Interview: Hannah Harkes, organizer of the Guessing Game Jam

 

Guessing Game Jam: shared battle against exhaustion and clock to fuel collective thinking.

 

24 hours intense session of game design guessing took place last weekend in Ptarmigan, a creative project space in Tallinn. We spoke to Hannah Harkes, the main girl behind the “Guessing Game Jam” initiative about methods of subtle suggestion, symbolic confession and risky communicative shots taken blindfolded.

Guessing Game

About Hannah

Hannah is a Scottish artist currently based in Tallinn. Since 2011 she was the resident at Polymer Culture Factory in Tallinn, where she mainly made video works from the depths of an existential crisis. She returned to Scotland to do a drawing/durational action exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh, and then moved to Finland.

There she worked for some time at the Nelimarkka, formed an art school band and released one cross-genre album at Novia Fine Art school in Jakobstad before disbanding and returning to Estonia, to co-run Grafodroom printmaking workshop and artists’ studios in Tallinn’s old town. From this spot she is now working on video games, audio games, comic books, upcycled contraceptives and sometimes prints.

At Ptarmigan, Hannah plans, in collaboration with others, a handful of events that are connected perhaps only by the desire to encourage people to do things together and also to do things with things that don’t do the things that those things usually do.

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+37: Guessing Game Jam, what is it?

Hannah: Guessing Game Jam was a 24 hour event, involving a diverse group of people who gathered together to play, discuss and design guessing games. Simply put, a guessing game is a game in which there is a secret piece of information which player(s) attempt to learn, using indirect means of communication; for example mime, metaphor, simile, suggestion, diplomacy, bargaining or shots in the dark. The event explored some different structures which a guessing game can take through playing and analysing existing games together and continued with the group development of new games.

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+37: How did such idea of game design jamming come to quite an arty person?

Hannah: The idea is rooted in a fascination with distorted communication, a subject that pervades much of the work I do, and a desire to explore this subject together with a group of people.

It was a late night conversation with fellow artist Ott Pilipenko, about non-direct methods of communicating that sparked in my mind the connection between real life social guessing “games”, manifesting in our everyday lives and played between people – out of shyness, fear, cruelty, insecurity, the avoidance of responsibility as well as sensitivity, the solving of broken communication, empathic will, good-natured mischievousness, the pleasure and temptation of mystery… – and the structured guessing game, played at parties, at family gatherings and during long rides in cars.

I see common guessing games such as Charades and I-Spy as light and playful examples of communication breakdown and of attempts to overcome these barriers. By exploring such structured, rule-based games I wanted to also explore human mechanisms of covertness and guesswork in a more general and unrestrained sense.

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+37: You began the event at 3pm with a big breakfast and kept the coffee from burning through the night till 3pm of the next day. Why did you choose such an extreme format?

Hannah: Over recent months, I’ve become increasingly interested in the format of a game jam, where people work together on (mostly digital) game design over an intensive 24 – 48 hour period.

It seems these events are pretty common in this area, with a Level1/Tartu Indiefest game jam happening just last month and whispers of another one coming up in Estonia soon. Also in Helsinki, IGDA is a group that meets around the 7-10 of each month to jam. It makes sense- through my own slight flirtation with videogame design I’ve found it can become a long, solitary slog and though I’ve not yet taken part in any videogame jams, I believe the chance to bounce a project between a group of engaged minds makes for much more creative and productive behaviour. Plus, lack of sleep can add a charming dash of craziness.

I hoped that by using this format for the Guessing Game Jam, I could make use of the state that people enter when thrown together in one room for a longer period of time, working very much collaboratively and with some sense of a shared battle against exhaustion and against the clock to fuel collective thinking.

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+37: There were people from England, Greece, Belarus, Estonia. How did you manage to find such a diverse audience?

Hannah: I didn’t really think about the variety of nationalities present (though now you mention it, we also had a Scot and a Finn). Certainly there was some effort asked of and made by the majority of those present to speak in their second (or third) language, which I understand can be difficult and as always, I admired the effort made. I think there was only one person at the event who isn’t currently living in Tallinn, so although the group was international, most were also familiar with living in mixed language/culture environments. I would say that diversity of nationalities made little difference, but diversity in terms of professional background was much more distinct.

The group included programmers, a philosophers and game theorists as well as a dancer/choreographer, a physicist and others with no background in games design. The question was how to make it accessible to those who were in very unfamiliar territory whilst still keeping it fulfilling for those dedicated to game design.

The jam explored games from the point of basic structure via amateur psychology and touched on digital games only when participants really chose to take it that way, so we mostly touched ground that allowed those with diverse backgrounds to both support and shake up each other’s strengths.

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+37: These all seems like a crazy experiment. What happened during those 24 hours?

We started with some simple and familiar cooperative guessing games such as a homemade version of the drawing-guessing game Pictionary and ‘I’m going to your sister’s bedroom….’, which is a twist on the traditional talking-guessing game Green Glass Door’. We then did some group analytical work on these games, looking at how the ‘secret information’ travels from knowers to guessers; what barriers to communication are at play and how players overcome these; and what the incentive is for guessing.

Next, we played a broken version of Corporation, with unclear, missing and contradictory rules. As the gameplay fell apart, we worked together to resolve holes in the rules and wound up firstly in a mess; secondly with a couple of wholly different guessing games developing.

Once the group became a little warmer, we test-played Whokkake?, a flirtatious game I invented especially for the jam. Although I doubt any “babies will be born” as a direct result of this playing session, it led the discussion around to games with no winner and games in which the secret information is never divulged but simply played with.

From then on, we split into groups and ran with ideas that had surfaced previously, calling each other together to test-play and shifting between projects until all fell down on a soft surface. We met back in the morning over pancakes and made some clearer-headed tweaks to two new games – a single-player, digital, rule-guessing game based upon ‘I’m going to your sister’s bedroom…’, and a multi player bargaining game that renders players alchemists.

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+37: Now, when the long jamming day is over, how do you feel about the results?

Hannah: I feel the event was a success and thanks to the great bunch of creative people who showed up, everyone seemed to get something out of it. I might have hoped for some juicier exploration, off the track of traditional guessing games and deeper into the forest of risky interaction, games with no endpoint, the boundary between playful and non-playful communication, conflicting incentives and other less commercially sensible game structures.

This is something I can explore further in my own work and the “Guessing Game Jam” certainly answered some of the questions I entered with. The event resulted in a couple of working games and, more importantly, some inspiring conversation.

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+37: So, what’s next for you?

Hannah: The jam disbanded with invitations to work together in upcoming game jams, so hopefully some future collaborations will come next. I for one will return to my studio with some fresh thoughts on game design and on guessing as communication more generally.

Up next for me is GRAFOROTIKA a collaborative project with Mari Prekup, fusing printmaking and rollerskating, which we’ll present for the first time this summer, at Kultuuritolm Festival (11-12 July) and InGraafika festival (26 July).

Next for Ptarmigan is Cut The Trust, a sloganeering, screenprinting, postering workshop in cooperation with Grafodroom studios, taking place there on the 5th of July; followed by the third in our series of Opening Operations, a monthly discussion on cultural production and alternative economics, taking place on the 9th of July.

Interview taken by: Tatsiana Yanutsevich
Image credits: Hannah Harkes