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The Play’s the Thing: Practicing Play as Community Foundation and Design Technique

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THEME: Interdisciplinary: Changing Views It is generally understood that game development is a collaborative art – requiring and benefiting from the talents of individuals from disperse disciplines and backgrounds. In a professional setting, these individuals may or may not find ways to communicate effectively, depending on the size of the team and the strength of its leadership. But in the end, they are generally employed under the assumption that they can and will find their way amongst those of differing educations and biases to some sort of collaborative effort, harmonious or not. If they can not do this in the end, they can always be replaced. The basic nature of cross-disciplinary trial and error in a business setting is quite brutal: those who can play well with others, stay; those who cannot, move on. This rather haphazard approach to collaborative practice may have worked to date, but as game development becomes more and more complex, more specialized and requiring of larger and larger teams, the question of how to train a new generation of developers, not only in their own specializations, but in cross-disciplinary teamwork seems more important than ever. At the University of Southern California, there are a number of initiatives underway that try to answer not only the question of how or under what discipline to teach games, but, more importantly, how to create cross-disciplinary communities of students and researchers that can from the foundations for multi-talented teams that all speak and play the same language of game design. One such initiative is the USC Game Design Community. The goal of this organization is to use game play itself as a community building tool and design practice, to build a community of game designers and developers who communicate in the shared language of activity and play. Inspired by independent and alternative games culture, the USC Game Design Community is a collaboration between the Institute for Multimedia Literacy at the Annenberg Center for Communication and the Interactive Media Division at the USC School of Cinema-Television. Monthly game play events alternate between the Institute for Multimedia Literacy and the Game Innovation Lab at the School of Cinema-Television. These events include experimental play projects, game critique salons, and social teambuilding exercises. Through these interactions, the IML and the Interactive Media Division hope to raise cross-disciplinary dialogue, build a community based in playful practice, and empower students and researchers from all areas of game expertise to expand the palette of game design for the future. The results of these community building efforts will hopefully be seen in a series of interdisciplinary game projects funded by the Interactive Media Division and supported by the Game Design Community. The past year has included the following initial events which have each been documented and evaluated as to their success in building community and creating shared practices between various disciplines: a) Cooperative Game Play Experiment Inspired by the New Games Movement of the 1970’s, the Cooperative Game Play Experiment is an ongoing investigation into building community through play. By exploring the New Games Movement, the community hopes to facilitate discussion around the social mechanisms of digital games and how they can be improved for more quality social interaction – both in our games and in our development teams. b) Surrealist Game Play Experiment Inspired by Surrealist games and activities, the Surrealist Game Play Experiment is an ongoing investigation into unlocking creativity and introducing playful practice into the game design process. Word games, visual plays, provocations and re-inventions are the heart of Surrealist games and activities, a sort of "provocative magic" that results in unexpected and surprising results. By playing these games, the community hopes to spur creative thinking and discussion about the nature and practice of art and design and its relation to the more technical aspects of game design. c) Game Salons In an effort to promote literacy and critical thinking, the Game Salons are regular screenings and "deconstruction" of influential new video games. Game features are presented by students who have developed extensive save files and are prepared to discuss the game critically. Games include the controversial Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and other influential titles. d) Teambuilding Events The community provides an ongoing forum for networking and team-building across University departments. Currently, this has been specifically geared toward development of teams for the Game Innovation Lab Research Grant (see below). In addition to in person networking via board games and multiplayer game events, prospective projects and talent are all listed on the community site for potential match-making. e) Game Innovation Lab Research Grant This grant provides $20,000 in funding for innovative games. The grant is awarded to multiple, cross-disciplinary student design teams based on project submissions. One or more teams receive a grant in the Fall, in the Spring, and in the Summer. Winning teams receive up to $20,000, a team office and equipment in the EA Game Innovation Lab, access to the lab’s usability testing facility and a faculty advisor/executive producer. All USC students are eligible to participate. The goals of the grant are to: • Provide funding and support for innovative student game projects and cross-disciplinary game development • Address important design problems that may have useful applications in the game industry • Investigate new game mechanics and push current game models beyond existing genres Current projects funded under the Game Innovation Grant are: Dyadin – Cooperative Game Play This project explores the potential of cooperative play mechanics in a 2-player adventure game. The story of Dyadin involves two overlapping worlds, and two characters occupying these worlds, but only able to affect objects in their own space. The core mechanic involves moving closer or farther away from the other character to change color and affect objects in the space. Players must cooperate or they cannot escape the puzzle and combat based levels. Dyadin was funded by the Game Innovation Lab as the first in a series of student-produced games addressing important design problems and innovations. The crew is a cross-disciplinary team from the School of Cinema-TV Interactive Media Division and the Viterbi School of Engineering. The Spring 2005 project(s) will be announced in December 2004. This experiment in using experimental types of game play to bring together a cross-disciplinary game design community is an ongoing process. The proposed article would be an evaluation of the various techniques attempted and the success, failure and learning found in them. In addition to post-mortem analysis, documentary footage and game results, there is also the potential to play some of the more successful game experiments with the conference audience, thereby extending the reach of the community beyond the limits of the USC campus.
Contact: Tracy Fullerton, USC Cinema-TV, Interactive Media Division,
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