I'm sitting outside the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank. I'm drinking. A woman's just come up to our table and is talking to - well, it's hard to tell if it's us or the voices in her head, but she's insistent. She knows someone's after her. She knows it's the Lovers or the Dancers, those montague and capulet-esque Natural enemies. The problem being, she's got no idea yet whether she's a lover or a dancer. Shit - she gasps, spinning around - There's one of them near. She doesn't know where. She smiles! She's gained a life. She's now got thirteen. Ah - this is wonderful.
So much so usual sitting on the South Bank drinking. But it's a little different. The lady isn't an insane person communicating with her inner demons. She's playing a game as part of the Hide & Seek festival, which is happening this weekend in London. I'm attending the opening ceremony. It is a fun time.
The festival describes itself as a "Hide and Seek is a festival of social games and playful experiences". The idea being, between now and the 29th, there's a variety of games and casual events people can get involved with, varying from flashmod SMS powered stuff to sitting around and bullshitting. Check out the programme. And, to someone who primarily games through videogames, coming here feels like going absolutely native, back to the core of mechanics and humans. You know - why we do this thing.
It's kind of literal - one of the most intriguing things on the programme, which I won't be able to do as I'm jetting off to SF on the weekend, is that designer/General HyperbrainJane McGonigal is reviving the 2000+ year old game of human labyrinth which was inexplicably banned from the Olympics. In other words, it was the Manhunt of its day. The rules and details are here, if you're interested, and of course, it's not too late to sign up and play too. Clearly, I think it's an invention for the sake of whatever ARG she's up to right now... but making a little faith is what this all about. And besides, it's fun and funny. A good lie is worth a lot of tedious truths.
Fun and funny goes a long way. Take one of the games I didn't play - the aforementioned game which opened the pieces, which I believe was called The Kindness Of Strangers. As far as I could see, it was based around divided into two teams, which none of the teams knew who each other were - and they could only recognise themselves via messages being fed into their earpieces when they got near each other, presumably through their phones or something. I don't know. I just know that seeing groups of people walk around paranoidly, trying to spot ear-phones as a voice said that someone was approaching was hilarious, and re-made (and re-claimed) the world. Playing a social game in this sort of situation does a lot of that - a semi-situationist attempt to remake the city as a playground. During the festival, I'm told a game was being played across London, with dozens of people trying to make their way across the city without being caught. Only if they make it do the band get to play at the aftershow party. That's about as high stakes as it gets.
I stayed for a few hours, and played a variety of games - the GK Chesteron-inspired social game of swapping his Bon Mots while trying to avoid people who were bores proved hilarious, especially when we ran away from my girlfriend who we'd all realised was a bore and should be shunned. This lead to a circular chase sequels, with her in hot pursuit. The terrible bore. Er... it was in the rules. Similarly fun was the gloriously simple Dadaist Trivial Puruits, where one player asks a question, then everyone simply gives one answer from any of the six on the card they've just drawn. (e.g. Q: "What is Moroccan leather made of? A: "Gladstone" "His Son" "Rudolph Hess") Whoever the person asking the question decides is funniest gets the point. Enormously stupid drinking game. And obviously, I was drinking a little . Social drinking and social games made a lot of sense.
However, the one which left me most excited and full of anecdotes was the game of smuggling. Two teams - one of Guards, one of Smugglers. The Guards have mirrorshades, the Smugglers have UV ink on their hands, but are otherwise incognito. Upstairs in the festival hall was left a mass of objects which had to be taken from upstairs to the middle of the open ballroom floor, in a sunken level beneath the rest of the hall and with a banister around it. While the guards couldn't enter the ballroom itself, they were able to stop and examine people for the UV mark at any point inbetween. Of course, there's an element of risk - they use the UV on someone who either isn't a smuggler, or is a smuggler but isn't carrying any contraband, they lose a life and eventually end up being taken out of the game for minutes at a time if they lose them all. Similarly, the smuggler, if caught, is first photographed and then sent on their way, and then starts building up the time in "prison".
Guards stop 50% of the objects, they win. Otherwise, smugglers do. I was a smuggler.
Sneaking objects past people into another room and they don't know if you're trying to? Piece of piss, obv.
These were the objects.
Yeah, that's harder. If you can't see, it includes a chair, a rug, balloons, a table, a plate full of inappropriate food and a person pretending to be passed out drunk.
(Who I embarrassingly spilt water on by accident. Man!)
The game was basically hilarious, with the mass of smugglers trying to debate what to do. Various people elected themselves leaders - others just went off to do their own things. Almost everyone saw an angle which someone else hadn't considered - to chose one of my own insights, early in the game, they about to do what was called a Chair Rush. That is, a load of people would carry random non-contraband chairs downstairs, with one person with the actual chair in the midst. They'd overwhelm the guards with numbers, knowing they couldn't arrest them all as they'd lose their lives. Which is a great plan - but I realised it was one for later in the game. Anyone carrying a chair in the rush would then be a known face for the guards - and at the opening of the game the guards simply didn't know who was playing. Only when that edge was spent we should turn to such absolutely over-the-top-glorious deceptions.
You see, the joy was, everything goes. Until the guards actually got that pen out, you could do anything reasonable. Lie your face off, claim you weren't playing the game, whatever. About half way through the thing - I was playing a sneaky, slow, watchful approach, and never lost a life throughout - I was sitting overlooking the whole area, watching the crowd. A guard passed and I just engaged them in conversation, asking why they were wearing mirrorshades. We chatted about the game for a good few minutes, with me playing the interested if amused passerby - clearly distracting them for anyone else who was trying to sneak past - before wandering off. I'd had only felt any more ridiculously I-am-Mr-Bad-ass if I had some contraband in my pocket at the time.
The thing about games like this is that since there's only really two components - the theoretical mechanics and human brains - it focuses in on some core, joyous elements of gaming. As well as all the interactions like the previous, there's also the special joy of discovery. Like when playing a new videogame map, you suddenly realise that there's a route which other people are completely under-using and - by utilising it - you can pull off a graceful coup. You could go all the way to the top of the hall, across and round, coming down on the far side. Other people had got that too. However then, to get into the ballroom you'd still have to go through an area which was being watched closely by guards... but since there was only a banister on the right, you could just leave an object there, walk in past the guards brazenly, walk over to the other side and pick it up. Assuming they didn't notice but - y'know - KING SPY.
First time I pulled it off it was with a Siren. Leaving this red worrying little object behind and wandering off clearly made two guys I was near think I was some kind of terrorist. The beard doesn't help. Next loop round I teamed up with a lady - the one who I opened the piece with running in fear from the Lovers or the Dancers. I was actually carrying the plate of food. This is the chap. It's not exactly inconspicuous.
She went in. I took a seat next to the guys, explaining that I wasn't actually an enemy of society, or at least not in a blowing shit up way. I hissed the lady over, who I passed the greasy-fried-mess plate to. She gave me back the contraband book she was carrying - you can only one item at once. So I was stuck, realising that I couldn't get it in... except then I noticed Jane McGonigal, fellow Smuggler, passing on the inside. So I started a conversation with her (Full paraphrased transcipt: "HEY! JANE! Take This" "Hey! Smugglers!") and passed her the book, allowing her to go and deposit it.
(I admit, if you asked me in advance "HEY JANE!" wouldn't have been on my short list of things I'd presumed I'd have first said to McGonigal if I'd ever had met her.)
But the moments of personal pleasure of playing the game kind of become something larger than you. The metaphor which came to mind is battle - while you're aware of acts of valour and loss, and occasionally even the idea of a greater plan, you don't have the whole picture. We finally did attempt the chair rush, but as well as to cover the advance of the chair, it acted as a distraction for someone actually trying to carry the faux-drunk lady too. I had no idea if it worked for all the game, and the first realisation that he'd pulled it off was arriving to find the girl sleeping in our final area. Apparently he actually went to the 4th floor, all the way across, talked his way past some security, and down an elevator no-one had even thought of looking at. I'd give that man a medal if I had any idea who he was.
Anyway - this is what we managed to smuggle in the time limit:
So, yes, we won and were awesome. In fact, the person and the balloons already seem to have disappeared, so the triumph was even more triumphant than pictured here.
As was the festival opening, really. It was an evening of enormously healthy, recreational, emotional, human gaming. You can still sign up for places on games on their site. Frankly, I can think of far worse ways to spend a balmy English weekend than this. Like, say, being stuck on a intercontinental flight.
But enough whining, for last night, I was winning. And, I hope, even if I was losing, I'd feel like I was winning. Just being there made me optimistic and happy. I left feeling smarter, more human. I recommend anyone interested in feeling similar who happens to be in London to browse the program, see if anything takes their fancy, and goes and try something.