I attended the Develop Conference in Brighton this year and there were some interesting sessions. One of them was called “Emerging Issues in Game Design” and featured four very different presentations. Mark Eyles from the University of Portsmouth did, for example, talk about a genre of gaming that he calls “Ambient Games”. He browsed through a gazillion of slides (the man was bursting with energy) and ended up with a short demonstration of his research game “Ambient Quest”.
First I must say that I initially had a hard time grasping the essence of the ideas he presented.
Ambient Games are inspired by the concept of Ambient Music:
Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting. (Brian Eno, 1978)
I pondered upon the connection and gradually managed to build a vision in my mind. Ambient Games must be sort of like an aquarium. It plays by itself and if you want to, you can go and interfere with it, toy around for some time. An Ambient Game would be a sort of hybrid between game and screensaver, if you will. (A sidenote: Earlier the same day, Tsutomu Kouno from Sony Worldwide Studios talked about the creation of LocoRoco. And recently I saw rumors like this appearing on the web. Interesting!)
However, just as I thought I was getting it, Mark pulled out a step counter and entered his current number of steps into the research game. The number then gave him a number of moves in the game world (which was a turned based RPG).
Whoah! Now I was totally lost. He was obviously not into screensaver/game hybrids at all. Instead, it turned out that he was looking at feeding everyday boring tasks into games so that tedious work could be more fun. He imagined that working with stacking boxes in a big storage house could actually be more satisfying if every box you stacked earned you something (moves, money?) that could later be used in a gaming world.
It did sound very interesting, but it was certainly a bit hard to connect that idea to the initial concept of “Ambient Games” (and “Ambient Music”).
Chores as Games
After the session I kept thinking about tedious work connected to games and a few weeks later, I was busy repainting the kitchen roof. Suddenly I realized that during painting I was doing something quite weird in my mind.
After some reflection about other similar situations: mowing lawns, working out or any other kind of repetitious work, I realized that the same thing very often happens. When I am busy with tedious work, I create a game out of it. And moreover, I think that this is something I have always been doing.
I give you an example. If I am mowing a lawn, I split the whole lawn into separate sections. I mow these sections little by little and I find (some weird) joy in altering the mowing patterns and splitting sections into yet smaller sections on the fly. To me it’s a bit like putting a puzzle together, one where all the pieces are constantly changing – and you’re doing it totally in reverse.
I am really curious to know if there are other people out there who share the same or similar experience. I wonder because if there is, there might be connection points in how the games we create for ourselves look for various work scenarios. I mean, if every single person who mows a lawn creates the same game I do (though I strongly doubt it), then I reckon that lawnmowers should immediately be modified. They should have a screen fitted to the handle, some sensory equipment and a computer collecting all the data, making the game happen in real time.
This idea I realize is pretty far fetched. However, I think that a possibly fruitful approach would be to analyze various kinds of tedious work situations and see if there are some simple ways of measuring and guiding the work effort. A small computer could then use the data and create a live gaming experience, be it when we paint roofs, mow lawns, work out, correct multiple choice tests (on paper), stack boxes, cut and paste between lots of documents or whatever.
I realize that there is a difference between feeding step meter measurements into a game like Mark did and doing what I describe above, which is more like working live within the game world. You might say that the former is understandably “Ambient” and the latter is not…
But go back a second and consider the idea of the screensaver game. What if that screensaver game would constantly monitor your muscular activity? What if that game would run in the background, day and night, creating cool and usable stuff out of your muscular data inside the game world?
What if you had a window into the game world on a screen on your bookshelf? You would be free to look into it at any time. You could watch how your efforts would have an effect behind that screen. And at any given time, you would be able to pick up the controller and play away.