Archives for category: Starry Heavens

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I know it was a few months ago, but I’m just getting around to cataloging all of my sessions from the Game Developers Conference 2013. Below are links to videos and coverage of some of the panels and lectures with which I was involved. If you weren’t at the conference, this piece from the NY Times helps convey the vibe of the gathering, and includes a quote from me about how the industry is changing.

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Starry Heavens, the large-scale game installation I designed with Nathalie Pozzi in 2011, recently had a run in Berlin. You can see a video about the game produced by Asia Dèr here.

We were invited by Invisible Playground, the amazing Berlin-based game collective that organized the Playpublik game festival in Berlin, to mount the game. This was the second time that we were to install the game – the first was at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, as part of the Kill Screen ARCADE event. You can find more information about the original Starry Heavens here on my website.

This time around, the game became a collaboration with the team at Invisible Playground and they helped us transform the game in several ways. To begin with, as part of the festival we held a 3-hour playtesting event where players helped us explore new rule variations, resulting in substantial changes to the gameplay.

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Starry Heavens materials testing last week  -
and yes that balloon Nathalie is holding has a light inside! 

In just one week, Starry Heavens will happen in Berlin. (By the way, we do need some help to pull it off – see the bottom of this post for details.)

Starry Heavens is the fourth game in my ongoing collaboration with architect Nathalie Pozzi, a game that premiered last summer at the Kill Screen Arcade event at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In Starry Heavens, a central Ruler tells all of the other players how to move on a life-sized gameboard grid of connected discs. The goal is for one of the players to usurp the ruler, which only happens by working with and against everyone else. Above the game board, ten massive weather weather balloons create the abstract ceiling of starry heavens.

Between the 47 steel disks of the grid, the meterological balloons, and all of the helium and other materials required to stage the game, Starry Heavens is not an easy project to mount. That is why Nathalie and I are SO grateful to Berlin’s Invisible Playground game collective, who have included Starry Heavens as part of their amazing street games festival, Play Publik. More than 30 games will be showcased at Play Publik, from high-tech play experiments to activist political games to down and dirty street sports. We are psyched to be part of the lineup.

On Saturday, August 11, we’re presenting a game design workshop from 3-5:30pm, where we will be trying out new rules and gameplay ideas. Then when it gets dark an hour later, we’ll be doing a more formal performance of the game. The project is continuing to evolve and we have a lot of surprises in store, including balloons lit from inside and live musicians that will improvise in time with the movements of the players. We really want to thank the brilliant and supportive folks at Invisible Playground for making this game happen – we could never have mounted it without their collaboration.

But we need your help to make it happen! If you have time this week, we are looking for volunteers to help us prepare some of the physical materials for the game – specifically the new versions of the game board discs and all of the lines that connect them to make the playfield. We are looking for people that want to join us at our office at the University of the Arts on Tuesday, August 7 in the afternoon and early evening. Email me at e – at – ericzimmerman – dot – com for more details.

(photo: Raymond Yeung)

Mary Couzin, a toy industry diva who runs the popular and eclectic Global Toy News blog, approached me this past fall about writing something about Starry Heavens, the installation I created with Nathalie Pozzi for the MoMA Kill Screen Arcade event in July 2011. I wrote up my thoughts on the design, which she posted here. I thought I’d also post them on my own site for some deeper information about this project. Enjoy!

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Over the last couple of years I have been exploring a new context for making games – museum and gallery installations with architect Nathalie Pozzi. We have done four projects together since 2010, each one a room-sized (or larger) game that doesn’t involve any digital or electronic technology – just physical and social gameplay. Sixteen Tons is a social strategy game where players move very heavy pieces and bribe each other with real-world cash. Cross My Heart and Hope to Die was inspired by the myth of the Minotaur and involves a life-sized labyrinth made out of 20-foot high hanging fabric walls. In Flatlands, players debate the aesthetics of my collection of 200+ gameboards.

What I wanted to talk about today is our most recent project, Starry Heavens, which premiered a couple weeks ago at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. (It was part of ARCADE, an event curated by Kill Screen magazine.) Starry Heavens takes place on a life-sized gameboard of steel disks colored black, white, and gray and connected by white lines. One player – the Ruler – stands at the center of the playfield and calls out a color (black, white or gray). Players can move along a line to that color if they want. Then the ruler says “banish” and a player can touch an adjacent player on the shoulder. If two people touch you – if you get surrounded – you are banished and must leave the game. The players are all trying to overthrow the Ruler, and if you banish two other players and make it to the center, you become the new Ruler.

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Another Indiecade has passed, and another of what is always one of the best game events each year. The magic of Indiecade is that it is actually manages to live up to its name as a *festival*. Not just a conference or an exhibition, attending Indiecade feels like a great weekend with friends, strolling to and from sessions, playing games, and getting a taste of what’s new in independent and experimental games.

I had a busy weekend. Gamestar Mechanic, the game I conceived with Jim Gee and developed with my company Gamelab, was a finalist in the festival. Scott Price, the project lead at E-Line Media, the company that runs Gamestar along with the Institute of Play, presented the game in one of the exhibition galleries and he was happy with the response from the crowd.

I spoke at a couple of the sessions. Nathalie Pozzi and I spoke about our work together on a panel about collaboration, where we premiered a video about our recent project for MoMA, Starry Heavens. Since – compared to a digital game – not many people get to play my gallery work, I’m always happy to share. Perhaps we’ll enter Starry Heavens into Indiecade next year, if we can find the funding to put it on.

I also led Iron Game Designer, a session in which teams of designers compete to create a game in real-time in front of an audience, using a mystery ingredient and a theme that the audience chooses. (The session is inspired by a similar event created by game designer Marc LeBlanc.) I co-hosted the event with Colleen Macklin, and we made a number of innovations this year to the design of the session that helped to kick things up a notch.

For example, instead of pre-defining teams, we only determined team captains. Each captain could pick a co-captain from the audience, and each team also got two random team members from the audience (we drew their names from a hat). That kept the event feeling more inclusive and unpredictable. We also got rid of our “panel of judges,” who never felt essential to the session. The biggest change to Iron Game Designer is that instead of a table full of office supplies – cards, dice, paper, etc – for making game props, we only gave the groups the mystery ingredient – nothing more! We made this decision only a few minutes before the session was about to start, but I am glad we did. The table of supplies always made the session feel too much like an arts & crafts class, and the games that resulted were more elegant as a result. The ingredient, by the way, was bananas, and the theme that the audience picked was The Amish. All of the games were hilarious. In the winning game by Catherine Herdlick’s team, young Amish struggles to emerge from their community of locked arms to reach the forbidden fruit of tasty bananas. For me the biggest thrill was not the (impressive) games that the teams made, the rolling-in-the-aisles laughter of the audience, or the challenge of the game show-style hosting with Colleen, but just that I was able to continue to iterate on the design of the session. I guess that’s why I am a game designer.

One of the final events at Indiecade this year was a Metagame tournament. At the closing party, we gave out starter decks of the game to anyone who wanted to play, and the four who had collected the most cards battled in front of the audience for the championship. Congrats to Miles Nye, who among other techniques drew his cards randomly for the tournament and actually rapped his argument for Parappa the Rapper against his opponent.

See you next year, Indiecade!

Two new pieces recently appeared about Starry Heavens, the game installation I created with Nathalie Pozzi for the Museum of Modern Art. The Paris Review’s emphasis on the moral dimensions of games demonstrates more game design smarts than usually appears in mainstream media coverage of games. The Wall Street piece just mentions Starry Heavens in passing but has some nice quotes about the exhibition as a whole.

For those of you who have been requesting Starry Heavens images – I’ll be posting photos and a video soon. Stay tuned!

The opening of Starry Heavens went off without a hitch. No rain keeping us inside, no high winds blowing away the weather balloons, no mischevious players with scissors cutting them loose…. none of our worse fears came true.

The game was played. There were crowds of people playing and watching the game the entire night, some of whom kept on playing for an hour or more. And as a social system, the game worked. We had assistants helping to explain the game to newcomers, but at a certain point, players were teaching each other the game. One of the core design ideas – that players could join at any time – was key to cycling players through and seducing them to try “just one more” hit of gameplay. And Nathalie’s space design was simply stunning.

A great piece in the NY Observer focused on our game – or perhaps, on Nathalie and I arguing about the pretentiousness of the title – and three shorter pieces in Fader, Motherboard, and Fast Company covered the event as a whole. This link will take you directly to a couple images of our project in the Fast Company piece.

Speaking of images, our photography crew (Abigail Simon, Raymond Yeung, Phillip Retuta, and Rebecca Jones) should be getting us their pics soon. Same for our videographer Daniel Wilson – big thanks to the documentary crew! Also huge thanks to our setup and takedown crew: Paolo Agostinelli, Livia Di Mario, Danielle Baskin, Joe Mauriello, Haitham Nasr, Nathan Jones, and Shipra Gupta. They definitely made this possible. Our materials partners were great – Andrew Becker of Face Design who crafted the steel plates and Balloon Bouquets who inflated the balloons (thanks, John)!  Lastly, of course, we want to thank the MoMA and Kill Screen folks who put the show together. It was a pleasure working with you.

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