One thing you quickly find out at the Game Developers Conference is that it’s not just for industry folk, but for folk looking to break into the industry. Many people who’ve simply made a game, any game, will show up on the streets of San Francisco to loiter around the convention center in hopes of getting noticed. Think of them as more nerdy, but far less annoying, street percussionists.
John Mawhorter, the designer of Throw Game, falls into this camp. I ran into him at the park outside the convention center, the grass sodden after the rain had passed, as I made a wide arc around a Pakistani family posing for a photograph. In my memory, I picture John as a carnival heckler, a James Franco from the Wizard of Oz remake, a shell-game operator in a newsboy hat, stretching his arm invitingly over abstract wooden shapes spilt like Stonehenge across a granite slab. In reality, this was almost certainly not the case.
When I talked to him a few days ago over video chat, he went into the story of how he was worried he would get fined for “like two hundred dollars.” He had brought his table along and considered setting it up right in front of the Moscone Center, where G.D.C. was held. “I’ll get a ticket really fast,” he thought. “It’ll be a protest thing.” But, he actually wanted people to play his game. So, instead, he set it up in the nearby park, where he was quickly told that he’d need a permit. “That demonstrates how public space is not so public. I’m not selling anything. There’s this giant park,” he said.
At least, he had some success. At the park, John had waved me over and before long he waved over two girls who were in town touring from down the coast. We stood there and listened as John explained the rules to Throw Game. There’s really no way of knowing what violent brainstorm was quietly flickering behind his eyes when he first came up with the idea. But if I had to guess, I’d say his thought-process was something like this: How do you take Gears of War, turn it into a board game, then make it physical, so the player can’t sit back and stroke her mustache? The answer, as he was explaining, was with ping pong balls, a length of rope, and, of course, a Nerf gun.
The match was between me and one of the girls, who was maybe twenty-five, with long dark hair, and vaguely of hispanic descent. Before long, I had taken two of her pieces out, my guys all safely positioned in the shadows of heavy-duty wood cubes. I felt bad for beating her and slacked off. But then, the Nerf gun jammed on me. I chased after an arrant ping pong ball that went bouncing down the walkway. And she pegged my little wooden guy in the head. At endgame, our pieces were both hunkered down behind a large central cube, like those ridiculous moments in a shooter when you and a poorly-programmed AI are popping in and out of cover from opposite sides of the same crate.
Things got real, fast––at least, as real as it can get when you’re shooting styrofoam bullets. An unimagined tension surfaced, and I felt kind of dumb because I was getting a little too serious about lobbing a ping pong ball at the game piece of someone I just met. But for the moment, this was important.
“The power of public play,” John continued over the video chat, ”is that it’s fun and you can get people who don’t know each other to have an encounter.” He was wearing a seersucker shirt, bringing up how he’s an art student and would one day like to design a sport, “like the guy who invented basketball.” We talked about some of his other projects. Those include a card game, a game based on T.S. Elliot’s “The Hollow Men,” and my personal favorite, Swing, a game where he suspended a hundred-pound log from a beam and players swung it in a destructive effort to smash a terra-cotta flower pot.
Initially, he had wanted to hang the log from a tree, but he would’ve needed to talk to an arboriculturist about that. “It’s a little bit sketchy whether or not the tree would hold up,” he explained. The only reason he was able to exhibit it was because he knew a friend of the safety director. Even then, he had to partition the swinging log off with ropes. “If I tried to exhibit that in an actually gallery,” he said, “they’d probably not be able to ensure it.”
And therein lies the dilemma of being an unknown street game artist. It’s the lawyers. It’s our litigation society. It’s that you can’t have risks. It’s the rules, man! He told me his work was really hard to show because of that. I suggested the park at the end of Haight Street, where teams play pickup games of soccer, and pals drink Old Milwaukee by the case, and kids kick around a hacky sack. When I went there, there were about twenty five stoners playing bongos and dancing in a circle on the bike trail. He compared it to Occupy Wall Street. And, well, we all know how that turned out.
About the Author:
Jason Johnson is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Gamasutra, Unwinnable, GameSetWatch, FingerGaming, WSJ Speakeasy, and The Guide to Classic Graphic Adventures. He owns 27 Sun Ra albums.
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