Project Horseshoe is a conference of sorts that happens every November somewhere outside San Antonio, Texas. This year, it was held in rural, scenic Comfort, Texas at the Meyer Bed & Breakfast. Limited to around fifty participants, it is able to accomplish something that I find unique and valuable and which differentiates itself from any other activity of its kind available: you are able to establish deep, personal connections with incredibly smart and talented people without the baggage of split schedules and corporate responsibility that you find at other conferences.
Noah Falstein introduced me to the term “charrette”, which is the perfect explanation of what Project Horseshoe really is. Here’s the Wikipedia entry on “Charrette”. Its definition is “an intense period of design or planning activity”. Horseshoe is centered around the concept of a “workgroup” in which a spontaneously formed group of folks gets together to address a problem which they define pertaining to games and society over the weekend. The tagline of the conference is “Solving Game Design’s Toughest Problems”, but I think that is an oversimplification. It’s more accurate to say “Identifying Game Design’s Toughest Problems and Taking Wild Stabs at Them” but that doesn’t have nearly the panache. It’s a ludicrously intense period of philosophic debate punctuated by silly activities and board gaming.
It’s not for everyone. I tell people that there are two types of Horseshoe attendees. Those who go one year and decide it is not worth their time and money and lifers. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground. When I see people who haven’t gone to Horseshoe criticize it online, it usually goes something along the lines of “it’s not practical… you don’t actually solve anything… it’s a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.” I think all of those are fair criticisms. But they miss the point. The point of Horseshoe is not a game jammed version of scholarly research. The papers that come out of the conference are really just meeting notes and should largely be taken as such. The point of Horseshoe is the pride and excitement of doing impractical work and the harmony produced by people who drop their egos and come together to share in their own personal experiences with the subject matter that contributes to who they are. If you want to stand up in front of people and lecture about how right and awesome you are, Horseshoe is not for you. If you want to sit back and just absorb the lectures of others, Horseshoe is not for you. If you want to participate, challenge, be humbled, be inspired, and play, then Horseshoe sounds like it could be up your alley.
This was my fourth year at Horseshoe and despite many opportunities, my first chance of working with two of my favorite Horseshoers: Stephane Bura and Jason Vandenberghe. Our topic was about taking Jason’s wonderful Five Domains of Play talk which has great explanatory power over why we play what we play and extend that to the possibilities of why we continue to play what we play and why we quit. Three of us read psychology journal articles for fun so it was a perfect topic to latch onto and relate popular theories to possible explanatory behavior without the slightest shred of physical evidence. Nonetheless, we did a great job and I’m particularly proud of the model we are proposing. I also got the chance to work with some other great folks and between the seven of us, we had diverse enough backgrounds and experiences to challenge each other in creative and clever ways. The workgroup’s report will be up on the Horseshoe website by the end of the year.
Honestly, I don’t go to Horseshoe for the workgroups though. I go because it’s the highest signal-to-noise of any event I’ve ever been to. I get to have real conversations with some of the smartest people in the industry without having to schedule time with them or do the awkward business card dance. People who worked on Drop7, Triple Town, Artemis, Deus Ex, Words with Friends, and Everquest Next. People who worked at Riot, Telltale, Insomniac, and Infocom (Rest in Peace). Developers, researchers, teachers, writers, and the unclassifiable. Mostly everyone acts on the exact same level, instead of the master-apprentice form that GDC forces on us. And while I learn a lot every time I go to GDC, I feel that it is the fast-twitch kind of learning that becomes obsolete by the next GDC whereas what I get out of Horseshoe is more slow-burning and timeless. I’m inspired every year and have made some knee-jerk resolutions based on sleep-deprived resonance that I may come to regret in the coming months.
And who could ask for a more idyllic place to do this kind of work?
Highlights that are likely a combination of personal experiences and deeply inside inside jokes:
- A deer feeder across the creek attracted dozens of tiny deer that looked like small white-tails. They didn’t spook easily as they just chilled on the other side of the creek most of the week no matter the noise we made. Some ventured over to our side, but bounded away when someone would walk outside. There’s a great peace to be had in watching them eat and play.
- Frank Lantz gave a great keynote talk that was about philosophy, science and games. I think he mentioned it was going up online somewhere, but it was the perfect aperitif for what goes on at Horseshoe from someone who had never been.
- I almost get as much from reading board game rule books as I do playing the games themselves. From the collection that the attendees assembled, in waiting for open games in the evening I read the rules of a number of strange indie RPGs brought by Spry Fox’s Pat Kemp. I don’t know how much I’d enjoy playing them as I didn’t make the time for it, but as a sub-sub-genre, they scratch a very unique itch.
- A number of the attendees confessed in hushed, embarrassed tones that they are working on personal projects (the game of their dreams) within giant corporations. I told them to shut up about it because I tell my students no one ever gets to do that.
- I’m largely convinced that getting a PhD would be a detriment to my career in that it would take time away from creation and discovery. I’m still up the air here though.
- I didn’t know that Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches were an American thing. They were out as a snack during some event and an European friend acted as if someone discovered a new ambrosia.
- Tim Fowers’ Wok Star is a better co-op game than Escape.
- Giving early feedback on a friend’s game is amazing when you can tell it has loads of potential.