Guest Column: The Strange, Wonderful, Non-Commercial Games of alt.ctrl.GDC

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While the Game Developers Conference (GDC) is mostly known for its talks, workshops, seminars, and networking events (read: ridiculous parties), it also contains exhibitions and sessions designed to stretch developers’ imaginations. Alt.ctrl.GDC is a showcase of games that use alternative control schemes and interactions, designed to show developers that by breaking industry habits and thinking more broadly about the concept of “play,” they can open themselves to creative opportunities that the commercial industry in its current state is unlikely to afford them. 2016’s alt.ctrl.GDC showcased 20 games selected from over 100 submissions, resulting in players using a physical phone to call a helpdesk for instructions to repair an orbital extermination satellite, navigating an otherwise invisible maze by wearing a helmet containing switchable colour filters, frantically licking a controller made of popsicles, and more.

By virtue of their custom controllers, most of the games on display at alt.ctrl weren’t commercial products. Some were, but the majority exist as special interest projects, the product of active research, or excuses to experiment with interesting new technologies and concepts. For me, alt.ctrl was something of a refuge, a space to just marvel at the displayed ingenuity for its own sake, to appreciate art and artistry, and to escape the constant presence of business people hustling.

GDC is increasingly a conference about business. The Business, Marketing, and Management session stream is bigger than ever, thanks in part to the fact that developers are now able to self-publish on all of the major games platforms. This has shifted the conversation around indie development, and raises new challenges. Digital storefronts are now saturated with content. In order for an indie game to be financially successful, it needs to stand out. Real marketing efforts need to be undertaken, and truly exceptional games need to be made. This has focused much of the conversation around independent development on the topics of viability and financial success, thus making the idea of working on non-commercial projects difficult to comprehend for some.

Jerry Belich watches as a conference goer plays his game, Please Stand By.

As I wandered through alt.ctrl, I heard numerous convention-goers–mostly people in the games business–asking how the exhibitors planned to turn their projects into money. “It’s such an offensive thing to say to someone,” Jerry Belich told me during a recent interview. “Like, you’re asking ‘why would you creatively express yourself?’” He seemed exasperated, as though this was a conversation he’d had many times over.

Belich is a physical game developer best known for his Choosatron project, an “interactive fiction machine.” Players make their way through a choose-your-own-adventure style story, pressing buttons on a physical device to make decisions. The story and the player’s choices are delivered via a thermal printer, creating a permanent record of their play-through–no save scumming or keeping your fingers between pages against the risk of the story playing out in a way you don’t like.

For Belich, his creations are inherently valuable as artistic works. He has a passion for creating physical games which stems from a very hands-on curiosity and a desire to try to make truly different things in the digital space. The fact that high quality and interesting physical games are rare enough that they tend to stand out has meant that Belich has the added benefit of becoming known. “You’d think business people would be savvy enough to know that there’s not just one way to make money. It’s not just a matter of making Bobble X and selling it to Consumer Y. There’s so much more nuance to it.”

Jerry Belich’s Please Stand By is a touch-screen game like none other.

“By creating this work, it’s getting me attention. It’s making Jerrytron [the name of Belich’s business] a valuable commodity, which is great because I can sell myself over and over again. People want my mind, my ideas. More and more people will pay me money to make what’s coming out of my head.” So, while Choosatron wasn’t a commercial project designed to earn money directly, it has proven a shortcut for Belich to create a desirable network of people that can provide future opportunities.

Belich’s game on display at alt.ctrl.GDC 2016 was called Please Stand By, and in true Jerry Belich fashion, it stood out from the crowd. Players progressed through a series of linear scenarios by physically interacting with an actual 1950s TV set, which had been wired up with all sorts of modern sensors and devices that made the TV itself a control surface for the game. You could tweak antennas to fiddle with the reception, and slap the side to stop the picture scrolling or even to cause objects in the environment to be jolted around.

Mike Lazer-Walker observes as a player takes a call in Hello Operator.

Across the partition from Please Stand By was Mike Lazer-Walker, an employee at the MIT Media Lab in Massachusetts, working as part of the corporately-funded Playful Systems research group. Lazer-Walker’s work uses games and play to make the opaque systems that run the world more open and understandable. For example, Holobiont Urbanism is a project that uses live honeybees to gather data about the microbiological worlds within our cities. Special hives have been modified to capture the “bee debris,” and genetic sequencing is employed to visualize microbiological landscapes of a city.

With projects like that under his belt, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Lazer-Walker is someone who is paid a salary to create games that specifically aren’t commercial in nature, and who in his spare time still chooses to make non-commercial games for the sake of their artistic value. “I love these things that let you physically interact with the past,” he said as we chatted about his personal alt.ctrl.GDC project, Hello Operator. “I think there’s something really cool about games that teach people real-world skills, and there’s something particularly fun and perverse about it being a completely obsolete skill. There’s something about the acquisition of a legitimately hard and complex skill that is just inherently fun.”

Hello Operator is played on an actual vintage telephone switchboard from 1927.

After spending some time with Hello Operator myself, I stood back and watched people playing and reacting to it. Here, in the middle of a huge games industry conference, stood an imposingly large 1920s phone switchboard. It was positioned right on the edge of the alt.ctrl booth, presumably to draw in curious passers-by. Players sat in front of it, held an old-timey phone receiver to their ear, and connected calls by plugging cables into jacks corresponding to the callers in question. The whole experience was extremely tactile, without any sort of scoring or progression system to drive competition. And yet player after player took a seat and quite literally tried their hand at being a phone operator.

Hello Operator cannot exist without its physical component, a 90-year-old cabinet that will one day fail beyond all hope for repair or spare parts. Sure, Lazer-Walker could take the code he’s used to program the Arduinos that drive Hello Operator and turn it into a tablet game, but what would be the point? How could it possibly hope to stand out amongst the millions of other apps on the App Store without its most notable attribute?

The same goes for Threadsteading, a board game played on a 13 foot-wide sewing machine, and ported to an embroidery machine for exhibition at alt.ctrl.GDC. Threadsteading is a simple strategy game that asks players to, on their turn, choose a direction to move using custom buttons mounted onto the body of the embroidery machine. The machine then sews the move onto the game board, which is itself sewn onto a piece of fabric. It’s a slow process, with each move taking minutes at a time to be permanently added to the board.

What others might use to make a quilt, Threadsteading uses to play a challenging strategy game. [Being able to keep a physical copy of your winning board game map sounds dope as hell. -Austin]

According to its co-creator Gillian Smith, Threadsteading is a product of a jam at the Disney Research textiles lab. “We had a technical goal of getting realtime control on the lab’s long-arm quilting machine,” she said via email between conferences, “we wanted to create an interactive experience that would show how we can use these machines in new and interesting ways.” Threadsteading is designed to not only explore non-standard game platforms, but also to raise questions about the gendering of play, and the machines on which we play. “I’m not sure what it would lose in the translation to purely digital,” said Gillian Smith, Threadsteading co-creator, “A friend recently asked me if we would release a hand sewing version, which is definitely an intriguing idea, though!”

The independent games movement has shown us what can be done and said with the medium when it’s not bound by the safe strictures of publisher funding. Non-commercial projects have even more freedom to explore ideas that inspire or interest their creators, because they don’t even need to appeal to customers. The three projects highlighted above are a mere selection of the impressive array of games on display at alt.ctrl.GDC this year. Each game spoke volumes about its creators and what can be achieved when people are free to experiment and create truly new experiences. As Lazer-Walker put it, “The history of playing games is mostly non-commercial. The way kids play on the playground doesn’t involve commercial games. As a society we generally agree that art has intrinsic value. It always strikes me as strange that games have become this space where commercialism is implied. I just like being an artist and making weird things.”

Jason Imms is a freelance games and tech journalist based in Australia. He’s loves to cook Texas-style BBQ and teach his kids about games. He particularly enjoys looking for the human angle, because after all, people are the most interesting part of any story.