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Although the practice might not be widely known outside game design circles, “paper prototyping” is a common pedagogical methodology in game design education. The idea behind a paper prototype is that the design for a videogame can be tested by approximating its concepts in the form of a rough, turn-based board game. That said, not enough attention has been paid to the values of paper prototyping and the digital distribution of rough, paper-based games (called “print-and-play”) for journalistic purposes.

Some of the most popular game design education texts, including Tracy Fullerton’s “Game Design Workshop” and Brenda Brathwaite & Ian Schreiber’s “Challenges for Game Designers,” dedicate many pages to the subject. There are a number of reasons why this approach is so well-regarded, even among educators who have had experience designing videogames in a large-team, industry context.

why paper prototyping works

Most ideas for videogames far outstrip the resources, time, and programming expertise available to design students. Paper prototyping means being able to test the strengths and weaknesses of a game design without any knowledge of computer programming.

Furthermore, even within a context where programmers and animators would be readily available, paper prototyping remains the fastest way to make multiple runs in the “iterative cycle” of a game’s development. Iteration entails rapidly adding and discarding elements of a design in order to flesh out what works and what doesn’t, what parts of the design should be emphasized and focused upon, whether the game has any obvious, game-breaking master strategies, etc.

And, finally, the practice can be used to show students who might have entered the field on the sole basis of their love of videogames how much the new medium has taken, and how much it still shares, with tabletop games.

What intrigues me most about the rough production of games on paper is that it has, until recently and in limited scope, been underdeveloped for the purposes of distributing editorial games. Of course, many of the paper prototypes developed in educational contexts end up being fleshed out into full-featured boardgames: Simon Winscombe and Nonny de la Peña presented their Three Generations, a boardgame about the California Eugenics movement of the early 1900s, at the 2011 Games for Change Festival, and James Taylor’s The Gentlemen of the South Sandwiche Islands, an absurdist critique of Victorian courtship, was a finalist at IndieCade 2010.

But these artifacts are singular and difficult to reproduce and distribute. Further, they attest to a long process of articulation and production. In order for a tabletop newsgame to meet the requirements of timeliness (that is, finishing production and being ready for distribution on the web while a news story is still relevant and novel), it seems like the paper prototype itself might be a promising format.

Kettling as a puzzle game

In late November of 2010, a student protest in London highlighted the inhumane treatment of young protesters through the practice of “kettling:” large cordons of police, often in riot gear, encircle a group of protesters for the purposes of transportation, dispersal, or long-term containment. The 2010 kettling incident was particularly unsettling because some groups of students were reportedly contained in excess of nine hours and denied food, water or a restroom facilities for the duration of the kettle.

In response, Stephen Lavelle (aka increpare, an ultra lo-fi indie game designer) produced the digital editorial game Kettle within three days of the event. The simple puzzle game casts players in the role of the police cordon, which can push inward from any of four sides in order to arrange a disparate group of young protesters into a tight, n x n formation. In between puzzles, rough cartoons depict the harassment of students by boorish officers (“Haha, you shat yourself” and “Guess you’re going to miss class”).

While the puzzle mechanics themselves are fairly abstract, the interstitial comics provide specific details on the recent event, such as the facts that the protesters were students and that they were denied access to restrooms.

print-and-play games

Lavelle’s consistent ability to produce small games rapidly and regularly is an example that should be examined and emulated by newsgame makers, but that wasn’t the most interesting thing to come out of the kettling incident for me. A few months later, Paolo Pedercini called my attention to a group of satirical game designers called TerrorBull Games. At a local game jam, they’d produced a “print and play” editorial game called “Metakettle.” Billed as a game “to pass the time until you’re not being kettled anymore,” “Metakettle” is a simple “New Games”-style cooperative physical game, requiring players to form teams of daisy chains in an effort to kettle other teams — all from within the confines of an actual police kettle. Distributed for free as a .pdf and high-res .jpeg, it’s basically a set of play instructions peppered with crude drawings and satirical one-liners.

Before 2010, TerrorBull had already developed two full-featured boardgames, a geopolitical strategy game called “War on Terror” (made in 2006, and which received quite a bit of mainstream media attention) and a send-up of corrupt banking named “Crunch” (2009). Both of those games deserve a full analysis elsewhere (and “War on Terror” is coming to the iPhone soon, a pleasant surprise that will hopefully renew its popular interest), but it’s their print-and-play games that interest me most in the context of rapid newsgame development. TerrorBull came upon the idea in mid-2010, with the release of “Operation BP: Bullsh*t Plug.” That game’s summary comes with an explanation of their strategy:

The standards that any game idea has to reach are pretty high before we’ll even consider it for publication. It has to be right in so many ways that, invariably, many smaller ideas are left on the cutting room floor. But it seems a shame to leave them there, gathering dust, so we thought we should make quick, downloadable games and give them away.

why they’re persuasive

Since this isn’t an in-depth analysis of any single game, it will do for now to recognize a few common features among these games that make them particularly persuasive. First, three of the five are asymmetrical. This means that players take on different roles — not necessarily the “good guy” and the “bad guy” from the radical, leftist position of TerrorBull, but modeled on the goals and ideologies of the (real or imagined) stakeholders in a given issue.

For example, in “Mosqopoly,” an “outraged” (read: conservative Christian) public seeks to raise property costs in Manhattan and tear down mosques, while “terrorist” mosque builders (read: not actually terrorists) call in favors from suicide bombers and attempt to build a 30-story mosque on Ground Zero. Roleplay generally enjoys favorable reactions from critics and players (and may be one of the defining aspects of games as a medium), but TerrorBull goes a bit further here by attempting cognitive models of stakeholders in much the same way that “Play the News” does through factoids.

Secondly, all of the games are openly agnostic. Players aren’t simply making the best individual choices against a rigid game board and a roll of the dice (which would be the easiest kind of game to produce quickly), but most openly strategize in dynamic competition against each other — which, arguably, accelerates their understanding of the conflict or news event being modeled. Further, two of the games — Mosqopoly and Operation Bullsh*t Plug — contain adaptations of classic puzzles from game theory that force players to gamble on extremely constrained predictions of the future actions of each other.

Finally, two of the games feature the possibility of masterful “everybody loses” end-states reminiscent of “Balance of Power’s” nuclear holocaust. Both games are about oil (unsurprisingly), and the catastrophic failure of both players occurs in the event of massive leaks (though exactly how the end-state is reached varies between the games).

TerrorBull is a unique case — their rough prototypes, released for free on a site without ads for revenue, far exceed the quality and complexity of many editorial videogames (and all of the prototype-quality videogames that I’ve seen on Flash game portals). Their method isn’t a guaranteed one, but it shows that the combination of paper prototyping and print-and-play have the potential to make valuable contributions to ludic commentary on both breaking and ongoing issues.

The specific flavor of competitive games they make, which might be described as classic board game geekery, attest to the importance of multi-player games in a budding media ecology dominated by single-player videogames. In short, they set an example that should be followed by both students and professional newsgame designers alike.