Sixteen Tons was my first collaboration with architect Nathalie Pozzi. It is a large-scale physical game about labor, capital, and human manipulation.
In Sixteen Tons, four players play a simple strategy game using heavy sections of steel pipe as the pieces of the game. At the beginning of the game, each player takes out three dollar bills from their wallets. When it is your turn, instead of moving a piece, you say, “Put me to work” – and other players use their dollars to bid on your labor. The play of Sixteen Tons combines strategic thinking with social interaction. The strategy game is simple to solve – but the complication of the bidding makes the game impossible to predict.
Nathalie led the design of the physical space for the game, which echoes mid-century modernism in both form and color. Named after the Tennessee Ernie Ford folk song from the 1950s about indentured labor in a coal mining town, Sixteen Tons is playful and perverse. During the game you literally bid on the labor of others, who do your bidding as they drag heavy steel pieces around the game board.
The dollar bills pass hands with the intensity of a betting pit in the white cube of the gallery space. The rules are ambiguous about what to do with the money in hand at the end of the game. Some players return the three dollars back to their owners. Other players decide to play for keeps – or even increase the stakes and play with bigger bills.
Sixteen Tons premiered at the Kai Lin art gallery in Feb 2010. Sixteen Tons was one of three games commissioned by the Art History of Games conference in February 2010. Since then it has been exhibited at Indiecade in Los Angeles (where it won the Developers Choice award) and at the NYU Game Center’s No Quarter exhibition. A tabletop version of the game was presented at the 2011 F.R.O.G. conference in Vienna.
Special thanks to Molo Design sponsorship of the walls, Stephen Bodnar at SCAD for fabricating the game pieces, and curator John Sharp for his support through manufacturing and installation.
- a PDF of the complete game rules
- Images of Sixteen Tons on Architizer
- gameplay video from Sixteen Tons at Indiecade 2010
- a video of Nathalie and I speaking about the game at its premiere