Marker Fight: Foray into Physical Games

Oct 31, 2012

I ordinarily stick to digital games. However a design assignment in one of my courses recently led me to experiment with creating a physical game. It’s a game only in a loose sense of the word, as the emphasis is more so on play; there’s no way to win or lose. That’s true for some of my digital “games” too that I’ve made over the years, so by now I’m pretty comfortable in that design space.

In Dr. Nitsche’s Project Studio, Digital World and Image Group, we were discussing playfulness in creativity, the use of shared experiences and the resulting artifacts to help overcome the awkwardness in initiating conversation (say, how wearing a unique homemade knitted scarf might spark dialog about it), and harnessing natural skills to bring craft into more people’s lives.

The playfulness I chose to focus on was sparring, which I’ve enjoyed over the years as a wrestler in high school, a submission grappler in college, and briefly through fencing and boxing. In each of these cases I have always enjoyed practice more than competitive events, when having a clear outcome mattered less than the exercise and visceral experience of it.

The resulting artifact I chose to create was one-of-a-kind T-shirt designs. The aggressive, unplanned “action painting” look of the shirts leftover from these events is obviously not a store bought pattern. And sure enough, when I wear this shirt to class, to parties, and in public, people sometimes ask me about what I’m wearing. Even if we don’t talk about it for long (though sometimes it stays the main topic), that nevertheless helps us get past the first difficulty of starting a dialog, and we can then easily segue into talking about other things. It’s a wearable conversation piece.

The natural skill I chose to emphasize was that of basic hand-to-hand attack and defense, that of situations where we’re compelled to strike yet doing so renders us briefly more vulnerable. Virtually all animals exhibit this behavior in the wild, instinctively. Though dressed up in cultural uniforms or learned styles, for better or for worse (mostly worse) this skill has maintained a solid thread of necessity through all of human history, whether we’re talking about soldiers training in unarmed defense, spiritualist martial artists, drunken soccer hooligans, or kids on a playground.

It was important to me that this be something which anyone can afford to do. Long-sleeve shirts like these are $5-$6 each at a department store. If someone’s more strapped for cash, or wants to provide shirts for friends, plain short-sleeve shirts can be acquired very cheaply in packs. Depending on whether someone would like to have multiple sparse shirts, dated by event, or keep one dense one as an accumulation of all the battles they participate in, the same shirt can also be reused arbitrarily many times.

A pack of fabric markers – essential to this since they won’t wash out from doing laundry, or at least they’ll last a very long time with minimal fading – thin ones (which don’t show up quite as well) can be ordered on Amazon for $6-$10, or a pack of bigger, thicker ones can be found for a little extra (around $15 for 5 colors) at a local crafts store. These are also reusable for many matches, although depending on the type of marker purchased, some may hold up better to this use than others. Occasionally tips fall out or get pushed in, but they’re usually snug enough that they can be pulled or pushed back into place and still used.

It’s a little bit like knife fighting, however it’s very different in that there’s no downside to being the second to strike. Moreover since faces/eyes are off limits the dynamic of what areas need to be protected changes entirely. This was also something that I learned in wrestling; because we weren’t allowed to hit each other in the face, the preferred stance for defense was very different from one we should ever use in a real fight.

It’s a little bit like Fight Club “lite.” It’s not being done for trophies, medals, prize money, or to be declared a winner. The “scars” on the shirt are the only trophy, but everyone goes home with said trophy, and frankly coming away from these events covered in marks feels better than having fewer. It’s just a release. And obviously this is a great deal safer than actually fighting, which increases the opportunities to do it more frequently or with people that would otherwise steer clear of real fighting, and without (or with substantially less) fear of broken bones, black eyes, stitches, or lost teeth. All that is best left for special effects in movies. People actually getting hurt is uncool and expensive.

Speaking of which, if you do decide to try this, please stay away from one another’s eyes and face, limit fights to 2 people at a time and only 45 seconds long, put safety first, etc. If you’d prefer, wearing swimming goggles for a little protection may not be a bad idea, for the same reason as kneepads when skating, a helmet when bicycling, or a facemask when fencing. But there’s also some minor risk of getting hurt when catching a baseball, tackling each other in football, running around for paintball, doing anything in wrestling, and so on, and that doesn’t mean we should just stay inside all the time sitting in a chair, that’ll kill you too.

Update: A new video documenting Night 2 is now available:



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