I want to make games

Matteo Menapace
Oct 3, 2016 · 4 min read

I’ve been flirting with the idea of making games since I was 11 (and probably earlier). It was 1994 and I was in summer camp. Away from my family and surrounded by friends and friendly strangers, I spent a solid afternoon thinking about a new game I could play with my brother when back at home. I didn’t dare asking anyone to play(test) what I came up with: the prospective of being rejected in front of everyone, and not on some game but on my own game was too scary. Back home, I persuaded my brother to play it, and it wasn’t fun. So we quickly parked that game and kept playing the ones we knew would work.

Back then I didn’t know about prototyping, and I was used to things being either right or wrong. My game felt wrong, and I didn’t know anyone I could share that fragile idea with, playtest and iterate it. I only remember it included a ball. Everything else I removed.

So I forgot about making games but I kept playing both analog and digital ones.

The game-making bug resurfaced when I was 21 and about to graduate in communication design. We were briefed to make an “artist book”, one that would challenge book conventions in terms of format, content or both.

Life is a (card) game

I decided my book would be interactive, in the sense that its readers could decide how to play out its content. So I printed that content on playing cards, and assigned different parts-of-speech (verbs, nouns etc.) to each suit. I called it Life is a game and it even won a student design award in Milan.

Making those cards was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, yet I still thought of myself as a communication designer, an aspiring interaction designer, not a game designer.

At 22 I moved to London to study interactive media, and spent a year learning Flash to cobble together a videogame which was meant to be a playable simulation of Plato’s cave myth with a reality-TV twist. Too many notes, as Mozart’s patron would say, which resulted in a lack of meaningful play.

I realised that games had a huge expressive potential, yet I still didn’t allow myself to consider game-making as a legitimate use of “my potential”. Instead of building on what I learned with my first videogame, I went in a different direction with my next uni project, and parked games again.

I started working at Milo, a studio that produced playful educational tools for the likes of Channel 4, the Science Museum and the BBC. There I learned a lot about programming and ended up becoming a developer of websites and apps (not games).

But I was still attracted by games, especially the awkward ones that were designed to be something else than mere entertainment or power fantasies.

In 2012 I ran a a workshop at Mozfest, where I challenged participants to inject political and social issues into classic arcade games, and paper-prototype their new game hacks. People loved it, so I proposed it in various forms to secondary school pupils and university students. You can read about those workshops here.

In 2013 I started tinkering with the idea of unplugged computing: learning ways of thinking that are useful to coding by playing games where you have to play the computer, or act like one. I wanted to make a game like Code Monkey Island or Bits and Bytes that helps children learn the fundamentals of programming.

But why programming? Or rather, why just programming? Games can be good to teach anything, and especially they’re good at making complex systems understandable. So I prototyped a game about the system of our times: capitalism.

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The working title is Beesness. As a player, you control a bee colony. All colonies operate in the garden of Commons. Throughout the game, you can deploy different beesness models: from converting flowers’ nectar into honey, to stealing other colonies’ honey, privatising flowers and other nasty moves. Your goal is to have the most honey at the end of the year.

While the game mechanics are still clunky and the rules a little foggy, my preliminary tests with primary school children indicate that it could be an effective way to introduce tough questions like “How does our hive/economy work?” and “What can we do to avoid running out of flowers/resources?

Right now, I feel like I owe it to myself to dedicate serious time to game making. I don’t want to regret this when I’m 80 and look back at what I could have done.

So here’s my pledge. I will put 500 hours over a year into designing, prototyping and bringing to the market a board game.

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Click beelow to subscribe to the BeesNEWS, a monthly email about games that get people thinking, talking and exploring real-world challenges.

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