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High Concepts

Game Theory – Andy North

Summer Sponsored 2014 Artist Andy North discusses his ideas about playing games and what it teaches us.

Andy North

I’m a game designer. When we think of games we think of kids, and when we think of kids’ games we think of screaming and chaos. But If you’ve ever watched very young children play you’ll see that they spend a lot of time discussing the rules of their play, the roles and situations they’re in, arguing things like how a dinosaur and its mother should act when they’re in a restaurant together. Kids use play as a way of experimenting and learning from each other about social relationships, something that is very, very important to them*. We pretend that this urge to experiment and learn goes away as we get older, which is nonsense. But as adults we need an excuse to do it! We need something called a magic circle.


Okay but bear with me here, because this is an important thing. The “magic circle” in game design terms refers to the space, both physically and mentally, within which the rules of the game apply. So a basketball court is a magic circle, and so is a blackjack table. Kids can make magic circles instantly and anywhere (“Let’s pretend to be dinosaurs”) and there’s no social pressure stopping them. Adults have a tougher time. So a big part of my job is figuring out how to put people into that mindset, give them the excuse to play and the context in which it is socially acceptable.

Here’s an example. One of the games I’ve been working on at HCL is called The Battle for Booze Mountain, a beer-pong-based wargame, that allows you to feel what it’s like to be a general and lead a force to victory or glorious defeat. It can be played in bars and at parties because it’s beer pong (and we have a magic circle for beer pong in our heads, it’s acceptable, it’s cool), but it gives you the experience of being a general and leading a mighty force to victory. It gives you a whole new set of verbs. Verbs! Let’s talk about verbs.


Game designers refer to the range of actions a player can take as the game’s “verbs,” and the best games allow us access to a whole range of verbs we don’t normally get to use – when was the last time you betrayed someone, or actively protected them, or best yet, outsmarted or tricked? Or sometimes they’re more common verbs that many of us would feel uncomfortable using day-to-day: blackmailing, deceiving, getting revenge, bullying, intimidating, threatening, persuading, seducing. And you’re not experiencing these things through somebody else like an actor playing a character – you’re not playing someone who’s getting revenge, you’re getting revenge.

Andy North2

Playing “Safehouse” at High Concept Labs – Summer 2014

I like games that provide people exciting verbs. One of the games I’m working on at HCL is Safehouse, a game about a houseful of survivors being taken over by body snatchers, meant to instill that horror-movie sense of isolation and paranoia. I love games that give you access to verbs like deceiving and betraying, but I’ve never made one before. After playing the first prototype my friend Ryan said “That was a pretty fun game, too bad [my girlfriend] and I have to break up because she backstabbed me three times.” Which is great! Because games should disrupt your social role and relationships. In fact let’s make that a big section:


Remember at the top when I said kids use play as social rehearsal? Games are great for that because they disrupt social dynamics. The most powerful person at the Monopoly table is the one who has a hotel on boardwalk, and that might be a five-year-old kid. And that’s great.

And party games! Party games. Nothing is more intimidating than a roomful of strangers, which is why party games are so popular – even a simple game like Charades gives you:
1) An excuse to socialize with strangers
2) An instant social bond (“We’re on the same team!”)
3) A clear individual objective (Guess or communicate whatever the clue is)
4) A shared objective with your new social group (“Make sure our team wins”)

Games are super-efficient social engines. So that’s what my hope is: to make good games that help strangers form bonds through playing together, and to create the circumstances that allow them to feel comfortable playing. Which brings me to my last point, my secret:


You have to start playing and let people join in. The best thing that games are is invitations: look how much fun we’re having, come join us! For my 26th birthday, some friends and I started a game of Red Rover while waiting for a drive-in movie to start. Twenty minutes later, the game involved about eighty people, and had to be halted for safety reasons (Red Rover is rough, man). You have to sort of be your own magic circle, and let it grow as people watch and then join in to play themselves.

Andy North3There’s one last game I’m working on at HCL: I call it “Swashbuckle”. It’s a game that helps people create fictional stories together, because I think the stories we enjoy and relate to can teach us a lot about each other.

If it works, Swashbuckle will be a game that allows you to create magic circles anywhere. Little two-person circles you can play in at the hospital, or on the bus with a friend, or big circles in the park or in a club or on a stage somewhere. Wherever it happens, it will be a game that invites people to watch and to play along, and make the circle bigger. And it always helps to have more people on your team.


*For an excellent case study about how children use play check out “The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter” by Vivian Gussin Paley



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