Gaming for the People

Last Friday, I participated in a symposium on computer games as Public Service. Given the luring title Gaming for the People, the symposium was a jointly arranged by Danish National TV (the Danish equivalent of the BBC) and the IT-university of Copenhagen – specifically their Games department.

It was a great day with lots of great ideas. First there were two presentations of actual Public Service games – one is the Danish/Swedish/Norwegian joint effort “Hundeparken – a free chat-forum/online playground for the 11 to 16 year olds. It’s seperated into three different areas – one for each countries. And only when you’ve gathered sufficient karma points will you be able to swim between the different countries.

Hundeparken has developed into a magic world with lots of users, where the kids can experiment and negotiate with other kids. Make friends, enemies or just have fun. It’s a brilliant social project, and all the avatars (who are all dogs) can gain new abilities, which apart from the swimming include mating. Which has created the need for churches for marriage, and offices for divorce. The game is incredibly malleable and the designers are constantly updating and changing to fit the users’ requests. The kids run their own newspaper, and even their own version of Survivor, called Dogginson. There’s so much room for social experimentation, and much of the designer’s concerns were focused on the inherent rules of the game and what political standpoint they conveyed. For instance, there’s equal access to money in the game. All that you have to do is play a minigame to dig a whole in the ground to gather bones (an obvious currency in a dog- centered game).

The other example was from the BBC, called BamZOOKi, the brainchild of one Paul Tyler who presented the game which is a combined tv-show and PC-playtool. From the BBC website, you can download the Zook-kit, a design program that’ll let you design your own zook. A zook is a virtual beast that exists in a true physical environment simulated by the computer. Thus, to make it move, you have to experiment with aerodynamics, leg movement and so on. Examples can be found in the wondrous Zook gallery.

Your best zooks can then be submitted to the BBC webpage where the crew will pick the best zooks to compete in the BamZOOKi tv show. It’s just really cool. During the presentation, my fingers were itching to try out the design myself. Here, the design questions were not so much focused on the social aspect as the playful, experimentative aspect. As you can see from the gallery, some kids have managed to create zooks that look like trucks or locomotives – still based on the same valid physical principles.

After the game presentations, the more academic part followed, including two great presentations by people at the games centre. Gonzalo Frasca gave a fun lecture on Political Gaming, including references to the semi-secret origins of the Monopoly boardgame, and his own political gaming comment called September 12th (requires Shockwave).

Also, Miguel Sicart gave a brilliant presentation on Computer games and ethics, arguing that computer games are indeed moral objects, and that rules aren’t innocent. The fact that the rules of computer games cannot be argued, or changed (except through hacking), makes it so much easier for the players to simply accept them as they are. Therefore it is important to focus on how players rationalize and reflect upon their in-game choices.

So much stuff to digest. The people behind the symposium promised to make available the slides from the presentations, but that hasn’t happened yet.

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