Game Designers in Detail: Holly Gramazio

Game Designers In Detail is a three-question interview series between a current NYU Game Center MFA student and a PRACTICE speaker.
Kailin Zhu: Some physical games may share a lot of similarities with team-building exercises (such as sportsmanship, creative collaboration and trust in team). How do you make sure the social relationships and the physical communication between players contribute to the gameplay in a positive way? How do you emphasize that players are playing a game and not just an exercise?
Holly Gramazio: Y’know, I’ve never really found that to be a problem! Sometimes when I try to explain my job, people ask whether the games are intended for teambuilding, but once I have actual players and I’m explaining the rules, it’s usually pretty easy.
I think it’s important that I only really run games in voluntary contexts, and when I’m running an event I try to make sure there’s a social space to hang out in as an alternative to playing – so when people come to play it’s a conscious choice, so that’s already something that sets it aside from teambuilding. I also don’t tend to make games where a number of small teams compete at a variety of tasks, which in my experience is the form the majority of teambuilding game-y things tend to take.
KZ:Unlike most video games, the rules of real-world games are more flexible for players to change when they play. When you design the rules of a real-world game, do you think about how players might behave differently from the rules? If so, how do you leave that space for players, even though they may play the game in ways you are not expecting?
HG: So, yeah, there are a few different issues here:
* People not understanding the rules
* People understanding the rules, but cheating
* People wanting to try out different rules

Not understanding the rules – in this case, I just try as hard as I can to eliminate misunderstandings!  This means keeping the basic rules as simple as possible; making them available in multiple formats if they’re not really straightforward (explaining them verbally and having them available on paper as well); and treating the explanation of the rules as being as important a part of the game as the actual design. There are some tricks that work to enable slightly more complicated games – explaining the rules in stages, for example, only adding complications once people have got the hang of it. Or making sure that the games allow opportunities for people to discuss the rules and figure out any confusions together. Or having the game take place in a limited space so that you’re always there, and people can ask for clarifications (or you can spot misunderstandings before anyone even needs to ask, ideally). The basic principle is – remember that if players have misunderstood, and they’re playing it “wrong”, then that’s not their fault, it’s the game’s, and you need to work on the explanation.

Cheating – ahhh, this one’s tricky! I try to minimise cheating – for example, by having people watching the game (or saying that I have people watching the game), by making players very aware of what the rules are – saying “you can’t do X, you can’t do Y” so that if people are going to cheat they have to acknowledge that to themselves rather than going “well I’m just being clever and flexible”.
People wanting to try out different rules – this usually only happens once the game’s over! People come up and say “what if you did this…?” or “did you try such-and-such?”. If there’s time and it’s possible and there are other players around, then usually I encourage them to give it a try – or sometimes I can say “aha, we tried that and it makes the game different in such-and-such a way” or “we tried that and it doesn’t work because of such-and-such, but it’s a neat idea, isn’t it? Maybe if…”
And sometimes suggestions are a sign that the player would be a good game designer, and I should try to coax them into making something…
KZ: Many modern real-world games are inspired by folk games that have been around for thousands of years.In this tech-oriented era, have you thought about bringing technology into real-world games? If so, which kind of technology would you bring and how?
HG: There are a lot of things that are really annoying about real-world games because of limitations like “scoring is a pain”, “you don’t know where players are”, “signalling feedback to players is difficult”, “things that are far away are hard to see”, all of that. And I think technology can be a real help with that! Just practicalities – doing things better or faster or more fairly than we can manage with just people.
But I think there’s a second class of things that’s interesting that’s to do with the affordances of particular pieces of technology. There’ll be a set of THINGS you can do with a piece of tech, stuff it enables. I’ve made a couple of physical games that are – I guess that are run by a Twine game, and that allows particular set of activities, tracking choices and giving tasks and so on in a way that’s depending on what people have done so far, delivering text and sound and images based on where you are  and what you’ve done so far.
A great example in real-world games is the Playstation Move controller, which a lot of people have examined and gone “hrrrrm, what can we do with that” and come up with answers based on the very specific details of that controller, what it looks like, how it works etc. Obviously Johann Sebastian Joust is an important work here, but things like Dark Room Sex Game and Edgar Rice Soiree (both also involving Doug Wilson) do very different things from that same set of affordances, and QuickDraw from Greenfly, and a few others.
So in terms of pieces of technology the thing that I’d be most interested in doing is just picking a – a thing, an object or a set of tools – and just playing around and seeing what it makes possible that we can’t do with just bodies. Which is the same way I approach game design in non-tech contexts, really – looking at a place and going “what’s special about this place? What does it let me do?”. Or, like, I want to get a hundred umbrellas in different colours and see what game I can make with those, what they let me do. It’s just about exploring affordances, I guess, whether those are of technology or specific places or specific objects or specific circumstances.