playing with FiiWA. I have to admit that when we were invited to participate I was a bit skeptical at how we would be able to bring the experience of this new game space to players in such a short period of time. Being able to give players enough time to have any sort of viable understanding on how to use and read the equipment as a whole is impossible in CO&P’s setting. That being said, I think that we were able to achieve so much with so little. I believe the players and the coordinators at CO&P felt similarly as FiiWA ended up winning Best in Festival for 2012.

    It takes time to be good at any sort of sport, and sports and games with FiiWA are no exception. I tend to equate the experience of someone handing you a baseball, glove, and bat. At the end of 2 minutes of instruction and 10 minutes of play, I doubt you would be able to hit a home run or throw a fast pitch over home plate, let alone play a successful and compelling game of baseball. I can state with confidence that at the end of 2 minutes of instruction and 10 minutes of play with FiiWA, most of our users had a much greater awareness of the playing field, with their bodies, the position of the equipment in space, and had established firm communication skills with their partner – the key learning goals of this exercise. If you’ve never played sports blindfolded without the use of specialized equipment, I encourage you to play the same game and see how well you fare. From our extensive user tests with both sighted and VI communities, I have a strong feeling it won’t even come close to what you were able to accomplish that day (accomplishments that normally take weeks in a non-tech setting).

    So while I wholeheartedly agree with you that the particular game you played at CO&P itself was quite basic, user participation in very basic games are what is absolutely necessary in order to gain an understanding of each piece of equipment, hone a player’s senses and body awareness, and prevent unnecessary injury. The games and play are layered so that as equipment understanding and physical skill increase, additional equipment is introduced, the playing field opens up, and game difficulty increases. I’m glad, at least, that you got to experience the challenge someone without sight has to overcome in order to participate in a simple physical game.

    With regards to FiiWA’s place in game design, it is not simply about teaching game design to school aged children – it is about creating a community around developing games/sports that are all inclusive for persons with VI of any age, as well as parents and teachers who struggle with said. It’s about improving self efficacy and pushing players to take control over their physical abilities. It’s giving persons the opportunity to play a sport 1) in their own backyard, 2) without the use of a sighted guide, and 3) for a price their families can afford. (After working with school-aged children for multiple years around game-design, I’m afraid you are grossly underestimating their abilities to comprehend, adapt, and create; precisely the adult mindset we are aiming to alter.)

    That being said, users do not have to design their own games nor participate in the game design community, opting instead to play a variety of sports/games from levels suited for beginners to much more complex games (such as a sport that pulls a tiny bit from soccer but uses hands and requires movement up and down an entire field with 2 teams of up to 9 players). Users can also play solo games that are coded into the ball in order to hone their skill sets.

    While the market might not be the biggest on the planet, I do feel it is greatly underserved and our research shows that the need is there. The sporting products that are available to those with a VI are exceptionally expensive for what little function they possess and gaming products are quite sedentary. At this point, the awards FiiWA has won and the response from the VI community give me great hope that it will be a success. If anything, at least we have brought joy to the lives of those for which we’ve had the privilege of working.

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