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Event Wrap-Up: Deathmatch In The Stacks

In this event wrap-up, we look at the New York-based Deathmatch In The Stacks book launch, which featured game-related academics and professional developers, from Valve's Ken Birdwell to Adventure creator Warren Robinett, dueling over game design ideas.

Matthew Hawkins

December 26, 2005

10 Min Read


It's 7:05 pm, December 9, 2005 and Katie Salen is onstage at an amphitheater, with Eric Zimmerman not too far from her side. In front of her is a packed house that has braved the rather dreary New York winter weather to make it to the Parsons School of Design for an evening of game-related talk.

Katie is running a PowerPoint presentation set to music from the game Katamari Damacy. Along with pictures from various games, the audience was visited with images of city streets splashed with Space Invaders-inspired graffiti and children from an African tribe. They also read in bold white letters set to a pleasing blue backdrop: "When no one was looking.... games changed the world."

Space Invaders

Thus kicked off "Deathmatch in the Stacks," an event celebrating The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology, the follow-up to The Rules of Play, a textbook on the subject of game design, which also received a similar celebration a little over two years ago. And like that event, Salen and Zimmerman played host to a number of game design luminaries who gathered to discuss their thoughts, experiences, and passions. But it was a bit different this time around...

First off, various contributors were on-hand to read their selection from the (very) big book of essays. Along with each author was another individual who gave their response to the ideas and notions that the author proposed.

But most importantly, not everyone on-hand to speak were game creators. Like the book itself, the event brought together folks from other walks of life, such as sociologists, anthropologists, and philosophers, all of whom recognize and even use video games as mediums and tools.

Jenkins Plays Up

After a brief introduction, the first author came up onstage. Henry Jenkins, an educator who promotes pedagogical use of electronic gaming, spoke about childhood play spaces and their contested nature. He cited how many years ago, children during the Wild West had the entire frontier as their playground, and as generations have passed, children's play spaces are constantly being cut and compromised. These days, kids have no real backyards, and parents are too scared to let them out in what passes for today's the wild frontier.

Jenkins spoke about how video games allow children to claim their own territory in a virtual world. He also spoke about gender differences in relation to play spaces, which was a focal point for Karen Sideman, an interactive/game designer who specializes in educational play, who was the next speaker and gave a response to Jenkins' piece.

Sideman's Barbie Stories

Sideman touched upon Jenkins' point of little boys' tendencies for exploration and little girls' tendency to stick close to home by sharing with the audience how as a child, she and her sister used to pretend that they were Russian child ballerinas who were went sent to the spy on the United States for the motherland, but later became double agents, all the while keeping their ballerina personas in check. This was used to illustrate how all girls would transform ordinary, everyday spaces into their own personal playground, and how for girls, contest space is not simply space but identity. She elaborated her point by stating that since play is a form of identity building, there is a need in girls to act, or "play" things out. But often, as she tried assuring the male audience in the room, there was a deep dark edge to it all.

This led Sideman to ask all the females in attendance to come up to the mike and answer the question: "So what did you do with Barbie as a little girl?" Six women from the audience came up to give their response:

- The first stated that she used to strip Barbie naked and keep her in the basement, as if she was a victim of a kidnapping. Other harrowing situations would be "Donner Party-like" in nature or simply wolf attacks.

- The second claimed to have grown up in proto-feminist household, which lead to Barbie being constantly badly beaten and bruised.

- The third would simply cut all her hair.

- The fourth used to cut the hair, plus bite off the hands and feet.

- The fifth would take all her Barbies and disassemble them. Once parts were harvested, she would glue them to sheets of paper to create monsters.

- The sixth simply had two Barbies: the regular, stock white version, and the black, Diana Ross, Barbie. She took great joy in switching their heads.

On Rules And Games

The next author was Stephen Sniderman, a writer who concentrates on all types of games, not just electronic ones. He spoke about the role that rules play in games, and the player's various relationships with them, whether it's in regards to abiding by them, or, in some cases, enforcing them. He also explained how most people when playing a game usually never has a firm grasp of every single rule, or how they'll play knowing that some feel incomplete, or in some instance, downright unfair, but the player will play on, since humans operate in the same exact manner every day of their lives.

His response was given by Ze Frank, a Brooklyn-based artist who further illustrated the more communal aspects of rule enforcement by citing an example from the message board on his website: Frank would create simple word games which others would then either carry on with, or create new ones, and how stringent the enforcement of rules were (including some very public consequence involved), as well this effect on community behavior.

Pure Fantasy?

The third author was Gary Alan Fine, a sociologist who has written about fantasy role-playing in his ethnological studies. He spoke of fantasy games as a "pure game" due to its high degree of engrossment, and how hard some players will strive to be completely within the world of a game, since the real world is constantly trying to intrude in on the preceedings. Also touched upon was the identities that are formed within the game, such as the need to always talk in character.

Tami Moccia provided the response to this particular topic. An avid live action role player (commonly known as LARP), Tami presented pictures from the various games she has helped to create and participated with. She further reinforced the idea that a shared reality creates engrossment to the point that a particularly compelling game can help to compensate whatever faults with the game by motivating individuals to either fix the rules as they play along, or create completely new ones.

But the most important aspect, hence why everyone chooses to wear "funny" costumes and speak in "funny" accents, is the degree of commitment to make the game's reality work, because as in any game, if the player doesn't care, then nothing will have meaning.

Play As Communication

The fourth author to hit the stage was Brian Sutton-Smith, a professor who has spent his life exploring play history, psychology, education, and folklore. He spoke of play as a form of communication and problem solving, one which has persisted since perhaps the dawn of man, and how despite its powers to help, its often regarded with disdain, an action reserved for those who lack maturity. As Sutton-Smith asked, why do children play, but adult recreate?

Providing the response this time around was McKenzie Wark, who teaches media studies, and he chose to explore the very concept of playing by examining the one question that all game makers and players are constantly dealing with, "are we having fun yet?" and what that really means. He touched upon the idea that language and play are at conflict with each other, citing another example of play as a "bad word" (again, something that deviants engage in), as well as how much easier it is to theorize that something is not fun, simply because that's when you have to think about it.

Developer Q&A

Along with the theorists, a few seasoned professionals from the field of game design gathered for a roundtable discussion: Greg Costikyan, a prolific designer of over 30 computer, mobile, and board games, Ken Birdwell, a founding member of Valve, and contributor to both Half-Life and Half-Life 2, Richard Rouse III, the design director at Surreal Software, as well as an author of a guide to game design, and finally Warren Robinett, who is most famous for his groundbreaking title Adventure for the Atari 2600.

Of the various questions were posed and answered, perhaps the most insightful was the response to game design theory vs. practice. Costikyan felt gratified that they are being recognized, along with a "Who cares?" sentiment, citing that film and music criticism doesn't make their respective areas any more legitimate either. Birdwell also cited that game design theory has helped to isolated ideas and create a grammar which has helped him identify strengths and weaknesses in his own games.

This particular Q&A session also provided the most emotionally charged moment when a student asked the assemblage what he should to do to prepare for a career in the gaming industry? Costikyan's response? Prepare to have one's soul sucked. This was followed by a small bit of silence until others recommended a portfolio which featured one particular strong skill, as well as encouragement to collaborate with others on smaller, independent ventures, with Costikyan also agreed with, amending that his previous comment was if one was interested in working for the major companies, but that there are other options out there.

The Theory Panel

Finally, the authors and their responders also had a chance to state their cases via a panel. The idea and importance behind rules was once discussed, in particular the value in breaking them. Almost everyone was quite vocal in their belief that video games need to better accommodate rule breaking. Jenkins even went a step further by stating that rule breaking is a natural part of human development, and those who don't while growing up tend to become "mama's boys."

Also touched upon was the idea of play as a means to reduce and manage conflict, which author Linda Hughes also re-iterated in her reading that the apparently subdued manner in which girls play games with each other, at least in comparison to the normally loud and rowdy boys, is actually a very complex scheme to manage aggression.

Another intriguing comment was made by Zimmerman, who theorized that in the entire history of games, single player video games have been a "glitch in the system" and the advent of multiplayer games, in particular online experiences, is a sign that we games are returning to its social roots. And despite the complaints from some that the rise of such things as MMORPGs is a sign that "the gold age of gaming is over" that things might have just begun, which like how movie auteurs of the past lamented the introduction of talkies to film.


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About the Author(s)

Matthew Hawkins


Not too long after graduating the School of Visual Arts with a degree in cartooning, Matthew Hawkins found himself in the world of video games when he was hired by Ubi Soft. As Ubi Soft New York's head game designer, Matt worked on several games for major gaming consoles and the Internet. When Ubi Soft closed its New York studio, Matt began developing games independently leading to the creation of PixelJump in 2002. Since then, Matt has been especially involved in titles based upon films and television properties, either as a designer or a consultant. Also in 2002, Matt became involved with video game journalism, starting with Nickelodeon Magazine, as both a writer and an interviewer. Matt's writings has appeared everywhere, from GMR to insert credit, from the critically acclaimed 1-UP MegaZine, to the Internet Archive, and is still a regular contributor to Nick Mag to this day. In 2004, Matt began teaching game design as both instructor and thesis advisor at his alma mater, the School of Visual Arts, and is a part of his concerted efforts to help foster a stronger game development community in the New York City Area. Matt is also an active member of the New York chapter of the IGDA.

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