Friday, August 10, 2007

Game Friday: Hitching a Ride

Gamelab, the people behind Diner Dash and other casual games, have posted a contest on their forum, the Subway Scramble Commuter Contest, in which they are soliciting stories of games people play while commuting by train, car, bike... you get the idea.

Reading through the entries already present, I'm struck by how little the games are about fun and how much they are about engaging specific parts of the brain. Some people are creative, inventing stories about other subway travelers by looking at their shoes. Some people are competitive, following elaborate rules to try to "beat" people in neighboring cars. Some are pattern-watchers, some are obstacle course devisers, some are counters and hummers and candy-kickers. We all have these games--whether played from school bus windows or bicycles built for two. I'm a particular fan of the physical challenge "see how many pull-ups I can do on the subway bar" game, as well as the emotionally creative "stare down every car from my bike and imagine them not killing me" game. And the ones that become social ("How many pull-ups can I do... how many can you do?" is a multi-player favorite) are the best of all.

This dovetails nicely into last week's post about the idea that games may be a part of our cultural experience that is more general than just having fun, that making up games in the subway is as common as listening to music or rereading the ESL advertisements again and again.

And traveling, which provides rapidly changing content, is particularly well-suited to gaming. Many commuting games, traditional and non-traditional, are based in the experience of motion. You move past cows and cars to count. You try to stay balanced as you rattle and shake. Commuting continually provides new challenges to overcome, items to collect, characters with whom to interact.

Stasis provides a different kind of game environment. When things don't change, or change at an imperceptible rate, there's less fodder for comparisons and quests. If your environment is static enough that you can focus intently on one thing--a book, for example--you are unlikely to seek out diversionary experiences like casual games. Unless of course it's a really boring book, in which case games like "how long until the end of this chapter" become compelling. When the static environment is dull, the content therein--other people sitting in church, pamphlets in the doctor's office, tiles on the bathroom floor--becomes fodder for gaming.

All this leads me, naturally, to wonder what kinds of random, private, inadvertent games people play in museums. The museum experience can be both motion-based and stasis-based; there's stuff static in rooms, but you and others move through and interact with it. Are people playing "how many dead birds are in this room?" or "how could I travel from this gallery to that one with the fewest possible steps?" or "what's the relationship among that group of people?" or "how many times will this tour guide say 'zeitgeist?'"

One of my favorite museum games is to follow other visitors and try to see and do what they see and do, to stand in front of the same sculpture, to shake up the same mini-tornado, and try to imagine why they like certain things or stick with them for awhile. And a perennial favorite in art museums is "see how close I can get before a guard comes," which is made more exciting by new innovations in invisible barriers.

What are your favorite casual museum games? How do you see visitors "playing" in the galleries?

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