Question: What was the first game that you designed?
Katie Salen: I actually designed a Hobbit board game when I was
probably eight years old, in my closet because I was slightly
embarrassed at the time. And so I had been reading the Hobbit and I
think at the time I was less interested in that it was a game and I was
more interested in drawing the characters and sort of imagining this
incredible world that I’d been reading about. So that was my first game
that I designed way back when.
The first sort of digital game I designed was really, back in 2003, and
it was the game called The Big Urban Game, that was commissioned by the
Design Institute in Minneapolis. And it was a game that used these
giant inflatable game pieces that people raced around the city over the
course of five days as a way to get the people of Minneapolis and St.
Paul to think about the design of their city. And so the digital
component of that game was a kind of Web site where people called in and
voted. And so that was really the first big game that I designed.
Question: What are "slow games?"
Katie Salen: Metropolis Magazine, which is a design magazine, was
having a 25th anniversary issue a couple of years ago and they asked
myself and Frank Lance, who I mentioned, and Nick Fortuno, another game
designer in New York, to develop a set of games for the magazine. And
so we began to think about, well, "What is an element of games that if
you modified it in a way, it could have a dramatic affect on how you
think about games?" And so we just picked the element of time. We
thought, well what if we moved away from this notion, and this was in
mid-2000s when casual games were really blossoming. And so the whole
idea was people playing games in snack-like sizes. So people would have
five minutes, they could play a game, they would have a minute, and so
game design became about shortening the time it would take to play. And
so we were interested in thinking about, well what would happen if we
elongated that notion of time and it was a game that might take 25 years
to play... What would that game look like? What would that experience
of play look like? How would it change your relationship to the game?
And so the notion of "slow games" evolved out of that idea.
So we had one game that was call, I think it was called, "The Last
Fax." And so the whole game was to be the last person in the world to
send a fax. We had a game that we registered a product bar code in
advance of something ever being invented, and the person that invented
the invention or product that got to use that bar code would win the
game. So, there was no sense of when that bar code might come up in the
queue of inventions.
There was a kind of cross word puzzle game where there was one clue a
year that was given. And it took 25 years to complete the game. And
then there was a game that had a drawing of, I think there was a donkey
that had headphones on and had some kind of crazy backpack. And the
idea was that you would take a piece of paper with that drawing on it
and you would look at it, and then you would put it away and once a
year, you would take out the folded piece of paper and you would win the
game if you had forgotten what was on the piece of paper.
So, we were working with the idea of sort of memory there that there’s
always these artifacts that are laying around your house and could you
cultivate a game where the goal was to not remember a game piece rather
than remembering what the kind of answer was?
Question: Are you still playing these games?
Katie Salen: We are, and there are very few people that are still
playing them. They were really conceptual exercises and not so much
intended to be played, but the fax game still goes on. Faxes,
particularly in real estate, very popular. And the product code hasn’t
been used yet, so that game is still open.
Recorded May 7, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman