Ladies and gentlemen I introduce to you a new kind of video game: B.U.T.T.O.N (aka Brutally Unfair Tactics Totally Ok Now, 2010). I stumbled across this gem while browsing the Game Studies website. The games creator, Douglas Wilson writes an article explaining his game and what it has to say about the concept of multiplayer game design. The game itself is simple. In Pong terms, the instructions would go something like: “Avoid Having Your Button Pressed for High Score” or “Avoid Not Pressing Your Button for High Score”. In BUTTON, two to eight players place their Xbox controllers on a surface and take a prescribed number of steps away from the screen before racing to the controllers to press a button as specified on the screen. Sometimes your objective will be to press your button first. Other times your objective will be to defend your button and attempt to press other’s buttons to eliminate them. Some rounds the instructions might say something like “Put controller down. Take five steps back. Do five pushups. First player to press his/her button fifteen times wins.” These instructions lead to a certain organized mayhem. As the game’s designer, Wilson, says “Ideally, a playful kind of chaos ensues.” Wilson points out that games like BUTTON could be described as “broken” games that combine analog and digital gameplay without a rigid structure. The outcome and the gameplay depends completely on how the players choose to bend the rules, because everything that happens up until the buttons are pushed is not enforced or regulated by the video game. By creating this type of “broken” game system Wilson says, “The practice of game design becomes less about crafting systems, and more about mood setting and instilling into the players the appropriate ‘spirit.'” Wilson then describes the the overall goal of his game is true togetherness in multiplayer gaming.
While reading Wilson’s article, Huizinga’s idea of the magic circle and the spoil sport/cheat came to mind many times. Wilson points out that the “rules” of BUTTON are extremely vague and are constantly being bent. For example, the game will instruct you to take six steps away from your controller, but who’s to say what the length of a step is? One player might take six measly steps back while others are more honest. Wilson points out that his co-developer Lawrence is of the small step regime, and the other players often pull him back to the “proper” distance. But even the proper distance is subjective. All of the players end up creating an interpretation of the rules that then becomes accepted, and a certain togetherness is formed. For example, Wilson cites one situation where one of the players tried to tamper with the projector and all of the other players quickly ruled that the projector is off-limits. The “spoil sport” in BUTTON is quickly corrected by the others while the “cheat” can go unnoticed or unjudged, because there is much more room for a type of “allowed” cheating in BUTTON, such as wrestling others while racing to the controllers. Because the game does not involve any motion sensors and therefore cannot referee any of the players physical actions, the players must police each other. Wilson is quick to point out that the ambiguity of the rules is designed intentionally to improve the togetherness and party atmosphere of the game.
With such incompleteness and ambiguity of rules, what makes the game playable at all? Wilson says, “The trick is to design a system contentious enough that players feel compelled to hijack it, but not so contentious that players immediately abandon the game. With this balance in mind,B.U.T.T.O.N. provides an accessible hook to kickstart the game (i.e. a race to the controllers), then signals some self-awareness of its contentiousness so that players feel they are licensed to reshape the rules. The players need to feel like they are in on the joke, so to speak.” The hook of the game is the physical race to the controllers, and the rest is all up for debate and interpretation. The trick to playing a successful game of BUTTON has to be the community of people playing it, and their willingness to preserve the “magic circle”. In the case of BUTTON the magic circle’s lines are a little more blurred, but the framework of racing to the controllers is there to stay. Wilson points out that by purposefully creating a “broken” game, the attention during gameplay gets turned more towards the community of players rather than the game itself. I can imagine playing BUTTON with certain friends that would undoubtedly make it more fun than other friends. In one party atmosphere, the game would be a smash hit, but in others the game would flop. This dependence on the players seems to be a downfall in the game for me. The concept of the game is intriguing but I think that the game would only work in a few contexts with certain friends.