by David Fono
Come Out and Play, an annual festival of pervasive games, was held last weekend in NYC. I was lucky enough to attend in three capacities: as a game designer, as a volunteer helper, and as a player. Though this meant I didn’t get to play as many of the 33 games as I would have liked, it was a great joy to get a multifaceted look at a pretty fantastic event.
Although COaP seems to be billed primarily as a “street games” festival, there was quite variety of game types and venues. In particular, three prominent themes stuck out for me: games played on the streets, incorporating the midtown environment and frequently employing spy-style mechanics; creative new sports played in Central Park; and ambient/spectacular social games played at one of the several parties.
I was primarily occupied with the first set of games, which operated — spectacularly — out of Times Square. In an amazing bit of serendipity, a chunk of Broadway running several blocks had been cordoned off for pedestrians as part of some experimental program, and it was here that the COaP organizers planted a large white dome as an HQ. Such a prominent location had the effect of drawing in a whole truckload of interested passers-by, and allowed the games operating out of there to merge with the flow of the city in a really organic and surprising way. Somewhere out there is a photo of a US soldier jumping rope with an enormous grin on his face (during Diva Dutch). As a volunteer, I explained the premise of the festival to a diverse range of inquiring pedestrians, from mothers with their children to bizarre old men (one of whom, inexplicably, offered to pick me up and carry me around for a minute, and then did so. Gotta love New York.)
The first game I played, Stalk Exchange, actually took me to Grand Central station, where I wandered through the atrium while being directed by a controller via cell phone. The controller oversaw my actions from a balcony, while I was made to surreptitiously follow and monitor other players being directed by their own controllers (at least, suspected players — we weren’t sure who else was playing, and I severely embarrassed myself by harassing at least one completely uninvolved bystander.) Although a little confusing, the game was a blast, and the feeling of being a “real” spy in a busy train station was incredibly enlivening. Somewhat amusingly, the spectre of external factors that forever haunts pervasive games reared its head late in the game, and a crusty security guard forced my teammate down from her (totally legal) perch. A potent reminder.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to experience much of Saturday, as I was preparing for our own game, Paparazzi. Amazingly, despite the sudden pouring rain, a full roster of 40 players showed up stayed — which seems pretty illustrative of the player enthusiasm I saw throughout the weekend. Preparation for the game in the days prior to the festival was a saga unto itself; one of the interesting things about designing a game for midtown Manhattan is that virtually nowhere else in the world provides a suitable testing ground. The throngs of Times Square are an exemplar of location-specific design constraints. Our game, which relied on surveillance and ambush tactics, required a significantly reduced playing area, and some brightly coloured costumes so players would stand out.
In the evening I played Groove Moove, an extremely simple game that managed to create enormously high levels of enthusiasm. Two teams of players competed in convincing random pedestrians to dance across four crosswalks. The game ran twice, which was helpful, since in the first instance I think players were still working up the nerve to make idiots of themselves. A lot of people would simply avoid eye contact as we tried to persuade them to do the moonwalk with us. On the other hand, a handful of people absolutely loved it. For tourists, possibly, this is the quintessential New York experience: completely random nonsense. Seeing a groom and bride in full costume do the twist for us exemplified the value of running games out of Times Square. And when passers-by were captivated, players became even moreso, feeding off their thrill to produce some pretty palpable joy.
On Sunday, after a too-short interval playing Ran Some Ransom (one of those basic but brilliant ideas that makes you wonder, “Why didn’t I think of that?”), I helped out with Train Mafia. This game was a slightly modified version of classic Mafia (aka Werewolf), the primary caveat being that it was played on a subway heading to and from the Bronx. To make things interesting, two interrelated games with different rules were played simultaneously on two different cars; when a player was ousted from game A, they’d proceed into game B. For me, simply shifting the venue onto a moving train actually gave the game a significantly different feel from other games of Mafia. There was something about the constantly changing scenery, as well as the conspicuously public nature of the proceedings, and just the vibe of a subway car — basically, the experience just had a drastically different aesthetic. It was like a subway party. There’s something to be said for the simple choice of venue or context as a meaningful part of game design.
By the accounts I heard, the Central Park sport-style games were particularly popular, and one of those — Circle Rules Football — took home the award for Best in Fest. The awards were actually a new feature this year, and although they add a few extra data points, I’m kind of skeptical about their value. Such a formal component seems out of place within such an organic festival, particularly as such a jampacked roster ensures that (a) you’re comparing apples to oranges, and (b) no one could possibly have had a complete sense of everything that was going on that weekend. Train Mafia, for instance, finished approximately as the awards ceremony itself was wrapping up. In this respect, the huge number of games could have been seen as something of a liability; overlapping back-to-back game schedules means less attention for each game, and more difficulty getting to experience one’s picks. For example, I didn’t get to check out any of the Central Park games. On the other hand, I can understand the need to scale the festival to attract increasingly large audiences. What’s going on here is novel enough that I expect striking the right balance between size and accessibility is enormously challenging. What’s important, ultimately, is that a whole lot of players had unique, amazing experiences — some of whom will no doubt be inspired to go off and make games of their own.
Photographs by Kate Raynes-Goldie.