Where Games Break

This is a talk I gave on Friday 4th of July at the brilliantly hosted beautifully attended Feral Vector game design event

Thanks so much to David Hayward for inviting me to speak, and to Pat Ashe and George Buckenham for listening to me worry about what to talk about. In the end, this was what I wrote and said:

Where Games Break

My Name is Hannah Nicklin
I’m a theatre maker, a game designer, a poet, an academic. I do other things.
And today I want to talk to you about Where Games Break
9 games. Or examples. 9 ways games break – have broken for me
in small and significant and personal and political ways


Games always break. Eventually.
Not because they are literally broken, though many are
But because they are finite. Like spells.
They are a little pockets of ‘what if’ in a world of ‘what is’
They play with possibility and agency and system.
I am interested in Where Games Break
Not just for how games are literally broken.
Though many are.
But because in the space between ‘what is’ and ‘what if’
– the infinitesimally big-small space between these two things,
there, is transformation.

That’s the bit that is art.
That’s the bit that is politics.
That’s the bit that is a new thinking, heart-shifting, personal thing.

A little like becoming aware of the fact that you are breathing.
Or that you are blinking.
We spend 6 seconds of every minute blinking.
10% of all of our time, awake, blinking. Your mind just erases that darkness.

As soon as I notice that I can’t stop noticing.
Don’t worry it’ll wear off in a few seconds.

What I mean is, is that we swim in ‘what is’ and after a while we forget to look at it.
Games can plunge us into a different material; ‘what if’.
Like salt water into fresh.

That space in between, where games and reality meet, that’s interesting.
That’s where I’m talking about.

But, examples, shall I?
That’s much more useful
here are some of the ways games break.


Me stealing my little brother's yellow tricycle

This is a picture of me and my brother.
In this picture I am stealing his tricycle.
If you look closely at my face and his.
I think this is pretty clear.
This photo is supposed to illustrate
Where games break
Because you want them to 

Because you choose to break them
And build them again. 

You break them because you’re playing make believe with your little brother and somehow you’re not winning so you make up a new rule that means that you do.

Which may or may not involve stealing his tricycle.

You’re in the hot grass of a July day, all grey shorts and stripy white and blue dresses, red leather sandals and the big hill is where the safe place is, but little hill is a safe space too but errr – the little hill is only a safe place for 5 seconds.

Games break because you want them to most often when you are a child, or a game designer.
It is the ultimate show of agency in a game system.
(different from turning over the board entirely, different to cheating – both of which still acknowledge the original game)
All children are painters and dancers and writers and game designers
They haven’t yet gotten used to the feeling of ‘what is’ against their skin
So they swim into ‘what if’
As long as we let them.
Because ‘what if’ is a way of understanding ‘what is’
Children and game designers break games to see what will make them better.

Here is a different way games break


Anyone here ever play a mid-2000s JRPG called Baten Kaitos?
It’s a bit obscure, it was a gamecube exclusive, which probably didn’t help.
I bought it second hand, off ebay, and each mini CD came in a Perspex envelope
I sat in my first student house
Feeling fully like a grown up
New stationary, the smell of the university library
A small grey TV purchased on early Amazon
Late nights following the twists and turns of a genuinely gripping story.
It took a while for the crack in this game to break it for me.
Because the plotting was great
So many shows and games survive their brokenness for good plotting.

It was an aside.
A stupid character aside.
Some writer or designer at some point – probably late one night, or bleary eyed too early in the morning added a stupid bit of dialogue.

I’m a completist.
Which interestingly means I’ll often stop playing a game early.
I’ll realise that this game is too long for no other reason than perceived value,
Someone hasn’t thought about what time means.
Our only irreducible currency.
And that I just don’t have the time to play it properly
I don’t care enough to play properly
And if I can’t play it properly then I won’t play it at all.

That was part of what broke it
But what I remember even now
Nearly 10 years later
Is searching every cabin
In his stupid home town
Because that’s me.
I walk left first on scrollers to see if there’s anything hidden I might miss.
And I collect all the items and conversation.
And some tired, or bored, or unthinking writer
Decided to have me think and say something horrible about a female non-player character. Something about how they belong in the kitchen, etc. etc.
That’s more violent than you think
In a medium that invites you to act through another
The currency of your agency in circulation
to have it turned against you
You are thrown hard against ‘what is’, this is not your ‘what if’


The next break moves on from here to
All the games that were broken for me from the beginning
Because I grew out of being a tomboy
I stopped trying to beat them at their own game
I didn’t want to be the one they didn’t mean
I was a ‘them’, not an ‘us’
I tried out complicated thoughts about the possibility of being fucking intelligent and good at sports at the same time as wearing lipstick occasionally.
And that leads us simply to
All the games that were broken,
Because they made gendered, cultural, or controller-literacy assumptions
That meant I never even started them.


This game broke where it was supposed to.
This game broke because I am racist.
Or at least because I grew up in a very big, very quiet, very hard to leave county, that was 98.5% white.
Hinterland was a collaboration between game design studio Hide&Seek and Ross Sutherland, a gamer and poet.
Hinterland was a poem you played across a city
You created a little avatar in an installation at Forest Fringe,
And you played through several levels or ‘cantos’ – which is a posh word for a long verse in a poem – which were booklets that can only be completed with the help of a stranger – a translator, in fact. Because half of the booklet is in a different language.

Hinterland plays with the people of a city
Much more genuinely than a lot of pervasive games I’ve played
That make others the background
Because it breaks the barrier between person-who-is-ok-with-the-idea-of-playing, and general person who doesn’t even know what a pervasive game is.
Together you and your consenting until-now stranger answer the questions in the canto into the receiver of a mobile phone,
you both later receive a verse of the poem you made together.
Your little figure back at the Forest Cafe moves on a level.
And you return to collect your next canto.

This game broke in a way that was deeply political.
Canto 5
The last level
required me to find someone who spoke Korean.
There were ways to solve this
Look up a Korean restaurant in Google.
But somehow that felt like cheating.
I stopped playing then.
Because I knew I would not know the difference, on the street,
Between a Chinese person, a Japanese person, someone Korean
It broke where it was supposed to.
In a way that was reflective.


The Money is a game by a company called Kaleider
The Money is a simple game.
But one with rules so simple,
That it feels like real life  just with a problem to solve.

You can buy 2 different kinds of ticket to The Money
The first – silent witness – £10
You sit and watch
The second – benefactor £10 plus an amount of your choice
As Benefactor your job is to decide how to spend the money
The money is the sum of all the tickets.
It is on the table in front of you.
The decision must be made within 2 hours
And the decision must be unanimous.
If you do not spend the money by reaching a unanimous decision by the end of 2 hours, the money rolls over to the next group of people.

The Money is fascinating.
And with rules so simple,
It just concentrates and shows up the rules we play by in real life but forget exist.
And it broke down a little when I decided to ask the question
“why do we think we are better people to spend this than the next group?”
And said that I would veto every decision that they made.
“that’s not fair”
“it’s in the rules”
“it’s unfair to use your power like that”
“the rules say we all of us have the exact same amount, I’m not doing anything you can’t do”

I was a little annoying 

It’s not a game about money
It’s a game about collective decision-making, how we decide what matters.
I decided what mattered to me was the idea that one group of people is any better than another
And I broke some real-life assumed rules about democracy and what power is
Because the game gave me the agency to do so
The rules of The Money broke the rules of everyday life a little.
Which is deeply fascinating

Also I am fully aware I was a little annoying.


This is a game I don’t play any more
This is about games we play idly
Usually these games are safer, like counting magpies, or stones in plum pudding
But they are all games about how humans in an infinite universe imagine they have control.
This game is called ‘go on’, ‘click your ex’s name on Instagram’
‘test how much it does or doesn’t hurt anymore’
this game goes well until you see them with a new girl.
This game is like playing chicken with your heart
It broke it a little.


Some games take a long time to break
Long after you stop playing them
Some games stay with you
Some games break over your thoughts like waves for days and days after
Kentucky Route Zero is a modern classic
Its spell is long, and complex, and its simplicity of form sets aside space for design that is more like life than life looks
And writing so smart it cuts to deep differences in approach and person and storytelling just by offering 3 options
And I can’t get the shape of Equus petrol station out of my head
And I can’t shake the taste of America, which I only really remember from one trip over there when I was still young enough for a discount ticket – all over sweet bread, powdered juice drink, and long drive over roads by night that still smelt of the sun
And I can’t get the song of drowned miners out of my head
Even though I never heard it.

Some games break long.


Triathlon is a game I play with myself
It’s a game that happens between my head and my body
For 6 hours, for 12,
With the rules stipulating that you’re not allowed to wear headphones.
Just you, all of you, right now, every moment for a long time
Swimming, cycling, running

There is a theory about how our bodies deal with endurance effort.
It’s called the ‘Governor’ theory, and you may know about it if you listen to Radiolab or are a sports performance academic.

The governor theory suggests that there is a part of the brain which tells us when we have run out of energy
It tells us by sending signals to our muscles – fatigue, pain, struggle
But much like a car petrol gauge
The measure is under-estimated
There’s always a quarter tank left.
Experiments suggest you can trick it, you can push past that governor.

When taking part in endurance sport, there are certain measures
Called homeostats
You could also call them ‘breaking points’
Energy supply from glucose or glycogen,
blood oxygenation,
plasma osmality – which is science talk for the salt levels in your body.

And there are also centrally acting performance modifiers, such as motivation, self-belief, the presence of competitors, religion, prior experience,
sleep deprivation levels, general emotional state,
Which all govern how long our body feels we can continue – and even if you mess up that
There’s always something more left.

Triathlon is a fucking stupid thing to do.
It’s also great.
It’s like using 6 or 12 hours to roar with your body
A body that is not a thing looked at but is a thing for doing
It’s like remembering you exist
It’s like walking a psychological tightrope
It’s about playing with where you break.
Everything that ‘what is’ about being this woman with a body
Falls away into ‘what if’ one more step.


Early Days of a Better Nation
Is my final example
It’s a playable revolution from the good folk at the Agency of Coney.
It’s been through several iterations
I played an early one at BAC.
You were thrust into the early days following a revolution and our job was to form a new government, and decide how we would govern.
This game broke perfectly
And personally
Just as I won.
This game told me what I already know – that I play seriously
This game taught me what I thought I knew – that I am good at getting people to listen to me, to follow.
This game taught me what I didn’t know – that I will always choose compromise and pragmatism over what I believe is technically better, but so hard as to be almost impossible.
That I listen to the central governor of my ethical and moral system,
and that I will accept a coalition government if it means I get to be the leader.
This game crowned me as president
This game made me David Cameron.


Games can break because you think you can do better
They can break in ways that spit on who you are
They can be too broken to pick up
Or they can break where you are broken
They can break in a way that asks ‘what are our other options?’
They can break your heart
They can break over you like waves
They can break real, and hard,
And they can break open how you might affect, hurt others.

Games always break. Eventually.
Not because they are literally broken, though many are
But because they are finite. Like spells.They are a little pocket of ‘what if’ in a world of ‘what is’
They play with possibility and agency and system.
I am interested in Where Games Break
Not just for how games are literally broken.
Though many are.
But because in the space between ‘what is’ and ‘what if’ –
the infinitesimally big-small space between these two things,
there, is transformation.

That’s the bit that is art. That’s the bit that is politics. That’s the bit that is new thinking, heart-shifting.
A little like when you become aware of the fact that you are breathing.
Or that you are blinking.
What I mean is, is that we swim in ‘what is’ and after a while we forget to look at it.
Games plunge us into ‘what if’.
Like salt water into fresh, the taste of one still in our mouth, and the experience of the other surrounding us.
Where games break is the space between those two things.
The space, in fact, where everything ‘game’ happens.

In my opinion.

I am interested in Where Games Break.
Thank you for listening to me talk about them.

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7 Responses to “Where Games Break”

  1. Keith July 5, 2014 at 12:58 am #

    I’m not someone who usually leaves comments but just thought I would say I really enjoyed the latest post and also the Scottish independence post.

  2. Hannah Nicklin July 5, 2014 at 9:53 am #

    Thanks Keith!

  3. Federico September 4, 2014 at 1:15 am #

    I really enjoyed the article.
    Thanks for writing this.

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