A Brief History of a Community Supported Open-Source Game System - Part I

In 2014, I joined the MIT Media Lab in a group called Playful Systems. That Fall, I enrolled in a class called How To Make (Almost) Anything. I didn’t realize it at the time, but a 1-week project from that class, became the seed of a community supported platform.

Clipboard with drawing of first Automatile (later known as Blinks)

Let me start a little earlier at the roots of this product, platform, company. In 2006, I was a pure mathematics major at UCLA walking into the Art department to see if I could change majors. The program was limited to ~30 students a year and they were not interested in letting a math major audit classes and take seats from the limited availability for artists. However, there was one class, and one professor who said he’d let me sit in on his class, so long as I brought my own computer. This was Casey Reas, and the class was Intro to Programming. The class was taught with a language that he and Ben Fry created called Processing.

To know the history of Blinks, you should know a little bit about Processing. In Processing, you don’t create applications, you create “Sketches” and the idea is that the language should be as easy as sketching an idea on a napkin. The experience of programming in Processing made coding fun and had me spending nights and weekends creating just to explore and learn more. There was a community forum and because Processing was open source, the community also contributed to the language, support materials, and added libraries with new capabilities. (It is a lesser known fact that Processing was heavily influential in the creation of Arduino).

Projects like Processing, Arduino, and OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) had convinced me that the future was not about closed systems, single purpose items, top down hierarchies. The future would be open source, modular and repurpose-able, and most importantly community supported.

Fast forward to 2015. I am back in the Media Lab and demoing a set of hexagonal tiles that with the help of MIT undergrad students, including Joshua Sloane, could respond to touch, communicate with each other, and think for themselves. I designed them to be easy to program, even more like Processing than Arduino. I thought they were a tool for exploring complex systems and emergent behavior, but my neighbors that were game designers asked, “can we make a game for your hexagonal pieces?” I offered to set aside 3 hours to see what we could come up with together.

Behind glass, Jonathan Bobrow, Celia Pearce, and Emilia Lazer-walker writing with whiteboard markers

On the day of this 3 hour gathering (or mini-game jam) the group consisted of my Playful Systems lab mates: Emily Lazer-walker, Benjamin Berman, Miguel Perez and Joshua Sloane, as well as Celia Pearce, Jeanie Choi, and Isabella Carlson who demoed a really neat electronic quilting game (also made of hexagons). The first hour we white-boarded (as seen in the photo), the second hour we coded (remember, easy to code for), the third hour we play tested. Some of us didn’t leave the table until much later that evening. The game turned into a competitive strategy game. Because the tiles were magnetic, it was difficult to pull a single piece out of the middle. This is when the game mechanic of splitting the board in half and rearranging emerged, and the creation of our first game, Fracture.

Black hands splitting magnetic, hexagonal and glowing game pieces that are segregated into blue, yellow, and red

One month before my Thesis is due at MIT, I am demoing my project (then called Automatiles), to a visiting PhD in computational neurobiology. He was in town and visiting a friend in the Media Lab. This is how I met Nick Bentley, who also happens to be an expert hexagonal abstract game designer. After my demo, he says, “I travel the world scouting board games and I’ve never seen anything like this, if you want to start a company, I’d quit my job and join you as a business partner.” To be continued…