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Let’s meet a game designer and curator

Next up we’ll talk to Holly Gramazio, founder of the games festival Now Play This about the varied games she designs and their qualities.
I am Holly Gramazio, and I am a game designer and writer and curator of playful events.
I make a lot of different types of games. So really I do anything that has some sort of game mechanics, a playful element to it, but I am particularly interested in things in physical space or things that get players acting creatively in particular ways. So, recently, last few years, I’ve done a piece called One Easy Step as half of a company called Matheson Marcault, which is an installation, which happened at Kings College Quad, this sort of outdoor space where we spent a week hiding up in a department on the seventh floor and looking at how people used the space and trying to put strange patterns on the ground and see how it responded.
And we used how people responded to it to design a floor piece to cover the square and get them moving in strange ways. I worked on a game called Art Deck, which was originally a commission for No Quarter, an event for New York University. And that’s a collaborative drawing game basically. It’s a card game where you take turns to deal down cards that give you an instruction, and then you all follow it on one big piece of paper, taking turns until one of you plays a sign your name card and signs it and claims the picture as their own.
Last year, I did the writing for a video game, like a very traditional video game that you play on a screen, called Dicey Dungeons, which is a dice rolling roguelike, if that makes sense as a term.
Now Play This is a festival of experimental game design, which runs as part of the London games festival in April in London at Somerset House. So we have video games. We have board games. We have interactive sculptures. We have anything that’s really exploring the way that play and game design can be used as a communicative medium, so everything from games where you’re giraffes playing volleyball to games where you’re inventing a mysterious single language and then writing poems in that for other people to interpret.
We’re also really interested in ways of showing how games are made and the processes behind that and pulling out some elements of where games come from and what people are trying to achieve with them and making those more legible to visitors.
I came at games in a kind of sidelong way. I don’t even know if there were game design courses when I went to university, but, certainly, if there were, I didn’t do one, and I studied arts generally. And, once I’d finished that, I did a PhD because I didn’t know what else to do with my life. And I just thought I’ll just keep studying. I know how that works. So I did a PhD in online fiction mostly, which ended up being kind of relevant when I did want to get into games a few years later, which happened not long after I moved to London.
I didn’t know London very well, and I didn’t particularly feel at home here until there was this one evening about six months after I’d moved here where I went and played a game called Journey to the End of the Night, which I had signed up for with some friends. And I didn’t really know what to expect, but we found ourselves outside this abandoned warehouse in Wapping. We were all given a white ribbon around our arms. We were given a map of the city with five checkpoints.
There were about 150 people there, and someone stood on the bin and told us all that we had to get to these checkpoints in order and then get to a final checkpoint on the beach by Waterloo by midnight. And the tide would be coming in. So we definitely had to be there by midnight. And then some performers came out with red ribbons. And they sort of wandered around and looked menacing and stared at us. And we were told they would be chasing us. And, if they caught us, they would take our white ribbon, and we’d get a red ribbon, and we would become one of them. And we would turn on our fellow companions and try to hunt them down.
And it was a really, really extraordinary evening. It made me feel kind of at home in the city in a way that I hadn’t before. There’s this really silly thing our brains do where, usually, we don’t play unless we feel safe somewhere. So, if we do play somewhere, our brains are like, oh, I guess this must be a safe place. This must be sort of home-ish in some way. And, yeah, it changed how I felt about being in the city. There’s still areas that, when I walk through, I remember that night and running away from a particular bus stop or whatever it might be.
One of the contexts that games get made in is when they’re being commissioned by a heritage body or a museum or an arts funder. And I’ve made quite a few games in that context. And, every time I do, the commissioners are looking for something different. A year or two ago, as part of Matheson Marcault, I was commissioned to make a game for English Heritage. So my colleague Sophie and I were working on a game whose aim was to give families something to do, as they explored a particular castle, Goodrich Castle, as they walked around this really extraordinary, quite well-preserved space.
And so the brief was some sort of card game for families to play together as they explored this castle that tells us all about Countess Joan and her retinue and this very specific two-year period and what people were up to then. And there’s obviously a lot of things that flow on from that like you’re in a castle with playing cards. How do you make sure that the castle isn’t just constantly festooned with windswept confetti of cards? And how do you make sure that people remember to hand the cards in at the end and don’t drop them somewhere? And how do you make it something that people can get started on playing really easily?
Because families will give up really fast on something if it seems like it’s going to be boring. How do you make it so the fun is quite upfront? But the specific stuff that they wanted there was around the experience of a visit to the site.
Game design tends, for most people, to be a very iterative process. You make a thing. Maybe you run it in your head and see if there’s anything that will go wrong when someone actually plays it. And you think nope, nope, this is fine. This is good. And then you try it out, and you discover, oh my god, I’ve missed seven obvious vast mistakes. No matter how often you do it and how much better you get at running that in your head, there’s always stuff that you miss. And so you play it, and, eventually, you get other people to play it. And you see what works and what doesn’t and just have this loop of make a change. Try it out.
Make a change. Try it out. Make 50 changes. Try it out. Wish you’d made fewer changes because you can’t see which ones are having the effects that you’re now seeing. Games come from a load of different places. If I think about where the concepts for my own games have come from, they’ve been incredibly varied. What they all tend to have in common is that, at some point, they get to the play, test, and revise, play, test, and revise stage, this loop of seeing how they go, tweaking something, and seeing how it goes again. And, obviously, any creation of any art involves some revision, right?
But I do feel like it is more true of games than of almost any other form. Games don’t really exist properly in their non-played state, right? They’re just these things sort of lying floppily on the ground, waiting to be imbued with life by the process of playing them and doing the things.

Next up we’ll talk to Holly Gramazio, game designer and founder of the games festival Now Play This.

Most recently Holly curated a reimagined version of the festival, Now Play This at Home, to engage with audiences about experimental games during the coronavirus pandemic.

Games can come in many forms. Holly explains the varied games she has worked on and how she came to a career in game design.

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