Every Halloween since I’ve gotten too old to trick-or-treat, I make a point of taking a walk around my neighborhood. I obviously can’t participate in the actual acquisition of candy, and I don’t really know any of the other people walking around the streets, but the experience of trick-or-treating, of being in that space, has been one that I’ve valued even when I can’t participate. Before I really got into game design, I had always chalked this up to nostalgia, and it’s true, there is a good deal of nostalgia involved in it, but what keeps me coming back every year isn’t just that. Instead, it has a lot to do with how the social space of trick-or-treating works, with how, for a few hours, neighborhoods work differently than they do for the rest of the year. And since anyone who comes with me on this walk is subjected to my pseudo-intellectual game design babblings about how, no really, this is just like a video game, and I’m running out of friends who will still come with me on this annual walk, I figured I’d try to organize the thoughts a bit and do something productive with them. In short, trick-or-treating creates a social space that both predates contemporary multiplayer video games, yet is incredibly similar to them, and I think learning about one can help us better understand the other.
First, let’s look at how trick-or-treating actually works, and that starts with the setting. Most people (who aren’t really into architecture) don’t actively look at and examine individual houses in our neighborhoods. After we initially enter an area, they fade into the background because we don’t have to interact with them in any way. Frictional Games has an excellent blog post where they talk about a similar concept in game design, where aspects of a game world that the player doesn’t have to engage with complexly aren’t a part of their mental model, and they eventually are ignored. However, on Halloween, these houses that we previously removed from our mental model of a space are wonderfully returned to it with creative decorations. This is also true on Christmas, but I would argue that Halloween’s decorations are more interactive and creative. While walking around the space, trick-or-treaters are encouraged to marvel at the creations and designs of their neighbors, and they become the subject of discussion in a way that unadorned houses almost never are. This sets the stage for the transformative effects of the trick-or-treating space by taking the mundane and making it unique, adding a sense of wonder to moving from house to house. With the stage set, kids gear up and prepare to go out. They prepare elaborate costumes filled with references they expect their friends to get. They get bags to carry their candy, maybe flashlights if they’re taking it really seriously. Then, they enter the space. Maybe they meet up with their friends beforehand, maybe they start out hitting up the houses on their own block before meeting up. With the party fully assembled, kids can take advantage of the entirety of the social space, and it is here where the comparisons to game worlds become the strongest. Kids run from door to door, building up their mountain of candy, but in the process, run into other friends, compliment their costumes and swap locations of the houses with the best candy. It is a space with a clear objective – get the best/most candy – that encourages kids to help each other in best accomplishing this goal. And these systems generate stories, stories that I remember even years later. I have trouble remembering street names in my own neighborhood, but give me a map of the few blocks surrounding my house, and I can show you the places that, ten/fifteen years ago, gave out the full-sized Snickers bar, the one house with the cotton candy machine, and the old train station that was handing out sodas. It’s a hunt for loot, a hunt that everyone in your elementary school is participating in, and that makes for some great stories. Throughout the night, conversations will range from costumes to candy locations to the design of various houses’ decorations. Kids are encouraged to interact, to run into people, and to enjoy themselves while doing it. And at the end of the night, they return home to count their candy haul, and start the week-long process of gorging themselves.
Just from the way I’ve framed these events, the comparisons to game spaces might already be obvious. You gear up, get your party together, go looking for loot, talk about how cool the world design is, run into other players, swap tips, run away from some older kids (who I suppose would be higher-level players in this extended metaphor), then go home and check out your loot. This is the exact same loop as you might get in Destiny or Borderlands. I spend a lot of time trying to compare real-world spaces to game spaces, and while I often find many points of comparison, trick-or-treating is one of the only examples I can think of where real-world spaces replicate this particular type of game space. It is explicitly a space that requires an online multiplayer environment for its video game application, and thus has existed for no more than twenty years. But trick-or-treating has been around for well over eighty years (if my cursory Wikipedia search is to be believed). That set of social systems has been iterated on and tweaked for decades. And best I can tell, neither one influenced the other, it’s simply a product of dumping people into a space with these types of goals (get candy/get loot). This makes trick-or-treating one of the most interesting intersections of game logic and reality, because, even though it predates those types of game spaces by half a century, it gives a glimpse of what a game social space would look like when populated mostly by people who don’t play video games.