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GDC 2012: Die Gute Fabrik's Wilson on how simple tech enhances folk play

At the Indie Game Summit, Die Gute Fabrik's Doug Wilson (Johann Sebastian Joust) talks about folk games -- and the opportunities for whimsy and player empowerment that tech limitations create.
For the past three years, Die Gute Fabrik's Doug Wilson has been researching and working on a PhD dissertation about folk games, even while developing games like Johann Sebastian Joust and B.U.T.T.O.N. with his Copenhagen-based colleagues. His passion is "doing ridiculous shit with technology" – now coincidentally that's the rejected title for his Indie Games Summit lecture at GDC 2012. Along with friend David Kanaga (composer of fellow IGF nominee Proteus), Wilson has been developing a PlayStation Move-enabled game concept -- Dog the Wag -- where players attach controllers to their butts and wag like dogs. He'd been inspired by a friend's pictures and stories from a trip to Sweden, where she played a number of quirky outdoor folk games. What's a "folk game," exactly? Wilson cites a Denmark researcher's description of "traditional, ethnic or indigenous sports and games… it can also include new activities based on traditional practices," he says. Folk games are play activities that are easy to understand, to play and to teach, requiring a minimum of equipment -- they're simple games that are easy to understand for spectators and easy to learn for the players; they require common equipment that most people have around or can make, like balls and bats, if they require equipment at all. Folk games travel as a form of cultural language, as well; players, cultures or families frequently tailor the "house rules" to how they like to play, which is why they evolve organically through time and across cultures. Wilson is specifically interested in very physical games, particularly silly ones. The designer has spoken in the past on finding fun in frustrating his players (a theme QWOP and GIRP creator Bennett Foddy, who spoke just prior to Wilson, also endorsed). According to Wilson, he finds joy in subversion. "Tying a Move controller to your butt is not what you typically do with game controllers," he chuckles. "That's why these games, to me, are really fun. Apart from the game itself, there's something fun about using this technology in deliberately stupid ways. I do think there's a joy in subversion." Motion control tech is surprisingly limited, though. "Despite all these promises and optimism, all these technologies kind of suck, is the reality. And to me that's awesome – it's precisely because these technologies suck that [they are] interesting." Rather than fight the complex problems in gesture recognition tech, designers have opportunities to find new ways to play based on what the tech can do. "Let's just do exactly what this technology does, so we don't have to fight… and to pretend." This advice is especially valuable to indies, who don't have the time and money to create complicated algorithms to, say, get the Kinect to track four people at once. "It's more effective and productive to offload that approach onto players," he says, jokingly calling it "the lazy man's approach to motion control." The only tech that J.S. Joust really relies on is the Move controller's ability to detect speed. "The design trick here becomes making the players think it's fun to improvise the rules, to enforce the rules… and to sell them on this idea that, hey, we're not going to expect the computer to do all the work for us." He supports the idea of "deputizing" players to create and enforce the rules of a game. "[Johann Sebastian] Joust looks deliberately silly; you're kind of waltzing around in slow motion," says Wilson. "It has a nice element of looking ridiculous and acting theatrical… it's the nice mix between competitive sport and playing the fool that gives it this nice compromise." The idea that players enjoy being silly isn't even particularly niche; it appears in mainstream games like WarioWare, packed with minigames that briefly engage the player in awkward behaviors, and Frobisher Says on the PS Vita, which plays with a person's sense of whimsy through mini-games, too. "Many of us are walking around every day with accelerometers and music-playing devices in our pockets," Wilson points out. Die Gute Fabrik is aiming to make a set of Joust-like games for smartphones called Spielplatz, the German word for "playground." For him, it's about repurposing technology objects to give them additional meaning, not to rely on technology for play. "I'm not interested in how technology can improve games; I'm interested in how games can improve technology," he says. When it comes to the omni-present and often loathsomely addicting smartphone, "I'd love to repurpose this thing to ends more silly, more personal, and more playful in ways that speak to my life. And I think these types of physical games are one way of doing that."

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