10/04/2012 03:34 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

IndieCade Preview: Players Slap Each Other in the Rowdy 'Hit Me!'

By Noah J. Nelson

IndieCade --the International Festival of Independent Games-- hits downtown Culver City, California this weekend. Here's a look at one of the games that will be there.

One of the most fun things about IndieCade is watching people play digitally enhanced physical games. Twists on keep-away, tag, and all the other play-yard favorites. These games manage to embrace the essence of play while proving that technology can bring a fresh perspective to gaming without relying on million dollar budgets, obsessively detailed art assets, or top of the line gear.

Kaho Abe's Hit Me! is such a game.Two players each wear a helmet with a button and a digital camera on their head. Their goal: hit their opponent's button, which will trigger their own camera. Bonus points if you can get a picture of their face while you're slapping their head.

That's it. That's the whole game.

I wish we had that back in grade school.

Designer Kaho Abe talked to Turnstyle about how fashion design, Twister, and Jean-Claude Van Damme all factor into Hit Me!

Turnstyle: What does getting into IndieCade mean for you personally? For the project?

Kaho Abe: I am really excited that Hit Me! is in IndieCade this year. I have been applying consistently for the last few years, so it's nice to be recognized. I imagine that incorporating physical games (I mean, "physical games" as in games played in the physical world) into the judging system hasn't been easy, since play sessions have to be set up locally -- so I am extremely grateful that the festival has included physical games!

I am also pleased that Hit Me! was nominated because there's more to the game than the game itself. For example, Hit Me! is a custom game interface that is created with low-tech, low-cost technology.  It borrows the wireless capabilities of a hacked commercial doorbell system for its wireless communications. I am using shatterproof plastic display boxes that are normally for autographed baseballs to house the system on top of the hats. It also has been built with open source tools such as Processing and the Arduino. Basically, there's nothing fancy about it and I hope it shows that anyone can make this stuff. You don't need the latest hi-tech gadgets to make digital games that are played in the physical world.

TS: What led you to designing a game? What do you bring with your background that another developer might not?

KA: I was a fashion designer for many years until 2003, when I went to graduate school for Design and Technology at Parsons to learn how to embed electronics into clothing. At Parsons, I took game design classes with Katie Salen and Nick Fortugno, and that changed my life. I had found the perfect thing that encompassed everything that I was drawn to -- technology, design, creativity, intuition, logics, systems thinking... I was hooked!

I don't know if I am that different than other developers, since I code, build things and use game design methodologies just like everyone else. But more recently I have been thinking about ways in which I can combine wearable technology with alternative physical game controllers -- more specifically, how costumes can enhance a player's game experience but how it can also double as a game controller when embedded with switches and sensors. It brings together all the things I am excited about into one point of focus. I recently got a wearable technology grant from Eyebeam Art and Technology Center to research and design this in collaboration with Katherine Isbister of the NYU-Poly Game Innovation Lab.

TS: Hit Me is really... kinetic... what's the craziest thing that's happened while people were playing? Anyone get hurt? Is it popular with couples?

KA: When I designed the game, I deliberately left enough room for emergent behavior to enhance the spectator experience and the relationship between the players. I think it worked well, cause people get pretty creative when they play Hit Me! I see crazy things all the time. I've seen people dance through the game, and some people have used Kung Fu moves and Capoeira-like flips. Others play aggressively and become too focused on hitting the other's button that I have to stop the game to remind them to play nice. There's that weird fine line between play and fight that can get blurred beyond recognition sometimes. The original version had an injury waiver form, which was signed by the player for the sake of performance, but also it was something to remind players of its intensity and potential dangers. Thankfully no one has ever gotten injured, but I have seen a pair of glasses get crushed, a few banged fingers and of course some shattered egos. Common pairings seem to be between people who are friends, siblings or couples.

TS: What were some of your influences while designing the game? Does the classic party game Twister factor in at all?

KA: Twister is a big influence on all my games, since they all focus on creating a "magic circle" where you interact physically with people in a way you normally would not. Face-to-face or physical interaction can be awkward and intense especially if you aren't a "touchy feely" kind of person or maybe you just haven't reached that point with your friend from the office yet! Whatever the case may be, the "magic circle" is kind of a special place where it's ok.

Some other influences include studying the rules sets and systems of intense player vs player sports like Sumo and Fencing. Also, Jean-Claude Van Damme's film "Lionheart" is another strong influence. I love movies and often refer to them when thinking of scenarios in the games. In the movie, JCVD's character is engaging in some very raw, bare-fisted fights as rich people sit around the fighting space, betting, watching and cheering. I wanted to touch upon that visual reference to capture the relationship between the performer, spectator, and the space. Movies can be wonderful influences in this way for physical games.

TS: What excites you the most about the indie game scene right now?

KA: In my mind, independent game design is really about freedom and creativity -- and I think people have been pushing the boundaries more, thinking outside the box and making more high quality games. At the same time, with tools that are easier to use and components that are cheaper, physical games with custom interfaces are becoming more of a possibility than before. And people are understanding more that a game doesn't have to be limited to just a screen-based experience. I mean, think of the popularity of JS Joust. It's an exciting time!

What are you looking forward to seeing at IndieCade?

KA: Everything and everyone.

Hit Me! (2011) from Kaho A on Vimeo.

IndieCade, the International Festival of Independent Games starts October 4th with the Red Carpet Awards, and opens to the public on Oct. 6th in Culver City.

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