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Designing for Ridiculousness: Doug Wilson on Folk Games and Gameplay as Slapstick Comedy

High-polish, multi-million selling titles may dominate today's videogame industry, but Doug Wilson and the crew at Danish games company "Die Gute Fabrik" aren't afraid to get messy.
Janus Rose
New York, US
March 8, 2012, 5:00am

High-polish, multi-million selling titles may dominate today's videogame industry, but Doug Wilson and the crew at Danish games company Die Gute Fabrik aren't afraid to get messy. Their rowdy party games like Johann Sebastian Joust, which won an Innovation award at last night's Game Developers Choice Awards, derive not from market demographics or sales figures but from a raw kind of "folk" gaming that transcends established genres and themes. Creating loose, chaotic rules sets that have more in common with children's playground games, Wilson advocates the magic of unrefined play. He wants gamers to get down and dirty with their entertainment technology, and most importantly, look like complete assholes while doing so.

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Wilson kicked off his talk at the Game Developers Conference earlier this week by summarizing his design philosophy in one brief statement: "Doing ridiculous shit with technology." It's not just a catchphrase: From his brief introduction, Wilson launches into a demonstration of his latest prototype, called Dog The Wag. Set to a chorus of barks and cartoon sound effects, a small group of volunteers gets down on all fours with glowing motion controllers dangling from their hind quarters. Then, on cue, they all begin shaking spasmodically to accrue points. When the players' electronic tails begin to flash, things get even nuttier: Everyone begins lunging at each other's butt-controllers, attempting to try and deduct points from their opponents.

The outrageous display is yet another example of Wilson's refusal to behave when it comes to game design. "There is something fun about using this technology in deliberately stupid ways that were not intended," he explains. In borrowing from the vernacular of traditional "folk games," he says he is essentially using computer games to revive the relevance of these forgotten cultural pastimes. Their built-in appeal serves a wide audience, making them festive, un-serious and allowing for a kind of natural, non-intrusive computer augmentation of playground antics.

A big part of this comes from the use of Sony's Playstation Move motion controllers, which, while surprisingly resilient to even the most intense roughhousing, are being squandered by mainstream gaming, Wilson says. He explains how AAA titles tend to use these controls in a very serious way, to simulate movement inside fictional worlds.

But that rarely if ever works. Games like Joust, on the other hand, embrace the limitations of these controllers to create a more honest experience — that way we never have to pretend the controller is doing something it isn't. The result is games that are deliberately messy, and that "deputize" the players into enforcing rules rather placing the computer as its sole moderator. Wilson says that this aesthetic of imperfection makes motion controls into "the slapstick comedy of computer games."

Wilson isn't done horsing around — his research into folk games suggests a refreshing change in the attitude of game design. Using Joust as a base, Die Gute Fabrik's new suite of games, Spielplatz ("Playground"), will introduce a whole new collection of titles that appropriate the qualities of cultural pastimes: easy to learn, spread through word-of-mouth, and possessing organically evolving rules sets defined by those playing. Wilson is enamored with the potential for games in "making people look like complete assholes." But beneath all the silliness, there is a concerted interest in exploring how games can improve technology, rather than the other way around.