Games, Gender, and Geekery: An Interview With Matt Machell

Covenant, by Matt Machell

One of the great things about Mechatonic is the chance to interview people with interesting things to say. This time around, it’s not a name you might at first associate with Mobile Frame Zero. Matt Machell is known in the games design community as the creator of critically acclaimed story games such as Covenant and The Agency. I’d even go so far as to say that Covenant is the best roleplaying game you’ve never played.

Matt is also a father of two and long-time Lego enthusiast. He’s been generous enough to share his thoughts on Lego and gender roles, how play with kids is hugely important, and tragi-comic tales of unfortunate minifig knights and picnicking Nazis!

I guess you’re the person most responsible for first getting me into Mechaton [the original name for Mobile Frame Zero] all those years ago. Any recollection of how you were attracted to the game in the first place?

You know, I’d forgotten it was all my fault…

I got into Mechaton probably after seeing it on Vincent’s blog or The Forge. I seem to remember reading the initial rules draft as a blog post, but that might just be my memory failing. I’d seen Lego-based wargames before, but well, not been impressed rules-wise. So yeah, Vincent is one of these guys with a great talent, not just for explaining how games work but also designing great games, so I was intrigued and put down my cash. The smack talk and that spider walker on the cover were a big sell too…

Did you go through a Lego ‘dark age’ and what, if anything, brought you out of that?

I seem to remember selling off some of my bigger sets at age 12 or so, probably to fund a Warhammer habit or buy computer games. Doubt I’ll see that Saturn Ranger set again… Then a gap, but I seem to remember buying a few things at University round about when Lego Star Wars first came out and the Lego Adventurers pulp sets were about.

It’s funny, as I’ve got older I’ve got much less bothered about buying stuff for me. I think it fills a similar gap as train sets did for an older generation. There are a number of web geeks I know who are even more addicted than I am. I do think you appreciate it for different things as you get older though, the design aesthetics for example.

You’re a father of two. Obviously, age is a big part of what activities you can and cannot do with your kids. But in general, how important is play to the relationship between you and your children?

You can’t really extract play from a relationship with children. It’s so much of a core of what they do to explore the world and process it. What is important to me is making sure that they have lots of different activities, and don’t just get stuck in front of the TV. So crafts, painting, making things, creating stories.

Is Lego a part of this?

Oh, yes! When you have kids you suddenly get this urge to make sure they have similar shaping influences you did, so them having Lego was important to me. My daughter got interested in Knights and Castles about a year ago, and so I let her have a few of my old knights minifigs. From there it just spiralled. I made her a castle cake for her last birthday, with some custom female knight minifigs on it.

You know, one of the few things that does irk me is there’s only been one female knight in the history of minifigs. Their sets aimed at girls are… well, I think they’d be better off looking at the gender balance in the other sets, rather than creating twee pink sets.

She’s really into the imaginative play at the moment, telling stories about the minifig characters. You get wonderfully bizarre situations like the Lego Nazis from the Indiana Jones sets going off to the beach for a picnic.

So, she’s basically using Lego as an aid to imaginative roleplay? That must be kind of cool for you, as a designer of roleplaying games!

Definitely. Interestingly, a lot of the techniques from story games are really handy for helping your kids play. Asking “fishing” questions and using “yes and…” or “yes, but…” to help the narrative if it falters.

Going back to your comments on the gender issue surrounding Lego, a couple of questions. What did you make of the furore surrounding the Friends sets when they came out, and could you expand on what you’d like to see Lego actually do? What kind of stuff would your daughter like?

It’s an odd strategy. It seems like a marketing department did some focus groups, but didn’t question a bit deeper. A classic experience design case of listening to what people say rather than observing what they do. I’ve watched my daughter play knights or my niece build hogwarts, they don’t need separate lines, just not to be dis-couraged. I worry about a separate “for girls” Lego, sold on a pink aisle, it’s like saying ”this stuff over here, is not for you. Here have a pony…” It’s particularly odd as they tried it in 1994 with Belville and that wasn’t particularly successful.

More to the point, I want my daughter to look at town sets, or castle or pirates or whatever and there to be somebody of her gender there and not just as the token princess. I shouldn’t have to make her custom minifig female knights.

There’s a great 1980s Lego poster, just a girl with a sprawling lego creation smiling, I’d love to see more of that kind of thing from Lego. It’s way more inclusive. Things like Build Together are a nice initiative that’s in the right direction.

Mobile Frame Zero is quite a bit different from other wargames. Is it the kind of game you would be happy to play with your kids?

I would, and largely because I know it evolved from a game Vincent played with his kids. Though I’d still guess my daughter is a bit off having the attention span. It’s tricky to judge though, they will always surprise you with this stuff. We made a game together with some of her knights and my old dungeon floorplans the other day that involved finding treasure and avoiding a dragon.

That’s brilliant! Did the knights avoid the dragon in the end?

Hers did! Mine was thrown out of the castle!

Have interactions between you and the kids changed any of the ways you look at games design?

It certainly makes you think more about how behaviours are learned and become the norm. You watch your kids pick up a load of expectations based on very little experience.

Also, if anybody says games need simplifying for kids, I chuckle. Kids invent the most bizarrely convoluted games to play themselves, even the under threes. The bigger issue is attention span.

Designing a game: kind of like building with Lego?

Oh yeah, building a game is all about how the different parts all interact and produce an interesting whole. Oh, and having the right parts… which is knowing what you have in the toolbox of rules and techniques.

The best game design advice will always be play a diverse range of games just to see what’s possible. I get cranky when I read gamification articles where the author has only ever played xbox.

Are you working on any game designs at the moment?

The Agency, by Matt Machell

I’ve got a couple of projects on hold while I’m on extended paternity leave, with luck I’ll finish them in the new year. I have a planned supplement for The Agency called The Queen’s Men. It’s about the eponymous 1970s TV show of elizabethan spies involved in weird supernatural shenanigans. It’s shtick is that it’s the TV Annual for this series that never was. Lots of excuses to buy source inspiration like The Saint annuals and old Eagle Annuals.

Any good games you’ve picked up recently?

Space Maze, which I got at Essen last year is great fun to play with kids. I’m also enjoying Letterpress on my phone, it’s like scrabble with a territory control aspect.

What game would you say has influenced your own designs the most (and why?)

Whatever game I read last… Seriously, I’m terrible for thinking “Oh, I could use that from Cold City in here!” Something I try really hard to filter out, and yet sometimes that technique might be just the right thing. I ummed and ahhed ages before trying 3:16’s threat system in The Agency, turned out it was ideal.

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