Parallel Playthings

This is a prospectus for my third book (in progress), which I submitted as an answer to an essay question on a 9-5 job application. Feel free to write me at rwhe@ludism.org with feedback.

18 Sep 2017


The most innovative project on which this author has ever worked is his third book, currently in manuscript. Parallel Playthings is a work of design fiction: a collection of reviews of imaginary tabletop games, video games, and sports from a parallel Earth, all 75 of which aim to inspire readers to create equally inventive games.

Design fiction, if you're not familiar with the term, is fiction meant to stimulate creative design, whether of architecture, computer interfaces, or in this case, games. A prominent trope of such fiction is the "diegetic prototype" -- an object within the fiction that serves as a pointer toward future possibilities in real life. For example, the original Star Trek TV series projected an aspirational future with technologies to match. The "communicator" device into which Captain Kirk barked "Beam me up!" was acknowledged as a powerful inspiration by the Motorola inventors of the cell phone and flip phone. Similarly, the show's "tricorder" medical scanner is currently the object of an X Prize competition; whoever can build something like a tricorder first in real life wins a large sum of money.

The current state of affairs in real-life gaming is described below, along with several of the more accessible games in the book by way of response.

In the domain of modern tabletop games, many games copy one another's themes and mechanics (rules, more or less) to a stultifying degree. A plethora follow the "economic engine" model, in which players begin with limited resources, which they build upon to exchange for more valuable resources, which they then build upon to obtain yet more valuable resources, until an arbitrary endpoint. Nor are economic engine games the only kind of overcopied tabletop game; to mention two more, "18xx" railroad-themed games often differ in few ways but the map, and the number of nearly indistinguishable card games in the Fluxx franchise alone is dismaying.

One response in the book to this sameness is the Kilodeck, as outlined below. First, by contrast, consider a couple of real-life games that have attempted to break out of the standard 52-card deck schema and its two "dimensions" -- that is, four suits of 13 ranks (Ace through King). Unfortunately, most would-be design rebels have not ventured far from this plan. For example, the Stardeck adds a fifth element to the suit dimension (the suit of Stars), while the game of Wizard adds an extra element to the rank dimension (namely the Wizard card, in all four suits). Otherwise, the decks remain identical to the standard.

The Kilodeck goes much further with its 10 dimensions of two possible values (such as the color of the background, whether it's a face card, and whether it has stars in the corners), for a total of 210 or 1,024 distinct cards. This number may sound overwhelming, but the starter set of the award-winning game Dominion (not based on the standard deck) has about 1,300 cards, so 1,024 is feasible, if unusual for a deck ultimately derived from the standard one. The fundamental structural similarity of the Kilodeck to the standard deck makes many analogs of real-life games such as Poker possible, and the many differences make a variety of games with new mechanics possible as well. Some are reviewed in the book, described in such detail that they are already all but playable in real life. Unfortunately, they are beyond the scope of this essay, but the specification for the Kilodeck and a full printable set of cards have already been released to the Web.

The domain of video games also has a copycat problem, in that (among other issues) the preponderance of lavishly-produced "AAA" games consists of first-person shooters, wherein players become disembodied viewpoints that exist to rapidly blast bad guys with guns. Parallel Playthings contains a number of responses to this problem, such as the four-dimensional VR game system Tesseractiv.

Sports hardly innovate at all. Admittedly, purely technological innovations such as video effects occur in the NFL and a few other televised sports leagues, but new sports seldom arise and become popular as such. However, in Parallel Playthings, the sport Clambergolf is a kind of omni-terrain giant minigolf played on rooftops, in steam tunnels, and even (virtually) on the surface of Mars. It combines some of the best features of miniature golf, parkour, geocaching (GPS-enabled treasure hunting), and augmented reality, to create a new sport unlike the popular ones of our world. The book contains other sports as well.

A secondary intent of the book, besides refining readers' game design tastes, is impelling them to think about designing novel games with significant, beneficial real-world outcomes. Examples include the two following games.

In Good Be Thou My Evil, the object is to increase real-life funding of charities and nonprofit organizations. The players are disguised as supervillains, and their favorite charities assume the roles of their evil causes. A typical move might see the supervillain Dr. Nostromo extorting money from a small country with an earthquake generator, then sending $50 billion (in actuality, $50 -- the standard in-game multiplier is a billion) to the Pit of Unending Screams -- her local public radio station, so named in-game because of overfrequent pledge weeks. Her donation is added to the Evil Board, and Nostromo goes on to taunt her friends and many enemies about her funding of the Pit's awful crimes. Her enemies develop new schemes to defeat her. Combat ensues.

It might seem that this system is mere gamification, or simply scoring players' real-life actions (giving to charity) in order to motivate them. There is an element of that here, but the real motivation proceeds from the supervillains' in-character trash talk, the human yearning to do good things, and paradoxically, the human desire to do bad things.

Another game intended to make a global impact is Off the Shelf Elf. It might be thought of as a worldwide Secret Santa game crossed with a matchmaking service, or a lottery in which every player gets a prize. It can function as a customer incentive program for a corporation like Amazon; indeed, in real life, Amazon is uniquely suited to run it. It's managed in the book by Illion, the parallel-Earth counterpart to both Amazon and Google. Players apply to Illion to win a present from its vast inventory of material, digital, and 3D-printable goods. Illion uses its knowledge of the player's shopping preferences and their parallel-Internet search terms (remember, it's also the counterpart of Google) to find an "elf" (another player) who can determine an anonymous present or prize that will delight him. Meanwhile, Illion places the player into a pool of potential elves who can then be drawn on to select presents for future players. Because game "karma" is tracked with a flexible accounting system, there are other scenarios, such as the use case in which someone pays for a year of presents every month and opts out of becoming an elf by paying an extra fee. Alternatively, there are players who enjoy being elves and take on the task of gifting strangers on a continual basis, receiving in turn the occasional present.

We've now examined five new games from among the 75 in Parallel Playthings: the Kilodeck, Clambergolf, Tesseractiv, Good Be Thou My Evil, and Off the Shelf Elf, some of which also have variants or ancillary games. In the end, the result of all the ludic thought that went into the book, besides the games themselves, is the stimulation of designers' ability to look at games in fresh ways. This partially fulfills the author's intention to motivate them to design games of dazzling innovation, and is already apparent among early readers, some of whom asked permission to implement their favorite prototypes. The full impact remains to be seen -- upon publication.