Wednesday 30 May 2018

Why Make a Game About Shredding Books?

The Book Ritual, which I blogged about a couple of months ago, is starting to take shape. Since the preview video I’ve made some fairly major changes, and have been getting feedback from the first sets of players. I took it to A MAZE Berlin to show as part of the Open Screens, where a lot of paper was shredded! At the time of writing I’m on my way to Feral Vector for its second public outing.

I’ve also been showing it to a handful of developers and friends to get their feedback. Over time I’ll be expanding this handful to get more feedback from more people, and eventually releasing it to the public. Watch this space!

Me after a 3-hour demo at A MAZE, with a papery souvenir of players' experiences!

What is the Book Ritual?

The Book Ritual is an interactive art-piece played using a real-world book of your own choice. As an installation it’s played with a real-world shredder connected to the computer, but this is optional and the piece can be played at home without one.

The book is talking to you from the screen and wants to learn about you, getting you to do creativity exercises inside its pages. To keep on talking to it, however, you need to tear pages out and put them through a shredder. As your connection to the book grows it reveals more about who it is and why it wants to understand you.

The story is about dealing with loss and accepting change. It is about coming to terms with decisions that can’t be undone, and the souvenirs which will lose their meaning to time. It’s about guilt and regret. My hope is that the book can a prompt to get people to think about why they value what they do, using a tangible book as a way for people to act out these feelings in a physical way.

The Book Ritual can be run as an installation with a USB-connected shredder - which you can see in the photos I've dressed up for the occasion - or it can be played at home. The game adjusts its text and characters based on what equipment it's using.

During the game, the book and shredder (or bin, if you're playing without the shredder) are personified as characters. Given that the story goes in quite a personal and emotional direction, I feel like having the book and shredder depicted as quite whimsical characters gives it a kind of cuddly charm. My hope is that it’s friendly and honest in tone, with its lighthearted characters easing the players into more difficult subject matter.

The book, as depicted in-game

Why Shred Books?

I’ve been making games with physical props for several years now. One thing that’s fascinated me is how people get personally attached to physical objects. Generally, if objects can be held in a player’s hand it's likely that at least one player will identify an item as “theirs” over the course of the game.

That’s not to say that that player is being selfish. I think it’s because people hunger for a role, something to identify themselves with: they want something to mark out their purpose as an individual, and their reason for being in the experience. Indeed, there could be all kinds of reasons, and that's just my theory. Nevertheless, the heart of the phenomenon is that we, as humans, naturally imbue physical objects with emotional meaning.

When I make alternative-controller games and performance games, I always like to ask “what is the special thing about this object/environment and how can I use it?” One special thing about all physical objects is this emotional connection. I feel that’s not really been explored much by our medium, and it’s something I’m hungry to understand.

Coinciding with this is another unique attribute of physical objects that I want to see explored by alternative-controller games. Physical objects can be destroyed. If what I want to explore is emotional connections to objects, then “destroy” is a powerful verb to employ. To ask players to question how they emotionally attach to something, asking them to destroy it prompts them to consider how and why they feel connected to it.

At least, that’s what I hope to achieve through the work.

One of the books from testing. Drawing in the pages is one of the creative ways players can permanently damage a book.

So Why Books?

Knowing that destruction is something I want to explore, the next obvious question is why did I choose books? The reality is that I gravitated towards books instinctively without really considering other destructible objects. As the concept evolved, books remained a constant element.

So I write this section in reflection: why did books work? Why didn’t I find another object to destroy?

Part of it is simply practical. Books are made up of many many components that can be individually destroyed: pages. So, you can destroy a page and have that be a permanent loss, but the book itself is still a complete, if damaged, object. It means I can wrap a whole game around one object that goes through various stages of destruction and transformation.

Another practical quality of books is that there are so many things we can do with those pages. We can tear them, write on them, draw on them, stick them to things, fold them, and crush them. That’s not even considering the words that are on the pages. The words themselves have unique shapes, and individual meanings outside the context they were written in.

Thus a printed page is ripe for exploring in different ways. It may be a book about economics, but from the individual words you could construct a story about horses, or mountains, or love, or grief.

Another tester's creation, crossing out and cutting up words from the book, and turning them into something new

More importantly, however, there is an emotional quality to books that is unique and special. Books are often felt to be sacred. Many of use like to keep out books in pristine condition. We won’t let the corners get folded down, and we get anxious lending them out. Many of us keep a well-stacked bookshelf as an object of pride, even though most of the books will never be opened. Is a well-stocked bookshelf a monument to knowledge we will never absorb?

Why do we value the state of a book when the power of its words stays the same regardless of how grubby and dog-eared its pages are?

My objective is not to tell people they are wrong to be protective of books. It is to ask them why they put value in what they value. Can the same reason we hang on to books be the same reason we hang on to distant memories, impossible desires, and unanswerable questions? Does a book still have value if it can’t be made sense of?

Indeed, to destroy books is taboo, and there’s a solid historical precedent for why. I’m certainly not trying to say that destroying literature is a good idea. What I am trying to do is tell a story about guilt and loss. If the player feels guilty in the process of destroying their book, if it feels like they're losing something with innate value, it means they are acting out the emotion I want them to explore.

The value of a book exists beyond its physicality, perhaps even beyond the meaning of the text that’s within it. I think that’s why it makes it powerful to destroy them. If you can understand what you fear losing when you destroy a book, maybe you can understand what the book as a character fears losing. Maybe you can understand what it is you fear losing yourself. My hope is that doing so prompts players to ask how they come to terms with loss, change, guilt and the other themes of the story.

Another tester's book, among the pages torn out of it. My hope is that the object created over the course of the game is more meaningful than the book it began as.

Understanding and coming to terms with difficulty are constructive parts to our life. Loss is an opportunity for growth, and regret is an opportunity to learn. My goal is to create something where, in a process of destroying something, you end up with something that has personal meaning to you. By the end of it, the book should be your object, a reflection of you more than a reflection of the author. It should represent the memory of the experience you've had playing the game, and gain meaning beyond its initial purpose.

As I write this I realise why I'm putting together this post. It's a statement of intent. It’s what I want the work to be, but is it representative of what the work actually is? Have I actually created a piece that achieves what I want it to?

To find that out I need to get the game out there into the world, get feedback, learn, and keep on trying to reach that goal. Which is why this post is only the beginning. This post is part of the process of exploring these ideas.

The Books of The Book Ritual

As a testament to that which has been created so far, here’s a little gallery of books and passages created during the experience.

A drawing of a lost item by one of the testers

That same book by the end of the game, complete with superhero mask

At A MAZE in Berlin, American Psycho became American Parrot...

... and also drew a small crowd!

More cutting and sticking at A MAZE. I came stocked with plenty of books and stationery for people to play with.

I expect the first public version to be ready in the next couple of months, but if you’re interested in giving it a whirl and letting me know if it lives up to my goals, please do contact me by Twitter or email at games[at]alistairaitcheson[dot]com - it will be much appreciated!