Road To The IGF: We're Very Uncomfortable With The Copenhagen Game Collective

Douglas Wilson of the Copenhagen Game Collective tells Gamasutra the surprising, poignant philosophy behind 'uncomfortable' games like multiplayer IGF Nuovo nominee B.U.T.T.O.N.
[Douglas Wilson of the Copenhagen Game Collective wants to make games that make players uncomfortable, and talking IGF Nuovo nominee B.U.T.T.O.N. to Gamasutra, he details the surprising, poignant philosophy behind abusive games.] It began with a sex game in a dark room. No, seriously -- but the Copenhagen Game Collective isn't that kind of group, not really. Dark Room Sex Game was a very simple project: Two players take turns flicking two Wii remotes, and the game... makes low, excited vocalizations in a deep male voice. If they can coordinate their movements, the voice escalates. The goal quickly dawns on players. It's kind of uncomfortable, and that's what its creators, Douglas Wilson, Daiana Lau and some of their friends, were shooting for. Showing the game at exhibitions like IndieCade throughout 2008, Wilson hung out with like-minded designers, like Ruckblende creator Nils Deneken, and realized something. He had to move back to Copenhagen, where he could find a rapidly expanding base of friends and colleagues with similar aesthetic sensibilities -- for bizarre game works that are often mean, frequently silly, and always fun and thought-provoking. At Nordic Game Jam in 2009, Deneken and Wilson showed their "silly multiplayer flash game" (as Wilson describes it), 5 Minute MMORPG. And by the middle of the year, they had such a crew gathered that they decided to unite under the banner of the Copenhagen Game Collective. Together, they could aim bigger, they thought. Wilson stresses that the collective is not a "company", but a "constellation" -- like a record label for video games. Deneken and a colleague have their own company, Die Gute Fabrik, and while others among the collective work at a studio they call Copenhagen Game Productions (for now; the name seems set to change to avoid confusion with the Collective), some of the projects they do are for showcases and festivals, never intended to be commercial at all. All told, Wilson considers about ten people "core members" of the Collective, and none of them have AAA backgrounds. Rather they're mostly newly out of grad school or in research programs, a state of newness Wilson concedes may lend some naivete, but a fresh perspective is also the hope. Together, they consider participation in and influence on the culture of the game industry just as important as making games. They stage events and curate exhibits, such as two recent events at New York City's ultra-hip Babycastles indie arcade, and they hope to host an exhibition and party at the upcoming 2011 Game Developers Conference. Now, new audiences are learning of the Copenhagen Game Collective as progenitors of B.U.T.T.O.N. -- a project whose acronym stands for Brutally Unfair Tactics Totally Okay Now. It's one of eight nominees for the 2011 Independent Game Festival's Nuovo award, which honors abstract or unconventional games. A true party game, it's physical, participatory and silly, pitting players against one another in a series of one-button challenges. It's simple enough that players can try whatever strategies they like to try to outwit each other; it's more a digital framework for group play than a typical "video game", exactly. Even Wilson admits it prescribes rules it's unable to enforce -- and that players of the game are able to also play with the rules is part of what makes it fun. Recently in New York, Babycastles attendees played it while wearing t-shirts with Xbox 360 controllers taped to them. While Wilson served attendees liberal portions of Danish liquor, peculiar black licorice coins and fish on toast, players kicked off their shoes, donned the shirts and all but tackled each other in spirited competition before a giant projection screen, alongside a pounding DJ set from local chiptune artist Knife City. You start to realize people probably need the party atmosphere -- and maybe even the booze -- to enjoy B.U.T.T.O.N. with such abandon. Players seem to have to challenge their own self-consciousness to win. Like the weirdness of Dark Room Sex Game, that comfort zone is something the collective clearly enjoys pushing, widely lauding the concept of "abusive game design". For Wilson, the "Asshole Mario" series of YouTube videos -- they show a user's playthrough of a version of Super Mario World hacked to the point of comical unfairness -- are an inspiration. In an age that prizes intuitiveness and accessibility, and "finding the fun", why would a designer actively want to torment his players, frustrate them and creep them out? Gamasutra decided to ask Wilson all about it. How did you decide that abusive game design was something you wanted to explore? It all started with Dark Room Sex Game -- no joke. In 2008, the theme of the Nordic Game Jam was cultural "taboos." We realized that sex, for whatever reason, is a lot more taboo than violence, especially in gaming culture. The thing to understand is that Dark Room Sex Game isn't really a game about sex. It's a game about people's cultural perception of sex. It was fascinating to see how embarrassed people would get playing it. Because there aren't any graphics, you and your fellow player often end up looking directly at each other while you coordinate your virtual sex. It can get awkward, especially when played in public. You think you're about to play a fun Wii game, then suddenly, bam, you find yourself having virtual gay sex with your buddy. Around the same time, I discovered the infamous "Asshole Mario" (Kaizo Mario) videos on YouTube. Those levels made a big impact on me. Not only are they hilarious, but they're also ingeniously, inspiringly clever. To me, they felt really fresh. I started discussing these kinds of games with my adviser, Miguel Sicart, and the two of us ended up giving a talk on abusive game design at DiGRA 2009. Since then, we've written an even longer research paper on the subject. And I'm currently writing even more about abusive and dialogic game design in my PhD dissertation, so I suppose I'm a sucker for abuse, in more ways than one! What do designers get out of abusing their players? What do the players get out of the experience? At its best, abusive game design can create a kind of playful meta-game -- a battle of wits and willpower between designer and player. The kind of abusive game design that interests me most is "dialogic," in that it facilitates a back-and-forth -- maybe not a literal back-and-forth, but something that feels like it, as if you and the designer were "in each other's heads," so to speak. One of my favorite examples of this "back-and-forth" comes from one of the aforementioned Asshole Mario videos -- Stage 6, the underwater level. Right after the halfway mark, the player, R. Kiba, starts walking down a long tunnel. Then he suddenly halts; something feels wrong. We can almost hear his thoughts: This passageway is too narrow, too quiet. Takemoto [the designer] has ambushed me way too many times for me to fall for this again. Kiba turns around, realizing that he has a second option. Taking advantage of a quirk in the Super Mario World game system, he swims underneath the passageway, below the bottom edge of the screen. Lo and behold, his instincts are proven correct! As Kiba safely swims below the screen, a bullet shoots down the suspicious passageway. Had he continued down the tunnel, he would have fallen for another one of Takemoto's traps. Viewed in terms of the game itself, this small victory is rather inconsequential. Even if Kiba had fallen for the trap, he would have restarted at the halfway mark, right before the passageway. Having learned his lesson, he could have conquered the obstacle the second or third time around, without even having lost much time. But Kiba's victory here is not just over the level -- it is also the moral victory of predicting and outsmarting the designer. In this view, the game system and levels are ultimately just instruments employed by Takemoto, who himself looms as the "true" adversary. Thus, counter-intuitively, I think abusive game design can help humanize gameplay. It confronts the conventional and reminds us that play is something deeply personal. That's really interesting -- design that sees the game as a medium between creator and player, not just the player and an imaginary world. There's a lot of precedent in other media forms for this kind of "dialogic" interchange between creator and audience. Agatha Christie is perhaps the quintessential example. In my dissertation, I argue that she was more of a game designer than she was a "writer." To read one of Christie's novels is to "play along" -- to use the clues she provides (and avoid the red herrings) to solve the mystery before the solution is revealed. It's a kind of psychological contest. The more Christie novels one reads, the more one is able to understand how her mind works. But Christie was aware of this, of course, and she frequently tweaked her formula in order to stay one step ahead of the reader. The Serbian-born performance artist Marina Abramovic' strikes me as another important precedent. Like Dark Room Sex Game, her Imponderabilia (1977) played on the awkwardness of sex in order to embarrass and provoke her audience. Her latest piece, The Artist Is Present (2010), aimed to foreground the interaction between artist and audience. This is what abusive game design is all about -- shifting the focus away from individuals and towards the relationships between them. When you think about it, a lot of things could qualify as "abusive" that are simply bad design. How do you find the line between design that is consciously, thoughtfully brutal and things that are just poorly designed? Yeah, that's the million dollar question, isn't it? Miguel and I write a little bit about this in our research paper. It's a question that haunts the design research literature (see the work of Bill Gaver or Phoebe Sengers). If you're deliberately designing for frustration or confusion, how do you distinguish "good" frustration from "bad" frustration? As I see it, abusive game design is all about successfully signaling intentionality to the player. Battletoads is the quintessential example of a game that's way too difficult, but I don't personally consider it "abusive" because it feels more "buggy" than it does purposefully-designed. By contrast, when you play Kaizo Mario, you really feel the presence of the designer -- that whoever made the game is specifically "out to get you." This is partly a matter of consistency. At almost every turn, Kaizo Mario bucks common usability conventions, and in very showy ways. It doesn't feel accidental. The game even explicitly taunts the player, i.e. through its dialog boxes. It's no coincidence that Kaizo Mario is a mod of an existing game. Super Mario World provides a perfect foil against which to surprise the player with untraditional design. The abusiveness feels very intentional because it's juxtaposed against a familiar reference point. It's no wonder, then, that other "masocore" games like I Wanna Be The Guy frequently reference classic video games. These games convey a strong self-awareness. Ultimately, the clearest indicator of a successful abusive game design is that the player feels like they're playing against a particular person (or team of persons), and not just against a game system. That said, we should remember that "success" here is very subjective. Different players will experience the game in different ways, depending on their background and the context in which the game is played. For this reason, it often behooves abusive game designers to target their games to specific contexts or specific audiences. When it comes to B.U.T.T.O.N. specifically -- how did you come to that project, and what was the process like going from conception to IGF? B.U.T.T.O.N. was originally conceived at a birthday party in January 2010, in an impromptu fashion. Some of us were sitting around drinking, and we got to chatting about the GAMMA IV contest. The contest constraint was to design a game played with only one button. Without any prior plan that we were going to brainstorm a game, we stumbled upon an amusing idea: to subvert the contest constraint, we could incentivize players to push each others' buttons. Both literally and figuratively. Later that month, we would prototype the game late one night at our annual retreat on the west coast of Sjaelland. The very first playtest ended in hysterical laughter. Immediately, we knew we were onto something. At the time, I don't think any of us realized how far the game would eventually take us. On the surface of things, it's such a stupid game -- a silly "wouldn't-it-be-funny-if..." side project, initially prototyped in only a weekend or two. But we kept working on the game as we showed the game and more and more exhibitions. Now, to find ourselves nominated for IGF... it's quite surreal. We recently released the game on Xbox Live Indie, and we'll be releasing a PC version soon (stay tuned). We're also considering spending some time to make an expanded version of the game for PS3 and/or the Wii. We have some pretty amusing ideas about how we'd incorporate motion controllers, and we'd also like to utilize peripheral input devices like dance pads and drum sets. Let's say someone picks up your game, fails at it several times and says to you "I don't get it." What do you tell them? This is a fair reaction, and I've definitely witnessed it myself while demonstrating B.U.T.T.O.N. One of the first times I ever demoed the game was to a morning workshop at my university. Suffice to say, it was entirely the wrong context. This is the downside of trying to get people to play console games in a very non-traditional way. It's difficult to challenge people's gaming habits, especially when they've been ingrained over years and years. Then again, I think that's also the appeal of the game. B.U.T.T.O.N. feels subversive precisely because it asks the player to do all sorts of things that aren't really so kosher in "normal" console games. Ultimately, I'd urge prospective players to try the game in a party setting. People are often skeptical at first, but tend to warm up to the idea after their first chaotic skirmish over the controllers. Really, it's all just an excuse to cheat and roughhouse your friends. What function do you think abusive design tactics can serve for the larger game design creativity and knowledge-base? As I see it, abusive game design is a reaction against both "user-centered" design, which privileges the player, and the "auteur" paradigm, which privileges the designer. Abusive game design, at least when it's successfully dialogic, is all about the dance between player and designer. More generally, abusive game design practice pushes designers to strive for originality. To jar the player out of their typical mindset and into a dialogue with the designer, the game has to do something fresh. Abusive game design thrives on the element of surprise. It's for this reason that "masocore" games no longer seem so abusive these days. At this point, devious platformer games are almost a cliche in the indie world. As I see it, there are a lot more untapped opportunities in the design of "socially abusive" games. This was our attitude while designing B.U.T.T.O.N. , at least. Our aim was to coax players into "acting the fool" in front of each other, and to get them to enjoy doing so! Any other ideas you think are important to help people get to know you? Beyond just abusive game design, I've also become quite interested in intentionally "broken" games. For example, I'd call B.U.T.T.O.N. a broken game because it prescribes a set of rules it can't possibly enforce. In addition, those rules are quite ambiguous. For example, how much physical contact is allowed? How do you define a "step" back? And how slow do you really have to move during the "slow-mo" round? When we play a computer game, we typically expect the computer to carry out the rules for us. So, when such a system so egregiously fails to enforce the very rules it decrees, it gives a distinct impression of brokenness, as if the system were somehow defaulting on its end of the bargain. We, the players, are forced to pick up the computer's slack. With the advent of input devices like the Wii and the Kinect, the trend seems to be to use cutting-edge technology to monitor and systematize the physical space in front of the screen. This is all well and good, of course, but broken games offer an alternative, more low-tech strategy for designing physical gameplay. Sometimes, the most enjoyable games are the stupidest ones -- the ones that encourage players to improvise their own rules. [Previous 2011 'Road To The IGF' interviews have covered Markus Persson's Minecraft, Alexander Bruce's Hazard: The Journey of Life, Nicolai Troshinsky's Loop Raccord and Chris Hecker's Spy Party.]

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