April 1, 2006
Slow Games and the Quest for Play Everlasting
As games and game design become increasingly influential in other design disciplines, we called on area/code and the team behind the B.U.G. to create a game addressing architecture, culture, and design.
Birthdays have long been associated with games, and there is no dearth of excitement when the two are mentioned in the same breath. So when we were invited to produce a game marking the 25th year of Metropolis, we jumped at the chance. After some fits and starts and lots of in-betweens, we arrived at a crazy idea that led to the design of the four games presented in the pages that follow. What, we wondered, would it mean to design a game that takes 25 years to play?
Games are usually designed to be transitory. They provide us with a couple of hours (or maybe a couple of weeks) of fun and then they’re over. Architecture, in contrast, is often pitched in the language of longevity: buildings, because of their physicality, are designed to last. We wondered how we could make a designed experience, like a game, last a long time. How could we transform the normally transitory and ephemeral nature of games into something that endured? Taking a cue from Willy Wonka and his everlasting gobstoppers, we came up with the concept of slow games, games designed to last a quarter of a century in a single play.
As dynamic systems, all games deal with time, but very few games deal with it in exactly the same way. Some games delimit it through the use of timed sessions of play, as in basketball or hockey. Other games might designate a number of play sessions, like innings in baseball, which don’t so much limit time as give a general frame of reference for how long a game might take. Then there are games like chess: do you play a game of chess in one afternoon over tea or over the course of several months? With slow games, time is manipulated in such a way as to simply slow down their play. In some ways, we can think of contemporary online games like World of Warcraft as slow games; years from now people will still be in that game, in the same way that there are players still in systems like LambdaMOO.
One effect of slow games is that they become measuring sticks of the passage of life. When you choose to make a move in Cross Currents, pull out Forget Me, scan the UPC symbol from Skew, or attempt to send The Last Fax, you will probably be reminded of the last move you made in the game, what you were doing, who you were with, and what you did with your time between moves. And like the game Assassin, slow games are designed to be part of your everyday life: they can be played while doing other stuff. Or, if you are really strapped for time, simply sit down one day, at the end of each year, crack open a snack, and make your move.
Slow games are games to be savored, their play doled out a little bit at a time. We’ll be playing them and hope you’ll join us and play them too. All we are asking from you is 25 years of your time.