Friday was #Playful

Here follows an attempt to capture the defining sights, sentiments and soundbites of each of the 20-minute presentations making up what, pound for pound, has to be one of the best game events in town.

09.40 Naomi Alderman :: Gun for hire

Naomi sets the tone for the day with the seemingly outlandish assertion that 1986 Fighting Fantasy novel Creature of Havoc is ‘the greatest interactive game ever made’, citing the reader/player’s journey of self-discovery as a precious example of character development too often lacking in game narratives.

The example she gives of how not to do it is the otherwise excellent Red Dead Redemption, in which neither John Marston – nor our knowledge of him – changes in any meaningful way over the course of an epic rampage through the American Old West.  As Naomi puts it, ‘by the time I completed it I’d killed 754 people.  You’d think that would change a person.’

10.00 Paul Bennun :: Good listener

This was my first encounter with 3D audio. Also with ‘flow‘, the state Paul uses to describe this chap in the final 30 seconds of this video:

His talk on audio gaming includes a great live demo involving two volunteers, two Wiimotes and two orgasms, rounded off with a cheeky plug for Papa Sangre, a mobile game from Somethin Else that sounds – with the emphasis on sounds – like a lot of fun.

10.20 James Huggins :: Pro-dad

In one of the day’s more thoughtful sessions James talks to us about the difference between toys and games – the foremost of which is that ‘the game is different depending on who picks up the toy’. He laments the extent to which our education system orientates itself around measurable outcomes, arguing that where there’s interest, there’s learning, and that any new experience is a learning experience: ‘Kids don’t see technology as a discreet category.  They just aren’t as impressed by it as we are’.

Ironically, the lengths James goes to not to be seen to pimp Made in Me‘s flagship product, The Land of Me (below) makes it only more intriguing. I’ve just downloaded a free chapter, and can’t wait to try it out on my own little guinea pig.

10:40 Bea Davy Sutherland :: Nine-year-old

For anybody wanting to know what the kids are into these days, they appear to be eschewing their ‘slightly broken’ tellies in favour of (‘don’t tell anbody’) Facebook, Twitter, Skype, ‘blogging a bit‘ and having their own slot at Playful.

Bea talks about the ethics of games targeting a younger audience, praising the militant (if unashamedly derivative) approach of Super Chick Sisters before showing a video in which she visits a couple of big-league games developers and asks them ‘what are you doing with all your power, you rock stars?’

I (and I suspect I was not alone) can’t help sensing the hand of a media-savvy Mum in Bea’s presentation at/to Playful, which is perhaps why the biggest cheer comes when she goes off-script and explains to interviewer Leila Johnston that she ‘doesn’t really like (event sponsor) Mind Candy’s Moshi Monsters any more’.

UPDATE: Bea’s mum Libby just sent over a link to the video embedded below, produced in case Bea got cold feet. Seeing this makes me think I’ve maybe been a bit ungenerous in my critique, and that I should have at least given Bea credit for braving a potentially intimidating audience. Which, if I’m not very much mistaken, is what I just did. So that’s ok.

11.20 Nicolas Nova :: Control freak

It takes a particular type of person to scour the world in search of game controllers ever made in order to then describe and document their evolution and genealogy in a myriad of aesthetically delightful – if not particularly useful – ways.  Extraordinary then that two such people exist, and that they were lucky enough to meet each other.

11.40 Pat Kane :: Hue (or was it Cry?)

If someone had asked me prior to this event whether I was expecting to see one half of eighties pop combo Hue and Cry presenting, I would have said ‘yes’.  Because, let’s face it, why would anybody ask me a question like that if a member of eighties pop combo Hue and Cry wasn’t going to be presenting.  Even so, I probably wouldn’t be expecting him to deliver a dizzyingly articulate dissection of humour as a plaything, culminating with a Paulo Virno quote that makes me fall off my chair trying to decipher it.

Fortunately for you, reader, I retain enough information to be able to reduce Pat’s thesis its the central corollary, this being that Frankie Boyle is a c$*t, and that old jews tell better jokes than he does.  And, as if proof were needed, here’s an old jew doing just that, direct from

12.00 Richard Hogg :: Whatever you’re not

As well as having as good a way with words as he does with pictures, Richard hates everything you like.  He is a contrarian.  Or, as he puts it, the wind changed when his face was upside down, leaving him with a manifest inability to accept ‘the crushing inevitability of liking things simply because they are good’. 

Richard neatly illustrates this with a series of his own… um… neat… illustrations, my favourite of which depicts him as an upside-down faced salmon, swimming against ‘a frothing cataract of consensus’.  Ultimately, he concludes, there’s no simpler way to characterise the contrarian’s condition than that of a Notts County fan.

12:20 Tom Muller :: Belgian

It’s with just four minutes and over seventy slides remaining that Tom’s look at contemporary comic book design starts to get interesting.  Sadly, he’s spent a bit too long telling us what’s wrong with the design of mainstream comic book covers, leaving himself far too little to do justice to some of the beautiful examples of his own prodigious portfolio.

There’s far too much good stuff there for me to start embedding it here, so if you like this kind of thing I suggest you brew yourself a fresh cuppa and settle in.

14:00 Jonathan Smith :: Master-builder

If anyone understands gamers, Mad Men‘s Dr Faye Miller does. Relating her desire to reconcile ‘what I want versus what’s expected of me’ with his experiences as Head of Production on Lego’s award-winning video game series, Jonathan offers the view that gamers are not there to be indulged, and that they themselves start with the question ‘what does the game want me to do’, understanding the promise of the game as being ‘do what I expect, trust that I will give you what you want’.

Play, he maintains, happens in the gap between freedom and constraint, typified by the discreet affordances of Lego bricks.  Not the knobs and anti-knobs (believe it or not, that’s the technical term) but the myriad of other ways the Lego system can be creatively combined.

(As an aside, the deftness with which Johnathan introduces the various themes and ideas covered by the previous speakers into his own session serves as a lesson for us all when it comes to speaking at an event like this.  Come prepared.  Prepared to listen.)

14:40 Shift Run Stop Live!

A live version of the podcast by Roo Reynolds and Leila Johnston, one that sees them interview Dominik Diamond over Skype.  (At 34, I’m old enough to remember who Dominik Diamond is.)  The connection’s a bit patchy, but Dominik has ample opportunity to plug his new book, several times in fact, going to some trouble to draw our attention to the fact that it has a foreword written by, wait for it, yup, Frankie Boyle.

15:00 Sebastien Deterding :: Anti-gamificator

Most of us probably aren’t all that aware of the ‘gamification’ of the world around us.  It’s happening though, every time someone offers you a badge or sticker or some other poxy digital trinket just for logging in to a website.  Sites like GetGlue are making whole businesses out of the glorified Activity-Reward-Competition paradigm, and all around them service vendors are springing up and trying to gamify everything they can get their gammy little hands on.

Suffice to say, Sebastien doesn’t think this is a very good idea.  He points to a number of confusions, notably that (1) games are not inherently fun, they have to be designed that way (2) rewards are not achievements (or, as Raph Koster puts it, ‘fun arises out of mastery’) and (3) competition is not for everyone.  To his closing point, ‘whoever plays, plays freely.  Whoever does not play freely, cannot play.’

15.40 Margaret Robertson :: Pyromaniac

As if to reinforce Sebastien’s central argument, up steps Margaret to give us a demonstration (in both senses of the term) forged from the very building blocks of cult sandbox game Minecraft.  This is a masterclass in creative game-play (not to mention creative presentation-writing) built around the question ‘is it a game’, the answer to which resides in another question: did it involve a games designer?

Highpoints include the killing of many a square pig with a big stick, the unveiling of a monolithic stone FUCK ALL atop a nearby mountain, and an incendiary finale involving the burning of a large wooden effigy standing testament to the growing misconception that GAMES = POINTS.  In the spirit of the presentation itself, make of that what you will.

16:00 Bertrand Duplat :: Pawn magnate
Starting from a position of wanting to experiment with ‘paper as the new computer platform’, Bertrand and his partner have developed a collection of ‘paper video games’, using cards and pawns placed on touch-screen devices to develop a new form of tactile interactive game-play. 

I try to take notes on his talk, but basically I just keep writing down the names of the amazing things Bertrand shows us, all of which can thankfully be found on les éditions volumiques’ Vimeo channel.

16:20 Alexis Kennedy :: Narrative engineer
Fail Better Games, as their name suggests, have a different way of seeing the world. It’s one that inspired them to develop a ‘texty game’ called Echo Bazaar – ‘like Mafia Wars, but not shit’ – players of which experience ‘delicious misery’ in the form of the many manifest indignities that characterised life in Victorian London.

After taking us through some of the more warped scenarios players encounter, including what sounds like a veritable modern day child-catcher in Mr Sacks, Alexis shares his resulting realisation that – in gaming at least – success is inevitable, whereas misery is escape.

16:40 Dom Hodge & Dave Haynes :: Headliners

Dom and Dave, ‘for their sins’, work in the music industry.  (It was slightly galling to see how apologetic they seemed to be about this, making me wonder if everybody in the music industry goes around at the moment talking to people in other industries as though they’ve just accidentally let  down the bouncy castle.) 

Building on their self-deprecating opening, they show us a selection of the ideas that came out of Music Hackday, an event they run giving developers 24 hours to conjure inspired musical apps out of the assorted egg cartons, lollipop sticks and washing-up bottles of the Interwebz. The resulting Top 7 were bloody brilliant, and my plan is adapt more than one of them to serve my sworn mission to market movies or die trying, so I’m not going to tell you anything about them.

There it is.  Completely worth the early bird ticket price, and the full working day I sacrificed to be there.  Kudos to all who featured, and to Toby Barnes and Mudlark for organising it.