Interview: Kati London

Kati is a game designer and product director at Zynga New York. For her early work in both real world games and the early Internet of Things, Kati was named one of the “Top 35 Innovators Under 35″ by MIT’s Technology Review Magazine in 2010. This interview primarily concerns her role as Senior Producer of the game Macon Money, which was created by Area/Code with funding from the Knight Foundation. The interview below was conducted via email on March 28, 2012.

Q: Before designing Macon Money, you toured American cities to gain ideas for games.  Did that process inform your approach to Macon Money?

Absolutely, the first phase of the project was really an exercise in hyperlocal design in which we did primary and secondary research with a team of game designer, producer and ethnographer meeting with a broad array of Macon residents to understand where the biggest opportunity was for using civic games to drive community engagement. From that research we defined project goals: to connect residents across 3 zipcodes in Macon, GA to each other as a means to build person-to-person and person-to-business connections.

Q: Your print currency in Macon Money is beautiful, and clearly more than just a game asset, with its visual roots in 1800s currency from the US, the Euro, and even Macon’s own Otis Redding.  What inspired such attention, and how did it help the game?

Again, this grew out of the hyperlocal approach in which we identified several goals for the game piece design:

  1. Accessibility to anyone within the community regardless of age or socio-economic status – paper and money are universally accessible mediums
  2. Serve as an object for ritualized, repeatable points of conversation
  3. A historic and hip approach – looking back to old US paper money and to contemporary Euro bills
  4. Tied to Macon, GA – aspects of Antebellum architectural flourishes refer to the historic houses within the College Hill Corridor and Downtown Macon (where the game is situated), integration of partner, College Hill Alliance’s logo; game icons like the kazoo (invented in Macon), column (local architecture), music note (referencing Macon’s rich musical heritage) on the bonds were easy ways to find matches with local resonance
  5. Broadcast legitimacy – while Macon Money is a game, because it involves a real currency and businesses we needed the game pieces to telegraph legitimacy and trust in order to work

Art Director, Rachel Morris, was able to seamlessly connect these goals into her elegant designs. We found that players loved the bills, bonds, and the stickers that businesses put up, and they worked very well. One “drawback” which we were pleased to hear about was that players sometimes loved the bills so much they wanted to keep them as tokens or pieces of art.

Q: The technology for Macon Money appears minimalist (including paper!), yet the game is clearly locative and mobile… what genre do you use to describe it?

I think of it as a civic, real world, or locative game. The game engages civics, how we as citizens relate to each other by driving person to person and person to business relationships. It also supports the local economy while crossing socio-economic strata.

It is a real world game, in that gameplay is not limited to the screen, it happens where people live: in person at events, on the streets, at work, via Facebook, Twitter, and the game forums.

It is locative in that it was designed and can only be played by residents of a 3 zipcode area within Macon, GA.

Q: How did you approach playtesting Macon Money, given the months of play and the creativity players showed in finding matches?

Initially, we playtested the game by modeling different scenarios, bond and bill distribution and redemption rates, and attrition rates, etc. Because it’s difficult to playtest this type and scale of project outside of the community it was designed for we introduced the game slowly, closely monitoring the game when it was live. Bond distribution was tweaked on an ongoing basis. We closely monitored weekly engagement including matches made between zipcodes, bonds distributed, redeemed, money spent at local businesses, and money redeemed by local businesses.

Q: Your game Macon Money deals with financial currency, yet it also seems to build social capital.  What kind of game mechanics did you use for this exchange, and did they resonate with your partners?

The game mechanic was dead simple – match icons. This required building or spending your social currency to earn a local currency. Once a player had a bond (which they might get from a targeted mailing, at a public event, stopping by the HQ, or by requesting one on our website) all they had to do was find a match. Each bond had three icons in an order ex. peach, kazoo, music note. Players could ask neighbors, put their bond in their car window, post their icons to message boards, Facebook, or Twitter, or show up at a community event to find a match. It didn’t require much more than saying hi to someone and showing them their bond, in the process they evangelized the game and made a connection to another person.

Because we involved our stakeholders from the research phase through implementation it was a healthy process that didn’t require buy in after the fact. All of the partners recognized a need to build ties within the college, the College Hill Corridor, and the Downtown communities. Macon already had critical momentum in the form of weekly events that the College Hill Alliance was putting on, we built on that. In the end we supported existing Macon events and provided a vehicle for local businesses to do events around to earn attention.

Q: What is an “expert player” of Macon Money?  What does it mean for players to improve?  Can they “win”?

Players win by meeting new people, learning about their community, earning and spending currency locally. Businesses win by meeting new community members and expanding their customer base. Players might get better at the game by expanding the channels they use to find a match. An example of expert play might be, a group of players choosing to pool their bonds and bills to buy a big ticket item to share or donate. Expert business play might mean combining a discount with the use of Macon Money payment in order to drive more business. I’m sure there’s more opportunities for expert play, but those are some basic examples. We definitely saw businesses offering discounts and hosting Macon Money events.

Q: You’ve said that problem-solving with games is unusual, and often requires some absurdity and even the impossible.  Given the reputation of nonprofits as being dogmatic, were you able to maintain some absurdity in designing Macon?

Because this was a new type of project for the Knight Foundation they were open partners in the process.

That said, Macon Money was pragmatic in a lot of ways. Money is a fundamental reward that we are all already familiar with (dependent on), no matter our socio-economic status. Leaning on currency as the primary game piece was something that everyone from the Knight Foundation Board to local stakeholders understood the value in. That said, the name of the game itself, Macon Money, is pretty kooky and turned out to be accessible, which was the balance we were able to strike in this situation.

Q: Is there a form of activism inherent in Macon Money, or would that require modifying the game?

Activism: The policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change. (According to Wikipedia)

I suppose according to the above definition MM could be considered a form of activism, in that it sought to drive person to person and person to business connections in Macon, GA (a social change) and it did that. In my mind, the fundamental input and support from local stakeholders across the public, private, faith-based, and academic sectors forged the game which ultimately drove community-engagement.

Players could certainly pool their bonds and bills in acts of activism!