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Learning to Cheat Without Breaking the Rules, Part 3: Schooner or Later

[After a 2 year gap, this finally concludes the story begun in part 1 and part 2 …]

When I was a kid, I couldn’t lie, I was terrified of breaking rules, and I was determined to be perfectly honest and perfectly trustworthy, not realising the two are incompatible. Years passed, and then in October 2011 I played Schooner or Later, and I flagrantly cheated and betrayed a complete stranger, much to my own surprise. Perhaps even more surprising, I found that I was actually okay with this.

Right after that I started a series of posts on the subject of lying and cheating, how both are important and justified in some situations, and how games helped me learn to do those things when necessary. But I stalled on the final post, which was intended to examine the specifics of my betrayal in Schooner or Later. This is hardly satisfactory, especially considering I actually interviewed one of the main creators of the game, Josh Hadley, for the purposes of that write-up.

So, it’s time to face up to my past: this is the final part in the series, describing what happened that night, alongside commentary from Josh, which I think endorses my actions.

Of course, I may be wrong about that.

So, long ago, on the 13th October 2011, there was a Sandpit event at the National Maritime Museum, with a bunch of maritime-related games.

One of these was a variant of Perudo (called Filthy Lying Liar’s Dice, by Gareth Briggs), in which everyone rolls their dice (which in this case corresponded to parts of a pirate ship), and then plays a kind of cumulative variant of Cheat. Losing a round means you lose a die, reducing your ability to understand the state of the game. Thanks to my training in lying-related games (as detailed in part 1), I did pretty well, making it to the final showdown, albeit with a single die.

Playing the game with strangers, I noticed something I hadn’t seen before when playing similar things with friends: despite everyone bluffing / lying and generally trying to harm everyone else’s chances of winning, a sort of camaraderie developed, and by the end we felt somehow unified. If you administered some sort of trust test, I imagine we would all trust one another much more than we had at the start, despite playing a game that hinged on misleading one another. Perhaps this is related to the fact that you can only trust someone with a secret if you know they can lie if asked about it.

Anyway, at the end of the evening, most of the players (about 35 of us) were funnelled into the final game: Schooner or Later (SoL) by The Haberdashery, in particular by Josh Hadley and Casey Middaugh. In part 2 of this series, I argued that moderated games played for fun were the best type to let players explore cheating. Various aspects of the game design and the running of SoL meant an entire spectrum of cheating was available, and even implicitly encouraged. By my count, we saw 7 levels of cheating that night, each more flagrant than the last – and when I asked him about it later, Josh said he was happy with all of these bar one.

Schooner or Later – the basics

At a base level, SoL is a trading game. Players travel between three ports – England, India, China – buying and selling commodities and trying to turn the greatest profit within the set time limit. But that’s just the framework: the actual execution of the game encouraged cheating of every type.

Josh on cheating

When I asked Josh his thoughts on cheating, he answered immediately: “I try to make games where cheating is an interesting and viable approach – it’s something I consciously try to involve in every game that I game.”

He dates this back to when his family used to play Monopoly (which he characterised as “the worst game ever inflicted on humanity”), in which the only way they could make it tolerable was by introducing a house rule: “anything is permitted so long as you don’t get caught out” – just like “Extreme Cheat” that I mentioned in part I.

(Incidentally, the history of Monopoly’s development is quite illuminating).

Even against this backdrop, Josh thought SoL was special: “This game encouraged cheating, almost as a design principle.”

He also thought the theme was appropriate, and was what encouraged him to add in ‘cheating’ elements: as part of the East India Trading Company, “everyone was a gigantic bastard”.

I think that’s very interesting. How do you make a game in which everyone is supposed to be some kind of oversized bastard, given that it will be played by players who may not personally be any kind of bastard at all? Here’s how.

SoL Cheating, Level 1: Opium smuggling

The primary twist on basic trading in SoL is a mechanic that feels illicit, but you are expected to do it (like lying in werewolf). Players can choose to ‘smuggle’ opium, manifested in-game as balloons, from India to China. Two moderators took the role of coast guards trying to prevent the opium trade by popping the balloons of players they could catch.

The layout was excellent for this: there were three smuggling routes to choose from, and two coast guards, so you could usually find a way.

Because of the sneaking necessary, and the compelling stand-in for real violence of balloon popping, choosing to smuggle had the feel of being illicit – but the rewards for success were so substantial that it was hard to resist. Besides, when playing for fun, you want to try everything out. Perhaps at the start of my personal journey – before I had played Extreme Cheat – I might have tried to go ‘legit’ and trade only the regular goods. But as a result I wouldn’t have stood a chance of winning, and I certainly wouldn’t have had as much fun.

Josh noted that there is supposed to be a tension between the opium and standard economic game, with an emergent strategy on when to switch – but he was also curious: as a player, do you think about what you’re doing, in an ethical sense?

With opium trading explicitly written into the rules and briefed, I’m not sure many players spent that much time worrying about this. However, that ambiguity is certainly present in the many further layers of cheating that the game’s design encouraged. For example…

SoL Cheating, Level 2: Cotton dumping

The second twist was somewhat surreal. England wanted to trade cotton (represented by cotton wool balls), and any time you made a trade of goods there, they would insist that you take a handful of cotton wool and try to sell it to India or China. Furthermore, any cotton you were left with at the end of the game would count against your score.

But India and China didn’t want the cotton – they certainly wouldn’t give you money for it, at best they might grudgingly accept it. The cotton wool balls also take up room in your hands, making it harder to get on with the real business of trading tea and pepper, or smuggling Opium.

This means you’re incentivised to “lose” your cotton en route – but the rules don’t say anything about that. Can you just drop it? Do you have to hide it? Give it away to non-players? Having a quirk like this built into the rules is an effective way of making the players aware that they should be creative.

Josh confessed that this broke the rules for a Sandpit game, in that the game design encouraged littering (“I’m fairly sure there’s still wads of cotton wool bunched up behind exhibits in the National Maritime Museum”), and while they paid lip service towards telling people not to do it, they knew it was inevitable.

As well as meeting his goal of encouraging ‘cheating’, Josh also noted that this is actually a historic truth – the majority of the captains did pitch their cotton overboard because they had the same incentives as us! (I’ve not found a good citation for this, sadly).

SoL Cheating, Level 3: Haggling

Haggling was not mentioned in the verbal briefing, but explicitly encouraged in the instructions. Any player not noticing this would quickly cotton on (ho ho) once they heard the haggles going on at the various ports.

What are the rules of haggling? Only what you can propose, and what the other will agree to. There seemed to be a little flexibility in the price, but it seemed you would do a lot better with a more creative approach – for example, pointing out that making it a round 100 would mean they could hand over a single 100-worth token instead of counting out the 90 in the asking price. In this way, the moderators (as the operators of the ports) were actively giving the players cues on how to play, and proving that the game was flexible.

SoL Cheating, Level 4: Co-operation

The fourth twist (in my somewhat arbitrary ordering) was co-operation. The results of haggling suggested that greater quantities of a good yielded bigger discounts. This created an incentive for players to work together, pooling their resources to get a bigger pay-off. Of course, where co-operation is possible, so too is defection.

Why I’m a big cheater, and that’s okay

Having enjoyed the “cheating” of dumping cotton wool (I bestowed it upon a friend who wasn’t playing), smuggling opium (surprisingly frightening but very rewarding), and haggling, I was getting the feeling that the boundaries of the game were open to question.

When I realized both I and another player at port in China had 47 gold and we would each be offered 6 tea in exchange, I proposed we pool our resources to better haggle for more. With this plan agreed spontaneously in front of the port moderator, we were offered 13 tea rather than 12. We pointed out that 14 would be much fairer as then we could divide it by two.

“Not my problem,” came the reply. “You’ll have to work it out between you.” We looked doubtful, not sure how to resolve this fairly.

“Put your hands out, ” said the moderator, and I did. He put the 13 tea bags in my hands.

Then he looked me in the eye and said: “Run!”

This was the magic moment for me. When you’re playing for fun, and taking your cue from the moderators as to what’s allowed, how do you react to a direct prompt like that? How would I?

I said “I wouldn’t do that, I’m an honourable trader,” and turned to my compatriot: “Here’s 3 tea for you. Bye!” and to my own surprise, I made off with the other 10. “That’s not honourable!” my former compatriot replied, “Come back here!”

We both made port at England, at which point my former compatriot attempted to seek restitution from the authority there. Upon understanding the situation, England’s port moderator simply said “I’m sorry, this is clearly an internal matter. I can’t help. I’ll give you 95 for your 10 tea.” Another endorsement – I felt like I’d been bad (which I had), but somehow within the spirit of the game, if not within the letter of the rules.

As I wrote in part 1, I started out in life so determined to be a ‘good’ person, I wouldn’t cheat even in games where cheating was the point (like “Cheat”). The fact that I cheated another player so brazenly here really shocked me, and that’s why I started writing this series of posts: to understand what sequence of events – actually, games – brought me to this place.

But given that I also interviewed one of the key designers of the game, and that I put off writing this particular moment up for 2 years, I’m suspicious of my own motives. These posts could all be read as one big attempt to excuse my decision that day, and talking to Josh may just have been a subconscious attempt to have my actions endorsed.

Fortunately for me, that is exactly what happened.

Josh’s comment was “That’s a great story – I’m really pleased by that!” – and he reaffirmed that he had hoped players would think about the ethics of what they were doing, and question their decisions in just this sort of way.

He also particularly praised the Haberdashery crew for creating the environment that made this work: “We could only give the players freedom if we also gave the crew freedom. So long as you have a good crew – and we had an amazing crew – you have a huge amount of leniency to encourage and permit that kind of behaviour.” Crucially, he pointed out, the Haberdashery crew know how to “manipulate rules without necessarily breaking the game.”

But cheating in SoL didn’t stop there.

SoL Cheating, Level 5: Syndicates

Other players went much further. Beyond short-term co-operation, a few players actually formed syndicates: they pooled their resources, ran interference to facilitate smuggling, and declared a collective score at the end rather than an individual one.

I had the impression that the players that did this already knew (and trusted) one another outside of the game, but I didn’t feel hard done by: it felt like a logical extension to the game. Josh in particular was really pleased by this development – it’s something he had hoped would emerge, and this was the first run of the game where it actually happened (perhaps because the scale was so large, with 35 players).

SoL Cheating, Level 6: Role-play

As another clue that this was no ordinary trading game, one of the moderators running trade at China began to act as if she was succumbing to an opium addiction. I heard from Josh that a player took advantage of this by withholding opium in order to secure a ridiculous bulk discount on tea, allowing them to actually buy All the Tea in China. When the player presented this haul to England, they received what Josh described as a “frankly insulting amount of money”, but nonetheless profited from their wilyness.

Josh considered this another example of the Haberdashery moderators knowing just how much they could bend the rules: they had been specifically briefed that they were empowered to deliver whatever they thought was a good experience, so long as it didn’t break the game. In particular, he admired the way the moderator at India (Ruth) could appear out of control while actually being fully in control, and the moderator at England (Nick) could give the appearance of being inflexible while actually bending the rules as much as anyone. This extreme event briefly impeded normal trading of tea, but this was swiftly fixed.

SoL Cheating, Level 7: Stealing!

The final level of cheating was achieved by a player who flat-out stole some pepper from India when the moderators were distracted. I’m not sure Sandpit players would usually stoop to that sort of behaviour, but in the context of everything else that was going on it must have seemed reasonable.

But this was where Josh drew the line – crucially, with this type of cheating, the moderators were no longer in control of the game. When this happens, “it stops being a game, and becomes a free-for-all”. Fortunately, this didn’t generate a substantial advantage, unlike the syndicate of three players running their Opium smuggling ring who ultimately “won” the game.

Epilogue(s)

One player decided to “corner the market” in cotton wool, and had been collecting it at every available opportunity, storing it in his hat:

He was duly congratulated as the “true winner” and received a round of applause. After all, he had played for fun, and he had certainly succeeded at that.

While the scores were being collected, I overheard one player lamenting how it could be a perfectly reasonable game if it weren’t for all this “cheating”, and that people should just trade according to the rules. Most unfortunately, this turned out to be the very player I had betrayed earlier. I introduced myself, and apologised, but tried to defend myself by saying “Of course, once you saw how the game could be played, I’m sure you went ahead and did similar things yourself,” to which he replied “No, I traded entirely by the rules.”

This was difficult. I felt as if I had to justify my decision somehow, but rather than try to explain the entire argument put forth in this series of posts (which I was only vaguely perceiving), I simply passed the buck: “Well, you saw what happened – I was encouraged to do it. He just shoved the tea in my hand and told me to run. At least I gave you some.” At this he grudgingly admitted that that was true. Only at this point does the role of the moderator end: when their judgements are used by players to justify their decisions.

Finally, one pair of players had to leave before the final scores were counted up – and they happened to have been playing the Liar’s Dice variant with me earlier that evening. For whatever reason, they chose to bequeath their accumulated in-game wealth to me.

I like to think that they felt they could trust me, even though I’d been proved a liar.

Of course, I may be wrong about that.

Tim Mannveille tweets as @metatim, and has previously managed to blog about a sandpit event much more quickly than this.

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game

You’re In A Room

What’s this all about then?

Fruitbat (that’s us – Tim Mannveille and Clare Huxley) ran a game called You’re In A Room at the recent(ish) first of Hide & Seek’s “Games with Audiences” Sandpit series, on Friday 25th May.

We’re particularly pleased with how it turned out, since it involved players creating challenges for each other (uh-oh…) but the nature of the format meant that players pretty much always completed those challenges by the skin of their teeth! (Hooray!)

This is the story of how that came about!

And why do you need me?

The game involves a small team guiding one blind-folded player through a virtual dungeon, with that player generally asking a bunch of questions. We’re having form reflect content by you playing that role.

Where am I?

You’re In A Room! This was the repeated-and-therefore-magical phrase that was invoked whenever a player advanced in the late 80s/early 90s kid’s TV show Knightmare, in which a player in a bucket-like sight-blocking helmet was blue-screen-comped into a matt-painted / CG dungeon populated with actors, props, and virtual peril, there to be guided by their team-mates watching over them through a television, thereby creating a game perfectly designed to make you want to shout at the screen. You can get an idea of the show very quickly by watching this clip:

So where does your version fit in?

One day at work, Tim discovered a desk-side bin hidden inside another desk-side bin, with a piece of paper taped to it featuring an upside-down face and the word ‘Friday’:

Clearly, the previous occupants of the office would wear this bucket on their heads on Fridays in some kind of ritual, the purpose of which we can only guess at.

On hearing this, Clare was reminded of an impulse from long ago to make some kind of “bucket head” game, using the sighted-players-guide-player-with-bucket-on-head device so familiar from Knightmare.

A few days later, Hide & Seek announced the dates of their summer 2012 sandpits, starting with one themed around “Sports and Game Shows,” and even though this was only four weeks away and all we really had as an idea was “Bucket Head”, we figured this was the perfect opportunity to do it.

“To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.”
Leonard Bernstein

Clearly, we didn’t quite have enough time. So all we needed now was a plan.

What’s in this room I’m in anyway?

What? Er, a computer. Anyway, the plan was to very quickly come up with a workable idea, playtest it once, tweak it, and run it.

After quickly veering away from an ambitious idea involving multiple simultaneous players guided by walkie-talkies (which we may may well come back to), we were ultimately drawn to a more literal idea of creating a kind of mini, Sweded version of Knightmare, the hope being that some of the back-seat-player audience involvement engendered by the original show would carry across.

"You're in a room, it looks like there's a locked door at the far end..."

Clare suggested one key twist: that the players should have the opportunity to come up with dungeons themselves, thereby solving the problem that the original Knightmare had more people running the game than actually playing it. But could it work?

We distilled what we thought were the key elements from Knightmare (a character, a puzzle, a reward, a physical challenge, an obstacle that could only be passed with the right item or spell), created three-room templates, rustled up some friends, and just gave it a go.

"Where am I?" "You're in a room!" "Is this fun?"

So did it work?

The optimistic vision was that a game might take 5 minutes, and Tim in particular was drawn to the idea of a constantly rolling drop-in format in which one could rapidly move up a sort of engagement ladder:

From passive audience member, to…
> Back-seat-player
> Player
> Dungeon designer
> Dungeon operator.

The test very quickly revealed a problem with this idea: people naturally tended to design complex dungeons that took more like 15-30 minutes to play, and some of their rooms would take longer to set up than to play – not ideal.

On the positive side, it had one particularly outstanding feature: dungeon-designers wanted the players to experience everything they had made, so when playing the part of monsters/hazards/obstacles, they would tend to tweak things on the fly such that a player would succeed – but only just. This is great, because we’ve seen before that the moments that players enjoy the most are those in which they feel they succeeded by the narrowest of margins. We had stumbled upon a game format that pretty much generates these moments by default. Wow!

So how did you tweak it? And does this computer have internet access?

Er, yes it does. First we revised the instructions (and briefing) so that, with some guidance from us, a team could hopefully invent a dungeon in 15 minutes that would itself take 15 minutes to play.

Second, we had another look at the logistics, and were drawn to the idea of a structured rolling format with two tracks of players – dungeon-designers, and dungeon-players – hoping that this would create exactly the opportunity for progressive involvement (from audience member on upwards) mentioned at the start.

Finally, we realised that riddles were a fun feature of the genre, but it was tough to come up with them on demand, so we prepared a random selection that players could draw from if they got stuck.

On liaising with Hide & Seek, we were advised that this 15-minute version probably wouldn’t schedule well with other games (which tend to have defined 30-to-45-minute slots); a better format would be to have defined 1-hour slots in which 3 teams could first design their dungeons, then rotate through the roles of audience/dungeon-operators/players over three 15-minute slots. Although this removed the possibility of allowing spectators to become players and then performers, it seemed the most practical way to try the game out in this context – and in particular, to see if we really could have people stick to that 15-minute time limit.

What happened?

What happened was this: for the first group of players, we actively pushed to have dungeons designed and run as quickly as possible – and ended up finishing the hour slot with just under 10 minutes to spare. We let things follow a more natural pace for the remaining two hour-long slots, and amazingly they worked just about perfectly.

The other nice feature was that in the absence of specific theming, people came up with a huge range of dungeon types. Here’s a quick overview of what was produced:

7pm-8pm, Team A: North Korea Dungeon. Great use of one of our hat props for that authentic single-party-state feel.

7pm-8pm, Team B: Fun House Dungeon (a kids gameshow from the same era and channel as Knightmare). We particularly liked the use of the whiteboards as story-board-like captions, for example, the guy playing Pat Sharp holding a sign that says “PAT SHARP APPEARS” as he appears:

7pm-8pm, Team C: The Mirror Dungeon. The players find a map with mirror writing showing that the left exit from the room is deadly. Which way do they go?

8pm-9pm, Team A: A somewhat adult-themed dungeon we later realised was probably called the Knightclub dungeon. Notable for use of the spell ‘B-E-E-R-G-O-G-G-L-E-S’.

8pm-9pm, Team B: The Jelly Dungeon, featuring an extra challenging variant on the form: with the entire dungeon made of jelly, the blindfolded player could only ever stand on one leg. Tricky, but as it turns out, doable – hooray!

8pm-9pm, Team C: The Classical Dungeon, in which a player had to play ‘Stairway to Heaven’ on a paper flute to put Cerberus to sleep. Most notable for this exchange:

One of Cerebus’s heads: That’s not how it goes at all!
Player: I’m doing the intro!

9pm-10pm, Team A: Robot Science dungeon. An amazing use of the form in which the player first discovers that they are actually a robot, before solving the final room by discovering the human within themselves. Not bad for 15 minutes.

9pm-10pm, Team B: The Not-At-All-Based-On-Indiana-Jones Dungeon, most memorable for the entire dungeon-operating team stamping their feet just behind the player to simulate the approach of a giant boulder.

9pm-10pm, Team C: The Pirate Dungeon, featuring some great pirate acting and buried treasure recovered seconds before the Sandpit event came to an end. Hooray!

I write a blog post about You’re In A Room. So what would you change for next time?

A lot depends on the setting. If the venue was suitable, we’d love to try some version in which the game is ‘rolling’ – probably with some volunteers on hand to do the dungeon-operating part by default, but who could step aside if people want to come up with a dungeon themselves. This means players get to see how the game works before designing a dungeon (a major challenge in this first run of the game), and also brings back the possibility of bystanders graduating from back-seat players to actual players.

Another setting-dependent issue is the noise level. With two other games making use of amplified sound nearby, and the general hubbub, it was tough for the dungeoneers to hear their directions. As a quick fix, teams simply stepped into the room themselves, which made things a bit surreal, but did work. Unfortunately, this also meant that any bystanders / audience members would struggle to follow what was happening unless they too got right up close to the action. In a similar situation, some kind of amplification may be called for.

The most important change would be to further distill the instructions. The set we used worked – players were indeed able to come up with suitable dungeons within the time limit – but they did look quite intimidating. If players also get to see a dungeon in action first, this also becomes much easier.

Finally, we’re also thinking about adding more hats, because hats are where it all began, and because everyone loves hats.

Okay, I publish the post.

-Tim & Clare, now known as Octopus Fruitbat

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game

A Game Based on Cheese Sandwiches

After being blown away by a Sandpit event in 2009, getting very competitive at Time*Trails at the 2010 Hide&Seek Weekender as team Fruitbat, and having all sorts of weird and wonderful experiences at other Hide&Seek events, it was time to give something back.

That something was Competitive Sandwich Making, at the Seaside-themed Sandpit on August 4th 2011:

With a table layout like that, it’s pretty clear what the game is about: tessellation. Before the games had officially started, a group of players liked what they saw, and we figured we might as well kick things off a little early (you can see the queue to register in the background):

The Rules in brief:
Every 15 seconds, all 4 players simultaneously choose a cheese piece, and add it to either of their bread slices. The winner is the player that manages to tessellate the most cheese on their slices, with no overlap or overhang. (For the purposes of scoring, the pieces have their area written on the reverse side, hence the calculators).

Over the previous couple of weeks we’d had some excellent feedback from play-testers, and had resisted the many temptations to make the game more complicated, so on the night it all ran very smoothly (although you apparently can’t emphasise enough that pieces can be turned over).

It became obvious very early on that people who liked the game, really liked it. We had learned from our earlier Time*Trails experience that people like ‘achievement’ stickers (us included), so we created two types:

The winner of any 4-player round got to be a Big Cheese, and we let them know that if they won a game against 3 other Big Cheeses, they would earn the title Earl of Sandwich.

We considered setting a time towards the end of the evening for the Big Cheeses to reconvene for such a match, but this didn’t seem in the spirit of a drop-in game, and would clash with the final scheduled games in any case, so instead we just hoped that it would happen organically. Brilliantly, it did: just before 10pm, four Big Cheeses came back to play, and we had our first Earl of Sandwich:

The 1st Earl of Sandwich (second from right), and other Big Cheeses

As the other games came to an end, and after the excitement of the Big Cheese face-off, we started to gather a crowd. We figured we could quickly run a couple more qualifiers…

… then have one final Cheese off, to crown the 2nd Earl of Sandwich (who also achieved the highest in-competition score of 95):

The 2nd Earl of Sandwich and current high score holder (second from left), and other Big Cheeses

In Conclusion
People that liked tessellating seemed to really enjoy the game, playing it repeatedly and coming back for more later. People that didn’t like tessellating could see what the game was about from afar, and avoided it accordingly (we saw them!).

There is an important caveat to this, however. The tessellation challenge was designed to be approximate: sharp-edged cheese on rounded bread slices, not to mention that half the pieces were based on squares and half on rectangles, leading to slightly incompatible angles. While this seemed to encourage an addictive attitude of “I could do better if I had one more try” at the Sandpit, when I later tried the game out with some post-grad mathematicians, there was noticeably less appetitie for imperfection.

So to extrapolate and exaggerate:

If you like tessellation, you’ll love this game. If you love tessellation, you won’t.

If We Did It Again, We Would…
1) Bring a better camera (these were taken with a mobile and had some Photoshop work to fix them up)
2) Take notes!
3) Improve the ratio of instruction time to playing time, which ended up being 50:50 as the game is quite short; perhaps by covering a few basics and then explaining the rest as the first game played out, as there’s quite a lot of quiet time during the first few rounds.

– Tim Mannveille & Clare Huxley

Epilogue
One of us (Tim) got to play Ordnungswissenschaft, compellingly categorised as involving:

Movement, strategy, timing, Brechtian despair

When I later tried to look up quite what ‘Brechtian despair’ might be, I found it in the same paragraph as a reference to cheese sandwiches. Clearly, this means something.

Categories
participant

Sandpit 13: The Postman, Free London’s Monsters

(Continuing from my first post introducing Sandpit 13, which took place on the 24th June 2009, and the next which described The Following)

The Postman

This was unlike other games in one particularly interesting regard: it did not have a beginning or, apparently, an end.

It began when we noticed that scattered around the Spirit Level in the Southbank Centre were cards with a simple warning written on them: “Watch out for the Whistling Postman”. A while later, when we found ourselves between games, we noticed a strange man whistling ostentatiously and clutching a set of envelopes – and when approached, he looked through these envelopes, and found one apparently addressed to each of us. (Mine was addressed “You Here Now SBC”).

These envelopes contained cryptic messages, which eventually led us to another strange fellow sitting outside, who in turn directed us to search for ribbons in a certain place, where no ribbons could be found, but there were a handful of other people looking for red ribbons.

Such was the nature of the game. Strange clues and apparently broken mechanisms, which nonetheless led to gradually larger groups of people teaming up to work together on whatever it was that we were doing, without having any idea what that was. This strange process reached a fantastically surreal climax when our group (now numbering ten, and each with a red ribbon) converged on a phone box just as another group of ten (with white ribbons!) did the same, and then the phone rang.

There was then a brief period of sanity as a recognisable structure had emerged: two teams, following clues and interacting with strange characters to progress towards the unknown end – which a short time later we appeared to reach, in the form of a website: FruitsOfTheHeart.co.uk, which had only a countdown timer to a point some 7 days hence.

I was fascinated, but the other players seemed disappointed. They followed the last stooge we had interacted with to see if anything else would happen. It didn’t seem to.

As far as I can tell, it seems it was all part of a larger Alternate Reality Game, some part of which it appears was being played out at the subsequent Edinburgh Fringe festival, but other parts seem (at the time of writing) to be ongoing, possibly making much of today’s aesthetically pleasing date. (I particularly liked a comment on the website from ‘A Critic’ that simply read “This isn’t really theatre any more”. I hope they take that as a compliment).

I like that this kind of thing goes on, even if I don’t feel driven to fully engage with it; crucially, dabbling was still fun. However, in the context of an evening of games, there’s no doubt some people found the open-ended nature of the thing frustrating, and the actors/stooges didn’t seem quite prepared for the barrage of questions put to them by the players. There’s often a barrier to entry of ARG’s in terms of catching up with back-story, so I would be interested to see someone tackle the challenge of creating a similar experience that was firmly bounded within a single evening.

Free London’s Monsters

Having played and indeed designed mobile GPS games before, we knew more than most others when we stepped up to deposit a credit card and pick up a smartphone in order to play Free London’s Monsters, by (?) Fish Are People Too.

“It uses GPS, right?” we asked; yes, it did.

“Does it work?”

They smiled. “Clearly you are familiar with this sort of thing.”

The game, it turns out, was smartly simple. (Much like early video games, this is generally the best recipe for success in a new medium). Given a piece of paper with photos of scenery from around the Southbank area, the task is to locate the locations from which the images were taken. Through the miracle of GPS, upon reaching one of these locations the smartphone would emit a wonderfully laid-back warning: “Monster. Monster. Monster. Monster”, and indeed if you held the phone up, the screen showed the scenery around you (through the phone’s camera) and some surreal kind of monster lurking on top of it (actually just a floating 2D image). To prove your successful finding of the monster it was necessary to answer a question about it on the sheet of paper, such as “How many teeth does it have” or “what colour are its dogs”.

This happily transformed what seemed to be a flaw in the design into a fun feature. Given the current accuracy of GPS, hotspots must necessarily be large (the Mscape Experience Design Guidelines [pdf] recommend a diameter of 20 meters), and this meant we would often bump into a monster before we expected to, or even one we weren’t expecting to see at all. We would then use a combination of the pictures on the paper and the context of the question to work out which monster we were actually looking at.

The problems alluded to in our opening conversation seemed to hinge on the time it takes for the GPS navigational signals to be received before the device can understand and begin to track its location. I have found myself that GPS devices sometimes need several minutes with a clear view of the sky before this modern equivalent of the modem handshake can be completed, and given these devices were being handed out from an indoor location it came as little surprise that many would-be monster hunters had trouble getting enough ‘Captoplasm’ (a nice in-game analogue of the satellite signal level) in order to play successfully.

Returning with a goodly haul of monsters, we discussed the game with the creators, who evidently have an excellent grasp of the technical and gameplay mechanics they are wrestling with. In particular, I think it’s very sensible to combine a pen-and-paper mechanic with the location-based technology, combining the strengths of each.

There will be an opportunity to Free Bristol’s Monsters at the imminent Igfest, which starts tomorrow and is highly recommended. The Sandpit concept itself is currently on tour until 12th November 2009, with forthcoming visits to Bristol, Liverpool, Southend, Stratford-Upon-Avon, Nottingham, Sheffield and Newcastle Upon Tyne planned, so be sure to check it out if you find yourself in the vicinity.

-metatim