I first met Jesse Schell on a busy sidewalk in San Francisco, where he asks our group, near-ecstatically, “Have you played Wushu Turtle?”

“No!” says my friend, feeding on Schell’s seemingly bottomless enthusiasm.

“Guess who has turtles?!” He reaches into his pocket and presents a handful of little toy reptiles.

The rules are pretty simple. Everyone puts a turtle on the back of one hand, and the goal is to de-turtle other players. The catch, is that you can’t touch the hand that’s got the turtle resting atop it. This game was cool. Jesse and my friend wind up almost falling into a busy city street, they’re so engrossed, and finding the turtles afterward winds up being a game unto itself. Schell once worked as a Disney Imagineer, brainstorming their rides. So it’s neat that he made up Wushu Turtle one day, while waiting in lines at Disneyland with his daughter.  The game was so cool, that the next day I bought my very own turtles, and have since taught it to co-workers, game designers, and other patient friends.

I have played a good amount of Wushu Turtle, but I’m still terrible at it.

In Art of Game Design, Jesse Schell lists – as one of the three major reasons for game designers to plan strong community engagement – what epidemiologists call the “period of contagion.”

The personal recommendation of a friend is the most influential factor when purchasing a game. Game designer Will Wright once pointed out that if we truly believe that interest in a game spreads like a virus, it makes sense to study epidemiology. And one thing that we know from epidemiology is that when the period of contagion doubles, the number of people who catch the disease can increase by ten times. “Catching the disease” in our case means buying the game. But what does “period of contagion” for a game mean? Is it the time when a player is so excited about a game that they are talking about it constantly with everyone they know. Players who become part of a game community are likely to “stay contagious” for a long time, as the game will become a deeper part of their lives, giving them a lot to talk about. 

In the hands of a man like Schell – who is thought of as one of the kindest, and most ethical game designers now living – epidemiology just helps us to spread the word about fun, thoughtful games. There is a useful side to it, which should be thoughtfully understood. Just like twitter promotions for good books, or street teams for indie record labels. He seeks to describe what other developers are exploring, so that he can give them a sort of academic categorization.

Raph Koster – an adorably geeky game designer who attends Very Fancy Conferences in hoodies and dad jeans – has written convincingly that in one way or another, all of his games are about creating glue. They’re about bringing people together, whereas he spent his childhood moving from place to place. Something which made me tear up a little, when he blogged about it. Koster, you see, had been the creative lead for Star Wars Galaxies. The game that had gotten me close enough to online friends that I’d finally feel comfortable meeting Diablo, Squatch, and company. Sometimes games encourage a kind of high-fidelity communication – in the face of digital danger and risk – which we might never encounter elsewhere in the world.

Sometimes, online games are the best kind of glue.

But Schell and Koster aren’t the only ones making them. Whether those other designers lack their skill, elegance, or ethics, Ian Bogost writes, in his Cow Clicker, that in some games, friends aren’t really friends. In something like FarmVille, the people you enjoy are reduced to “mere resources” to what have you done for me lately? In the time of 40-man raiding, you’d better not be late. Not ever.

And it’s getting to be something that players pay attention to. Whether they explain to their good buddies exactly why they’re quitting or not, the social pressures of poor social embedding can strain friendships to the breaking point. Though, unfortunately, for the time being this avoidance usually only happens after the jaws of life have pulled us from our first collision. We have to have experienced this brand of road hazard before we can swerve. Ham-handed social embedding still works on people who don’t want to let down their friends, but it’s an experience we rarely enjoy repeating.

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