Playing in Public

image off the conference site, click for full event programme

And Lo! She did return, from the dusty folds of academia she did emerge, and it was good.

So I’ve almost finished the PhD. It’s in ‘metaphorical drawer’ stage. Which is like ‘literal drawer’ stage but saves on printing costs, in that it’s ‘in a drawer’ (I don’t look at it) for the next 8 weeks, and then return to it to do things like write an abstract, introduction, conclusion and generally try and patch any theoretical leaks that have appeared now all the parts have been put together. Then submit. Thar she almost blows!

So yes, now I am returned, here follows a series of blog posts about what I’ve been wanting to tell you about but couldn’t because of The Document That Must Not Be Named.

Playing in Public! I don’t have a massive amount to write about this, partly because I was mid-PhD haze when I went along as part of a panel for the Hide & Seek weekender conference event, and partly because I mostly get stuck in when I have something to complain about. It was just good. Like seriously good. An amazing mix of artists, theatre makers, game designers, developers, venue people, and scales from indie games to a Creative Director from the Southbank Centre. No one wasted any time trying to make a case for games as ‘relevant’ or ‘cool’ or ‘are culture now, please’ (except one PR man who had kooky socks and drank BRAND cola suspiciously obviously) and instead just got stuck into proper ideas and thoughts and provocations. And, do you know what? PRETTY MUCH 50/50 MALE/FEMALE SPEAKER SPLIT. Just like that. And I didn’t hear anyone exclaiming about lack of interesting, thoughtful, provocative speakers, or screaming THE WOMEN, THE WOMEN, THERE ARE SO MANY I MIGHT DROWN (of women, that’s a thing). So, well done the Hide & Seek team, I think I love you.

I was speaking on a panel called  Regeneration games – how can public play contribute to community life? (They seem to have scoured my flickr feed for a picture there and have an amusing blowy one from my first (well, and only) trip to Paris that makes it look a bit like I hang around boats and have weird angular hair.) Also on the panel were Shan Maclennan of Marine Studios (an ace community regeneration thing in Margate), Kate Kneale of the Southbank Centre, and it was chaired by John Newbigin of Creative England. I wish we’d had more time to chat on this panel, as it began to touch on some really interesting stuff, and I would have loved to have the opportunity to get more into the deep, dirty stuff of what ‘games’ actually means for all of these levels of organisation, and what it can mean for the generation of agency, exploration of systems, and still struggle with in terms of the dangers of coercion. I really, really enjoyed this, though. Turns out 3 years studying a thing means you feel like you know just about enough to have fun explaining your opinions.

In terms of the rest of the event, it was really nice to have the chunkier panel sessions and proper speaker parts broken up with 5 minute segments from indie or up-and-coming designers talking about their work. Really varied the pace, and had some lovely stuff. I liked George Buckenham‘s approach to game design, which really is a theory of ‘title first, then make the game to fit it’, or ‘seeing if I can’, sort of trying to break himself as a designer, if that makes sense. Plus punching custard. PUNCHING CUSTARD. I DIDN’T like all of the ‘fail’ pictures QWOP man put up, which felt like being punched in the stomach. But mostly because I’m so scared of failure. Which is something I could learn more about from games like he makes, I reckon.

I also found Pat Kane’s ideas about the Olympics and games interesting and provocative; about the spectacle and carnival that were part of the whole thing – though I would argue (the relatively worn point) that carnival is rarely truly transgressive, but more of a ‘safety valve’. I think that if carnival really transgresses, it gets shut down, like the bit at protests where the police start clamping down. When I was chasing after a marching band that suddenly became the black bloc and who were being chased by police vans that the protestors kept on blocking with police cones and roadwork signs and the band played on, just marching, but not the approved route. Singing and dancing and face masks and smoke bombs. Anyway, I only made it into halfway through the beginning, but the full slides are here. I don’t think there is the space for association and reflection that translates the Olympics into anything, yet – there’s no bleed into real life application – the magic circle of the ‘Olympics’ is pretty impermeable. I think that possibly the label ‘carnival’ is the thing which seals that magic circle off. “Hey! You just watched a massive, ridiculously expensive piece of community theatre directed by a director publicly subsidised for some of the most formative parts of his career AND LOVED IT”. “Nah, mate, Olympics opening ceremony. Not theatre”. That feeling people felt, when they watched it, and for a brief beautiful moment there was a different ‘Britishness’ to the one we’re drilled into by the media – how do you link that to ‘play/performance/owning our story’ when it was locked down to Olympic branding? Thoughts… Although I should add I was a little bemused by the fetishisation of the ‘bionic’ implications of the Paralympics. When you get down to it, how different are running blades to a bicycle? A canoe paddle? Or a Lacrosse Stick? They all let you be super-human, don’t they? An extension of you that lets you move faster, throw further?

Also loved, LOVED Karls Alfrink. Who I had a bit of an ideas crush on. He argued for the weird. And talked about future cities, and disrupting expectations about space and interaction and all the things I love and think are properly politically important. He talked about the ‘domestication’ of games in our cities. And called for a return to disruptive qualities, to ‘wild’ games in our cities. “Domestication is an ongoing process — domestication makes cultural forms legible. It’s a natural process — for them to be useful they need to be legible, so there’s this uneasy play between unruly play and institutions trying to harness play.” See more on the Wired write up. Yep, proper ideas crush.

And then Clare Reddington was brilliant and essential on the practical stuff about when you crash tech people and arts people (and all the people in between) together. And I thought the generosity of Laura Kreifman’s Guerilla Dance Project was almost perfect. ‘Almost’ because no one’s really interested in ‘perfect’, right?

So there you go. Turns out I had more to say than I thought. Wish like anything I could have stayed for chats afterwards, too, there were so many people in the room I wanted to talk to. Alas. From now on I should be able to stick around after this kind of thing. I hope. Relevant pictures coming soon, soon as Hide & Seek have uploaded them, I shall continue to poke them. But yes, Hide & Seek. They should be given more money to develop this thoughtful, provocative side of things, which I haven’t seen or heard much of elsewhere. Good stuff.

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