Working On: ‘Playground’

One of the projects I’ve been working on recently is a short, potentially experimental piece on social impairment.

In this game, the player controls a simple triangular avatar in a world of other triangles, navigating a playground and taking part in social ‘minigames’ over the course of three days. The player attempts and struggles to take part in what sometimes seem like impenetrable social systems: unspoken rules of conversation and ‘play’. This game largely developed out of a comment I came across while reading Brian Upton’s The Aesthetic of Play: ‘We are all born knowing how to play’. Are we? Play what exactly? Is it fruitful or accurate to think of a single, generalised notion of ‘play’? I thoroughly enjoy Upton’s work, but something about this line didn’t sit well with me (admittedly for personal reasons). A lot of social systems never came naturally to me — I struggled for a long time to understand the function of games, humour, and small talk in particular. Knowing what to say and what not to say within given contexts is something I feel I’ve learnt (and suspect others out there have learnt) the hard way: observing these systems from the outside, trying on different ways of speaking and behaving, and learning from gut-wrenching trial and error. On the one hand, this piece is intensely personal — this is undeniable a game drawn from my childhood experiences — but on the other hand I hope it isn’t too personal or extreme to exclude other players. Whether they have or haven’t experienced social impairment to the same extent, I hope there’s something here for anyone who’s experienced social alienation; the awkwardness and difficulties of learning to interact with those around you.

In terms of the practical implementation of these design intentions, I’m making an experience with deliberately awkward controls in games, unclear and seemingly unfair rules, aggressive pacing and social cues, pronounced negative feedback (what I experience as a gut-punch when saying something out of place), and partially-alien, partially-comprehensible dialogue (using a symbol-based typeface). I don’t expect players to want to remain in this space for longer the five minutes as the intended play experience is not primarily one of enjoyment. One of the biggest design-and-implementation challenges I’m facing is getting this balance right: I want the player to experience some discomfort, dislocation, and ideally recognition, but at the same time I don’t want the experience to be so unenjoyable and frustration they either quit or (worse in my opinion) find the game simply mean-spirited and pessimistic. The game has a lot of emotional weight for me, but at the same time I appreciate that if I want to make this depiction informative or insightful to other people I need it to be less cynically one-note and more subtly ambiguous (with a dash of optimism at the end). Because I don’t think these difficulties are as fruitless as they may seem — people can learn and adapt, difficult situations can improve, and sometimes someone comes along and seems to speak to you on your own terms. I suspect this game may not be as accessible as I’d hope, but I will need respond to feedback and accept I can’t have full control over the way people receive games like these.

[Nb. My main inspirations for the piece are ‘Loneliness’ (a so-called ‘notgame’ by Jordan Magnuson) and anna anthropy’s Dys4ia. I quite liked the graphical minimalism in both games, drawing specific inspiration from Magnuson’s use of abstraction (basic shapes without dialogue) in communicating isolated or marginalised experiences. I also particularly enjoyed the feeling of awkward controls in sometimes oppressive spaces, as I felt anna anthropy’s piece achieved. Merritt Kopas’ Lim does a brilliant job of this too]