The dark is great for hiding stuff and keeping it secret, and obviously there’s a big overlap between “games that use the dark to make things secret” and “games that use the dark to make things scary”. Touch Scary Things only works because the dark signals scariness and also conceals the fact that the scary things are toys, kiwifruit and socks. All the Oh No, Someone Might Totally Be Standing Right In Front Of You About To Do Something Alarming-style games, again, use the dark as a way to hide information, and the fact that the dark is scary is partly a result of the fact that that it keeps things secret.
But the dark is also handy for hiding information independent of any desire to be scary. Waldschattenspiel, pictured above, is a board game where children hide tiny wooden “dwarves” behind boardgame trees, and an adult has to move a candle around to try to reveal them. You need a really dark room for this to work: generally, players report that the adult can see the dwarves a bit, and slightly pretends not to, in order to make the game work. But even when that’s the case, the darkness is still being used to hide information: the fact that the adult knows perfectly well where the dwarves are.
The standard play-in-the-dark game is a children’s game, probably [;ayed outdoors, probably involving a bit of giggling and creeping, probably called something like Ghost or Skeleton Murder or Mother, Mother, I’m Going To Die. The rules are usually pretty straightforward: try to do something easy, but, you know, in the dark. And they’re scary – scary to play, and with scary themes.
British Summer Time will be starting soon, and it’s making me think about the Animation Decathlon, a game from Quadratura that I was involved with near the end of March 2009. It was a rush to get it ready by then – really it’d have been better to leave it till April – but we needed to squeeze it in before BST began, because it had to happen while it was still dark in the middle evening. It was for the most trivial of reasons: the game used projections, and they don’t work in the light.
Which is a bit odd. Usually, games are a thing you play in the light: if it’s too murky, you turn a lamp on so you can see the board better, or you adjust the contrast on the screen. There’s something different about games you play in the dark: stuff that needs projectors, Murder in the Dark, Somethin’ Else’s recent Papa Sangre, Waldschattenspiel.
I’m not sure, yet, what the differences are; the nature of the specific affordances of the dark. What types of play does it makes possible that can’t be done in the light? In order to think about it in a bit more detail, I’m declaring it GAMES YOU PLAY IN THE DARK week on the Hide&Seek Blog: I’ll be going through five different types of emotion or gameplay that the dark allows, starting off today with anonymity, then running through fear, secrets, focus and shadows.
There’s a flurry of interesting Gamey Stuff in London over the next few weeks… giant Senet, bowling game sound effects, wandering around the British Museum, and pub-based parlour games.
A “transformation deck” is a pack of cards where the front of each card has been transformed: where an illustrator has taken the standard front – four diamonds, or three spades, or whatever else – and drawn a picture around it: turning hearts into tulips, say, or clubs into faces.
It sounds like a nice but slightly arcane thing to do, but it turns out, people have done it a lot, starting in 1803 and never stopping since.
In 1913, H.G. Wells wrote a book called Little Wars. It’s a set of rules for a toy-soldier game, and it sounds like it’s probably pretty good fun; but the main appeal of the book lies in two areas:
1. There are lots of pictures of moustache-wearing Edwardian men looking puzzled by little paper houses.
2. And Chapter 2, “The Beginnings of Modern Little Warfare”, is an incredibly detailed 4000-word essay on how the game was designed: the rules Wells started off with, what worked, what didn’t, how it changed, basically the entirety of his design process. Anyone who’s designed a game may find some of it eerily familiar.
There’s the inspiration, with a throwaway observation:
The beginning of the game of Little War, as we know it, became possible with the invention of the spring breechloader gun. This priceless gift to boyhood appeared somewhen towards the end of the last century, a gun capable of hitting a toy soldier nine times out of ten at a distance of nine yards.
Technological impetus to innovation, there. Then some airy declarations about how there’s “definitely a game in that”, and a vague attempt at trying it out with whatever they had to hand:
In the run-up to Christmas, we would like to heartily recommend that you do not, repeat do not, cast aside your usual pastimes for some Victorian Christmas games. We’ve just spent an hour poking around, and it turns out that in the nineteenth century, the most popular British Christmas games were those that involved grave risk of injury. There’s “Shoe the Wild Mare”, in which you balance a plank between two chairs, stand on top of it, and try to hit its underside with a hammer ten times without falling off. There’s “Hot Cockles”, in which one player shuts their eyes and everyone else takes it in turn to hit them on the back, until the eyes-shut player guesses which blow belonged to who. And there’s Snapdragon, which combines the cheery warm let’s-all-gather-round-a-table traditions of Christmas with (a) alcohol, and (b) fire.