Syllabus: Documentary and Activist Games (CTIN-499)


Filmmaker John Grierson famously described documentary cinema as “the creative treatment of actuality.” Documentary films can illuminate unseen processes, broaden our awareness of the past and present, and challenge us to make a better future. How might games achieve similar ends? What can interactive media do in the realms of non-fiction, documentary, and activism that other kinds of media cannot? How can we use games and interaction design to not only document the Real, but also to intervene on it, and to shape the world to come?

This course explores the past, present, and future of documentary and activist interactive media and games. Students will approach the topic from a variety of perspectives, drawing on contemporary art practice, cultural studies, game studies, cinema studies, and more. Informed by these historical and theoretical contexts, students will workshop documentary and activist games of their own.

CTIN-499_ActivistGames_Spring2015_Syllabus_rev2 (.pdf)

“In participatory situations, game structure replaces aesthetics…”

“In participatory situations, game structure replaces aesthetics. Instead of events being worked out beforehand, there is a “game plan,” a set of objectives, moves, and rules that are generally known or explained. The game plan is flexible, adapting to changing situations. . . [In 1969,] I formulated three rules of participation:

  1. The audience is in a living space and a living situation. Things may happen to and with them as well as ‘in front’ of them.
  2. When a performer invites participation, he must be prepared to accept and deal with the spectator’s reactions.
  3. Participation should not be gratuitous.”

Richard Schechner, Environmental Theater. Applause Books, New York, 1973. 78.

Sam Lavigne on designing real-world games that “open up new possibilities [and] new ways of interacting with the world and each other”

Sam Lavigne is the co-founder (with Ian Kizu-Blair) of Situate, a design and consulting studio that produces “games that inspire people to create, explore and connect online and in the real world.” Sam’s groundbreaking work in collaborative production game design has set the standard for challenge-driven social media-making games. The interview below was conducted via email on July 27, 2011.

A lot of different disciplines have been converging on pervasive gaming (or whatever you want to call it) over the past few years. What’s your trajectory into this space?

Ian and I have always loved playing games. We first started making games when we were undergrads at the University of Chicago; at the time, I was studying Comparative Literature, and Ian was studying English. We read about The Beast and were inspired by its ability to bring people together to solve seemingly impossible problems. We got an arts grant from the U of C to make a similarly structured (but entirely noncommercial) game called Helen Chanam, in which players were tasked with finding a missing art student. Shortly afterward, we moved to San Francisco and created SF0. Our goal in SF0 was to let players experience what we had experienced while making our first game: to create adventure and mystery for each other. In SF0 everyone is a player, but everyone is also a game designer. Since our success with SF0, we’ve started a company called Situate and have continued to make games that blur the line between everyday life and game.

There are quite a few urban derive projects out there, but one of the things that’s made SF0 so special is the way that you use a pretty tight set of game mechanics to structure and drive the players’ creative interventions. One line from the game’s About page stands out in this regard: “You may find that your own willingness to interact with the city in new ways varies linearly with relation to your Score.” Why did you choose to structure things with rules and point systems?

Games provide an incredibly compelling vehicle for recontextualizing normal spaces. When we play a game, we let go of our everyday constraints, and our everyday motivations for action. Games open up new possibilities, and new ways of interacting with the world and each other, especially when played offline. Rules and points are an invaluable part of any game, and a key component in allowing us to behave playfully. We can ignore the rules of our everyday lives by embracing the alternate rules of the game. Points both help players track their progress through the game world, and provide a pleasant motivation for continuing to play. (Although with SF0, we found that many of the most advanced players didn’t really care that much about their score after a certain point.)

Collaborative production games have a long pre-digital history. For example, some of the spirit of SF0 seems to trace its origins to Fluxus’ “event scores” and other participatory performance activities and games. What are some of the big inspirations for you from the world of analog games and interventions?

We’re greatly inspired by the Situationists; so much so, in fact, that one of the groups in SF0 is called the BART Psychogeographical Association. We were particularly inspired by the Situationist critique of urban spaces structured for cars and consumerism, the concept of a revolution of everyday life, and resisting the spectacle through everyday direct action and modified behaviors. That is not to say, however, that SF0 is a Situationist game-the Situationists are simply a major inspiration.

InterroBANG and Flashback are both projects intended to be engaged with by young people, students and teachers and as extensions to more formal classroom activities. Did this make the design process significantly different for you and your team? Why or why not?

The design process was actually pretty similar. We tried to structure InterroBang and Flashback in the same way that we structured SF0: give players fun and exciting things to do, and inspire them to create fun and adventure for each other. We wanted the games to act as democratizing forces, allowing students to review each others’ work, and even shape curriculum by giving them the ability to create new missions for the games. We believe real learning can only happen when you’re excited about the topic at hand, so we focused on inciting passion for subject areas rather than trying to teach specific dates and times. In Flashback, we wanted to present history as a living entity, something you participate in directly by taking action in the world.

Can you briefly describe these two projects? What is the main gameplay and what are some key observations about the ways in which people play them? In hindsight, is there something you think that works particularly well and in turn, anything you would change?

Both games have almost the same gameplay as SF0. You start at Level 1 with 0 points. You get points and progress through a series of levels by completing missions in the real world, and posting documentation of what you did online. Other players vote and comment on your work. You also have the ability to create missions for other players to complete. Both projects targeted high school-age students and younger. Flashback was about American history and civics, and InterroBang was more about general problem solving. A quote from Flashback’s about page sums it up nicely: “Flashback is a game in which you complete real-world missions with the aim of de- and re-constructing American History and connecting with others to change the world. You begin at level 1 with 0 points. As you complete missions and advance in level you gain the skills and historical knowledge you’ll need to develop strategies for overcoming persistent historical injustices and defeating your class enemies.”

We were very excited to see how creative and engaged students were in both projects–we got some truly amazing results. Most of the kids who played the games loved them, and I think part of the reason was that we gave them more freedom and space to be expressive than is usually possible in a classroom. We also learned that the games worked best in classrooms with excellent teachers who took time to work with their kids. If I could change anything about these games it would be to give students even more freedom and trust, and provide more support to participating teachers.

 Do you think that location-awareness poses unique or new redefinitions of activism?

This is a very interesting question that I don’t really feel qualified to answer. Knowing and being connected to your surroundings is certainly very important. That said, when we’re online it doesn’t really matter where we’re physically located. SF0, for example, is called “SF0” because we initially thought it would only be for residents of San Francisco. Instead, people started playing it from all over the world and SF0-like communities sprouted up in many unusual and unexpected places.

What is your perspective on “gamification” – both generally, and more specifically, in context to civic society and engagement?

I believe that games should fun and stimulating more than anything else. I love that people want to make more and more interactions playful or “gameful” but I think the current trend of trying to add a game layer to every possible activity is worthless unless the resulting games are high quality. Just because something can be a game doesn’t mean it needs to be.

In terms of civic society and engagement: I believe that games can improve the world in the same way that a great work of art can improve the world. Games, like art, have the capacity to teach us, challenge us, and reveal the world to us in unexpected ways. Both games and art can defamiliarize the world, make it new, and this I think is the starting point for all forms of change.

[This interview, co-written with Susana Ruiz, originally appeared in Volume 3, Issue 3 of the International Journal of Learning and Media (MIT Press), as a part of the “Civic Tripod” report prepared by Susana Ruiz, Ben Stokes, and me.]

Play, writing, and the pleasures of complex dynamic systems

Writer and game designer Andrea Phillips, who I interviewed in this space a few years back, recently wrote a blog post about the evolution of her writing process, describing “the way that my creation of stories and my creation of games have come to use the same general process.” The gist of the post is something like this: developing stories amounts to something very similar to developing games in terms of the way that both forms demand striking a kind of systemic balance. An unbalanced game will be exploited by its players, or, as in the example Phillips uses of a game which over-incentivizes certain play actions through its point system, will bring about undesired behaviors that detract from the core experience. Similarly, narrative figures fail to generate their intended effects unless they are finely “balanced” toward specific ends. This could be illustrated by the canonical example of how showing a ticking time bomb hidden beneath a table at the beginning of a sequence will generate suspense, but if it is shown only right before it explodes, the result will be mere shock. In both cases — games and narratives — simple changes in sequence, tone, and fact can have enormous impact on the system as a whole.

Some of my own first inklings of this sort of systems thinking came about when I was learning how to write JavaScript. One of the first projects I did was a kind of “random log line generator” that put together snippets of beginnings, middles, and ends to create surprising (and often absurd) pseudo-random stories. As I worked to make the program do more sophisticated things — things like check if there had been a car mentioned in an earlier part of the story, and if there had, bring it back in later in the story — I began to see more clearly how traditional fixed linear stories (at the time I was working on various screenplay projects) were in fact complex dynamic systems (at least in terms of the development process — though of course as far as their relationship to spectators goes, they remain so long after they are “finished”). Making a change in one part of the text has cascading effects throughout the whole, changing meanings, altering stakes, and opening (or closing) lines of possibility. It seems obvious now, but for me it also felt like a breakthrough.

Maybe that discovery was part of why I became interested in participatory and environmental media broadly and game design more specifically. The thrill of watching those possibilities open and close and those changes ripple through the system was something I wanted to design for. Why should authors have all the fun playing with the pieces and seeing how things shake out differently as the constituent elements of a story environment are changed? As Phillips puts it, it’s a wonderful game to imagine “how else we might have assembled the same cogs and gears to make [the clockwork machine of a story] run faster or quieter or keep time better.”

This pleasure, I think, is at the heart of game play, not just game design. It’s a unique kind of pleasure that comes from a feeling of real agency, of having one’s actions effect tangible consequences upon a system, and of discovering the new and unforeseen challenges associated with those consequences — and it’s what keeps me passionate about writing, designing, and playing alike.

When games break (beautifully): the 1994 Caribbean Cup anomaly

One little change in a complex system can lead to a cascade of unpredictable outcomes. This is why play testing games is so important. But sometimes there’s just not enough time, and you’ve got to go with what you’ve got. That’s when the real magic can happen, as it did in the qualifying match between Grenada and Barbados at the 1994 Carribean Cup:

There was an unusual match between Barbados and Grenada. Grenada went into the match with a superior goal difference, meaning that Barbados needed to win by two goals to progress to the finals. The trouble was caused by two things. First, unlike most group stages in football competitions, the organizers had deemed that all games must have a winner. All games drawn over 90 minutes would go to sudden death extra time. Secondly and most importantly, there was an unusual rule which stated that in the event of a game going to sudden death extra time the goal would count double, meaning that the winner would be awarded a two goal victory. Barbados was leading 2-0 until the 83rd minute, when Grenada scored, making it 2-1. Approaching the dying moments, the Barbadians realized they had little chance of scoring past Grenada’s mass defense in the time available, so they deliberately scored an own goal to tie the game at 2-2. This would send the game into extra time and give them another half hour to break down the defense. The Grenadians realized what was happening and attempted to score an own goal as well, which would put Barbados back in front by one goal and would eliminate Barbados from the competition. However, the Barbados players started defending their opposition’s goal to prevent them from doing this, and during the game’s last five minutes, the fans were treated to the incredible sight of Grenada trying to score in either goal. Barbados also defended both ends of the pitch, and held off Grenada for the final five minutes, sending the game into extra time. In extra time, Barbados notched the game-winner, and, according to the rules, was awarded a 4-2 victory, which put them through to the next round. (Wikipedia)

More info:

Content management and delivery tools for indie ARG producers

Alternate reality games and other kinds of distributed story/play projects place heavy demands on their creators’ abilities to manage and deploy content. To meet these demands, many commercial ARG developers have built proprietary software packages that streamline and automate the process of managing and delivering content (for more on this [and much else — including many useful resources for independents] see Christy Dena’s post, “Cross-Media Management Technologies”).

A few years ago, these kinds of systems were out of reach for most DIY designers and artists. This is no longer the case. Thanks to freely-available social media, mobile technology, and web publishing tools, ARG producers with shoestring budgets can now roll their own custom ARG management and delivery systems.
Continue reading “Content management and delivery tools for indie ARG producers”

Sid Sackson’s Acquire

Since its release in the early 1960s, Acquire has inspired generations of game designers and enthusiasts with its elegant and replayable design. Many game designers, including Ticket to Ride designer Alan R. Moon, cite Acquire as a seminal work in the evoution of tabletop gaming. This post provides designer-centric coverage of the game. Other useful starting points for people interested in learning more about Acquire can be found at and, among many others.


Acquire is a resource management strategy game in which players compete to earn money through the establishment and merger of corporations. By founding, merging and investing in corporations, players earn cash and stock. The game is won by the player who generates the most personal wealth by the time all the game tiles are either used or rendered unplayable.


Acquire is designed to be played by 2 to 6 players. Larger groups are possible, but each additional player in excess of the recommended six compromises the pacing and balance of the system, primarily due to the limited number of tile spaces on the game board. The game requires that one player play the role of the banker, managing stock and cash transactions. This player must complete additional tasks to fulfill her responsibilities as banker, but her experience of the game is otherwise identical to the other players. Play unfolds in a turn-based manner, with the order of play being determined by random draw and seating position. Perceived imbalances caused by the differential between the players’ initial turn ranks are mitigated by the chance involved in tile selection and the random seeding of the board that precedes commencement of play.

Acquire has a unique and engaging hybrid interaction pattern. This pattern can be broken down into two overlapping parts: multilateral competition for resources and cash, and uni-/bi-/multi-lateral cooperation to build, expand and merge corporations. The multilateral competition pattern is easy to identify: by tactically placing tiles and trading stocks, each player attempts to outplay the others in order to earn the most cash. The uni-/bi-/multi-lateral cooperation pattern is a little more subtle. This kind of interaction occurs dynamically at various times throughout the game as players find themselves involved in de facto cartels and trading blocs. For example, two players might work together to pump up the value of a corporation’s stock in anticipation of a merger if they both have a substantial amount of stock in that corporation. This dynamic generates a relationship between the board and the players that does not exist in more familiar multilateral competition tabletop games. Risk, for example, visually maps individual player success via the state of the board — a quick glance at a game-in-progress tells you all you need to know about who’s powerful and well-positioned and who’s not. Similarly, Monopoly ties houses and hotels to properties which are in turn tied to individual players. This player “ownership” of sections of the board does not exist in Acquire, which is ultimately as much about the players’ collective speculation on a dynamically co-created imaginary market as it is about the rise and fall of their individual fortunes.

A typical game of Acquire takes about 30-60 minutes, depending on the speed of the players and the player-controlled “banker.” Beyond the core game mechanics, players spend a lot of time storytelling about the rise and fall of the various corporations on the board — ooh, Sackson’s expanding like the Blob. I knew it! — or the fortunes and actions of the individual players — heads up, Jeff’s getting serious about Quantum. The game tends to freeze up a bit toward the end, excluding trailing players and leading to a somewhat anti-climactic finale. That said, the inherent dynamism and complexity of the system makes the potential for victory seem within reach for most players until the late mid-game.


Simply put, the objective of Acquire is to make money by founding, building and merging corporations, and selling stock. These ends are achieved through the strategic placement of tiles and the expenditure of cash from the players’ reserves. The game is typically won by the player who holds the majority of shares in the surviving “safe” corporations, although occasional victories can be had by players who buy and sell in high volume in the early game.


Players of Acquire participate in two central procedures, Setup and Turns. Setup occurs at the outset of the game and seeds the board with a random selection of tiles, ensuring different starting conditions for every game. The core game play then takes place as players take their Turns.


Game setup consists of a resource randomization phase, an initial resource allocation, a random seeding phase, and a secondary resource allocation:

  • Resource randomization — In Acquire, players place numbered tiles onto their corresponding game board squares to expand and merge corporations. Each player has a “hand” of six tiles and plays one tile per turn. At the end of each turn, a new tile is drawn, replenishing the hand. To enforce randomness onto the allocation of these key resources, the first physical setup procedure in the game is to dump all 108 tiles onto the table and arrange them into a face-down cluster.
  • Resource allocation 1 — In the initial resource allocation phase, one player is chosen to be the banker. This player will manage the exchange of cash and stocks for the remainder of the game. The banker provides each player with $6,000 in game money, divided into four $1000, three $500 and five $100 bills. With this range of denominations, players can make initial stock purchases without needing to involve the banker in making change. Given our play testing experience, players rarely need to actively “break” their larger bills. Players who run out of $100 bills will usually pick up a few in change each turn, guaranteeing an easy flow cash transactions.
  • Random seeding — The random seeding phase of the setup is one of the most crucial moments in the game, as it determines the initial conditions of the stock market into which the players will be investing. The game board consists of a 12 x 9 grid of squares identified horizontally by number and vertically by letter (e.g. the square in the upper left corner is marked 1a, while the square in the lower right corner is marked 12i). After receiving their cash resources, each player randomly draws a tile from the face-down cluster and places it on the corresponding square on the game board. This procedure elegantly serves two purposes. First, it settles the question of turn order, as the player who draws the “lowest” tile (i.e. the one closest to 1a) goes first. Second, it “seeds” the board with a random selection of tiles. The result of this seeding is reminiscent of Conway’s Game of Life: complex, unpredictable patterns emerge through the combination of these initial tile placements with the other procedures called for by Acquire’s simple rule set. The result is a dynamic game board landscape that evolves to a different end-state with each replaying.
  • Resource allocation 2 — Setup concludes with the players each gathering six tiles from the face-down cluster. These tiles comprise the players’ “hands,” and are kept secret. While the designers have given the players options when it comes to the secrecy of other resources — the stock cards, for example, can be left open to public view without seriously damaging the game — it is important to note that they have set firm guidelines for the tiles. If players were to know which tiles one another had, the game’s strategic complexity would multiply beyond reasonable bounds as players would be forced to consider both the strategic placement of their own tiles and those of their opponents. Such computations would seriously compromise the game’s capacity to enable intergenerational/intercompetency play experiences.


A player turn involves four steps: placing a tile on the game board, processing the consequences of the placed tile, buying stocks and drawing a new tile from the face-down cluster:

  • Placing tiles — Players select one of their six secretly-held tiles to place on the board. To make this selection, players need to evaluate the consequences of placing a given tile onto its corresponding square. Tiles placed adjacent to other tiles, for example, will create, expand or merge a corporation. In the early game, the ratio of the number of empty squares on the board (depending on the number of players, this varies between 102 and 106) to the six tiles in each player’s hand is 17- or 18-to-1, meaning that the range of available moves might not contain a placement that is adjacent to another tile. This means that some players will find themselves unable to place a tile that will create, expand or merge a corporation. However, as play proceeds and the game board fills up, the ratio of squares-to-tiles decreases, ramping up the frequency of corporate foundings, expansions and mergers. Finally, the number of tiles in each players’ hand exceeds the number of playable squares on the game board. The game ends shortly after this state is reached.
  • Processing consequences — After placing a tile onto the game board, players must make the appropriate adjustments to both their own resources and to shared game tokens. For example, suppose a player places a tile next to an “unincorporated” tile, thereby creating a corporation (so long as fewer than 7 corporations are on the board). In this case, the player must first select a corporation token from the remaining tokens contained in the banker’s box, then place that token on top of one of the tiles in the newly-formed corporation. Finally, the player will collect a single stock card for the corporation that they founded. These resource and token manipulations take place almost every turn during the mid-game, when most moves will create, expand or merge a corporation.
  • Buying stocks — Players must decide which new stocks (if any) they will purchase by analyzing the projected fortunes of corporations (as represented by the tiles and tokens on the game board) and investors (as represented by the “stock portfolios” and piles of money that sit in front of the players at the table). A common strategy in this regard is to identify smaller corporations likely to be consumed by “safe” corporations (corporations with more than 11 tiles), and then to buy stock in them. This stock can then be sold or exchanged (at a markup of 2 to 1) for stock in the larger corporation when a merger occurs. Players are slowed from achieving unshakably dominant majority shareholder positions by a rule that limits the purchase of stocks to a maximum of three per turn.
  • Drawing a new tile — Players replenish their hand at the end of their turn. As the game approaches its conclusion, some players will find that they have tiles in their hand that cannot be played due to the safe corporation rule. The safe corporation rule states that two corporations that have 11 or more tiles cannot merge, and no tile that would otherwise cause them to merge can be placed on the board. Players who have such tiles in their possession may trade them in for another randomly-picked tile at the end of their turn. This procedure ensures that players who are stymied by the arrangement of safe corporations on the game board can remain engaged and hopeful that they will receive a better tile on the exchange. Crucially, however, this exchange is limited to one tile per turn, which prevents players from quickly cycling through the available playable tiles during the endgame. This rule effectively injects another element of chance into the increasingly deterministic final stages of the game.


Acquire‘s compact rule set generates entertaining, social and multi-layered play experiences. It is a minimalist blend of Go and Monopoly. Unlike economic simulation games that generate complexity and nuance through the proliferation of objectives and constraints, Acquire creates rich interactions via a set of simple mechanics. The rule set generates lively multiplayer-Go-like board play through a few simple rules concerning the placement of tiles and the consequences thereof. It generates an active card-and-cash market by simply constraining how and when stocks may be bought. Most importantly, it links these two play activities — board play and card/cash game — so tightly that the one could not exist without the other. ((This essential interdependence of rules, boundaries and game resources does not preclude looseness or “give” in the system. The 1999 Hasbro rulebook, for example, leaves it up to the players to “decide as a group whether the money and stocks they acquire will be openly displayed.” Numerous modifications and editions discussed online suggest that the system can tolerate a lot of bend-and-tweak before it breaks. And yes, I just said, “bend-and-tweak.”))


Acquire has three key game resources: tiles, stocks and cash.

  • Tiles — Having playable, strategically-relevant tiles can make all the difference, especially in the early game. Unlike stocks and cash, a player’s collection of tiles is determined through random draws. As noted above, injections of randomness such as this help to offset the potentially deterministic outcomes generated by board play mechanics alone.
  • Stocks — Stocks accrue value as their issuing corporations expand. Corporations that grow beyond 11 tiles in size become “safe corporations,” meaning that they can not be consumed as the consequence of a merger (and that they cannot engage in a merger with another safe corporation). Players will attempt to corner the market in stocks for the most valuable safe corporations (i.e. not all stocks are made the same), while quickly flipping the lower-valued stocks of minor corporations through mergers and acquisitions. ((Obviously, the safe corporation rule also has key design implications when it comes to the evolution of the board play aspect of the game. I haven’t done the math on this, but I would guess that to allow two corporations of more than 11 tiles to merge would create a monopoly situation at around the same time turn-wise of the actual rule set’s mid-game. As the end-game draws near, this key constraint accelerates the pace at which the number of playable squares decrease, bottle-necking the players into an increasingly small array of possibilities with — at least for some — an increasingly large potential payoff.))
  • Cash — Cash is necessary evil — albeit a highly-appropriate one, given the subject-matter of Acquire. As a game resource, it tracks the results of the players’ stock market activities. Cash may not be traded among the players, and aside from the up-front money given to them during the setup of the game, the only way players can earn money is through buying and selling stocks, or earning bonuses. Extra cash bonuses are given to the majority and minority stockholders when a corporation goes defunct following a merger. Tracking and processing cash transactions and stock values sometimes threatens the quick pace of the game, but the designers have done their best to mitigate this problem by providing simple charts specifying the going rates for stocks, majority and minority bonuses, and so forth.


Acquire’s boundaries are pretty standard: play is constrained to the tabletop, with the board as the central focus. In so-called “open display” games, the players’ money and stocks are a second circle of interest. In all versions of the game, the players’ personalities and knowledge of one another — both of which have roots that often go well beyond the shallow temporal constraints of a 45-minute board-gaming session — are also circumscribed by the magic circle.


Winning Acquire depends on a combination of strategy and luck. A good draw of tiles properly played will put any player into potential victory position. Nevertheless, sudden shifts in fortune can occur well into the late game, leading to upset victories and close seconds. This randomness is essential to the game’s design as it confounds the deterministic tendencies inherent in small-grid proximal-square set-making board games (or SGPSSMBGs™ for short).

1999 Hasbro Ruleset

Formal element breakdown schema: Tracy Fullerton, Game Design Workshop.
Scans: thanks, E.

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