Tying the Community in Knots

Posted by mpostema on Wednesday Aug 1, 2012 Under Alternative Game Movements, Blogpost Assignments

The New Games Movement attempted to redefine the goals of games during a period of intense societal distress. One of the founders of the movement, Stewart Brand “explored uncharted territories to progressively empower people via multiple frameworks that would give them voice towards real change” (Fron 1). The empowerment involved getting people to discover new ways of playing games. Rather than conforming to the traditional competitions for dominance and subjugation of ones opponents, the New Games Movement sought to develop games that all participants could enjoy rather than win.

Before we examine games from the New Games Movement, it would be useful to establish the definition that these games toy with and disregard completely in some cases. The components of a game that delineate it from another form of activity are parameterized play, a goal, obstacles, resources, consequences, and information the players do or do not have access to (Pearce 69). These elements are found in most games and especially in mainstream games such as Counter-Strike or Monopoly.

One of the earliest games that can be classified as part of the New Games Movemen is “Spacewar!” Originally developed on the PDP-1, “Spacewar!” is a two to five player game consisting of each player controlling a space ship and trying to destroy the other player’s ships. The game starts with each ship in a decaying orbit around a star. While trying to avoid crashing into the star, the players must fire missiles at each other and dodge or shoot down their opponent’s missiles.

“Spacewar!” is a template for modern multiplayer combat games. The players have an arena they can navigate and combat opponents in. Once a player’s avatar is destroyed they will respawn after a few minutes if the game is still in progress. Yet “Spacewar!” stands out in history not only because it is one of the first computer games created, but also because of the culture that arose around it. The programmers who played it did not passively interact with it. They played it and then added to it. We are told that “Fresh forms of Spacewar with exotic new features proliferated” as quickly as the game could be spread to new programmers (Brand). They added gravity, starfields, and hyperspace. Yet not everyone enjoyed all the new features. At the start of a match, ship pilots could decide which features would take effect during their game. If I did not like the addition of more than two missile tubes and my opponent didn’t like the randomness of hyperspace, we could still create a game we would both enjoy. By affording players the option to reconfigure the game in order to have the best game possible, “Spacewar!” exemplifies the concept of “making an exception helps us have an exceptional game” (Dekoven 51).

Another game from the New Games Movement is Knots, a game found more often on the playground rather than in the computer lab. The concept for Knots is simple. A large group of people bunches up in a cluster, and everyone grabs another person’s hand in each of theirs. Once this setup procedure has been completed, the group must attempt to untangle the large knot they have become. Knots takes the intellectual puzzle of untying a piece of string and smashes it together with a group hug. It conforms to several of the game elements mentioned earlier, yet takes an interesting twist on the information players have available to them. Despite having the visceral feedback of holding someone’s hand, a fairly familiar act in our society, players are often confused about their position in the knot and even whom they are connected to. In order to succeed in untangling themselves, the players need to work as a unit and develop a cooperative attitude rather than the competitive mode many games take. While the obstacles in the game are the other players, they are also the teammates and necessary for success.

Due to the complicated configurations the players can create when they start the game, it is possible to create an unsolvable knot. If the rules are followed with the sanctity such mental constructs often are, the game will result in a failure and cessation of enjoyment for all involved. No one wins if the knot cannot be untangled. So again players must be prepared to “adapt the game as they go in order to create opportunities for everyone to play well together” (Fron 6).

The alternate reality game “I Love Bees” is not explicitly a product of the New Games Movement. It was developed several decades after the movement’s heyday for the marketing campaign of a big budget video game, yet it does resemble products of the movement and contains elements of Fluxus. As an alternate reality game, “I Love Bees” focused on the measured release of information as players completed puzzles and progressed the story of the second world the game layers on top of our own. Players would find clues to what was happening in the fiction of the world throughout various Internet sources and locations in the real world. “I Love Bees” was able to “create play patterns from found, e.g., ‘readymade’ objects” such as one’s habitual Internet browsing, the telephones on the way to work, and other mundane detritus of life (Pearce 72). It turned the boring niche website of a bee enthusiast into the emergency hideout of an AI from the future. What hidden goodies were waiting to be uncovered in other websites masquerading as boring personal websites?

It also necessitated the creation of a community of players. The number and obscurity of the clues dispensed were beyond the ability of one person to solve. By pooling their knowledge and time, members of the game’s community were able to coordinate their efforts and solve the puzzles. This play strategy evolved a “third space for people to make connections with each other through their ideas” over vast distances all facilitated by the Internet and “I Love Bees” (Fron 2).

The sense of community these games fostered amongst their players shows their membership in the New Games Movement. Rather than becoming competitors, the players are forged into a fellowship. They see the value of the person next to them first as a teammate useful for playing the game, and eventually as a human being joined hand in hand to go forth through life.

Brand, Stewart. “SPACEWAR: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums,” Rolling Stone, December 7, 2001. http://www.wheels.org/spacewar/stone/rolling_stone.html

DeKoven, B. (1978) The Well-Played Game: A Player’s Philosophy. New York: Anchor Books. (1st or 2nd Edition)

Fron, J., Fullerton, T., Morie, J. & Pearce, C. (aka Ludica) (2005). “Sustainable Play: Towards A New Games Movement for the Digital Age.” Digital Arts & Culture Conference Proceedings, Copenhagen, December 2005.

Pearce, Celia. “Games as Art: The Aesthetics of Interactivity.” Visible Language: Special Issue on Fluxus. January 2006.

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