I wrote this as a draft of a statement of purpose for a grant, but it became broader than the laser-focus on particulars that is necessary for grant writing. Nonetheless, I liked it too much to just delete it, so here it is.
Have you ever seen a place in a new light? Have you rammed your trolley through the gateway of platform nine-and-three-quarters or brushed past a row of fur coats and into Narnia? Have you looked around at your neighborhood, with all of its problems and thought “Whoa. This place is beautiful?”
I was sitting at a table with seven other people inside the Chicago Cultural Center, a beautiful old library-turned-art-museum with stone staircases, heavy wooden tables, and multiple Tiffany glass domes. We were waiting for the organizer to arrive. Then one of us at the table got a phone call. He stood up “I gotta run,” he said, beginning to ACTUALLY RUN for the doors “Look under the table!” he called across the room.
There was a briefcase, and secret envelopes, and coded instructions that took us up and down the stairs of the center, into the streets outside, and down the elevator into the tunnels that run beneath the city. For three hours, we tailed each other to dead drops, met mysterious agents, and solved codes as we played a spy-themed pervasive game. I would never see the Chicago Cultural Center in the same way again.
Games are wonderful entertainment activities, but they can be more. Games in general contain powerful magic, as expressed in the popular game studies term “The Magic Circle,” the place where the agreements of everyday life fall away and the agreements of the game take force. In a game, you can lie to your friends, sneak plans behind their backs, and make plans to crush their team. But not all of gaming is so competitive. In a game, you can also try on a new identity, experience the world from a new point of view, or deal with unexpected challenges that others face daily.
Games, in short, are powerful engines of empathy. By putting players into the shoes of others, often others living more dangerous lives, the game gives the player a safe place to experiment; to take risks with no consequence greater than maybe losing the game. Paradoxically, games can serve to activate players even as they serve as an insulator against consequences. As a form, games require more engagement than other media. While a movie can unspool with or without the viewer’s active engagement, if the players of a game cease to engage, the game falls apart. This activation, even in the small sense of engaging with a game, is a move against passivity.
Many activist friends of mine like to use the phrase “another world is possible” to remind themselves to expand their conceptions of reality; to look beyond the broken systems of the world and imagine new ways of being. This is the function of games for me. That other world that is possible might be something controlled by a mega-corporation, like Star Wars (not to disparage Star Wars games — there are some great ones out there right now!), or something more innovative and politically motivated, like the activist board game “Bloc By Bloc,” where players create an Occupy-style movement in a city.
As a designer and scholar of these experiences, I am always working to hone my craft; to understand how players play and how game systems work; to incorporate technology when appropriate, and shun it when necessary. I want to make another world possible, a real world where playful, imaginative people are the norm, and where powerful, exciting experiences are not just the domain of the privileged, but also, in the interim, a fantasy world that hides in plain sight, waiting for you to see it in the right light.