Of Games and Books: Now Play This at Somerset House

I don’t generally write about things that aren’t books, or book-related, here. That is, after all, my wheelhouse, and this has been an explicitly book-review-and-literary-chat site since the spring. Surprising as it may seem, however, I do other things too, and quite often they relate back in some form to literary concerns: narrative, story structure, style and elegance, determining the truth of a situation.

One of the things I have started to do is try and learn how to code, which can be deeply frustrating, but also deeply rewarding. Oddly, although my brain was engaged throughout my three-year degree, it was not engaged in at all the same way as coding forces it to engage. I wasn’t not thinking as an undergraduate, but I was not thinking like this. This kind of thinking is something I can almost feel. You know when people talk about being able to see the cogs turning in someone’s head? I expect if you looked at me while I was working through the basics of binary, or while I was trying to get the syntax of a regular expression right, that’s sort of what you’d see.

Relevant to coding, amongst other things, is the whole idea of games, playing, exploration. The beauty of games is that you don’t need to have spent a childhood glued to an Xbox, or even a particularly deep knowledge of mathematics or logic, to be able to appreciate them and to get some idea of the systems behind them. This weekend, Somerset House  was hosting a three-day exhibition called Now Play This, which was entirely devoted to games of all descriptions. The Chaos and I got a half-day pass (in actuality we spent about an hour and a half there, but at £5 I would say it was entirely worth it) and, on Saturday, went.

As far as I can tell, there are basically two types of games: the type where you can win, and want to, and the type where winning is incidental, if not impossible. Traditional board games fall into the former category—Monopoly, for instance, and chess, and so on—as do parlour games like Charades. (I would also argue that a subset I like to call Teenage Party Games—Spin the Bottle, Truth or Dare, Never Have I Ever—falls into this category, although in some of these, winning is losing.) There were plenty of traditional, winnable games on offer at Now Play This: a whole room was devoted to board games, while in another there was an enormous table maze and a set-up involving a strip of LED lights and a control toggle, which you could bounce back and forth in order to advance your little green light and defeat the oncoming enemy red lights. There were also a couple of traditional, winnable video games, including one called Sagittarius which involved trying to use the gravitational pull exerted by planets to propel your weapon and shoot your opponent. If we’re honest, though, I’ve always had a bit of an uneasy relationship with traditional games. This is partly because I’m both very competitive and very impatient. I wish I were a natural chess player, but I can’t think five moves ahead. I want to just win already. The only game I ever really enjoy, come Christmas time, is Charades, and mostly that’s because I’m good at guessing. (Being forced to act in Charades, by contrast, is hellish.)

What’s really fascinating, then, is the second type of game, the type that you’re not necessarily trying to win, and where winning might not be the purpose of the exercise at all. Now Play This excelled in demonstrating these sorts of games. Many of them are designed in order to force you (or rather, encourage you) to explore an environment, whether it be the one you’re currently in or the one that the game places you in. In the first room we entered, for instance, there was a set of headphones and a small Nintendo handheld control. Depending on how you moved the control—speed, direction, and so on—different soundscapes would emanate from the headphones. The game itself, I think, was flawed in its implementation: the sounds weren’t easily differentiable, there didn’t seem to be very many of them, and the connection between your movements and the sounds being produced was unclear in practice. In theory, though, it’s obviously fascinating: you get to explore the geography of a place that doesn’t exist in the realm of the visual. It’s a completely different take on how we occupy space.

In another room, there was a two-person tent, with a projector inside that was throwing lights onto the tent’s ceiling. We crawled in, after waiting for the two people currently occupying it to crawl out, and found a MIDI controller. Using its sliders and buttons, it transpired, changed the pattern, orientation, and speed of the light designs being projected onto the ceiling. It’s a terribly simple idea, but it has almost infinite possibilities in terms of variation. It doesn’t look like a game in the traditional sense of the word, but what it does is get you to learn some basic behaviours—slide this slider up and the colour changes; slide this one down and you alter the design—and then use that creatively to alter your environment. You have the potential to alter your environment radically, if you choose. I didn’t realize this fully until a young man with a lip ring crawled into the tent between us, apparently undeterred by the limited space (this is one of the other great things about Now Play This: you make quite a few temporary friends). While I had been content with the sliders, assuming that the other buttons would have been disabled, he hit the controller’s Record button, then Pause, then begin twirling a few dials. Instantly, more interesting things began to happen. You learn as you play, then, not to assume that you know the parameters of a game before you’ve tried them.

One of the best aspects of the exhibition was a room with small index cards, on which was printed the challenge “Can you design a game that you can explain in 128 characters?”* There were pens scattered about the table. People had taken up the challenge with alacrity, both in person and online; there were printouts of tweeted responses to this question pinned to the wall. Games, I discovered while looking at them, don’t have to be complicated. It seems as though the opposite is primarily true: the simpler something is, at least to begin with, the more you can do with it. (The best instance of this is the glorious invention of Calvinball, from the late and lamented comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. Calvinball is distinguished by having no rules, or rather, by having rules which you make up on the spot and alter at will. There is a ball involved; other than that, anything goes.) It is also evident that games are sometimes not easily distinguishable from behaviours more readily associated with pathological instability. One of the suggested games, for instance, involved determining which cardinal direction—north, south, east, or west—was the most dangerous, and then spending an entire day endeavouring to keep at least one object between you and your chosen horizon. “A window doesn’t count,” the designer noted. I spent a moment imagining this game, and concluded that, for the right player, it could quickly become an all-out obsession.

11947862_10204876154039610_5556384717864210513_oThis explains, I suppose, why people who think about maths and infinity and game environments do often become a little unhinged. (Either that, or they already are.) Games can be a kind of controlled experiment in altering your state of mind; a mental illness, in some senses, is a game that you can’t stop playing. I am thinking in particular of what happened to me when I lived alone for two months in Oxford; in order to keep some level of structure, I began to obsessively plan out a daily schedule, including strict times of day at which I was permitted to eat, read, shower, and go to sleep. If I deviated from this schedule by more than about five minutes at a time, I became anxious and stressed. To begin with, it looked very much like a game; by the end, it was driving me mad.

Since I am still, of course, a book person, my immediate response to this has been to read around it. I already have James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games; I’d also like to read more around Alan Turing, one of whose major papers I read a few months ago (understood about 30% of it, which means there’s nowhere to go but up), and while we’re on the subject of play, codes, and code breaking, I bought Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon today. (I was in Hatchards. I was, sadly, escorted out before I could throw all of my money over the counter.)

Oh, and I’ll keep you all up to date on the progress of my quest to code. You may be pleased to know that I sorted out the regular expression, in the end.

*The Chaos, in grand style, responded to this by writing, “Can you design a game that you can implement in 128 characters?”

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