COAP: The Future of Play

Posted August 30, 2012

Technology is great at getting us connected, but also great at keeping us home.

We at ESI believe the future of play is more and more about large, collaborative, group experiences. We all crave true-life interactions and games are a great way to connect us through the power of play.  For the last few summers, ESI Design has been an enthusiastic partner in Come Out & Play (COAP) — a festival of original games that are designed to be played in public spaces, as well as to create a fun spectacle.

Live-action gaming is an incredibly fluid, often unpredictable way to encourage and study collaboration and communication in large groups. Games of this nature can be a little rough around the edges to allow for experimentation and rapid prototyping — and our designers love to create an experience based on assumptions and then see how those play out in the real world.

We usually create games for COAP, but this year we stepped up our involvement by organizing an entire Family Field Day to be held alongside the regular Field Day event, both because we saw some unmet needs and also because we wanted the chance to experiment a little. We worked closely with COAP organizers Greg Trefry and Nick Fortugno (among others) to coordinate the two events and to make sure they reached the right audience. Here’s how it went…

Games for All Ages

COAP showcases a wide variety of original games — physical, social, and digitally enabled, in all sorts of combinations. All of the games are fun, but many aren’t well-suited to kids, because they may be complex, or a little rough, or require players to travel long distances. We invited game designers to create games that would be specifically suited for younger audiences (as well as appeal to adults). Our target range was age 6 to 11, and we ended up with a great selection: Chicken Out (Best of Family Field Day), FiiWA (Best of Fest), Pickpocket Junction, Humans vs. Mosquitos, Gate Dash, Cupcake Wars, Medieval Madness, and Robots vs Zombies. Some of these were good for younger kids and some for older, some for small groups and some for larger, and all were a big success, attracting over 600 players (!) over the course of the day on Governor’s Island.

Immersive Storytelling

To create a more cohesive and immersive experience, ESI created the first ever integrated storyline for the COAP festival, weaving games together around the theme of time travel — because who doesn’t love the idea of time travel!? When people showed up at Family Field Day, what they actually discovered was Justin Time’s Time Travel Agency, staffed by a wacky bunch of Time Travel Agents. ESI worked with the game designers to fit all of their games into the storyline, so that we ended up with “destinations” ranging from Ancient Babylonia to the Middle Ages to 3 billion AD. And we designed a combination of big and small elements to really bring the Time Travel Agency to life. When players first arrived, they got a Time Tourist Passport and went through Passport Control, before entering a spectacular Time Travel Portal with pathways leading to games at multiple points in the past and future. Agents (outfitted with lab coats and official badges) welcomed them to each destination and stamped their passports. Players could earn beads (the universal currency of time travel, of course), wherever and whenever they went. Children and adults alike thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and left with the feeling that they had not only played some fun games, but had taken part in a real adventure.

Collaborative Play

Most of the games at COAP encourage some form of collaboration. In addition to recruiting games from a variety of designers, ESI also ran the game Robots vs. Zombies, which put a fun spin on the idea of collaboration by having players work together not as families, but as kids vs. adults. Robots (the kids) received water blasters and Zombies (the adults) had soaking wet sponges. The two teams started at opposite sides of a field with the single goal of getting across without getting wet, while doing their best to make sure that everyoneon the other team did, and players who got wet had to return to the very beginning and start again. The big idea here was to combine an appealing title with a simple experience that every age could play. Sure enough, the game was a tremendous hit, and a great excuse to get everyone soaking wet on a hot day.

We also wanted to encourage collaboration across games (and not just within them), so we created a time travel “crisis” — a massive group game that interrupted the regular games, urging players to run around the entire space to collect space-time particles that had escaped from the portal and now threatened our very existence! Families came together from all over to help solve the crisis, collecting the particles into the Particle Pit, which then became a free-play ball pit for the youngest children. The combination of surprise, storytelling, and active play made this collaborative activity a big success.

Play Is the Thing

The concept of gamification is currently very popular, as designers think about how to use games to educate, to motivate, and to solve contemporary problems. But the idea of play is even more expansive, including both structured games and unstructured free play that sparks creativity, imagination, and discovery.

Play is central to ESI — in our work culture, our design process, and the experiences we create. So true to the name of Come Out & Play, we wanted Family Field Day to offer a variety of play options: collaborative play, competitive play, discovery, role play, free play, and more. Because while games have a clear start and end, the possibilities of play are always open-ended — just like time travel!

Debra Everett-Lane

Debra is ESI Design’s former Director of Content and Activity Design.

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