How USC students turned Zoom into a video game platform for coronavirus life
Just a few weeks ago, when the game world was anticipating the next generation of consoles, such as Sony’s PlayStation 5 and Microsoft’s Xbox Series X, we had no way of knowing that soon a new game platform would emerge. It’s one that had long been right in front of us and seems especially attuned to life during the coronovirus pandemic: Zoom.
Video conferencing platform Zoom had been used regularly and often in business settings, but in our new stay-at-home, work-at-home lifestyle it has become a prime way to connect, be it for jobs, for school, for socializing or even for fitness. And, as an academic team at USC has discovered, it’s a pretty good place to play.
“Play is very natural to fall into, and playing with non-game platforms is something humans have been doing for a long time,” says Aubrey Lynn Isaacman, who is a game designer and student in USC’s Interactive Media MFA program. Isaacman references the Choose Your Own adventure books popular in the 1980s, noting that where there is a medium, there is play.
“With so many people staying at home,” Isaacman says, “we’re going to see a lot of cool, new interactions coming from places we wouldn’t expect.”
Shortly after California Gov. Gavin Newsom placed restrictions on social gatherings, the USC Game School sprang into action. Jeff Watson, an assistant professor of Interactive Media & Games at the university, put out a call for students to create games using Zoom, keying in on the idea that many would now to be utilizing the platform to connect and in need of ways to use it for its full potential — that is, to play, of course.
“It’s kind of reminiscent of what happens with all kinds of technologies,” Watson says via, yes, Zoom. “People think, ‘How can we be playful with this technology?’ Think of early cinema, effectively just filming the proscenium of a play before realizing that we could move the camera around and put the camera on the wheels.
“Of the submissions we’ve seen so far, the ones that are most interesting are the ones that are really taking what can only really happen in Zoom or a system like it and being playful with it,” Watson continues. “I tried to play board games over Zoom, and unless you have a really great set-up it’s clunky. It’s a square peg in a round hole.”
Watson, who is curating the submissions — he will reject no games for quality, he says, but will maintain a certain level of family-friendly decency — has begun posting the offerings on the site Zoomjam.org. More than half the submissions are from USC students. And while open to all, the Watson-led ZoomJam is gaining steam in academic circles. He’s has been in touch with professors and universities in Texas, Australia and elsewhere.
Some of the ZoomJam games lean toward silliness, but they’re also excuses to socialize and a way to force us to stay connected and stay goofy.
“A lot of us will be using platforms like Zoom or Jitsi for work, for school, organizing or just hanging out. I think games can help us get over some of the awkwardness and limitations of these new platforms,” says Dan Lark, a PhD candidate in cinema and media studies at USC. “The thing about these games is that it’s hard to play them alone. You’ll need other people to play with.”
Before you think you have the perfect Zoomjam submission, know there are rules.
The game must be able to be described in 500 words or less. It must work with either the free or educational edition of Zoom. Limited downloadable assets can be used — one monster game includes a PDF as a character creator sheet — but the game should really be playable with nothing beyond common items. And lastly, Watson’s rules state, designers must be cognizant that these games will be played during a pandemic. So it would be wise to avoid potentially triggering subjects such as illness or death.
The early crop of games posted rely heavily on improvisation. “I’d love it if people participate from all walks of life and everywhere,” Watson says. “But I’ll consider this a success if we get 40 or 50 submissions. I would love to see 200 or 300 ideas.”
Watson says he’ll continue to post games as they’re submitted and he’s able to screen them. He’s set a deadline of April 24 for those who wish to participate in the competitive phase of ZoomJam, for which a panel of game designers and academics will chose the top three submissions.
While the games utilize a relatively modern technology — video conferencing — they all have some old-fashioned, campfire-game qualities. It’s important to remember, says Watson, that before the advent of video games, and with it the out-of-date image of a lone figure staring at a screen late into the night, games were almost always social events.
And that’s coming back.
We’ve seen theme parks, for instance, increasingly put an emphasis on social play. More cynically, our app-driven lifestyle uses game techniques, with many adopting point-based or like-driven systems.
But all of it is fueling the notion that games surround us. “It doesn’t need to be a destination thing that we fire up our game console to do,” Watson says. “The computer is helping to make it possible. It gives us the context that you and I can connect, but the real magic is between us and in our minds rather than the fantastical of what we’re seeing on the screen.”
And it may just help make these weeks and potentially months more tolerable.
Some highlights from the submitted games:
“Kitty, You’re a Star.” Any of us who have used Zoom, either for a business or social call, have likely seen it interrupted by a pet. “Kitty, You’re a Star” is designed for those moments, to take advantage of what everyone is instantly now doing: paying attention to the kitty or puppy. Participants are called to immediately begin narrating a story about the pet’s thoughts or life.
“Kitty, You’re a Star” was created by Lark under the name Social Distance Warriors. “I think people are pretty good at making games on any platform or with any constraints they find themselves in,” he says.
The rules are direct: “During a call, if a player’s pet enters the frame, they must immediately move and give their pet center stage. The pet is now the protagonist of a story that the other players will narrate.” To make sure no one talks over the other, the story of the pet shall unfold one sentence and one person at a time.
“Prove You Know Your House.” This one, says Watson, can be potentially dangerous, but also potentially full of extreme hilarity.
One person stands up, puts on a blindfold, spins around and then must be guided back to their chair by the other players on the Zoom call. To make it more difficult, and to take advantage of Zoom, the player who spins should hold their laptop, phone or tablet to their chest, forcing others to describe a more narrow point of view.
“It’s something very Blind Man’s Bluff-ish,” says Watson, “but it’s also something that’s very attuned to Zoom.”
Watson cites the work of Henry Jenkins, USC provost professor of communication, journalism, cinematic arts and education, specifically his look at “medium specificity.” “Since we’re all spending so much time on Zoom, we’re seeing if people can come up with cool things to do with it — that we can only do with it,” Watson says. “We can try to turn this weird potential panopticon situation into something more playful, fun and social.”
“The Messenger.” Another story-driven experience, “The Messenger,” designed by Hesiquio Mendez A., requires the use of breakout rooms and background images, the latter of which most everyone is already using in a playful manner.
Essentially, the idea is to create a story around someone’s background photo. One person is designated as “the messenger.” That person enters each breakout room individually. There, the messenger will ask for a sentence to advance the story. In the next room, the messenger will relay the last sentence given — and only the last sentence — and build upon this story. Repeat this at least six times (the game should be played with no less than three) until there is a story to share.
Family game nights are going virtual under COVID-19 stay-at-home rules. A few simple selections for playing online with children
“MUTE-iny.” There are a couple mind games at work with “MUTE-iny,” designed by a team calling themselves Quiet Rebels. How well can you read the facial expressions of a friend? And how well can you guess the kind of things that may randomly come out of their mouths? Or maybe you’re just an ace lip-reader.
“MUTE-iny” requires that everyone mute themselves. Best turn off the volume of your device just to be safe.
One person counts down from three and then says a sentence, speaking very slowly. Everyone else tries to guess what the person said and types their answer in the chat field. This continues until everyone has had a turn, and then the actual sentences are revealed. It’s the sort of game, says Watson, that can work in multiple settings and be a quick diversion — a way to “give the Zoom session an extra sort of pizzazz and surprise.”
“Play is a great way to reconnect with the people you care about, and anything that makes you laugh and smile will make social distancing all the more bearable,” says Isaacman, who was part of the team that designed “MUTE-iny.” Ultimately, if we want to encourage folks to stay home for the sake of public safety, then we need to make staying home more fun.”
More video games and immersive entertainment
Coverage from critic Todd Martens
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