Gamewalks and Procedural Reality

tgossi.jpegA few weeks ago I attended Indiecade in Culver City, "the Sundance" of game competitions. One of the festival's centerpieces is a 3-day "Gamewalk." All the festival's finalists, along with a number of demos by invited designers, set up their games at art spaces and galleries along a four-block stretch. Throughout the day, anyone who desires to can wander into any of the eight venues and pick up a controller. This experience is distinct from both our usual method of playing games alone or in small groups in our home and from the growing practice of curating a few select games at an art opening.

Gamewalk's name tells you a lot about how it feels. This isn't an event designed for deep play or comprehension. It isn't particularly well suited to criticism, judgment, or serious competition. But there's a distinct pleasure to this ludic amuse-bouche, meant to encourage walkers to bring their excitement for novel, independent games home for further thinking, playing, and sharing.

Of the Indiecade finalists that I hadn't played before attending, my favorite was a boardgame that managed to mirror the flânerie of the Gamewalk in a particularly poignant way. It simultaneously captured the spirit of the most rousing discussion of the night before, about how independent games must buck the trend of the mainstream industry's white, male leanings. The Gentlemen of the South Sandwiche Islands is a classic logic puzzle, wrapped in a minimalist boardgame, inside a transmedia story about courtship and delusion in a Victorian British colony.
Gentlemen is a competitive, two-player elaboration on the "Farmer's Puzzle." If you've played a Professor Layton game, then you've encountered some version of this problem before. You've got a (helpless farm animal), a (predatory animal), and a (bag of feed) on one side of a river, and you've got to get all three across. Unfortunately, you've got to bring these things across on a canoe, which can only carry two items at a time. If you leave the predatory animal alone with the farm animal, the farm animal will die. If you leave the bag of feed with the farm animal, the bag of feed will be eaten.

This version of the puzzle has been exploded out into a series of interconnected islets. Two players begin in the same location, each controlling a "master" marble and a "servant" marble. Nearby, marbles representing one "Lady Ashley" and her handmaid begin their rule-controlled, circular trek along a red-hued path. Players flip a coin to determine turn order, with Lady Ashley taking the last turn of every round. Lady Ashley and her servant always move together, unless they become separated and must burn their turns to let one catch up to the other.

Bridges of varying width separate the South Sandwiche islets. Each is marked by a number of dots that represent the maximum number of marbles that may pass over it in a given turn. In order to cross a bridge (unless that bridge only allows one marble to cross per turn), players must use one of their marbles and choose at least one other marble to bring along with it. This represents the "politeness" of Victorian society. The goal of the game is to isolate one's "master" marble on an island with Lady Ashley. The game ends once one player accomplishes this clandestine meeting three times, and the "courtship" of master and Lady is considered successful.

If you're interested in the narrative design of the game, I'd encourage you to read this article by the game's designer, James Taylor, on Confessions of an Aca-Fan. There, Taylor puzzles out the game's gender problematic. He plays it safe, I'd say, explaining how the many narrative layers of the game alleviate its sexist potential. But I'd like to make a stronger claim: the game doesn't need any of the narrative, and Taylor doesn't need to apologize, because it's the clearest procedural model of historical sexism that I've ever seen. To call this game sexist would be to mistake Brathwaite's Train for Nazi sympathy.

So, yes, it's problematic that the two marbles in Gentlemen of the South Sandwiche Islands coded as women are non-player characters rulebound to endlessly tread a predetermined circle. But let us take a moment to consider the historical milieu that this game simulates. Women in the Victorian era, despite the strong influence of a ruling Queen, were essentially considered a special class of property by law ("special," because harming one's wife or the wife of another was obviously punished more severely than the harming of any other kind of property). Their bodies were supposed to be temples, their minds a conduit for only that information deemed relevant to child-rearing and home management.

judith.jpegPerhaps the most popular way to make a game about Victorian England is to draw from the rich genre of steampunk fiction, which allows players to craft speculative adventures based on the period while avoiding, for the most part, its historical sexism. One way we could think to make a game that directly confronted the tribulations of life as a Victorian woman would be to make a narrative-heavy videogame adaptation of one of the Bronte novels (Distractionware's Judith comes to mind). Our book, Newsgames, would classify these as "operational reality" documentary games, which allow players to enact specific events within a primarily narrative context.

The Gentlemen of the South Sandwiche Islands, on the other hand, is an example of what we call "procedural reality." It is the conversion of a historical model into a system of rules that foreground the cultural or political conventions of the time. These systems don't produce singular stories, but, much like steampunk LARPing, they provide an almost infinite number of play experiences within a possibility space. Such procedural realities are important for ludic documentarians, because, instead of simply describing a singular event or problem as it took place, they allow their players to directly interrogate the conventions and constraints that caused such events to come about in the first place.

Gentlemen foregrounds the absurdity of a society based simultaneously on chauvinism and politeness. Its exposes the period's cold and objectifying sexual logic in a way that isn't celebratory or nostalgic. The very awkwardness of the game's play highlights just how unnatural human culture becomes when we view women as thoughtless, wandering prey. Victory confirms a player's cleverness, but it's a cleverness that forces one completely into an alien mindset. And it's a bittersweet victory, an end that causes one to immediately question its means.