Gotland is a Swedish island-province full of sheep and medieval architecture. It also houses one of Europe’s oldest game design programs, Gotland Game, which organises the annual Gotland Game Conference. From May 28-30, the campus is crowded with educators, industry folks and (prospective) students. I get the impression that there’s some real exchange happening here: Talks on “M for Mature” on the main stage, students showcasing their work on the adjacent floor.

During the conference, the students get to include themselves, they ask questions, they start discussions. During breaks, the professionals come to check out their games. After hours, we have drinks, we share stories about life and death. The 2-day event is crowned by a festive award ceremony MC-ed by game industry veteran Ernest Adams, of IGDA fame. You know things are festive when Ernest Adams shows up in a top hat. But let’s get back to the show floor for a bit. 

unofficial winner of the most impressive game setup: Get Meckt

What’s striking to me is the density of custom built hardware in the room. Next to the entrance, there’s a 2×2 metre tent whose ceiling is used as projection surface for an intimate round of Space Pong. A few steps further, there’s a competitive tank experience Get Mecktwhose every lever, every panel, every button, is hand-wired and soldered in expertly DIY fashion. Is this a generation who is finally leaving behind the playing field of prefabricated gaming platforms? As it turns out, building custom controllers is imposed by the schools: First year students are required to craft stuff “outside of the box” before they can build what they want in 2nd and 3rd year projects. Needless to say, this opens the floor for a variety of pretty cool stuff. Here are three favourites of mine which, in my book, didn’t receive enough credit during the festivities.

Bull Dog

(c) Ulf Benjaminsson

As far as I’m concerned, it’s always great to see players’ perennial need to become animals addressed in a game. Bull Dog is a territorial 2-player game, in which we become – well, a bull and a dog having a cross-species quarrel whose origins are somewhat obscure. Anyways, the dog is looking for bones in the bull’s garden, and the bull is not having it. Clad in a wiimote-enhanced helmet, complete with horns, the player-bull must restore order by ramming the dog. The player-dog uses a bicycle handlebar adorned with silly fringes to avoid the bull and grab all the bones. Lowering the horns speeds up the bull, tilting it turns it left and right – this is a power gesture which nicely aligns with the in-game bull acceleration. The pointless spectacle is enhanced by the wacky 2D character sprites. As bull, I saw the annoying dog flash by over and over, desperately working out the right angle to finally ram him. All I did, low-instinct bull as I was, was to ram trees instead, which were beautifully catapulted into the distance. Would ram again.

Drink or die

Drink or die is another competitive 2 player animal game, but this time we’re put into the harsh life of mosquitos sucking the blood of an adolescent white digital boy who tries to sleep, while leaving a large area of his torso uncovered. Foolish boy! Since it’s only female mosquitos which feed on blood in nature, the game comes with a cool (perhaps unconscious) feminist message: Suck blood from the patriarchy and try not to get hit by it. Being mosquito is a full body immersion experience: Players stand on a Wii Balance Board, navigating their mosquito to a convenient spot on the boy’s skin through shift of weight. Additionally, they wear long pointy face masks which operate the “drink blood” button inside a funnel. An awkward balancing exercise. Once successfully docked to a sweetly exposed skin area, there’s the double trouble of sucking more blood than the opponent while escaping the threatening hand of the sleeping boy. I sucked at this game, but my respect for mosquitos has grown disproportionately.

Yo, Bartender!

Finally, there’s Yo, bartender! which is both a game and a hybrid reality bar, complete with five interactive bottles and a counter panel for ice and olives. The name excellently summarises the player’s job: Get people’s orders, as fast as possible, and don’t mess it up (too much). The game comes with a little tutorial: Fix a large whisky for your cowboy-hat-wearing boss. Players better get an overview of their supply – vermouth, rum, juice, vodka, tequila – orders are getting more complex. To fix a drink, the correct bottles need to be “poured” on top of a wired glass mounted to the counter. A gratifying “fill glass” animation ensues, and the drink is good to serve. Cowboy-hat man as well as a number of other quirky guests have a witty repartee on their lips before they leave the bar. If left unsatisfied, they hit the road in anger. The 2-minute window is just perfect for this highscore game. A great blend between a digitally enhanced doll kitchen and an alcohol literacy game.