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Toward a History that Examines Games as ‘Social Engineering’

Katherine Isbister (University of California, Santa Cruz)

In my research group, for years now we have been building games and playful experiences that push the boundaries of how technology can augment peoples’ connections to one another.1 One recent example illustrates this body of work: we designed a wearable we call True Colors to augment live-action role players’ experiences.2 This device, worn like an external collar over the shoulders (fig. 1), offered a range of features to players—from the ability to stun other players, to team identity markers, to individual signaling capabilities. But the device also had a designed-in overload issue—the wearers would have periodic breakdowns in which the device wouldn’t be working and so they were incapacitated. Players could wait for the overload to be over, or they could enlist others’ help in recharging their device. It turned out that LARPers really loved helping each other get out of overload—this was by far the favorite feature of the device during the weekend of play. The augment players who wore the devices embraced these moments of connection. Other players deeply enjoyed helping augments who overloaded, as well as watching others help out. Rather than the many possible empowering aspects of the wearable, players liked the disempowering, vulnerable, out-of-control overload intervention best because of what it did for their connections to one another.

Figure 1

Illustration of the True Colors wearable. Created by Ella Dagan for a CHI 2019 conference paper and presentation.

More and more, I have come to see games as both powerful and subtle social connection technologies. From simple folk games recurring since ancient times (such as Blindman’s Buff, in which a blindfold alters the senses of one of the players to create entertaining and challenging new social dynamics3) to the New Games movement of the 1970s that sought to encourage cooperative, collaborative play with props like giant earth balls,4 to the current rage for streaming game play and commentary that combine digital game play and live video and text chat,5 game designers have been shaping the social fabric in sophisticated ways alongside changes in technological possibility spaces and cultural contexts. As someone who frequently publishes work in technology venues, I don’t often see rich historical context for these kinds of interventions. In the pages of this new journal, I would love to see scholarship concerning the complex interplay of social norms, social settings, and cultural and historical social movements in considering the technologies of games that are played together.

What would be most exciting for me as a scholar to read would be historical analysis from researchers who also bring to bear design practice and literacy, and knowledge of the affordances of technologies of play, or who work closely with those who have these skills and knowledge. Selfishly perhaps, I’m interested in how such readings could lead not only to a deeper understanding of the past, but also to improved technological and design practice in the future; both are within the realm of games and play and apply to technologies that support communication and connection outside our subfield, such as social media. I believe there are centuries of wise technological and design practice that we could bring to bear on the current moment to help us to think well about the disruptive technological interventions wrought upon the social fabric that knits us together. I hope ROMchip will take up these questions in future issues.


1. ^ Katherine Isbister, “Connecting through Play,” Interactions Magazine 23, no. 4 (2016): 26–33.

2. ^ Ella Dagan, Elena Márquez Segura, Ferran Altarriba Bertran, Miguel Flores, and Katherine Isbister, “Designing ‘True Colors’: A Social Wearable That Affords Vulnerability,” Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Paper No. 33.

3. ^ Encyclopaedia Brittanica Online, s.v., “Blindman’s Buff,” accessed June 7, 2019,

4. ^ New Games Foundation, New Games Book (New York: Main Street Books, 1976).

5. ^ T. L. Taylor, Watch Me Play: Twitch and the Rise of Game Live Streaming (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018).