An important thing to remember when running games is to work with what you’ve got. Use the unique characteristics of the environment you’re in.
For a few years, the Beijing Expat Youth camps were held at a conference centre in the far south of Beijing. The grounds of the centre had all sorts of odd fields. The most unusual feature was an abandoned maze. It was originally a water maze – cement walls enclosed waterways which little boats paddled along. Higher walls formed the maze, and trees grew all through. By the time we came along, there was no water – just a few half-rotten boats and a lot of leaf litter lying in the bottom of a cement maze. It was dingy and not a little dangerous. So, of course, we used it for night games!
The most famous game we ever ran in the abandoned maze was Human Pac-Man. We created it for our second camp there, with the maze in mind.
4 garbage bins
15 large balls
30 medium size balls
200+ little balls (we used pingpong balls)
The kids got a few glowsticks each to light themselves up with. When we arrived at the maze, they were divided into their teams, each of them gathering in a different corner of the maze. In each team’s corner was a plastic garbage bin, which they would use to collect their points.
When the whistle blew to start the game, the kids left their corners in search of balls – the bigger the ball, the more points it was worth. They were human pac-men, in search of delicious dots. Once they deposited the balls in their team garbage bin, they were “safe”. At the conclusion of the game, the contents of the bins were counted and the team with the most points won.
Of course, pac-man has a nemesis: the ghosts! 8 leaders were sent around the maze, each draped in a sheet of some kind. When caught by a ghost, kids had to drop any balls they’d collected and follow the ghost to the “prison” in a large open space at the centre of the maze. Kids were free to collect balls in any section of the maze, not just near their home base, but the farther they roamed, the higher the risk of getting caught.
The prison was run like many we’ve run before and since – kids were required to do all sorts of random things to get free and return to the action. Sometimes they had to sing silly songs, or do silly dances, or perhaps provide profuse flattery to the leader in charge!
And there you have it – a very simple game. Easy to set up, easy to teach, easy to run. No bizarre rules to explain (or get confused), no weird supplies to locate. Running it as a night game meant the balls weren’t too simple too find, and made the ghosts more ghostly.
So why was this game so popular? Why is it still remembered so fondly, 5 years after the fact?
I think there are two main reasons.
1) It captured imaginations
Most people have played the computer game Pac Man. It was easy to relate the simple elements of the game we were playing to the computer game they remembered – making the whole thing seem much more sophisticated than it actually was. We weren’t running around collecting balls and avoiding leaders – we were in a computer eating dots and fleeing from ghosts!
2) Location, location, location
This game only worked because we were running around an old maze. Without those walls, the idea of being in the computer game falls apart. By creating a game that worked with the unique location available to us, we were able to make the game more than a game. It was a special game, one that is forever associated in all our minds with that location.
So why tell you this? I assume it’s unlikely you’ll be running night games in your own abandoned maze any time soon. If you do have access to a maze for night games, keep Human Pac-Man in mind! For the rest of you, though, consider those two points when preparing games for your own events.
Capture Imaginations – instead of running complex games, use simple games with easily understood rules, and make them interesting with a great story.
Location – make the most of the location you have. Choose, or create, games that engage with the environment they’re played in.