Monday, 14 May 2012

Conference Report: GameCamp

i was the only one who took the 'camping' thing seriously

At a lecture given to the RSA, Everything Bad Is Good For You author Steven Johnson asked: “Where do good ideas come from?” In five minutes he outlined a theory that the most fertile environment for ideas is one where they can meet, bounce off each other and joyfully breed – where half-formed hunches can combine through conversation to emerge as beautiful butterflies. That’s why the coffee houses were the intellectual centre of 18th century London - and it's also why GameCamp is a good idea.

I went to Gamecamp this weekend, arriving too late for the ‘Hangover Session’ (because I was hungover) and leaving the afterparty all too early to race through dystopian Canada Water to claim my seat for Avengers Assemble. Between these two events, I was refreshed and invigorated by the experience and bombarded wish a lot of new thoughts; contributions to sessions I attended were without exception fresh and thought-provoking. I also played a German board game called Laser Chess, which involves shooting actual lasers around the board. It’s like Hasbro enlisted Werner Von Braun. Anyway, here’s my report.

GameCamp is an ‘unconference’, where half-hour sessions appear on a large board on which anyone can post a note. The sessions tend to begin with short presentations but are mostly given to informal discussion where everyone chips in. The first one I attended was a meta-playtest held by Gwyn Morfey. Morfey runs Fire Hazard, which organises live games in the wilds of Hampstead Heath: you know, running, screaming, nerf guns, screwball plots following accidentaly murders, that kind of thing. Morfey wanted to playtest these games without having to gather thirty people and get them outdoors on a sunny day, and wanted to see how useful it was to run through their rulesets with paper and counters. Several groups were given the task of inventing and testing rulesets for a stand-off between two teams: one human, one Care Bear.

“So the Care Bears defeat the humans by hugging them,” I mused. There were nods around the table; it made sense.  “And…they can freeze the humans in a beam of peace and serenity.” The nods were more uncertain this time. “And…the humans can break each other out of this, but only by shouting insults at each other.” Looks were exchanged, but for some reason, that’s what we tried. Unfamiliar with live action games, I asked what some basic mechanics were apart from running and seeing. Nerf guns, I was informed.

The method worked: pushing counters around the table and using 50p coins to gauge range, we quickly found several flaws, patched them up, and just as quickly found flaws in the patches. Both sides took a sustained nerfing. The exercise was a testament to how easily abstract rules can be divorced from their immediate context and still be studied meaningfully. I suspect it could be a useful method for videogame developers too. But it was also a caution against doing this blindly: our god-like perspective meant that we always had to remember to move the counters not according to our own view of the situation, but according to the behaviour of imaginary players wrapped in fog-of-war.

Next came a session with the bizarre title of ‘game design inside games’. The question was how often games require elements of game design on behalf of their players and whether a game could be built around this. The session inspired me to write an article, so I will say little more. But I will note that the primary marker of ‘game design’ – as opposed to simply ‘gaming’ – seemed to be players deliberately refusing to optimize their play to win. The host’s example was of zombie LARPers slowing down so as not to catch the humans too quickly; another talked about D&D players who kill off their level 15 paladins because it makes a good story, while I explained the complex security measures necessary to protect roleplay in World of Warcraft from player-versus-player ganking. My suspicion is that it’s difficult or even impossible to design a game around game design, except in the form of a freestyle toolset like Sleep is Death, because a player who happens to design a cool experience or an excellent minigame in pursuit of the larger game’s victory goals is not designing but merely 'gaming'. To see why I use that term instead of ‘playing’, watch this space. 

While a Nerf war raged across the floor below, I sat in on a session titled: “Deeper emotions in videogames. HOW?!?” It was the latter word which kept a potentially wanky session on course – along with the skilful ch---manship of a host possibly named Simon Fox (?). I don’t very often give a stuff about feelings in games. But firm conclusions were groped for and grasped. Videogames do some emotions brilliantly, like fear and regret, very well, but they have a narrow range. The best way to provoke genuine emotions is to create mechanics that bring them about. Abstraction helps; the less detail we have, the more likely we are to fill in the gaps with our own empathy (Shadow of the Colossus, Journey and The Marriage) were cited.  We tend to provoke the aforementioned ones because we know how to do it, but there’s no reason we couldn’t up our game. But that may not happen until the pool from which developers rise is widened, and their influences range further afield.

Andrew Bell, of Light-Lead (whatever the hell that is), led an interesting session in a poky classroom about the smaller opportunities for player expression that videogames afford. Even the most linear games have potential for player choice at the most basic level; one can run around, jump like a madman, shoot patterns in walls. So videogames are an improvisational medium as far as the player is concerned – but what can games do to allow players their own ‘touch’, and is it worth developers devoting their time to? Meanwhile, a session called ‘Tell Funny Stories About Your Favourite Games’ was predictably joyful and predictably heavy on Dwarf Fortress.

There was a fly in the ointment. Some sessions apparently boiled down to one person giving a long, rambling and overbearing speech to a mute and incredulous audience presumably too embarrassed to interrupt. This would be no problem if the rules of the Camp did not explicitly plead for “conversations, not presentations”.  I was unlucky enough to be present at one of these sessions; I didn’t bother to discover the culprit’s identity, so I couldn’t name names if I wanted to. But if you wish to hold forth, there are plenty of ways to do it. You can have a Twitter feed. You can register a blog (look at me, Ma!). You can write angry letters to the Daily Mail and sign them “Disgruntled, of Internet”. But however brilliant you are – and the session in question was not brilliant – doing it at a collaborative conference is against the spirit of the entire event, and no fun for anyone.

But it also runs counter to the key merit of such events. Johnson is right: great things happen when people get together. He’s also right that the nature of the internet is to make this process happen faster and more easily, but there is something about meeting people in the flesh – a directness, an invigorating quality – that is worth preserving even in a digitally connected world. And ordinary conferences are fonts of knowledge, but their authoritarian format leaves too little time for peer bonding. These spaces are important for we who like to talk seriously and creatively about games, and GameCamp, with its conversional ethos, is a forge for creative force. 

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