Sometimes, the best games are the ones you make yourself.

At the turn of the last century, options for play were decidedly simple. Sliding down cellar doors, hollering down rain barrels and climbing apple trees were at the height of popularity.

But the world progressed and technology along with it. By the mid-century mark, gameplay could be found, personified in fact, by that new wonder of the Atomic Age: injection-molded plastic. That feat of engineering was closely followed by the perfection of transistors; resistors; magnets and electronics of all shapes and sizes; circuits; boards; buttons; knobs; and poles, culminating in the coin-operated videogame arcade machine.

Arcade machines were fun, of course, but the games were hard-wired into circuits. You couldn’t change them, even if you wanted. From soldering iron to dev kit, the console games that followed would be rigid and require special equipment to make; those rules were set.

Personal computers changed that. With disk space and operating systems, games could now be programmed as executables. The number of original games programmed for the Apple II exploded. You could make a game yourself. You could play someone else’s game – you could even change existing games. Now, technology was letting people take fun into their own hands.

Enter the Frogger
South by Southwest Interactive is the yearly conference for technorati and the Net Set held in Austin, Texas. Speakers sit on panels discussing the latest issues in technology, gaming and communication, all in an atmosphere of good barbeque and good beer.

There’s even one story – now a legend – of what happened on the night of March 14, 2006. After the closing conference party, a small group of journalists and techies met in Peter Ludlow’s Second Life Herald hospitality suite, at the Driskill Hotel. There was still a bottle of tequila, and other work to be done that night.

As the party started, Philip Torrone and Limor Fried entered, carrying a bag of supplies. They made for the kitchen. One of those robot vacuum cleaners, a Roomba, appeared. Fried, an R&D fellow from Eyebeam, began to cut a green T-shirt into strips.

Torrone, a senior editor at Make magazine, explained to a reporter from C|Net News that he’d rewired the robot’s remote control, and by using Bluetooth was able to drive the Roomba with his laptop.

Word spread through the suite. The reporter began to take photographs, and the Roomba took shape. As foam cups were taped in place and green fabric fitted, the Roomba Frogger rolled across the floor.

The historic downtown hotel happens to overlook Austin’s Sixth Street, and the Second Life Herald suite happened to have the third floor balcony. Looking down upon the street gave an identical perspective to that classic of the arcades, Frogger.

The anticipation turned into debate about how long poor Frogger would last in live traffic, how soon before the police would arrive and how good a player it takes to beat the real-life game.

By 2:00 in the morning, the robot was ready. The Roomba went back and forth across the street. On the 10th trip across four lanes of traffic, Frogger got crushed by a white SUV. After they picked up the debris, everyone laughed and remarked on the world’s first coin-op-inspired vacuum cleaner game.

The next morning C|net’s News.com ran the story, which went on to become one of the outlet’s most-read stories of the year. “Once you get a taste of Roomba Frogger,” noted Ludlow, “you can’t get enough.”

Covering Emergence
That C|net News reporter was Daniel Terdiman, who is no stranger to covering games and technology. What first attracted him to games, he says, was emergence. “I just loved the things that people were doing with games that were never expected by the publishers.”

Terdiman first encountered Torrone two years ago, when he was writing a Wired News piece about four sky-divers jumping from a plane just to attempt a game of multiplayer Mario on the Nintendo DS while free-falling at 120 mph (it worked).

Terdiman has written about Torrone from time to time. “He’s the biggest tinkerer I’ve ever met. Let’s put it that way.” Most games are about imagination, inside a box. Even the likes of Spore and Katamari, a designer creates a system, and players later look into a machine to interface with that system. But many of Torrone’s projects seem to take that same imagination and engineering, throw away the box and play in real social situations. “He basically says, ‘I don’t like the box I’m given – I’m creating a new box.'”

Terdiman sees more social and hands-on gaming in the future, too. Last autumn he took part in a game created by Jane McGonigal of ilovebees fame and Ian Bogost of Georgia Tech. The game of benevolent assassination, titled Cruel 2 B Kind, transformed New York’s Broadway between 48th and 58th Streets, into a battleground of combatants with compliments.

Teams of players would try to “kill” other teams, by yelling kind phrases at “enemies.” What made it dynamic, notes Terdiman, is you don’t know who is a player and who isn’t. Yelling “You look great!” at a group of strangers who end up not be involved in your game … “the look on their faces is priceless.”

Seize the Play
Torrone and Fried have moved on to other electronic entertainments. At this year’s South by Southwest they discussed subversive, yet playful technology during their keynote. One device turns off televisions. Another, the Wave Bubble, disrupts cell-phone signals within a five-foot radius and fits inside a cigarette pack.

Manufacturing and selling cell phone jamming devices might be less than legal in the United States, and that’s at the heart of what the pair refers to as open-source, do-it-yourself hardware hacks. They document and publish new techniques online in full detail.

“It starts conversations,” explains Torrone. “You’re not malicious; you don’t want to hurt people.” So his quarterly magazine, Make, strives to illustrate projects that make the most of home technology, celebrating “your right to tweak, hack and bend any technology to your own will.”

Torrone describes his goal as helping to change things for the better by showcasing, writing and celebrating the things people make. “I’m not certain how to solve all the world’s problems, but I’m sure it will involve everyone learning how to build (more) things.” Evidently, the more technology available, the more you can play with it.

Make My Play
At this very moment, Torrone is focusing all his attentions on the second annual bay-area Maker Faire, a two-day, family-friendly event – it features an Electric Giraffe – that celebrates “arts, crafts, engineering, science projects and the Do-It-Yourself mindset.” Terdiman, who expects to report on the event, says it has similar energy to the Burning Man festival, of which Terdiman is a 10-year veteran. Beside the more ephemeral crossover between the two events, Terdiman refers to “actual projects that were created for Burning Man that are on display at Maker Faire.”

In the end, it’s about taking fun into your own hands and making it work. Torrone once wore a shirt made of computer fans to Burning Man. People would ask him if it really worked. “Why would I make a shirt out of computer fans if it didn’t work?”

N. Evan Van Zelfden expects great things for the future of games. This is why he plays games, writes about them, and continues to work in the industry of games.

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