A Game That Works

Cards from Jeff Watson's game for students.

Jeff Watson may be the Orson Welles of social media cinema. The Canadian PhD candidate at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts has devised a playful deception to entice freshmen students to enter the movie biz while they’re waiting to enter the movie biz. Watson has invented a sort of secret society centered on an elaborate card game. Here’s how it works.

Cards from Jeff Watson's game for students.

Like a game of Hollywood-style Texas Hold ‘Em, Watson deals out custom-made cinema-oriented cards printed with fragmentary instructions. A typical hand might instruct a student to make a music video, based on a failed love affair, featuring a teddy bear – or something like that. The student then teams up with other talented players and, presto, they whip up sometimes remarkable cinematic creations. As time goes on, Watson says, the deals become more complex, the teams become larger and the students earn more points. Points translate into movie-style treats such as tickets to exclusive screenings.

And all this takes place outside the classroom, long before some more stodgy faculty members feel the students are ready to sit in the director’s chair. To lend the activity a subversive underground vibe, Watson says he recruits by word-of-mouth only and has designed a sinister faux-political logo. With a sort of alluring simplicity, he calls the game “The Game.” Players follow their individual and team progress on a website, as they pioneer a new style of collaborative social media cinema. It may not be “The War of the Worlds,” but Watson’s “The Game” has apparently reeled in a hefty chunk of Hollywood’s next generation. He says 125 of the school’s 140 freshmen are playing.

Who knows? It may someday influence how media is made.

Questions We Struggled With

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If Rick is the visionary in our group, I am the inquisitor.  My first question was this:

“Farmville? Really?”

But we had more serious questions to confront.

  • What problem in arts journalism were we trying to solve?
  • Should journalists – literally – play games?  Should journalists ask their audience to play games?  Should media organizations become game designers?  Or will we be best served by exploring the ideas behind games and then applying the concepts?
  • Is there something unique to “gaming” – the animated blam-blam boink-boink kind of game – or should we expand our exploration to games in general?  Why do we play Monopoly, despite its capitalist tedium?  Why do hockey players take pleasure in slamming each other up against icy walls?  Why does President Obama golf nearly every weekend?

And then there’s the question we kept returning to: “Where’s the journalism?” 

If we ask our audience to play the game – are they the journalists – the new i-team?  If we play a game in the course of reporting a story, are we just having fun, or are we performing actual journalism?

If we are the “game masters,” are we curators or facilitators?

If games generally involve rewards (as we learned, intrinsic or extrinsic) – what rewards can a newspaper, website, radio program or podcast offer?  In other words, what is the incentive to play? (My favorite answer: The ultimate reward is self-expression.)

And as Jeff Watson of USC’s Cinematic Arts School told us, the question should not be, “What is the motivation for the player to play?” but “What is it that motivates potential players in real life?”

Games inspire social interactivity.  So what sorts of interaction are we trying to inspire?

How do you grow the “’fan base” – the population of people playing your game?

And then there are the practical questions: Money? Staffing? Expertise? Ongoing game management?

OK.  I’m tired now.  Wanna play?