The History of Tiny Games

14 March 2013 | 1 comment

Last year, we spent July travelling around London. We stood outside libraries and council chambers and bandstands, in the middle of bandstands and parks and public squares, on the side of little streets and big railway stations and bandstands, and went: hrrrrm. What looks like fun?

We were working on 99 Tiny Games, a project to put three games in every borough of London – short, easy games that don’t need any special equipment, designed for real-world play on particular sites. Each of the thirty-three councils gave us a shortlist of five sites we could use; we went and stood in those sites; and we looked around for something to hook a game onto.

Sometimes it was obvious – we were sent to two absolutely massive sundials, for example, and an absolutely massive sundial is a pretty great place to play.

Sometimes it was much harder, and we struggled to spot the unique and compelling thing that yelled PLAY HERE. Especially if it was rainy. Or cold. Or both. (I’m a lazy optimist, which means I spent a surprising amount of money buying ugly emergency cardigans in nearby charity shops when my optimism about the weather and my unwillingness to check the forecast didn’t pay off).

We could have written a ten thousand word essay about bandstand design and placement by the time we finished, but instead we printed the games on big bright vinyl stickers and stuck them all down (in a single day, with the help of a horde of twenty, because the stickers could only be in place for twenty-seven days – twenty-eight and we’d need ninety-nine different sets of planning permission). It was amazing: the scope of the project, the knowledge that London was filled with our games, the feedback from people who’d played them, the sight of people leaning over balconies or jumping from the big “5″ to the big “6″ or rushing up stairs. The sight of a ten-year-old kid reading the rules and explaining them back to his eight-year-old companions. People looking for sturdy twigs to take into Twickers battle.

(I feel like a dandelion, with my spore wafted all across the city, I said at the time, until people told me that was creepy and dumb and I should find a different metaphor or just say something like “it’s really nice”.)

It was my whole July, the big thing about summer 2012, for me. The games were there for a month (well, twenty-seven days) and then we tore them all up, because that’s how events and temporary installations work.

It wasn’t the first time we’d made Tiny Games. The summer before that, in 2011, we’d designed a series of ten games to be played around the Southbank Centre – some from the balconies peoplewatching onto the ground, some in hidden corners, some in the rooftop garden or under the stairs.

Some of them were easy. Some of them were a tiny bit weird, in a way that’s okay in an arts venue but would have been weird in most public space: like Eye Contact, a race where you can only move when you’re making eye contact with someone else – another player, a stranger, whoever you like. Clairey Ross wrote a great post about them here.

They were in for a month as well. And that was the first time we designed Tiny Games. But it wasn’t the first time we designed tiny games.

Earlier that year, some time in spring 2011, there was a rash of can you fit a story in a tweet? minitales filling everyone’s twitter streams. And that’s when we began to wonder: can you fit a game in a tweet?

And of course you can – I mean, “write a story in less than 140 characters” is practically a game in itself. There are other existing games that fit:

get 2 players. Agree on a word (like hopscotch). The first person to say the word loses. Game may take several years to play.

And there are playable metaphors that you can articulate in a sentence or two:

In any carpark, the cars are monsters, asleep. You lose if you touch one, or run, or if one wakes up and can see you (headlights are eyes)

And there are “proper” games, with rules and scores, too. I spent a week trying to come up with them, using the real world as a setting just because that makes it easier – if you have to tell people how to set up the playing space (distributing counters, drawing lines on the sports field, whatever) then that takes up half your characters before you even get started. Matt Thrower wrote a really lovely article about the experiment, which I’ll always appreciate – the fact that someone else bothered to think so much about the games meant we thought about them too, instead of forgetting they’d ever happened as soon as they rolled off the bottom of the page.

And this very first incarnation of tiny games, before they earned their capital letters, brings us round to where we are now, in some ways. A framework for inventing new games, and reimagining old ones; a way to get those games to people. An experiment. Something not locked in time or place;  a new way of distributing real-world games.

Except two years on, and with real-world installations of Tiny Games behind us, and sprawling spreadsheets of hundreds of games,  and with pictures and playtesting and absurdly complex selection processes and the idea that this time we can choose games, the right games, for whoever wants them, whenever they want to play.

We’re pretty excited.

1 comment on this post.

  • On 26 Mar 2013, Scott said:

    I have never wanted to be anybody as much as I want to be one of the members of the tiny games crew!
    If you ever open an New Zealand branch you’ll find be seated out side your office with a CV my finest job interview smile and a sack of bribes :D

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