Here's the talk I did at Playful the other week.
This is the world's largest model railway layout.
It's an extraordinary place. Vast. Intensely detailed. Sometimes beautiful.
A tremendous achievement in world-building. Similar in some ways to the world-building that goes into a video game - painstaking, obsessive, team-based. And like a videogame the obsessions and agenda of the makers sometimes leaks through in unintended ways.
This is Las Vegas. And what's the most conspicuous, prominent and iconic building in Las Vegas?
It's the station. Obviously.
And, of course, however hard you try, however comprehensive your vision, there'll always be some tiny detail that breaks the spell, gives the game away, shatters the illusion. There's always something that breaks the frame. That's the problem with world-building.
This, on the other hand, is a garden railway. This is something different. People who build garden railways don't normally go for the total vision of an HO layout. Because it would be so hard. The charm of a garden railway is that it exists alongside or within the ordinary world - like The Wombles or The Borrowers.
I think of this as bubble-building rather than world-building. It draws heavily on the awesome power of pretending.
And I started talking about these things because I don't know that much about games. Worse - I have really bad instincts when it comes to games. I always make the wrong console choice, buy the unfun game.
For example, when everyone else was buying Gameboys I bought one of these. Mostly because it had a TV tuner. That's why I can't talk sensibly about games.
In fact, when I think about games and playfulness, these sort of things don't come to mind at all. What pops into my head is evoked, a little bit, by this:
It's that experience of driving in the back of the family car, scrunching you eyes up at night to turn the streetlights into laser weapons and shooting other cars. Or watching the passing shadows on the road beside you, imagining shapes and rhythms.
These aren't games, like the industry thinks of games, these are something a little less, these are Barely Games. And these, are what I wanted to talk about.
Partly because they're just interesting, partly because these things, and especially pretending, don't seem to find their way much into the discussion about games. I listen to a lot of chat about games and hear lots about story and play, but very rarely hear about pretending, when, of course, pretending is central to the whole business. That's how video game reviews should start - "In this game you are pretending..."
(I'm not sure these bits about collecting and negotiation were that helpful, I should maybe have made the whole thing about pretending. They're a bit of a tangent, but I'll include them for completeness. I put them in because I think Collecting is really important and it doesn't get talked about enough. But I didn't really think of anything significant to say. If you don't want to read them scroll down and rejoin us after the picture of Mario.)
So, let's start with collecting, a huge part of play, objects you can pretend with.
Lots of things that are supposed to be games are really collections. Have you ever tried to play the official pokemon card game? It's intensely complicated, we never even got close to finishing a game.
So Arthur (my son) and his friends used to improvise their own games to play with them - usually some variant of Top Trumps.
Which means collecting has to turn into negotiation and collecting play becomes social. This, to me, seems to be the most valuable bit of most of Arthur's play - the negotiation and social problem-solving they have to do to invent the rules for their own games. It's clearly more interesting to them too, because they spend way more time arguing about and changing the rules than they do actually playing the game they're devising.
Of course, this isn't confined to kids. Lots of the fun in Tom and Tom's excellent Noticings game is in the ambiguity of the rules. There's social joy in the conversations around the game - and the arguments.
Some people are less comfortable with this ambiguity, they want the rules to be very clear. Phil Gyford for example, wants the rules of Foursquare to be clearer. This is perfectly smart and understandable, as he says, Games Have Rules. But Barely Games sometimes don't and that's what makes them interesting.
That's why I enjoyed playing General Jumbo so much. The central idea gave your solider collection enormously rich pretending value - they could be small and plastic and still be 'real'. And when you played with other people the negotiating became intense - working out what each little unit could do.
Anyway, not sure if that was useful, may have been a little tangential, so let's get back to the meat of the thing - pretending.
This used to be one of Arthur's favourite toys, partly because he's a huge Mario Kart fan, partly because he used to be not allowed to play with guns.
But when you ban guns you can't compete with the power of pretending. What were we going to do, ban sticks? Ban everything that's longer on one side than on another. Because any vaguely long, thin object + pretending can = gun.
And, it's not confined to kids. I bet we can all identify with the moment above and we all go through our lives with some part of our brain doing a tiny bit of pretending.
A lot of the power of the secret 'short' at Starbucks is that you can pretend you're an insider, that you know something special, you know the maitre de.
And part of the reason I installed this automatic watering system on our balcony was because that sort of automation (in fact any sort of automation) has hints of having a secret lair. Just like when I walk through the crowds on Oxford Street a tiny part of me is pretending I'm an assassin slipping steely-eyed through the crowds in order to shake the agents on my tail. And I bet it's not just me. I'm not saying I'm massively deluded, just that, very often, some bit of us is always trying to play those games, to make mundane things more exciting.
I think that's why we find Jason Bourne so resonant. It's easy pretending to be him. Because most of the time he's just commuting.
If you analysed the movies they would probably break-down like this:
Or for another perspective let's think about advertising/branding and look at the ultimate pretending object - the watch...
Where's the value in something like this? What's the utility you're paying for? It's fairly clear...
A watch is an object built on pretending. The value watch-makers add is all about pretending.
As with lots of luxury goods. What we're really buying is an object that lets us pretend.
We don't have the sort of life that requires a Pelican case full of weapons, but we can get some barbecue tools in a case that feels a bit similar. Designers will talk about 'cues', brand people will talk about 'associations' but it's all pretending.
Indeed, when we dress up, when we're on display and at our most public, these are the times when our costumes get the most pretendy - we get married dressed as princesses and officers - then go back to our everyday lives dressed as squaddies, rockstars or resting athletes.
But it's not just a matter of dressing up. A successful pretending object has to delicately balance pretending affordance with not making you look like an idiot. That's why so many successful pretending objects are also highly functional. As anyone who's been down the Tactical Pants rabbit-hole can tell you it's easy to obsess for ages about exactly the right trouser configuration for your equipment (ooh-er), all with a perfectly straight face. But every now and then you have a moment of self-awareness and realise you're just pretending to be a cop or a soldier from the future or Val Kilmer.
And of course, what you're really doing is both things at once. You're being practical and thinking about function and you're pretending. But you need some plausible deniability - the functional stuff needs to be credible. Which is why pretending objects that are too obvious don't work. You're no longer pretending in your own head, you're play acting in the world.
Another thing - I've always wondered why software/OS makers don't do more with the power of pretending. Look, for instance, at the average desktop. It's using a pretending metaphor - but it's not much of an imaginative leap is it? It's a desktop on your desk. I can see how this would have been useful in the early days, getting people used to interfaces and everything, but surely there's more opportunity to have some fun now - to make software more compelling by adding some pretending value to it.
There have been some notable attempts at this; Tactile 3D make movie-like interfaces where you can fly around your files like an authentic 80s cyberpunk. And the genius of 3D Mailbox must be experienced to be believed. Trust me, you want to watch these videos.
So, why aren't we all using software like that? Why hasn't anyone harnessed the power of pretending to make work a bit more fun. For the same reason so many games are just a bit, you know, much. It's that inability to be subtle, that desire, shared by games companies and brand-marketing people alike to go too far, to do too much. Have a look at this:
That's how lots of games feel to me. If you're in it you're 100% focused, if you're outside it you're excluded. It's so total. We've built a world and you're going to be immersed in it whether you like it or not. Casual Games feel the same to me too - just for 5 minutes rather than 40 hours. They still want all your attention, just for less time.
But, as we've discussed, that's not how pretending works. Everyday Pretending is something you do with a bit of your brain, with the edges. It's a thing of inattention, not concentration. Compare, for example, the Theory Of Fun piano stairs with Greyworld's tuned railings. The stairs thing is fun and it makes a point, but it would drive you mad after a while, there's no subtlety to it, no joy in the discovery, nothing hidden, it's all on the surface. It's that totalising instinct of so many 'brand' people - make things obvious, make things clear. There's a parallel in the maniacal world-building instinct of games people - leave no detail unturned, offer no escape from the vision.
I'd argue that this sort of total vision is neither necessary nor helpful.
We don't need many cues to help us pretend. We'll find meaning in the noisiest noise - just give us a tiny signal and we'll come up with a message.
The smallest thing can be a basis for pretending. A lot of industrial designers know this very well.
Car dashboards successfully evoke cockpits without throwing it in your face - making you feel like an adolescent fool. Or that Nokia Matrix-phone was able to seem military and 'gun-like' without being too obvious about it. Enough cues to let you pretend, not so many you felt like an idiot.
Perhaps the ultimate pretending objects are Billy's Boots. All they need is a myth to give them power.
And, for other proof that you don't need much for successful pretending, have a look at the tremendous Pretend Office; a simple mailing list, a bunch of people pretending to be employees and you get a rich, complex, imaginative world. It doesn't need any more than that.
So, I started thinking about what I'd look for in a Barely Game. And came up with these examples:
I like the way Noticings is a game you can play while walking around. That's often when I have time for playing. And I like the social aspects of playing around with the rules.
And I think of WideNoise as a Barely Game too. It's not a game at all, but it has some game-like mechanics, and it too is built for wondering around. And Foursquare and Gowalla are obviously more gamelike and work on the move as well. They only demands moments of attention, little glimpses of it. And they're interesting because they combine utility and futility in powerful ways - sometimes very practical, sometimes very silly. That's a good combination.
And these things; the elements of my personal informatic array are Barely Games too - you just walk around and you're playing a game without having to think about it.
So, from there, I got to this brief for something that's interesting and still barely a game.
And there's one mandatory requirement: "No Touch The Screen" - I'd love to build a mobile application that doesn't demand you stare at and stroke it the whole time. To me the attention-hogging aspects of most games has found perfect embodiment in the AR craze. They want to impose another screen between us and the world. There must be a way to harnass the power of pretending to create something that you can play with while walking around, that doesn't want you to look at the screen all the time.
(The best example I've found to date is RJDJ - again, not really a game, but it fulfills a lot of my criteria, it feels like a game without actually being one. And it is, of course, lovely.)
So we made a Barely Game prototype - The Situated Audio Platform, a browser for geotagged audio files. The idea is that it only has one button, the whole screen, which you use to switch it on, and then you never have to look at it. You can leave it in your pocket, monitoring the world for tagged files, quitely pinging, while you listen to your music. Then if it detects something, you hold it at your side and sweep the area until you home in on whatever it's found. You could browse AudioBoo with it, or get it to read geotagged wikipedia files to you.
That's the useful bit.
But if you wanted to do some pretending, and some stupidness, it could turn into a social fighting game. Where the files you explore are mines and traps laid by other people and you sweep and destroy them to stay alive. All while never looking at your device. (The video below shows the device held in view, that's just so you can see it on the video, it could all be done more discretely, at your side.) So you can be commuting in a crowd and fighting enemies in your head. We made a little demo. See what you think:
I think there's something in that. And once the platform existed you could do loads with it. But there, right there, is where I ran out of things to say and stopped.
Big thanks to Toby and Richard and the pixelistas. Playful was ace. I hope it happens again.