Reflections on Games in 2020
In spite of all the limitations that COVID-19 safety measures have placed upon us, games have thrived in 2020. Having to remain indoors through lockdowns and “circuit breakers”meant that games inadvertently became a main source of entertainment for many. In some cases, digital game platforms even became a medium that allowed users to engage with one another in meaningful ways. Animal Crossing, Minecraft, and Red Dead Redemption 2 are some titles that come to mind.
I also believe that games continued to thrive in 2020 because members of the games industry have the right attitude and skills to adapt to volatile environments. As with most creative processes, the game design/development process includes creating and tossing several iterations of an idea. This process demands embracing failure and failed iterations within extremely short timeframes, and in turn trains industry professionals to be agile and hone in on what actually works within otherwise limiting parameters.
As the year comes to a close, I would love to mention three game projects that happened this year that left an impact on my understanding of games. Each project explored how games could be used outside of what we might traditionally think of, nudged players/participants to think more critically, and were created from a uniquely Singaporean perspective.
Just to clarify, this is not a sponsored post, I am simply highlighting some amazing work done by members of the games industry!
Otah & Friends is a cross between an Escape Room, a Pop-Up Exhibition, and the Mickey’s House attraction in Disneyland. It was created by El Masnou, the same group that created the pop-up exhibition Bubble Tea Factory that ran from Oct 2019 - Jan 2020. I met one of the main organisers from El Masnou, Wei Ting, who shared with me how this “micro-attraction” came about. They had initially wanted to create a dystopic escape room experience, but 2020 already felt like such a dystopia in itself that there wasn’t a need for one. So they flipped the switch and created an experience aimed at making people feel joyful instead, and I for one certainly walked away with a bounce in my step. Don’t let the child-like aesthetics fool you! This experience was designed for both adults and children alike.
Otah & Friends will be running through to Feb 2021 at Gardens By The Bay, I highly encourage everyone to check it out if you can!
This “gameworld” was set up by a group of artists who were exploring the use of QR codes and Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) to create an experience that incorporates both a physical exhibition and a cyberspace experience, one bleeding into the other. The artist-gamemasters involved explored many themes from the games sphere, but with an added layer of complexity to them. For example, one of the artists, Johann, explored his relationship with the concept of angels - how such a religious symbol has such wide use in games despite the complicated history between games and religion. Another artist, Denise, questioned why most role-playing games have default “Male/Female” options when creating one’s avatar, and explored how the Cyberspace to her is a very “warm” space, which is an intriguing way to describe it.
The perspectives on display come largely from artists outside the games industry, but I believe that those of us within the industry should pay attention to the insights being explored here. They could prove useful in exploring uncharted territories, which is exciting and full of possibilities!
I should first admit here that I was personally involved in the organisation of this project, as a member of The Sagakaya Team together with Gwen Guo and Jewell Koh. However, despite my slight bias, I still wish to highlight the outstanding participants who truly made the game jam a successful one.
The Sagakaya Team wanted to see more locally-designed games that explored Singaporean themes in more critical manners. We also knew that many people interested in game design (within and outside the games industry) were stuck at home during the circuit breaker period. With that in mind, we were inspired to host this virtual game jam themed around “Heritage”. While game jams normally challenge participants in crafting interesting game mechanics, this game jam challenged participants in more ideological/philosophical ways. Participants were very intentional in their discussions of what “Heritage” meant to them, including a variety of perspectives in the design process.
We’re proud of the incredibly diverse interpretations of Singaporean heritage that the 29 submitted games displayed. The games are still available to play on the website, and I’d encourage people to play and be as inspired by them as I was!
The commercial market of games in digital game stores and e-sports is familiar territory for me, but the game projects mentioned above explored games in a more artistic/ideological space, which has greatly expanded my own understanding of how games can be applied in various contexts. The ideas were fresh, experimental, exciting!
What I observed from these game projects, and what makes them particularly exciting, is the amount of cross-industry collaboration between creators and designers from both gaming and non-gaming industries. Not only are projects such as these providing avenues for game designers who may not feel like they resonate with the culture of traditional gaming circles, but it creates such fertile ground for interdisciplinary thinking and pushing the boundaries of what games can look like and accomplish.
I strongly urge anyone within the games industry to look outwards; seek people from other industries that may have dreamt of doing something game-related but have not had opportunities to venture into it. There is a wealth of opportunities for interesting collaborations with people in medicine, law, theatre, history, arts, civil service, etc. if we are open to it!
Conversely, I also hope that people outside the games industry will also look towards games and creatives in the games industry and see the potential for novel ideas to develop through collaboration too. Games are powerful tools not just for entertainment, they also have the capacity to move, to engage, to heal, and to inspire. Not to mention also its ability to unite individuals through shared experiences.
Alas, we are not done with the COVID-19 pandemic at this time, but if these projects coming out of 2020 are any indication of how games will continue to expand and proliferate through adverse circumstances, then I remain extremely hopeful about what 2021 and beyond will bring.