Tl;dr–if you’re at all interested in game design and can attend only one conference a year, make Practice that conference.
The Practice conference began as all conferences should. With Breakdancing.
Because, as we learned from Susanna Liu’s presentation, Breakdancing is competitive; it has procedures and rules; within the confines of those rules, B-boys and -girls constantly innovate, push boundaries, surprise and delight the audience with their creativity and skill. In short, it shares a great deal in common with sports. With games.
The conference is now three years old, and every year it has included some “outsider” element, some practitioner on the fringes of game design. The first year of the conference, it was a representative from the National Football League discussing American football rules; last year, an expert on military wargames discussed their design. They approach the problem of game design not for its own sake, but in the service of a highly specific goal–professional sports, military training, the underground dance scene. They’re never hung up on philosophical logorrheic game-designer doubletalk. These folks have their own agenda to which, through a loose and practical series of experiments, they arrive at the mechanics they need. They’re not brought in as novelties. These folks are the real deal, and the attendees know it.
What defines Practice for me is its catholic approach to the problems of game design. The conference’s ethos, as I read it, is this: we don’t care where you come from, we just want you to show us how you work. So sure, breakdancers rub shoulders with the likes of game-design gurus like Warren Spector. One presenter will bash dependence on narrative in one talk, but later they’ll be a panel led by interactive narrative archon Emily Short and the writers of The Walking Dead gleefully discussing how narrative their games are. Have a look for yourself at the schedule and see just how varied the presentations were. It’s a definite Practice hallmark.
I didn’t hear a bad talk all weekend, a statement I can’t make about any other conference I’ve ever attended. Ever. Even those less skilled in the art of oration still had much to offer in terms of the content of their presentations, and the appreciative crowd was sure to ask them excellent post-talk questions to help bring out the best in them. Credit goes to NYU Gamecenter Director Frank Lantz, Eric Zimmerman, and the able Practice planning team for the careful curation of the speakers.
That said, some speakers were just outstanding. Rob Daviau, formerly of Hasbro, spoke of how he more or less reinvented the game Risk by allowing players to make permanent changes to the board over a campaign mode that lasts for 15 games. His insights into how to enlist players to help you balance a game while they are playing were by themselves worth the price of admission. Davin Pavlas and Morgan Kennedy (who work on League of Legends and Assassin’s Creed, respectively) provided detailed analyses of how they assess player response to specific aspects of their games. Pavlas struck a particular chord with me when he stated that raw data do not interpret themselves; they have to be responsibly curated and tended to, lest they be manipulated in ways that can be counterproductive. Hear that, CUNY assessment?
But to my mind, LARPers Cecilia Dolk & Martin Ericsson stole the show. You see, Live-Action Roleplaying (LARPing) carries a pretty big stigma, in no small part because of this video, whose infamy continues to color people’s perceptions. But if LARPing were thought of more in the ways Dolk and Ericsson presented it, I have trouble imagining it wouldn’t have a huge following. Their presentation centered on showing what it took to host their weekend-long, Battlestar Galactica–themed LARP, Celestra 2.0. Dolk and Ericsson (and hundreds of other volunteers) took over a real battleship in Gothenburg, Sweden, fitted it with Arduino computers and authentic-looking props, and created a 72-hour live-action roleplay experience that benefited as much from improvisation techniques as it did from more traditional LARPing battle systems. In the mean time, they discussed how different LARPing is across the pond than it is presented to us here in the States, how much more character-driven and drama-inspired it is, and how many genres other than fantasy are represented in it (including good old realism).
You want to know how to LARP? This is how you LARP:
Maybe Practice’s most unique element is its “Open Problems” session. Designers, from NYU students to professionals in the industry, pose a specific design problem they are having with a game they’re working on to the audience and solicit suggestions and ideas for addressing it, all in five minutes per presenter. It’s a frenetic and raucous session where the emphasis is more on quantity of responses than quality. But, at least to my ear, a good deal of quality tends to emerge: because game design always benefits from applying multiple brains to a problem. It’s also a great time just to see all the ambitious game projects the audience members are working on.
Practice is technical; it’s about the details of design, the unglamorous guts. Some of the most-respected, most innovative designers in the world go on stage and catalogue the frustrating design process they had to endure to arrive at the game that got them to the stage in the first place. I imagine many people would be bored by Practice’s gleeful obsession with the minutiae of gamemaking.
Fine. They’re not the target audience. They’re not gamemakers. They can’t be, almost by definition.
What Practice does best of all is represent how games really get made. Maybe there isn’t another discipline in academia that is so willing to embrace situational ethics as is the field of game design, but that’s only because holding on to precious notions of right and wrong will lead to less-realized systems. It if works, keep it; if not, dump it; and if you don’t know, take a look around and get novel solutions from everywhere you can. And if you’re a little too pleased with your game-design pedigree to take lessons from, say, the breakdancing scene, you’re impoverishing your games before you finish them, says Practice.
And I concur.