The City of Play and the playful guy behind it
Before we get to The Best New Games in the World, meet Adam Nelson.
He’s a trim 26-year-old, an East Liberty resident, a designer and entrepreneur, and he looks remarkably like Christian Bale. Four years ago, Nelson decided to get serious about games. He had always enjoyed games, and he particularly enjoyed working as a camp counselor at Exploration Summer Program, a camp in Massachusetts, where games were part of the job. He decided, in a flash of inspiration, that adults should have a chance to play as well. Not Angry Birds. Not amateur Rugby. Just games.
Four years after he founded Obscure Games, an informal club for such oddities as Circle Rules Football and Human Curling, Nelson has become confident in his mission—to help people have fun. A Seed Grant from the Sprout Fund helped kick off Obscure Games, but what began as a friendly pastime has become a profound exercise in community building.
“The more we did fun stuff in the city, the more we saw that it was a valuable thing,” says Nelson. A year ago, Nelson renamed his organization “City of Play”
and rewrote its mission statement. Obscure Games continues to be played every week, and the activities are still free and open to the public, but Nelson believes that City of Play “is on a mission to make the city a better place to live.”
Hence, for example, the City Spree, a 5K “race” that took place last May. Unlike a traditional race, the Spree had no particular course. Instead, Nelson and a handful of friends established “checkpoints” in less-visited neighborhoods, and participants were encouraged to run to them by whatever route they preferred. The point was not to finish first, or to beat a personal record, but to encourage exercise and explore unpopular streets.
“We wanted to showcase the neighborhoods as they truly are, and we wanted to use a game to get people to go to a place they wouldn’t go to normally,” Nelson explains. “And it worked great.”
As “an extension of that philosophy,” Nelson has planned the City of Play Festival, a.k.a. The Best New Games in the World which will be held this Saturday, August 31.
The Festival has existed before, but Nelson hopes that this year’s event will showcase some of the most interesting and bizarre games from all over the world (visitors to his website have been encouraged to submit their favorites). He plans to attract 100 to 200 people, like similar festivals in New York and other bohemian cities. While the organization funds itself with donations and T-shirt sales, the Festival will also serve as a release party for a Best Games Fest
book—an anthology of games and their rules.
(When asked who “we” are, Nelson chuckles and admits that “’we’ is basically just me,” but he makes sure to mention the small army of participants and volunteers who make each event possible, particularly the Festival).
The joy of City of Play is its inventive spirit: The variety of games ranges from Turtle Wushu (where players try to knock little rubber turtles out of their opponents’ palms) to Period-Clothing Stickball, to (Nelson’s own invention) the “emergency tetherball kit,” which can be fastened to almost any vertical object, including telephone poles and street signs. Nelson points out that such diversions are designed only for adults; while children can generally enjoy games whenever they want, City of Play is a rare opportunity for the 18-plus crowd to entertain themselves in a primal way.
Unlike hordes of his fellow Gen-Yers, Nelson never played videogames growing up, and he prefers the pleasures of a face-to-face pastime. He even compares the playground environment to socializing in a bar. “Games tie people very intimately to the locations that they play in,” he asserts. “When we’re in that space, we are now on the same level. We can talk to each other without any inhibition. I don’t like games that are frivolous. I don’t play games on my phone very much, because I think that games are so much more powerful than just a distraction.”
Such diversions are often associated with eccentric hipsters, a stereotype that Nelson recognizes, but he insists that City of Play is designed for anyone and everyone.
“I think that everybody enjoys playing,” Nelson asserts. “On a very basic, human level. I’ve run games for corporate groups, for the Three Rivers Venture Fair—people for whom working is
life—and they played my games. The people who get the most out of it are people who are interested in their community, people who are interested in creating. That’s who we’re targeting.”
The Best Games in the World Festival takes place this Saturday, Aug. 31. $25 registration per participant. Visit cityofplay.org for details
Photographs copyright Brian Cohen