The theory and practice of urban game design

A few weeks ago NLGD asked me to help out with an urban games ‘seminar’ that they had commissioned in collaboration with the Dutch Game Garden. A group of around 50 students from two game design courses at the Utrecht School of the Arts1 were asked to design a game for the upcoming Festival of Games in Utrecht. The workshop lasted a week. My involvement consisted of a short lecture, followed by several design exercises designed to help the students get started on Monday. On Friday, I was part of the jury that determined which game will be played at the festival.

Lecture

In the lecture I briefly introduced some thinkers in urbanism that I find of interest to urban game designers. I talked about Jane Jacobs’ view of the city as a living organism that is grown from the bottom up. I also mentioned Kevin Lynch’s work around wayfinding and the elements that make up people’s mental maps of cities. I touched upon the need to have a good grasp of social interaction patterns2. Finally, I advised the students to be frugal when it comes to the inclusion of technology in the students’ game designs. A good question to always ask yourself is: can I have as much fun without this gadget?

I wrapped up the lecture by looking at 5 games, some well-known, others less so: Big Urban Game, ConQwest, Pac-Manhattan, The Soho Project and The Comfort of Strangers. There are many more good examples, of course, but each of these helped in highlighting a specific aspect of urban games design.

Workshop

Next, I ran a workshop of around 3 hours with the students, consisting of two exercises (plus one they could complete afterwards in their own time). The first one is the most interesting to discuss here. It’s a game-like elicitation technique called VNA3, which derives its name from the card types in the deck it is made up of: verbs, nouns and adjectives.

Students doing a VNA exercise

The way it works is that you take turns drawing a card from the deck and make up a one-sentence idea involving the term. The first person to go draws a verb, the second person a noun and the third an adjective. Each person builds on the idea of his or her precursor. The concept that results from the three-card sequence is written down, and the next person draws a verb card again.4 The exercise resembles cadavre exquis, the biggest difference being that here, the terms are predetermined.

VNA is a great ice-breaker. The students were divided into teams of five and, because a side-goal of the seminar was to encourage collaboration between students from the different courses, they often did not know each other. Thanks to this exercise they became acquainted, but within a creative context. The exercise also privileges volume of ideas over their quality, which is perfect in the early stages of conceptualization. Last but not least, it is a lot of fun; many students asked where they could get the deck of cards.

Jurying

On Friday, I (together with the other jury members) was treated to ten presentations by the students. Each had prepared a video containing footage of prototyping and play-testing sessions, as well as an elevator pitch. A lot of them were quite good, especially considering the fact that many students had not created an urban game before, or hadn’t even played one. But one game really stood out for me. It employed a simple mechanic: making chains of people by holding hands. A chain was started by players, but required the help of passers-by to complete. Watching the videos of chains being completed evoked a strong positive emotional response, not only with myself, but also my fellow jurors. What’s more important though, is that the game clearly engendered happiness in its participants, including the people who joined in as it was being played.

An urban game being played

In one video sequence, we see a near-completed chain of people in a mall, shouting requests at people to join in. A lone man has been observing the spectacle from a distance for some time. Suddenly, he steps forward, and joins hands with the others. The chain is completed. A huge cheer emerges from the group, hands are raised in the air and applause follows, the man joining in. Then he walks off towards the camera, grinning, two thumbs up. I could not help but grin back.5

Happy urban game participant

  1. Game Design and Development and Design for Virtual Theatre and Games []
  2. pointing to this resource, that was discussed at length on the IGDA ARG SIG []
  3. developed by Annakaisa Kultima []
  4. An interesting aside is that the deck was originally designed to be used for the creation of casual mobile games. The words were chosen accordingly. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, they are quite suitable to the design of urban games. []
  5. To clarify, this was not the game that got selected for the Festival of Games. There were some issues with the game as a whole. It was short-listed though. Another excellent game, involving mechanics inspired by photo safari, was the winner. []

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Kars Alfrink

Kars is an independent interaction and game designer who makes things with technology for play, learning and creativity.

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  • Gosh, all these bits of urban games popping up in university courses is very exciting. The seminar sounds great.

    If the students are interested in seeing their games played elsewhere, perhaps they might like to put them up under a Creative Commons licence on Ludocity? It’s a wiki of urban games and new sports, with games from Hide and Seek, Come Out and Play, Igfest, SF0 and a heap of unaffiliated designers. It’s startlingly satisfying to put a game up, and then a couple of months later get a play report from someone who’s tried it out on the other side of the world.

  • Kars

    I’ve passed on your question to the students Holly. We’ll see what happens (it would be a nice experience for them, I think). And you’re right, stuff like this making its way into education is exciting. I’m envious of these students.

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