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Come Out and Play: The Joy of Novice Game Design

Dodging a volley of magic spells, he leaps over a fallen teammate and finally reaches his enemy’s end zone. Once safely inside a hula hoop, he holds up the jagged half of the golden tablet. Victory is close, so he waves encouragingly to a girl also wearing an orange headband. She nods, meeting his resolve to lead their team to the win. Taking off at full sprint, she approaches his hoop and grabs the tablet. Arm in arm, they race back to their team’s side where the other half of the tablet safely rests. She holds up the golden tablet in an epic win of "Reverse the Curse," conspicuous enough to draw cheers from the nearby crowds playing other newly invented games on the fields of Governor’s Island, New York City.

Come Out and Play is an annual showcase of games open to the public to play. Think Field Day for adults, but with a wild mix of technology-driven experiences, athletic challenges, and whimsical competitions. Games are submitted a few months prior—the application demands proof of play-testing and clearly explained rules—and forty or so are accepted to be featured as either Night Games or Field Day events. The festival started in 2006 as a city-wide game of zombie tag in New York City, and now brings hundreds out to play in San Francisco and New York every summer.

There is something unequivocally wonderful about playing a game with strangers, especially one so goofy as to involve wearing bike helmets headdresses, battle in a ring bouncing on one foot like boxing flamingoes, or grabbing for glow sticks dangling from your opponent’s elbows. I saw teenagers giving high fives to middle-aged adults, parents squatting to strategize at eye level with their kids, and shy grownups diving after the flags in each others waistbands. With friendly competition, creative problem solving, and the opportunity to "fail safely," I think games are the perfect medium for collaborative learning.

Game design is part of the curriculum at SVA’s Design for Social Innovation graduate MFA program, where I’m part of the inaugural cohort. Professors Asi Burak, co-President of nonprofit Games for Change, and Matt Parker, an independent game designer and new media artist, teach a design process for developing games that engage people across backgrounds and achieve social impact.

Reverse the Curse was my group’s final class project. We agreed on the impact objective: teaching adolescent kids the value of collaboration across genders, addressing the downstream issue of girl’s empowerment and violence against women. With the goal of designing a game for UN Women’s Say No Unite campaign, we spent hours sketching mechanics, facilitating play tests with kids in the Bronx and Brooklyn, even filming a dramatic trailer to explain the rules. I love that with game design, you can only go so far in discussing and drawing rules and ideas—there comes a moment when you just have to play.

When we were kids, my brother and I used to make our own board games, most of them fantastically intricate quests through medieval lands. We made games for us to play together, and would collaborate for hours designing them. Game design has the power to pacify warring siblings, and also to engage whole communities. It exemplifies the rapid prototyping process central to participatory design. Social entrepreneurship is often driven by risk-taking, and games teach you how to fail in a low stakes setting (often with great emotional reward). As we ran game after game of Reverse the Curse, new players continued to recognize brilliant opportunities for iteration, confirming our appearance at Come Out and Play was yet another prototype. Who’s ready to play again?

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Images courtesy of Carl Landegger

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