For my gameplay experience this quarter, I took part in a playtest at the MADD center run by Peter McDonald. The game began when the group I was with was invited to participate in some wine tasting. The researchers in lab coats then informed us that they had tested our DNA and discovered we shared DNA with the 500, a group who came to earth a long time ago. The researchers told us they needed our help to fix their interdimensional portal so they could get back to their city of Gnighton. Then, we were handed a notebook which contained clues for a scavenger hunt. Once we collected all the test slides and the box that we found during the scavenger hunt, we went back inside and fixed the portal using the test slides which had colors marked on them as clues. Using these color cues, we matched the correct wires to their outlets, completed a circuit, and solved the game.
One thing I noticed during this gameplay experience was how much it reminded me of an escape room challenge. This could be due to the fact that we were a small group–only about seven of us were players in this game–making for a more intimate, collaborative experience. Furthermore, this was simply a playtest, and for that reason the experience felt like a one-time experience of an escape room.
Considering this is a game-in-the-works, upon reflection I was wondering what the aims of the final game could be. It seemed to me that this game as a final product would have the moral of either conservation or climate change, because the box which we had found through the scavenger hunt contained flowers and seeds. Additionally, the researchers from another world relayed how they came back to Earth to bring supplies back to their home, since their city was experiencing a drought. Additionally, the notebook contained letters with a lot of color used as imagery; these colors also related to things like Lake Michigan and the Chicago sky changing color due to pollution. In thinking about this, I thought, too, about Geoff Kaufman and Mary Flanagan’s research on embedded games. In their work, they “introduce the concept of ‘Embedded Design,’ through which potentially sensitive, controversial, or counterattitudinal ideas or themes in games are crafted in a way that is less overt and less obviously didactic or ‘message-driven’” (3). I felt this to be the case with this playtest as well, for the sci-fi aesthetic of the game and the nonmoral and purely-for-fun scavenger hunt helped to override any explicit messages about climate change. While a game like Awkward Moment cited by Kaufman and Flanagan inserts specific “bias cards” into the game to get their message across, the fact that this game’s (speculative) ethic is embedded into the gameplay as well as interwoven into the actual game story makes it at once less didactic and more pervasive.
I also believe that this game aligned with Guy Debord’s situationist definition of play. He asserts that “the new phase of affirmation of play seems to be characterized by the disappearance of any element of competition” (l. 4). This was very apparent to me while playtesting: because so much of the game relied upon our help as a group, the scavenger hunt was a completely collaborative effort. While I figured out one clue was by the school bookstore, Aaron figured which statue would harbor the next clue. However, I agree with Debord’s other sentiment, that “play cannot be completely emancipated from a competitive aspect; its goal must be at the very least to provoke conditions favorable to direct living” (l. 20). Though here Debord is speaking on a larger scale, making a claim for how play should factor into an overall capitalist world, it holds true for this specific game as well, for it still maintained competition, just in a different form. What I mean is, we all worked together to beat the game itself: to finish the scavenger hunt and fix the portal. It was the players versus the game. It seems, too, that this form of competition is another form of “embeddedness” that the game utlizies; necessitating collaboration to solve a problem forces players to be more aware of their own responsibility and to keep each other accountable. This is the case with climate change as well, to learn how each individual’s part plays a role in the large scale maintenance of our planet and home.