We recently sat down with Celia Pearce, the Game Design Professor who helped create the Blinks game Fracture. She was kind enough to share with us what inspires her, what she does when she isn't designing games and how Blinks brought a large scale massively multiplayer game to the kitchen table.
For anyone who isn’t aware of your history with games and game design, can you fill us in on your background real quick?
My name is Celia Pearce and I teach Game Design at Northeastern University in Boston, where I head up the undergraduate Game Design Program. I’m also co-founder and Festival Chair of IndieCade - which just turned 10. I’m the co-designer of eBee, a quilt-based game that won Most Innovative Tabletop Game at Boston Festival of Indie Games in 2016. I also designed a VR game that won a ton of awards in the 1990s.
My research focus is emergence in multiplayer games, which I wrote a book about; I’m known in research circles as the person who discovered “game refugees.” Since then I’ve been thinking a lot about emergence and how to factor it into design. Which totally explains why I love Blinks so much.
Games seem to be a big part of your life.
I’ve been designing games for over 30 years, since I was 21 years old. It’s basically the only thing I’ve ever done.
What are some of your favorite games? You can include board and video games.
As a researcher I got really into multiplayer games and virtual worlds, and as a game designer I’ve been focused on multiplayer games for my entire career so I have a definite bias in that direction. I’ll give you a couple of examples of my all-time favorites, most of which involve some blend of physical and digital elements.There are also numerous single-player games I love, too numerous to list, but a few of my favorites include: Bounden by Game Oven, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, Space Team, Bloop by Rusty Moyer, Swordfight by Ramsey Nasser and Kurt Bieg, and Renga by wallFour, but I could easily name a hundred more if we had time. Renga is local massively multiplayer game. Playing it is as close to magic as any experience I’ve ever had. I also have some single player faves like The Path, and Monument Valley, and a little casual game I play a lot by the maker of Threes, called Puzzlejuice.
I love board games, but I have a love/hate relationship with videogames. I think single player games are a historical aberration; up until computers there was no such thing. I also find most video games to be boring and unoriginal, but on the other hand I love love love indie and art games.
What do you do when you're not either working or playing and building games?
Well I’m pretty much always doing something game-related, either teaching, curating, making or writing about games. Even my hobbies are kind of game-related. I do a lot of historical cosplaying (mostly 1920s) and live action roleplaying, as well as historical roleplaying in virtual worlds.
How did you initially hear about Blinks?
That’s a good story. I was showing my game eBee, which I designed with Gillian Smith, Jeanie Choi, and Isabella Carlsson, at the Boston Tech Poetics event at Harvard. One of my students came back to our table and mentioned that there was “another game with hexagons” down the aisle from us. So I went down to investigate and there was Jonathan with Blinks (then called AutomaTiles). We were obviously kindred spirits on a bunch of levels.
For one thing, I think hexagons are the Golden Mean of board game design. They are really geometrically perfect in every way for game mechanics. Also we were both interested in games that were tangible and beautifully designed. So we had a meeting of the minds. Jonathan mentioned in our conversation that he wasn’t really a game designer, so I said, well you don’t need to be a game designer; you just need to work with one. I asked him how long would it take to make a game with Blinks and he said“about two hours.” I totally didn’t believe him, but I’m always up for a good challenge, so I trundled across the river to MIT with Jeanie and Isabella with a pocketful of quarters for the parking meters to see if we could make a game in two hours with Jonathan, Mike Laser-Walker and the AutomaTiles team.
Tell us about the inspiration for Fracture.
Fracture was originally conceived as a 30-player field game called DiverCity, a kind of live action cellular automata game. Jeanie and I had been working on it and had been having a hard time getting enough people to playtest it. It was based on research that shows that people in cities will self-segregate, choosing to move closer to people like them. I thought it would be fun to make a game where the goal was just the opposite…to surround yourself with difference. In the original game, players were supposed to be wearing hats that looked like buildings in different colors (hence the word play DiverCity). They would start segregated, and then try to integrate based on simple movement rules.
Since Blinks was also based on cellular automata, it seemed like the game might translate well onto the platform. So that was the seed of the idea we took to Jonathan.
What about the the design process itself, what was that like?
I really want to write a paper with him at some point about the process, which was really fun and interesting. It started with them showing us the tiles, and giving us a description of what they did functionally. We then grilled them to find out the range of affordances of the system. We described the game mechanics and worked out together how to translate them into a Blinks game. Then we did some some rapid prototyping iteration, which was really great because it allowed us to engage with the physical affordances of the system.
One thing that struck me…with eBee the tiles are affixed to the substrate with Velcro but the thing with Blinks is that due to the magnets, you can’t really pull a tile from the CENTER of the board. However, you can do this other cool thing which is break off whole chunks of the board and reorient them. What ends up happening, then, is that you aren’t just moving your own pieces, but taking other people’s pieces along for the ride. So you can mess up or help other players, and the game becomes very complex because you can also mess up yourself if you’re not careful. The original idea was to make it a CoOp game but when Jonathan and his team iterated, they made it more competitive, which was fine. But I’m kind of a care bear player so I added back in a goal that if ALL the pieces were happy (i.e., surrounded by different color tiles) then all players win.
I also want to say that this is my favorite way to work. I love working on platforms that are new and kind of untapped. I find it a really fun creative challenge to work with constraints. And Blinks are particularly interesting because they have constraints that are both digital and physical. They have some very simple affordances, but they can lead to really complex outcomes.
What do you hope people take away from Fracture?
In terms of what I want people to take away, despite its simplicity, Fracture is a very political game. I think what Blinks are particularly good at is modeling or creating abstract simulations of systems. So if you want to tell a story about system dynamics, it’s a very powerful platform to work with. I’m working on a couple of other new ideas with the platform. It was a real thrill to see what people came up with at the Blinks Game Jam at IndieCade East, where I was a judge. The games were really amazing. I can’t wait to see what other designers come up with.