Designing Games to Be Played Over 25 Years

The game designer was tasked with creating games to be played very, very slowly. When the last fax (ever) is sent, someone will be a big winner.
  • Transcript


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.

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?

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