Wednesday, 15 February 2017

The Human in the Machine

ELIZA was the world’s first digital psychotherapist. Created from 1964 to 1966, long before Siri and Cortana, long even before the first commerical videogames, ELIZA was an AI that had conversations with its users.

A user, communicating with ELIZA through a terminal, would be asked a question about themselves, and ELIZA would listen, prompting the user with questions.

Except ELIZA had no idea what was going on. ELIZA only created the illusion of understanding, using pattern-matching and substitution to parrot the own user’s words in the the form of a question.


ELIZA’s conversational ability grew over time - not through machine learning, but through users adding new rules and behaviours to her script. She was an illusion, non-sentient and entirely artificial. Nevertheless, users were reported as having meaningful conversations with her. ELIZA talked them through their problems. They found the experience comforting, often revealing to themselves inner feelings they hadn’t acknowledged.

Joseph Weizenbaum, the creator of the program, was dismissive of this response. He had created ELIZA as a parody of artificial intelligence, to demonstrate the superficiality of communication between man and machine. He felt the popular response was merely a result of humanity’s tendency to anthropomorphise the world around them.

Regardless of what was really going on under the hood, users had a meaningful human experience with ELIZA. Whether or not the machine was actually intelligent is not important. Even whether or not users actually believed that the device was intelligent is, arguably, of little consequence.

For the end user, their emotional response was the entirety of the experience. The banality of the program only mattered if believing it to be artificial affected that response.

Maybe it was enough to simply play along with the artifice.

Monday, 6 February 2017

The Incredible Playable Show comes to Screenshake Antwerp

This Saturday I'll be bringing The Incredible Playable Show to the Screenshake 2017 festival in Antwerp, Belgium.

The show takes place at at 6pm at Het Bos, Ankerrui 5-7, 2000 Antwerp - taking over the Local Multiplayer Hall for one final digital extravaganza before the evening's Screenshake Party.


Tickets are available from www.screenshake.be

Come along and prepare to be part of an incredible playable experience you will not forget!

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The Mega Cooperator - a Teamwork-Fuelled Custom Controller

The Mega Cooperator is a custom controller I built for Sega Mega Drive consoles. It plugs into the console's controller port and mimics the actions of four buttons. One button is randomly assigned to each of the four players. Every 30 seconds the actions switch around, so players need to communicate to figure out who has what, and to operate the game.

I’ve been excited for a long time about re-interpreting classic games in new ways, seeing them as a canvas to be explored rather than as finished products. I’ve also been inspired by the amount of teamwork that was present in Codex Bash.

By adapting the 4-button custom controller I made for that game, I found I could take existing single-player games and turn them into comedic teamwork experiences.


Sunday, 27 November 2016

Welcome to the Incredible Playable Show!

This October I made my way to Nottingham for GameCity once again. I’ve always loved the GameCity festival, with its focus on creativity and hunger for experimental work. Its audience mixes children and families among academics and industry professionals, and new unknown works sit side-by-side with established names. It’s the home of Dash & Bash, one of my favourite pieces of work, so it was a perfect choice of venue to debut my latest project: The Incredible Playable Show!

The idea of a playable stage show has been on my mind for years, as the next logical step from touring local-multiplayer installations. I’m keen to explore the opportunities the stage offers as a space for games, and to find the best ways to mix performance and play.

Over the four days of the festival I ran the show six times, and was given GameCity 2016's Spirit of the Festival award.

The trailer below, filmed at a subsequent performance at the Bristol Improv Theatre, should give a good feel for what the show is like!


What is The Incredible Playable Show?


The show is takes games of my own invention - involving physical interaction, running around and unconventional homemade controllers - and puts them into a theatre context. Spectators are invited onto the stage to become players, and must interact with each other and the audience to progress.

Still from BBC Click, 26 November 2016
Sometimes players take the role of human controllers. Other times they must climb through the audience, who have become real-world obstacles in a digital game. In the final act the audience must work together to solve coded messages, getting out of their chairs to pass clues to each other and share ideas.

Each set ran for 45 minutes. As well as operating the tech, I donned a ringmaster's jacket and drew upon my improv skills to become The Incredibly Playful Showman.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Winner of the GameCity Spirit of the Festival Award

Autumn 2016 has been a busy season for me and Codex Bash! September saw me jetting off to Abu Dhabi to run it at an A MAZE popup at the Discrict Me festival. October took me to GameCity in Nottingham to run it as part of the fringe, as well as running a brand new project called The Incredible Playable Show. Then in November I turned to bustling Hamburg to show Codex Bash at the Play16 festival, where I also ran Go! Power Team! complete with morphsuits.

In particular, The Incredible Playable Show was a roaring success, and I took from it a great many lessons about how digital games where we take them into completely new contexts. And it saw me earn the coveted Spirit of the Festival Award at GameCity - a great honour indeed!


Tuesday, 11 October 2016

The Only Reality That Matters

In an early version of Codex Bash, one of the puzzles - the one involving paper circuit diagrams - was different.

Recent players will have rummaged through laminated sheets strewn around the room and, I hope, will have tripped over a few before they got to the puzzle where they had to use them. But in the first version of the puzzle these circuit diagrams were all in the one booklet, pictured below. Hardly anyone could solve the puzzle without being told what to do.


I changed the user interface over and over. At one the point where the screen would show a picture of the schematics booklet, and the booklet itself would be in clear view right next to the screen. Yet players would still stare at the screen for ages trying to make sense of it. They would look directly at the booklet and stare back at the screen again, without laying a finger on the booklet itself.

I needed to work out what was going on.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

A MAZE 2016 talk - Inspiring Inventive Play with Social Installations

In April I was invited to demo Codex Bash at the A MAZE Festival in Berlin, where it had been selected as one of 20 nominees for the A MAZE awards. I was also fortunate enough to be invited to give a talk at the event!

My talk was titled Inspiring Inventive Play with Social Installations, and looks back at the things I've learnt from working on Go! Power Team!, Codex Bash and Tap Happy Sabotage. In particular, how the games use the physical space to encourage players to play creatively, putting their own unique stamp on the experience.


The full playlist of talks from the event is linked here, and there were some real standout talks at the event that made a big impact on me. In particular was Llaura Dreamfeel's talk, where she talked about engaging with media outside games in order to find your unique voice. It's definitely worth watching!

Monday, 25 July 2016

Installation Games at the Bristol Improv Theatre

On 1st July I was invited to demo my games at the Bristol Improv Theatre, known locally as the BIT. The demo was part of the theatre's monthly jam night, where the audience get up to perform improvised scenes for each other. Given the comedic and performative aspects of my recent work, it was a very good fit!

Go! Power Team!


The first game to be demoed was Go! Power Team! which I first ran at the JOIN Local Multiplayer festival in Berlin last year. For the uninitiated, four players take the role of "Rangers," each of them wearing a dedicated power-belt (a modified Android tablet connected to the main computer over WiFi). One player is selected from the crowd to the the "defender of the galaxy," tasked with fighting off monsters by pressing the coloured power-belts in the right order.



Every time a new monster appears the rangers are given a new command by the computer, which will tell them to lie on the floor, form a conga line, or hi-five the audience, among other things.


The idea is that the rangers are not on the side of the player, nor working against them, but acting of their own accord. Typically the rangers themselves will focus on performing, to make the audience laugh or to one-up each other with their outrageous interpretations of the commands. This is one of the benefits of keeping the rules of a game loosely-defined!

Monday, 11 April 2016

Codex Bash Nominated for A MAZE Awards 2016

This is something I'm very excited about! Codex Bash has been nominated for the A MAZE Awards and will be on display at A MAZE 2016 in Berlin, from 20-23 April.

I'll also be giving a talk during the event, titled Inspiring Inventive Play with Social Installations. In the talk I'll be going through the motivations, design lessons and observations that have shaped my recent work with playable installations. In it I'll be talking about what creating Tap Happy Sabotage, Dash & Bash, Go! Button Power Team! and Codex Bash itself have taught me about getting people to communicate and play creatively.

Photo copyright Wellcome Collection, 2015
Incidentally, Codex Bash was the first festival I road-tested Codex Bash at, as part of the Open Screens. So being able to present it as part of the official selection feels very special indeed!

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Codex Bash featured on BBC Click

Last weekend BBC Click ran a segment on indie games with physical components. I was interviewed  alongside George Buckenham, demonstrating Fabulous Beasts, and Robin Baumgarten, creator of Line Wobbler.

The segment begins at 17:30


It's really exciting to see my game being played on the BBC, and I'm glad I got to make my voice heard about where I feel the magic of multiplayer installations is: giving players a blank canvas and asking them to come up with their own solutions to unseen problems.

Incidentally, Fabulous Beasts and Line Wobbler also won awards at IndieCade 2015 - looks like the custom hardware scene is piquing people's interest!