B.U.T.T.O.N.

by Bernie DeKoven on March 17, 2011

B.U.T.T.O.N. is a computer-mediated social game developed by the Copenhagen Games Collective.

It was co-designed by Douglas Wilson, who wrote an accompanying research paper called “Brutally Unfair Tactics Totally OK Now: On Self-Effacing Games and Unachievements.”

I must, actually must, admit that my personal interest in his paper is to some significant degree influenced by the number of times my name appears (23).

Wilson begins his paper with the following anecdote:

It’s the 2010 Game Developers Conference, and we’re at the Mezzanine club in downtown San Francisco for the GAMMA IV party. I’m sprawled out on the ground – which is still damp with the residue of spilled cocktails – and I’m being trampled by three strangers as I desperately grasp for my Xbox controller. I am exactly where I want to be.

In this moment I’m showcasing my own game, Brutally Unfair Tactics Totally OK Now (a.k.a. B.U.T.T.O.N., 2010), a digitally-mediated party game in which two to eight players take a number of steps away from the screen and then race to the controllers through physical space. The goal is to press your button (or, in some cases, to defend your button from being pressed by others) in a certain way as specified on the screen. The B.U.T.T.O.N. competition here at the GAMMA IV party has gotten so physical precisely because the game goes out of its way to encourage a playful kind of “dirty” tactics. As I lunge for my controller, I’m also hoping to grab some of the other ones. Hoarding your opponents’ controllers is, after all, an effective form of defense.

There does seem to be a line between “good” and “bad” unfair tactics, though it’s a very fuzzy one. This night, we and most of our players have agreed – tacitly or explicitly – that the projector is off-limits. When one player tries turning it off, a number of us concur that the resulting game isn’t so much fun. These kinds of negotiations crop up constantly. My co-developer Lawrence, for example, takes some dubiously small steps away from the screen. The rest of us end up dragging him back to the “proper” starting position. The trick is to be bold and creative in how you bend the rules. Another one of my co-developers, Lau, starts taking some additional steps backwards in order to build up a running start during the countdown. He is making a fool of himself, but in a way that is both amusing and clever.

The game is not an experiment. It is an actual, genuinely fun, clearly playworthy, computer-mediated social game. But, from Wilson’s perspective, it becomes far more than that. He goes on:

My argument is that intentionally “broken” or otherwise incomplete game systems can help support a distinctly self-motivated and collaborative form of play. From a design perspective, the key to making these kinds of broken games work is to frame them in the right way. In this view, the practice of game design becomes less about crafting systems, and more about mood setting and instilling into the players the appropriate “spirit.”

For a much more immediate idea of how B.U.T.T.O.N is played, watch this:

I find myself unable to comment further on this – the game or the paper. It might have something to do with the sheer wealth of profound and highly relevant insights he has been able to draw from it, or the groundwork he lays for a much more delightfully computer-mediated future, or how finding my work so understood and made so relevant is making me too giddy to see the screen.


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