Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Outdoor Game Design: Foundations

(This is part of a series about the "outdoor game design" course I taught at UC Berkeley. It has notes, lesson plans, and ready-to-use rulesets for games.)

The first semester I taught this course, I planned everything down to the minute detail. I pre-wrote my lectures and my "spontaneous" jokes, allotted a few minutes to each concept for that day, conceptualized learning goals... And then realized that it didn't fit the spirit of the class.

In later semesters, I'd have a rough week-by-week schedule, but that's it. I'd improvise the lesson plan when I got to class and saw what the energy was like. (Also, being in the Bay Area, it'd rain a lot.)

So, some general statements / philosophies that form the foundation of this course:

1) Playing on a field or court can be fun but limiting; instead, play anywhere. Don't be afraid to play in a crowded promenade or around a fountain or in a library -- if someone has a problem with it, they can speak up and you can move somewhere else. Being a spectacle is fun. Different locations will offer different experiences.

2) In that vein, play is performative. If we all agree that the parking lot is now a zoo, then it is a zoo. But it is also "performance" -- you are being watched at all times. Other players watch you and that forces you to be a good sport; civilians watch you and that forces you to obey the law, etc.

3) A game is as interesting as its verbs. Say you make a game about taking cellphone pictures of clues at specific GPS coordinates around the city, then combining all the pictures into a visual poem -- this is an awful game because the main player verb is WALKING from point to point with not much to do.

4) A game is as interesting as its choices. A choice implies that there is a viable alternative to that choice: if there is an obvious best strategy to your game, then everyone will do that one thing and it is an exploit.

5) Player communities and learning communities are one. Know everyone's name; invite each other to parties; make jokes; decentralize power in the classroom and take student suggestions as to what to do. Give them a stake.

6) The less math in an outdoor game, the better. Video games handle math really well, but people running around do not. A "my group can tag another if we have more people in our group" mechanic is probably the most complex math you should use without any digital aids or counters. Anything more -- adding, subtracting -- will almost certainly sink your game.

7) Your game will suck the first time. The mark of a good designer is to analyze and improve it after the first playtest. Thus, try to play every game at least twice.

8) If you're having trouble getting everyone's attention (e.g. after everyone breaks into discussion groups) then simply shout "SEX SEX SEX" and everyone will suddenly stop talking, giving you their undivided attention.

9) At the end of every class, clap.

That's it. And now, on with some lesson plans...