Couple Up, unpacked

22 July 2010 | 0 comments

Following on from the previous post, I wanted to explain a bit more of thinking – conscious and subconscious – that went in to Couple Up.

To recap, Couple Up was the card game designed and deployed by the participants of the WonderLab at the end of the event. Intended as a way of creating a concrete expression of the issues raised during three days of talking, playing and experimenting, it also had to work as an enjoyable game for an unwitting invited audience. Nothing like raising the stakes to concentrate the mind.

We’d closed the first day of the lab by writing giant post-its with big, open questions on them, and sticking them to the walls – you can see some of them in the great summary video on the Lab’s YouTube channel (along with all the talks from the event). It wasn’t the intention to try to cover everything in the final game, but it was interesting how many we did. So, in no particular order (and with a bit of paraphrasing), here’s how I saw the things we’d talked about flowing into the game. I’m sure other participants would have different takes. Pat Kane has already written some cracking stuff about his sense of how well it worked, and I’m sure there’ll be more blog posts coming.

You might want to nip back to the earlier post to remind yourself of the ruleset. Broadly speaking, players are trying to gain access to the booze-laden Upper Club by gaining the approval of a bouncer who will only admit perfect couples. Players use the two cards they’ve been given to find their perfect partner amid the crowd, but then discover that the bouncer has a secret rule he won’t disclose, which can only be guessed at by inspecting the appearance of the other players. But why was that the game we made, and what were we trying to explore?

The interesting ways in which games can be broken

Momus mentioned early on that one of the things that intruiged him about games was the fact that they could be broken. Art, he suggested, could be good or bad, or all kinds of other things, but not broken. Was it always a bad things for games to be broken? Might more interesting things happen in a broken game than a working game?

And so, partly out of necessity (3 hours isn’t a very long dev cycle), and partly out of curiousity, Couple Up is fundamentally a bit broken. The number cards (the first part of finding your perfect match) are worked out fairly carefully, and will mostly allow all players to find a partner, but for the fortune cards that just isn’t true. It’s easy to end up with your last two players being a born-and-bred Londoner looking for pet owner and an animal-phobic allergy sufferer looking for a foreigner. There’s no way they can form a match, and no way they can finish the game. Broken.

Interesting, though. It’s increasingly painful for those individuals left at the end – what was once a busy, anonymous roomful of people has thinned out, and they’re now alone and exposed in a big empty space, being watched from the comfort of the Upper Club by a crowd of smug players already tucking into their second drink. They’re forced towards a choice. One option is to lie – we’re in no position to check birthplaces and pet ownership, so we’ll have to take them at their word. Or they could appeal for help, either from the gamerunners or the bouncer. Can’t you just make an exception and let us through? Another option is to simply disengage from the game, to say it’s boring and broken and stupid and simply step over the laughably flimsy rope barrier. It’s acutally the most interesting choice in the whole game, and one I think I’d struggle to build a game which could support it overtly. It’s a genuinely revelatory moment, watching the choices that people make.

In the end, our players did the first two but not the third – they lied, and threw themselves on the clemancy of the bouncer. During the post-mortem it turned out that about a third to a half of our players overall had lied. Some immediately, some in desperation. It seemed a bit more prevalent between players who already new each other, which isn’t surprising. More surprising was that we didn’t have any active mutinies, not least because another thing we’d wanted to explore was…


As we start to make games for more and more purposes – whether you’re Zynga trying to enforce daily playing and paying behaviour, or Channel 4 trying to teach teens how to be happy – there are more questions arising about how much power game-makers have, and how ethically they’re deploying that power. Brands, governments, protest groups are all starting to make games, and we know how deep a good game can get its hooks into its players. So – as Pat Kane vocalised – are game makers on their way to becoming the new ruling class? Are they, literally and figuratively, going to be the people making the rules that will determine how our culture and societies evolve? And if so, will the players of those games have the literacy and the confidence to challenge those rule-makers?

Couple Up tackled this head on, with the decision to include the hidden, arbitary secret rule. In some respects, this is really bad game design – forcing players to obey a rule without telling them what it is. Here, though, the bouncer becomes an embodiment of the game-makers within the game. He’s the guy pulling the strings and making the rules and he’s right here in front of you. Are you going to accept his arbitary decisions? Are you willing to lie to him? Will you try to cheat? To reason with him? Bribe him? To threaten him? It was interesting to watch how willing people were to be dominated by a man in a bow-tie made of post-it notes who claimed to make the rules. Once you’re in the game it became very hard to question the game, which was a sobering observation – especially since we’d also setout to try to generate some….

Ethical gameplay

A core inspiration for Couple Up was Momus’ desire to make a game that had a happy ending for everyone. The meaning of success and failure came up a lot over the lab. In the long and increasingly ridiculous game of Nomic we’d run the day before, Phil Nichol had worked long and hard to impose rules that undermined the notion of winning – that changed winning into losing and losers into heroes (we won’t talk here about the rules that ultimately required Pat Kane to hide under a table with Kati London while she did her uncanny De Niro impression…). Momus was similarly interested to explore if we could make a satisfying game where everybody wins.

And so, although Couple Up has elements which are rather cruel, and are about exclusion and power imblanaces, the other side to that coin is that this is a game about finding a new friend. Once those last, self-conscious players have made their choice and lied, bullied or begged their way into the Upper Club, everyone who plays has won, and everyone who plays has found a new partner. There’s lots of scope for flirting in Couple Up, for making new friends and finding out new things about old ones. The atmosphere, both times we played, was happy and silly. It wasn’t a resounding design solution to the Momus’ challenge, but it did take us some way down a road to one.

Enabling Performance

And that atmosphere was important, because another element of the Lab which Couple Up explored. Melanie Wilson talked about The Boursier-Mougenot installation at the Barbican, where zebra finches fitted amonst the live, miked strings of musical instruments. She’d been struck by the way that the birds, in responding to the movements of the visitors as they walked around, amplified and interpreteted this very simple form of participation. Aleks Krotoski and Malcolm Sutherland had both shared interesting stories about their experiencs of Before I Sleep, the participatory theatrical production by dreamthinkspeak inspired by The Cherry Orchard. It sounded an amazing event, but – like many such events – people’s experience of it seems to have varied wildly depending on what they managed to find or how brave they were about actively participating. That is, of course, much of the joy of that kind of experience, but it raised the question of how much literacy the public now need in interacting with these evolving art-forms. Coming in cold, it’s often very difficult to have an optimal experience. Games, of course, have a long track record in teaching new players how to play. What did that look like, we wondered, for these kind of performances?

Couple Up, then was partly designed to be a game with a structured curve leading players from participation into performance. When the game opens, the stakes – and the pressure – are very low. There is a safety in numbers, and a deliberately non-threatening initial task: finding someone with the right number card. You can even just show your card if you’re nervous making the first move or striking up conversations. Then, the requirements step up a little as you play the little Fortunes conversation game. We were struck by how much people got into the spirit of this, and how well it worked to enabled interesting conversations. The game structure also changed the dynamic of approaching the bouncer. He was, fundamentally, a performer, and often in participatory theatre pieces its only the bravest attendees who will actually initiate an interaction with a performer. But here, the game gave you a structure, supplied you with at least a couple of opening lines. And this, of course, is when the balance starts to tip beween private play and public performance: the bouncer attracts everyone’s attention and the game encourages everyone else to inspect you. By the end game, when most of the players have moved through to the Upper Club, the dynamic has completely switched: the remaining players are now staged in a big empty space, with a seated audience looking back at them, having been gradually converted from players to performances as the game went on. It wasn’t by any means a wholly successful experiment, but one which did reflect some interesting thinking on how play and perfomance inter-relate.

Technology driving content

Game-makers sometimes bemoan working in a world where the production landscape changes unrecognisably very five years. Theatre-makers, too, have on occasion been heard to vent their frustration at funding application requirements which insist on technological additions to pieces which would have been better without them, purely in an attempt to be ‘modern’. To what extent, we asked ourselves, does technology drive content? To what extent should it? Of course, we then entirely side-stepped the issue by committing to making a card game – a totally untechnologised experience.

Our biggest surprise, however, was that it was only once the game was underway that we noticed that every ounce of our content had been defined by one big bit of technology we’d become oblivous to: the room. The lab took place in the upper galleries in the ICA – two large rooms, linked by a very short, very wider corridor. If we hadn’t been in that space, it’s highly unlikey the game would have taken the shape it did. Couple Up was creatively, as well as functionally, shaped by the hardware that surrounded it. We just hadn’t noticed because we’re so used to thinking of technology as things with screens and USB ports.

Games that leak

Another element that had played into the lab was the idea of games – and indeed performances – where things leak into the real world, or back from the real world. Conversations with Aleks Krotoski and Tassos Stevens had brought up interesting questions about how we respond differently to the real and the virtual. Can the virtual give us goosebumps and raise our heart-rate the way roller coasters can? Or is Tassos’ definition of ‘live’ more useful: that as long as an experience is responsive and reactive, it doesn’t matter if you’re in the same room, or indeed the same time-zone – virtual space interactions can be just as live as meat space ones. Kati London, too, had spoken very convincingly about the value of games that know how to manage their relationship with the real world, and we’d had some experiences playing Set which demonstrated how porous the game/reality barrier was.

In a very simply way, Couple Up was intended to reflect a little of this. It was deliberate that one of the critera for finding a partner was endogenous to the game – a randomly assigned number, and the other was exogenous – a real-world piece of information triggered by someone else’s Fortune card. To play the game successfully you had to find someone who was both a game-world match and a real-world match. Of course, the Fortune card was endogenously assigned, which rather undermined the idea, but the principle was there, and proved Kati’s point right: it’s a definitely strength of the game.

There’s much more than that, of course, but those elements seemed to me the clearest in the design. When I set the task at the beginning of the lab, it was with some trepidation. Simply designing and delivering a new game in an afternoon – particularly with a group who had never worked together, of whom many had never designed a game before – seemed a pretty high wire proposition on its own. Hoping that that game would somehow embody or represent the agenda the lab wanted to set seemed extremely over-amitious. I shouldn’t have worried: it was hard not to feel that that roomful of people could have turned their hands to almost anything and who – with flair and good-humour and disciplined enthusiasm – pretty much did.

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