Deadly Serious Games: fictional games and what they tell us

08 February 2012 | 4 comments

This is a writeup of a talk I gave at the game design conference Bit of Alright on 3 February. It’s about games in fiction, and why they’re interesting, especially the really stupid ones. There are some pie charts.

I find something perpetually fascinating about fiction and games: any books or movies or TV shows where the characters play something. And that’s what I talked about at Bit of Alright. Games in fiction, what they’re like and how you play and why they’re interesting.

I started out by collecting a lot of information about fictional games, in the laziest possible way: I made a collaborative spreadsheet and asked people on Twitter to add to it. Everyone loves an excuse to procrastinate, so it worked pretty well; after a day, there were 150 entries at widely differing levels of completeness, accuracy, and snark. Not just titles but plot summaries, descriptions of the game, questions about the fictional designer. The spreadsheet is still open, and amazing – do have a look, and add to it if you like. It’s already had a fair few changes since I used it as the basis for these slides.

If you look at all the different games on the spreadsheet, something interesting comes up: there are an awful lot of live games. These are the sorts of game I tend to design: things where people run around cities, or explore tunnels, or build sculptures, or hide out in parks. There’s not  a huge amount of this stuff around in the real world, but in fiction, this type of gameplay is far more popular than video games.

I guess that’s part of why I like fictional games – they appeal to the same part of my brain that makes me want to design things for real physical spaces. But there’s plenty to find interesting about fictional games even if you don’t have my real-world game obsessions.

First: fictional games are great.

They’re just really great fun, even when they’re not very good. Take a look at the spreadsheet, and some of the plot summaries:

The Doctor and his companions randomly wake up one day having been imprisoned inside futuristic versions of the reality/gameshows of 2005-era British television. Except because it’s THE FUTURE, the games are DEADLY.

Or this:

Games are a metaphor drugs.

Or this:

She gets involved in an international mystery involving alternate reality Romans.

Or this:

Although the pool shark wins, he finds that he has to spend his eventual afterlife traipsing around pool halls as a ghost, when other people wish they could play against “the greatest player of all time”.”

Or even this:

Joey becomes the host of a new, poorly-defined game show.

Don’t they sound beguiling? I’m not about to run off for a Twilight Zone and Friends marathon, but if I were, these would be the episodes I’d pick.


Fictional games influence real-world design.

Fictional games can turn into real-world games. As an example, let’s look at a slightly rambling sequence of events, stretching over forty years. It starts in 1960s New York, where we find Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim (yes, that Anthony Perkins, and that Stephen Sondheim) making up puzzle hunts for their friends. It’s a form that the world is really familiar with now, but it was pretty strange in those days, something quite new.

And then, in the early 70s, Perkins and Sondheim wrote the script for a movie called The Last of Sheila, based on the treasure hunts they’d devised. In the movie multi-millionaire invites six friends on a scavenger hunt/murder mystery game of his own design, and they come to his yacht for a week of fun. (Perhaps inevitably, the fun turns deadly). It’s an okay movie; nothing amazing, and I wouldn’t particularly recommend it outside its historical significance, but not bad.

And here’s the important bit: it was one of the inspirations behind Don Luskin’s The Game, a puzzle hunt that ran in 1973, the year after The Last of Sheila was released. Luskin ran a version of his game a few more times through the 70s, and even had a writeup in the Los Angeles Times

…which became the inspiration for the 1980 Disney film Midnight Madness, in which an eccentric wild-haired student and his two sidekicks (women in rollerskates and amazing GAME CONTROL t-shirts) run a massive overnight puzzle hunt for competing groups of fellow students. As you can see from the poster above, it’s a “wacky college adventure”, and it’s really not very good at all, but…

…a student called Joe Belfiore watched it anyway, and it inspired him to create his own puzzle hunt in 1985, the Bay Area Race Fantastique at Stanford University. When Belfiore moved to Seattle to join Microsoft, his game kept running (with new organisers) at Stanford, but a new version started in Seattle – and between them, the Stanford and Seattle games are the ancestors of a huge proportion of the current crop of puzzle hunt games. And that’s without even counting all the other designers inspired directly by Midnight Madness.


Third: fiction can reveal our fears and hopes about games

There are patterns that come up again and again in the Spreadsheet of Fictional Games, stories that you wouldn’t particularly expect to be told even once, let alone two or three or four times. And if we look at the repeating patterns, there are hints about the things that people want from games, or fear they might get whether they want to or not.

There’s the live game that goes wrong…

There’s the idea that the designer of a game can have a slightly uncomfortable level of control over the actions of her players…

That slide shows not one but two novels in which a game designer is commissioned to create a game in order to destabilise a repressive government and foment a revolution.

There’s the game-as-addiction:

(The specific Star Trek episode is “The Game”, which involves a really-dull-looking video game in which some strange red trumpets emerge from a grid. It’s apparently SO MUCH FUN that it takes over the brains of everyone on the Enterprise, before they eventually realise that it’s part of a plot by the Ktarians to take control of the ship. Due warning: the trumpet grid isn’t the only game that turns up. It starts with a game of seductive hide and seek as played by Riker and a sexy lady from Risa. It is quite alarming and may put you off beards, beds, games, sexy ladies etc for a good week or two. But if you can get past the first three minutes, it’s a lot of fun.)

And there are stories in which it’s somehow extremely important that a child with no friends is really really good at a game…

…in fact, only the small child’s lonely talent with games will save humanity / the empire / the universe from destruction, and the small child definitely wasn’t wasting his time even a little bit and it’s a good thing he didn’t have any stupid friends because how would he have saved the universe then, hey? Hey? Did you ever think of that? ”Hopes revealed by fiction about games”, there.


Fourth: fiction about games is sometimes about US

Finally: you don’t tend to get many game designers in fiction. It’s not one of the jobs that sitcom characters just happen to have, like “waitress” or “architect” or “nondescript office guy”; it’s not something that makes your movie hero or heroine a bit glamorous or heartwarming or menacing, like “barrister” or “doctor” or “kindergarten teacher”. But fiction about games is sometimes fiction about game designers, and who doesn’t like appearing in fiction now and then?

If we look at the stats, we find a lot of games that are purely traditional, or designed by faceless corporations, or which seem to have sprung fully-formed with no posited designer; but we also get a lot of games from game design companies, or individual designers.

So we can look at something like P.J. Tracy’s Want to Play?, a thriller with the subtitle “HIDE AND SEEK. AND KILL.”, and find the programmer Harley, who types fast and gets really excited about the “serial killer font” he’s designed and the way it crystallises out of “thousands of blood-red pixels”. Inevitably the serial killer game goes wrong, as somebody starts enacting its murders in real life, and we get to come along with the cop assigned to their case as he meets designer Grace, who has ice-blue eyes and a long leather jacket and a confident stance. “God, he hated beautiful women” snarls his inner monologue.

In fact, looking at the breakdown of fictional game designers, 28% of them are designed by individual designers, and another 11% by game companies, and quite often these are actual characters that we get to meet.

If we look at that 28% in more detail, the games from individual designers, we can see it break down like this:

That’s arguably an overrepresentation of psychotic killers compared to the real-world game design community, but otherwise it’s not that far wrong.


Games about Fiction: the Subgenres

If we go back to the spreadsheet again, in light of these different things to look for in fiction about games, there are a few different subgenres and types of game that recur again and again. There’s the Sport of the Future…

 In The Year of the Flood, it’s Painball, which is like Paintball but with acid instead of paint.

In Rollerball, it’s, well, Rollerball, which is a bit like Roller Derby meets full-contact motorcycling, with a magnetic steel ball.

In Futuresport, it’s Futuresport – yes, in 2025 the most popular sport in the world is called Futuresport.  Futuresport is a high-octane combination of skateboarding and basketball, but the ball is electrified and will shock you if you hold it for more than five seconds.

There’s a clear pattern here:

It’s RUGBY meets ICE CLIMBING, but the BALL is ON FIRE. It’s BIG GAME FISHING meets JUMP ROPE, but the WATER is POISONOUS. It’s WATER POLO meets LASER TAG, but the HORSE is HAUNTED. Why is there a horse? It’s the future! Why the hell not?

Another recurring pattern is the MANY PLAYERS, ONE SURVIVOR model, where a group of players  have to kill each other, until only one remains: the winner. Often they’re forced to play against their will, though occasionally they’re just in it for the frolics.

These tend to be quite good fun because the forced players often rebel against the game’s creators, meaning we get to see game designers in action. In The Hunger Games, for example, we’re treated to a few meetings with the Gamemakers, who dress in purple robes and spend most of their time drunk and feasting on extravagant banquets and roast pig.

They’re also interesting because the game form is a good example of fictional games influencing real-world games. The first example of this sort of game is a 1952 short story by Robert Sheckley, which was turned into an Italian film in 1965…

…from which point it inspired any number of ripoffs and variants, including some full-length novels by Sheckley, and a pile of real-world versions including Steve Jackson’s 1982 Killer. From that point, it’s the ultimate precursor to most of the Assassin-variant games that have been played since in American universities, plus pervasive games like Humans versus Zombies and computer games like The Ship.

Another recurring pattern is a game that’s basically chess… with a TWIST. It’s not always chess – sometimes another abstract strategy, so in Consider Phlebas it’s “Damage” and in The Chessmen of Mars it’s, er, Jetan. However, there’s always… a TWIST, and the TWIST is always that the pieces are people who actually die when they’re “taken”.

It’s a really popular fictional device, and incredibly boring – maybe the recurring plot that’s least likely to have any interesting gameplay. The people at risk aren’t really players (they don’t usually have any volition about how to move), and for the people who do play, there’s usually not much to distinguish it from a normal abstract strategy game.

I’m also not really enthusiastic about most of the “is the game real? Or is the real world real? Which is more real? Who’s playing what why when? What’s really going on?” genre, with a couple of exceptions. There’s generally not much to distinguish them from any non-game-related VR movie, with someone staring out the camera at the end and implying that maybe you the viewer are in a simulation and did you ever think of that hey hey did you did you?

Then there’s the “crazed killer/enemy of the hero creates a deadly maze filled with traps and danger! Instead of just killing them!”, which can be a lot of fun. The specific episode that justifies the inclusion of MacGyver in the picture above “Deathlock“, and it’s one of the best of the series. (There’s a casket that turns into a jetski, for a start.)

And then there are the books and movies where the game is background, a built-in part of the world: something that everyone knows about and most people play, a normal part of life. Sometimes these can be really interesting (with the obvious exception, from the picture above, of the predictably-dire Piers Anthony series), because once the game is accepted as a background part of the world it frees the story up to be about something else; the game is an important part of the story’s world, and there’s just as much chance of some interesting gameplay going on, but it’s not the focus at the cost of everything else.


So: what goes wrong? What goes right?

Something that’s clear from all this is that games in fiction go wrong an awful lot. Which makes sense! A book where everyone played a complex real-world game and it all worked quite well and one of them won and then they all went and had burgers? Probably not as exciting as a book where the players get too competitive and turn on each other and it turns out the game was designed by demons.

If we look at the stats…

…it turns out that well over half of fictional games will turn deadly at some point. If we break the deadly games down a bit further…

…we see that the deadly split between games that start out safe but then end up dangerous, and games that were always intended to be deadly, usually because the game designer is evil.

What about the non-deadly games? Are they safe? Not quite:

It’s clear that a lot of fictional games are really dangerous even if they don’t lead to actual deaths. On the other hand, though, the little yellow “apparently (but not really) deadly” slice? That’s all the games where it looks like someone’s died, but it turns out they’re an actor/it’s all VR/it’s a dream. So if you ever find yourself transported to fiction, forced to play a game, and killed, don’t give up: there’s a small chance that you’ll turn out to be all right by the end.

If we look at the deadly games in more detail, and ask who the designers are…

…then we find out that games are safest when they come from dreams or young people, and most dangerous when they’re designed by women or governments – even pyschotic killers are a better bet. In fact, the only reason “women” aren’t at 100% for deadliness is an episode of Maid Marian and her Merry Men where they turn their cave into a spoof of the Crystal Maze, because something unlikely. (UPDATE: commenters tell me Marian wasn’t even the designer, so this budges women’s game design deadliness up to 100%, on a par with governments.)


In conclusion

Let’s go back to the idea that fiction about games can reveal our fears and hopes for game design.

If we only look at the games that have something badly wrong with them, the games that turn deadly or dangerous, then there’s a reasonable split between the types of things that go wrong:

People get addicted, reality gets blurred, players get carried away, the sadistic voyeurism of humanity brings about increasingly violent game shows, bad people design games, business partners wrong each other. It’s a reasonable overview of society’s fears about games: that they can control us, that we get too involved, that people take them too seriously, and so on.

But if we look  at the games that don’t go wrong, the ones that work out:

…well, there are a few where games can save the world, or the universe, or make us better people. But generally speaking, fiction’s best hope for a game is much the same as life’s best hope for a game: that it’s amazing, and people play it and really have a lot of fun.

Thanks to Josh Hadley, Margaret Robertson, Dan Higham, Nick Lange, David Hayward, Martyn Brook, Gary Siu, Andrew Lightwing, Paul Rissen, Sophie Sampson, Tom Armitage, Gareth Briggs, Jodi Crisp, Mary Hamilton, Chris Pheasey, Kevan Davis, Clare Lovell, Daniel Nye Griffiths, Naomi Alderman, Sarah Dobbs, Justin Pickard, Tim Mannveille, Elizabeth Lovegrove, Robert Mackay, Amanda Forsyth, Ruth Ball, George Buckenham, and Susannah Davis for their contributions to the spreadsheet.

4 comments on this post.

  • On 8 Feb 2012, Chris M. Dickson said:

    Brilliant stuff! This leads to the incidental category of “fictional games made real”, sometimes with really ill-advised results. Would you continue to welcome additions to the spreadsheet?

  • On 8 Feb 2012, Gizensha said:

    …Technically, Maid Marian didn’t have anything to do with the… Uhh… Crystal Maze parody called Dungeons and Dragons. It was all the Merry Men, who had become obsessed with the game, with Robin as the dungeon master/Richard O’Brien.

    …Which means, according to fiction, ordinary women are not only in the coveted ‘more dangerous than psycho-killers when they turn to game design’ category, but they’re as dangerous at game design as governments.

  • On 9 Feb 2012, Herm said:

    Excellent breakdown and extremely interesting stats. I didn’t see Jumanji mentioned, but that’s one under the “game is magically cursed” heading (could be counted under evil designers, though, on the basis that it was probably designed to be evil).

    Full marks for including the Iain M Banks examples. There are actually at least two games described in a bit of detail in The Player of Games. One is a standard piece of competitive fun for spoiled Culture citizens. The other, the one the plot revolves around, is the omnipresent weird chessboard as mentioned, which is used to determine the political hierarchy on a particular alien world.

  • On 9 Feb 2012, Holly said:

    Chris: yes, definitely would welcome more examples! I’ll probably use the stats again and recalculate at some point, and even if not it’s nice to have it as complete as possible.

    Gizensha: aha, interesting, re Maid Marian – that was one of the ones I haven’t seen myself. So now we know which designers to avoid if transported magically to the realm of fiction.

    Herm: yeah, the beads-in-a-grid Culture game is probably explained in, if anything, more detail than the massive political-hierarchy game, if I remember correctly? (Or at least, you get a more complete idea of it, as it’s a smaller game). I used the alien game for the stats on account of it being more important to the plot, though.

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