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Playing in public: Johann Sebastian Joust

The rise of digital folk games, which are designed to break social taboos, to get strangers talking and interacting and to make public spaces feel more friendly.

We are circling each other, me and the tall, bearded man. As the music speedsup, he lunges, aiming for the microphone-shaped object in my hand. I spin away – too fast, as it turns out. The light bulb on top of the object turns from purple to red and it’s game over for me.

I’m nearly 29 years old, so I haven’t played anything approaching “tag” in public for two decades – but here I am, at the Hide and Seek Weekender at the Southbank Centre in London, making a fool of myself in front of strangers. The game we’re playing is called Johann Sebastian Joust and it’s an experiment by the Danish developers Die Gute Fabrik.

Two to seven players hold motion-sensitive PlayStation controllers –which look like microphones with an illuminated doorknob on top – and listen to the Brandenburg Concertos. When the music starts, at a slow tempo, the controllers are extremely sensitive; as it speeds up, you can move more quickly. If you bust the limit –by lunging wildly at another player or having your controller jostled – the illuminated knob changes colour and you’re out.

Although Johann Sebastian Joust is technically a video game, it requires no screen and no special knowledge. It is part of a growing genre called “digital folk games” that attempts to capture the experience of playground classics such as tag or grandmother’s footsteps for adults.

The creator of Joust is Douglas Wilson, who is studying for a doctorate in interaction design and design theory at Copenhagen University. His guiding principle was simple: “Moving in slow motion is rad and we should do a game about that,” he told the online magazine Verge.

Joustisn’t available commercially but you can play it at games festivals and expos around Europe. The Verge writer Griffin McElroy rigged up a laptop with an early version of it in his flat (at one point, he hid in his shower, hoping his four opponents would “knock themselves out”) and also played outside at night, making the glowing tops of the controllers even more important.

After playing Joust (and losing every single game through overconfidence), I moved on to Romeoke – “avant-garde karaoke meets Asteroids” – in which you control the movement of balloons on screen with your voice. Yes, you feel stupid going “oooOOO” in public: that’s the point. Digital folk games are designed to break social taboos, to get strangers talking and interacting and to make public spaces feel more friendly. There’s a video on Die Gute Fabrik’s website of Joust being played on the streets of Copenhagen. Curious crowds soon gather around the players; before long, they are joining in.

This all might sound like an excuse for a bunch of adults to lark about but the gamers are being supported by academic research. “Play” is being recognised as a valuable antidote to more intense jobs and more atomised urban lives. As Brian Sutton-Smith, the former dean of play studies at the University of Pennsylvania, once put it: “The opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression.”

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special