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Game Design notes from the Sprayground

Posted by Bart

sprayground Spraygrounds are cool. The image on the left is taken from google images but for Canada Day we took our 3 yr old up to try out the revamped playground near Beaver Lake on the mountain.  For years that place was pure junk; dark, eternally wet and dead boring, but the city has done well and along with the new playground next to the Insectarium in the Botanical Garden this is now my favorite — its downright European and a metaphysical triumph if you know anything about playgrounds…

Now there is plenty to say but the focal point was an itty bitty spraypark section — barely worthy of that title but since we got to sit in the shade and watch the kids running around in the spray for some reason my mind turned to game design… and dammit Jim i’m a sociologist not a game designer. Here are some random notes then from my head on sprayparks and digital game design.

1. Kids play in ones, twos and in groups in the sprayground. It doesn’t matter how big or small… there might be only one sprayer but it seems that kids oscillate between being alone with the water and encountering others – they might spray each other, or compete for control of a sprayer, or dance through the sprayer or watch each other.

2. The form of fun seems different from playgrounds in general.  The water is a palpable actor here and the question becomes what’s fun about getting wet in this way on a hot day.  For sure there is the sensation of cool water but there is also something about the pressure – the way kids push on water sprays… block them, direct them,  duck out their way; its a kind of organic/dynamic obstacle that the usual playground things (swings, slides, climbers) are not.

3. Even more interesting is that the spray is not constant — this was cool – the sprays are on some timer trigger somehow that we couldn’t figure out — either it was just a timer or there was a switch triggered by pressure – it wasn’t clear and when the water stopped all the kids would look for how to turn it on again, and the parents would look too…  my son who outlasted most kids would proudly go stand on what might be a button on the ground (but it would not depress) and the water seemed to start up like magic.  The timer and shifting sprays added to the dynamic relationship between the kids and the water… for the most of the duration of their play the water sprays seemed truely unpredictable and so for sure part of the fun was the surprise.

4. I discerned three kinds of social coordination in action  amongst strangers — there was cooperation over the direction of the sprayer as one kid learned how to spray another to their mutual delight. Sometimes this turned into competition though as kids literally pushed and shoved other kids for control of a sprayer. The final form was a kind of silent coordination around the stopping and starting of the water as everyone wondered how to trigger the water and where it would pop up.  I don’t know why but the subtle shoving around the sprayers made me wonder about avatar collision detection in games… isn’t it odd that avatars can’t run into each other. I can’t think of a game where the character sprites take up virtual space that cannot be occupied by another and that this might be the basis of gameplay — a virtual shoving match?  I don’t think Street Fighter does this… but i’m not sure actually.

5. Conclusion – well there is none really — other than an sudden interest in water as a non-human, non-AI actor in a form of sociable play. Jill asked me why on earth i’d want to make a spraypark game and I wouldn’t but I think it would be interesting to model a kind of gameplay on interaction with water…  are there any precedents?  Other than that I see a role for augmented reality sprayparks and it would be fun to design a mini-spraypark with multiple levels of water puzzles to solve…  oooh hardcore spray play.