Thursday, May 11, 2006

Tombstone Holdem': Playing Among the Graves

Continuing from the last post on Jane McGonigal's pervasive game design, how does one find a way to breathe new life into graveyards? I'll give you a taste of the process here -- but I encourage you to find out more from the designer herself.

So What About Cemetaries?

Following the questions prioritized in the last post, McGonigal first looked at the history of graveyards in the US. She found that as recently as the early 20th century, cemeteries were considered places of recreation. Around New York City, communities wooed, strolled, and had picnics at Mount Auburn because it offered a large, quiet, green piece of land away from urban life. In fact, says McGonigal, cemeteries continue to fall under the authority of Parks and Recreation Departments.

As for personal history, McGonigal herself attended a Quaker school whose area for recess was a cemetery. She has fond memories of playing there as well.

The Game Becomes a Cause

McGonigal became firmer in her resolve to discover and popularize new perspectives on her subject when she realized that cemeteries are disappearing at an alarming rate. Very few people visit a grave after attending the burial, and open tracts of land, particularly near cities, have become rare and valuable. Furthermore, vandalism has increased due to the low numbers who visit. These combined factors have allowed developers to obtain permission to build on top of them.

Gambling With Perspective

The result of McGonigal's efforts is a game called Tombstone Holden'. It was designed as a real-life extension of an Old West computer game. McGonigal liked the idea of building face-to-face community around a graveyard for this group. She felt it would interrupt the inevitable desensitization of those who sit at computers all day shooting people.

Consequently the tag line is "You killed them. Now go pay your respects."

How to Play Among the Dead and Still Be Respectful?

One of the many remarkable things about McGonigal's thinking is that she considers builds each move around several perspectives that often seem to conflict. For example, she wanted to honor both manners of using the space; playing a game as well as mourning the dead. She created cards that could be printed out from the site with both the structure and rules of the game. This way, if a mourner were distressed or distracted, a player could explain the game easily using the prop rather than struggling for an on-the-spot answer. The game players could identify each other by the one flower each brought to the gathering.

The day was a huge success, in several cities, and can be reproduced anywhere there is a cemetery standing. For the rules -- or to start a game in your city -- get in touch with McGonigal and visit her site site.

Possibilities for Play by Seeing Things New

McGonigal summed up by talking about all the behaviors and events we pass every day without engaging and without thought of play. She threw down a sort of gauntlet in conclusion: Once you've played a McGongical game, you will become the kind of person who answers a ringing payphone.

Applications for Business

Because thinking is associative, imagine the applications for business strategy. If the elements of stimulus and response are limited to a familiar pool of options, it is impossible to make new connections. On the other hand, the more often we find new ways to interact with each other and the environment, the more likely we are to innovative.

To participate in a conference dedicated to these principles, check out Serious Games in Berkeley.

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