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The New Games Movement

I. Play Hard. Play Fair. Nobody Hurt.

I’m returning again to Stewart Brand, the Counterculture, and tying it back in to my long-running series of notes on game studies.

Someone- I forget who and it’s probably unimportant- was observing puppies play, and interpreted their play as an exchange of signals: “I could hurt you if I really wanted to, but I don’t.” Innocent play was a way to explore social interactions and each other without fear of significant damage. Even rough play could be done safely as long as all puppies continued to signal that they weren’t feeling threatened or hurt. Personally, I enjoy the intense competitive experience.

Anyway, given their attitude and history, it’s sensible that play and games might become a preoccupation of some of the Counterculture’s focus. As you might guess, they were interested in games that foster friendliness and cooperation, [and sometimes vertigo].

Stewart Brand was asked to organize an activity to protest the Vietnam War, in 1966.

Playing in public in itself is a political act, especially in hard times. To get people together of different ages and cultures and languages, and have them all enjoy each other and play games, is so different from what was going on at the time. The hippies were protesting. The government was cracking down. The military was attacking its own civilians. There was racial unrest.”

He invented games for his “play-in”:

He created Slaughter, a physically intense game with 40 players, four moving balls, and two moving baskets on a large wrestling mat. Anyone jarred off the mat was eliminated from this energetic game.

The second game he created for this event was a battle to control Mother Earth which involved hundreds of people, a six feet diameter canvas “Earth Ball,” and these instructions: “There are two kinds of people in the world: those who want to push the Earth over the row of flags at that end of the field, and those who want to push it over the fence at the other end. Go to it.”

The interesting phenomenon that always occurred was that when the ball neared one end or the other of the field, people would switch sides to prevent the “goal.” The popularity of these games birthed the New Games Movement.

The Point Foundation was a San Francisco-based environment-focused nonprofit, cofounded by Stewart Brand and Dick Raymond. The foundation was responsible for publishing some works related to the Whole Earth Catalog and would later be associated with The WELL. It funded the first “New Games Tournament”.

Stewart joined forces with “Human Potential” writer George Leonard and a community organizer named Pat Farrington to create this first “New Games Tournament” event. After its success (6000 in attendance), the New Games Foundation was founded to host future New Games Tournaments. Andrew Fluegelman (later “freeware” pioneer, founding editor of PC World and Macworld) would publish the New Games Book and its sequel. Since then, many of these games have become common team-building summer camp staples.

New Games encompasses a number of diverse philosophies that once challenged many old traditions about games. Some of these philosophies include:

  • Play and physicality were as important to adults as they were to children
  • Competition and cooperation should co-exist; but while competition can be important, winning and losing is not
  • No one should be left out, eliminated, or unable to play
  • Games are living culture, adapted and changed as required
  • Play should require no or little equipment
  • The rules should be dirt simple and fun

The guiding philosophy infusing all of these was: Play Hard. Play Fair. Nobody Hurt.

The New Games movement would die slowly through the ’80s for reasons that are predictable to the Counterculture story arc.

 

II.

The New Games movement is interesting for a few reasons. First, they incorporate ideas about play that might smell familiar to some of the anthropological game studies stuff that I’ve written about before. Huizinga’s work from a few decades ago was finally translated and available a decade ago; Caillois’ work was only a few years old.

The New Games folks were also creators, not just theorizers. Using an older story I’ve learned, the New Games Movement almost seems like the “Bauhaus artists” to the Huizinga-Caillois “academic complex”. Perhaps I just need to learn more stories.

Also, if I were interested in weaving such a story, the New Games Movement would allow me to use Stewart Brand as a fixture at the intersection of the more anthropological thread of game studies, and the birth of the cyberculture, video games, and the subsequent industry-centric videogame criticism that Bogost decried in Unit Operations. Stewart Brand has connected a lot of disparate scenes; he could be the turning point in plenty of stories if you wanted to draw lines that particular way.

 

III.

There is something serious in the way that they perceived games that I think is often missing from contemporary evangelists of games-in-non-game-contexts.

Looking back at some of the guidelines I quoted above (extra credit: compare to some of the stories I shared here).

  • Games are living culture, adapted and changed as required
  • Play should require no or little equipment
  • The rules should be dirt simple and fun

In From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Turner brought up the evolution of the computer metaphor for social systems, and how it evolved from an apprehension about the view of being a “cog in the machine” (the counterculture fear of computerization) to an excitement over computers as enablers of new social structures and freedoms (the 90’s web-enabled idealism).

Most of Gamification/serious games seems overly excited about the former and not very appreciative of the latter.

 

Vaguely related: What became of social games?

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