BT Residency, playing with reality

Nick Tandavanitj on Uncle Roy

More rough notes from another conversation with Nick Tandavantij, this time about Uncle Roy All Around You, a collaboration with the Mixed Reality Lab and part of the Equator project.

Although it seems trivial to say, but one of the things that has struck me from various discussions was that the character of Uncle Roy was very important. A lot of effort went into creating him as a truly believable character with a rich emotional backstory. Although maybe the details are not there the feel of him as a person has been well worked through. He was like a remote family member, someone who told jokes that weren’t funny, good hearted, reliable. He says in the dialogue that he is not connected to people, that he misses that feeling of connection. He talks about strangers and walking past strangers on the street. He wants to make a connection, but can’t. He wants to help others make that connection, even if they can’t. (Uncle Roy may or may not be dead, he is a liminal character in the game, riding the players like a Loa. Instructing and guiding the player, talking to them from the telemediated lands of the possibly dead.)

  • An experiment with the physical and the real (leading on from Can You See Me Now, this has players/audience in both online and physical roles.)
  • At the front desk the players are given the task of finding Uncle Roy
  • Used GSM modems on PDAs
  • Performer at front desk sets the challenge and takes all the players personal effects, keys, wallet, phone, etc. For security and also removes identity. (this is a very ritualistic process, removing symbols of identity is a classic entry point into liminal spaces)
  • No GPS, all self reported locations on maps.
  • Uncle Roy’s clues are ambiguous to begin with but become clearer the longer you stay in one spot. Deliberately unclear, but not misleading. (rich, deep symbolic interpretation is part of the ritual structure. the meanings are inexact, but interpretable.)
  • Scripted interactions from performers to help debug and error catch. Up to 8 “debugging” performers available and certainly 4 at any one time.
  • The physical bit was ticketed, with up to 20 people per hour. Physical players took about 45 mins to an hour to play. There were bottlenecks in the phonebox and Uncle Roy’s office.
  • The online bit was available in the gallery and online, with many more online players than physical.
  • The online players could find Uncle Roy’s office much easier than the physical players.
  • At the end the players are invited to make a commitment. Would you be there in case of an emergency. Most physical players made commitment, not many online players did. (220 physical players and 443 online players made commitments, so not all matches could be between physical and online)
  • “Somewhere in the game there is a stranger who is also answering these questions. Are you willing to make a commitment to that person that you will be available for them if they have a crisis? The commitment will last for 12 months and, in return, they will commit to you for the same period.”
  • The project would extend beyond the event and somehow fit back into their lives. Something would last. (My take is that this commitment is part of that sense of communitas, that could be taken back into everyday life. Something that allows the spontaneous communitas to last beyond the experience.)
  • A lot of the work was set up theatrically, as an obvious contrivance. The players could walk behind the ‘set’ of Uncle Roy’s office built inside another office (most specifically the ICA version). (Many rituals seem like obvious contrivances, not trying to hide the fact that they are sets. They are not seamless, immersive experiences, they are liminal experiences and the fact of that blends the real, fictional and imaginary.)
  • The office was set up like a place for Uncle Roy to watch or observe, which was also what was obviously happening to the physical players, who were being streamed to online players. (the place feels like it was a location for vigil, a place to go away and reflect on one’s relationship to society)
  • A lot of attention went into constructing Uncle Roy’s office as an installation piece. More care and attention went into it than if it was merely a checkpoint. Uncle Roy’s office was also streamed live to the online players.
  • “navigating the city by a different set of rules”
  • “we wanted it to be like a game” (it is like a game, but also appears to have some very obvious departures)
  • “an area of uncertainty”
  • Uses a white Ford Grenada limo at the end. (This is very symbolic of the high and players getting in are both taking an ironic form of luxury transport, but also doing something transgressive by getting into a stranger’s car. It is a white limo which symbolises purity, maybe showing that the player has been through this journey and comes back purified somehow.)

Whilst exploring the connection between using 3D virtual worlds and reality they talked a lot about B-movies and made a video mood board as part of the production process. This had things like the body snatchers, ghosts and the lost highway in it. It was called the spooky video montage. This feeling of spookiness and uncertainty was what they wanted to recreate in Uncle Roy. People should be a little scared of the virtual (and the liminal).

Uncle Roy All Around You from Blast Theory on Vimeo.

BT Residency, playing with reality

Nick Tandavanitj on Kidnap

These are rough notes from talking with Nick Tandavanitj about their 1998 piece Kidnap. As I’ve found from talking with all three of them, Kidnap was a seminal work for Blast Theory. It marks a major conceptual, and also importantly, production departure from previous works and helped set them on their current road.

  • Their starting point for previous work was that it revolved around, and would feel like, going out for the night, i.e. in the theme, the narrative and that it is completely participatory. (fell like or fit into other liminoid activities)
  • The piece is about the rise of the internet
  • It is based in real life. Not a performance, not an installation, not virtual, not imaginary.
  • It was a truly pervasive art work. (not in the technological sense, but in the true sense of the word)
  • It involved conceptual participation (an idea that seems to resonate with the talk of other pervasive game designers, a pyramid of engagement, from the final two, to semi-finalists, through those who entered the competition and out to a wider audience through the media)
  • To ensure this they spent a lot of time, effort and money on a PR company
  • Very much a progression from Atomic and Safehouse
  • A lot of care and attention was paid to details, such as the sign up forms, the marketing and the kidnap blipvert (the details of the process were carefully considered, this seems to come through from the installations Atomic and Safehouse)
  • The piece was very much about surveillance. The final 10 semi-finalists were tailed for 2 days and sent a spy film like surveillance photo. The kidnap was filmed and the entire experience was streamed live for the two days.
  • The final two participants reasons for taking part were radically different. They had significantly different life narratives and expectations of how this experience would fit in to their own lives.
  • Debra was Australian and new to the UK. She wanted to meet people and just hang out with everyone to make friends.
  • Russel was bored with his life and wanted excitement. To him this would be a mythic spy/crime/film experience.
  • The kidnaped were locked in a box for 2 days. Lots of boredom and silence. Stretches of boredom wedged between two moments of high excitement with the odd bit of excitement and interactivity inbetween. (sounds similar to Turner’s use of Dewey and Dilthey in Anthropology of Experience)
  • Finishes up with a press conference at the ICA (An interesting reintroduction into the structures of society, the way those who have been through extreme liminal experiences come back as heroes and their status has been elevated.)

Nick reckons there was no camaraderie, no communitas, between the kidnap victims. Though this has been heavily debated since, perhaps although they didn’t discuss deep and meaningful topics they may have still developed a bond. Apparently they also kept in touch for some time afterwards. In the video documentation there is a very poignant image of them both in hoods holding hands, but memories are hazy and that might have been faked for the cameras on the way to the press conference.

Kidnap Blipvert from Blast Theory on Vimeo.

BT Residency, playing with reality

Matt Adams, Blast Theory and Liminality

These are very rough notes from a discussion with Matt Adams of Blast Theory about the nature of their work over the last 20 years. It was sadly very short, but very productive. Although we covered quite a lot of ground these are the notes I pulled out that chat which directly speak to my examination of liminality. Although, as I’ve found, they haven’t been addressing the ideas of ritual and liminality directly, they have been playing with these through taking performance on a wild tangent and continuously addressing the themes of isolation, strangers and authentic human interaction.

My comments are in brackets.

  • Blast Theory’s work comes from performance. But as performers they have stepped back from the spotlight.
  • Originally seeking to take performance away from the ritualised aspects of theatre practice. Playing with the structures of what performance is/should be. (Theatre has ossified certain relationships with works, and there needs to be some new authenticity or directness. They want more liminality, more communitas to appear in their work.)
  • Their works are unfinished, in the Brian Eno sense. That the works are not interactive, but unfinished until there is an audience. (See interview here for Eno discussing what he means by unfinished as an alternative to interactive.)
  • Interactive works lead people like sheep through them. (linear, interactive works… not necessarily a bad thing)
  • From Desert Rain onwards there has been an exploration of the pollution between the virtual, the real, the fictional, the imaginary. (These are the contemporary liminal spaces.)
  • The works deliberately put people in an uncertain state, one where they are productively of balance. (liminal words, uncertain, off-balance and interesting to note that these states can be seen as clearly productive)
  • Leakage
  • Cities are entropic, chaotic (chaos as opposed to structure, chaos could be seen to be a synonym for anti-structure, esp in its non-linear guise. Everyday spaces are productuve enough to work for this and heterotopias are not required for ritual space.)
  • Works are purposely individual. But ones where the player/audience/participant are “exposing themselves” (but I feel that this individuality reflects on society, BTs works are like vigils, but in many cases bring people together at the end, often pairing up strangers)
  • Since Desert Rain been working with the idea of the virtual. But not doing the virtual/3D engine stuff anymore because it is hard/intensive/time consuming.
  • Since CYSMN been working with the idea of cities
  • Strangers are a recurring theme. The lack of, or connection with, strangers. Partly drawn from the sense of isolation that the internet brings. (the lack of communitas)
  • The idea of using mobiles/devices as a cultural platform. (BT engages with technics rather than in a overly critical manner, these are aspects of our world and the code/space can be liminal, a canvas and productive rather than didactic)
The following are some direct quotes that use wonderfully liminal language.
  • “operate on the borders of your control”
  • “being off balance”
  • “we don’t understand exactly what we are doing”
  • “grasping in the dark”
  • “searching for knowledge”
  • the works have to in some way “expose ourselves”
  • “We make work that puts you in a place you’ve never been before”
BT Residency, playing with reality

Communitas – Blast Theory day 11

The last piece of the puzzle, but the thing to really convince me about this ritual process and anti-structure schema, is communitas. During my ethnography and interviews of the last year the single, stand out, common feature seemed to be the social aesthetics. The most pleasurable aspect for players was to actually play with real people and the descriptions of this fits well with communitas, one of Turner’s key additions to the ritual process.

Communitas, that feeling of togetherness that occurs during liminal and liminoid activities. That feeling of oneness during music festivals, hen nights or civil war. It’s that drunken “I love you man” statement. It is also probably the sense of oneness that helps convince someone to join in the looting when everyone else is doing it.

[It is a] “Moment in and out of time,” and in and out of secular social structure, which reveals, however fleetingly, some recognition (in symbol if not always in language) of a generalized social bond that has ceased to be and has simultaneously yet to be fragmented into a multiplicity of structural ties.

According to him there are two models for human relations. The everyday, structured, hierarchical, differentiated social systems with status, identity, evaluation, politics. But also the social characteristics which emerges in liminal space, with barely rudimentary structure, participants undifferentiated, identities broken down and a communion of equal individuals. Turner adopts the term communitas rather than community to differentiate this new ritual state. Beyond the structures of society are not just the Hobbesian war of all against all, but also spontaneous communitas, before roles and regulation crops up. It is also very similar to Hakim Bey‘s Temporary Autonomous Zones, or what as Turner is quick to point out, “hippie happenings.”

This description of communitas attracted me because it matched well with the sense of enjoyment that people report from playing street games. The kinds of responses I had revolved around the enjoyment of working in a team, the directness of human contact/interaction and the sense of loss at the dissipation of a game, and the dissipation of the shared experience. No other pleasure seemed as important or as common as this sense of communitas.

announcements, publications

My CHI 2011 papers

I put my CHI 2011 workshop papers online and updated  my publications page.

Player Types and Gamification

This started as a critique of the idea of player types in general and especially the mindless application of Bartle’s 4 types, especially in gamification.

This paper presents a brief history of the concept of player types starting with Bartles’s work on MUDs and continuing to more recent, empirical research. Player types are not a defined concept and any categorization of players or users needs to occur within the context of a particular application or domain. Play-personas are suggested as a useful tool that can be used to put player type research into practice as part of the design process of gamified systems.

Tactics, Rhythms and Social Game Ethnography

The idea of rhythms and tempos is something that I think is very useful when applied to digital gaming, and gaming in general. Though I don’t have a lot of time to go into it now.

Attention has been paid to the mechanics, economics and business aspects of Social Network Games, however very little research has been carried out on the players themselves. Why and how do people play these games? The games themselves are designed for partial attention situations and as interstitials in the everyday, yet there isn’t any detailed research into the quotidian of social gaming. In this paper I describe de Certeau’s concepts of strategies and tactics, and Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis. These are useful, sensitizing positions with which to carry out ethnographic research into the context and situations of Social Network Game play.

Workshop on Gamification: Using Game Design Elements in Non-Game Contexts

Finally the extended abstract for the gamification workshop I helped run.

“Gamification” is an informal umbrella term for the use of video game elements in non-gaming systems to improve user experience (UX) and user engagement. The recent introduction of ‘gamified’ applications to large audiences promises new additions to the existing rich and diverse research on the heuristics, design patterns and dynamics of games and the positive UX they provide. However, what is lacking for a next step forward is the integration of this precise diversity of research endeavors. Therefore, this workshop brings together practitioners and researchers to develop a shared understanding of existing approaches and findings around the gamification of information systems, and identify key synergies, opportunities, and questions for future research.

BT Residency, playing with reality

Riots and liminality – Blast Theory day 9

The riots in London and across the UK this week are also great examples of liminality. Very,very clear examples of the breakdown of social structure and the emergence of anti-structures. Liminality is not always nice, and certainly in opposition to the liminoid, it often feels quite uncomfortable. However the riots are a response to a social crisis, but an instant, unplanned one. There are deeper social issues at work which prompted this, but there aren’t the proper channels for these social crises to be resolved. So impromptu liminal activity.

One thing that is being reported in the press is that seemingly upstanding people took part in “moments of madness.” Getting caught up in the emotion and the crazy logics of the situation. Turner was aware of the imitative aspects of ritual and that the middle phase represented a mimetic re-enactment of a crisis. Usually most of this would occur through symbolic means rather than direct. But the power of imitation and emotion rule in liminal states, not rationality and reason. The mimesis at work here is not just the copying of the behaviour of other rioters, but also the desire to own symbolic goods, and through that imitate the archetypes of success. The riots are violent, misguided attempts at status elevation.

In rituals, the liminal state is usually led by adults, the more mature, witch doctors and wise women. Those who hold special wisdom or knowledge run the events and input the symbols and manage the anti-structure. It would seem that in gameful experience is led, or structured by rules, whereas more playful experiences the activity follows on mimetic or imitative lines. There are anti-structures, or logics, operating within both, but one is slightly more obvious than the other.


BT Residency, playing with reality

West Pier – Blast Theory day 8


Here are a couple of pics from the seafront. The west pier on Tuesday night and about half a day later on Wednesday. The pier is a bit hard to see at night. But interestingly, and also hard to see, there are couples in just about the same spot, looking out to the pier. It seems like it would be a popular place for reflection.

The West Pier is in a very liminal state, it is betwixt and between. Since being abandoned it has never quite been in use although there have always been schemes about to bear fruit. There are now plans for a tower to be built on the site.

Piers themselves are interesting examples of liminal spaces (as well as seaside resort towns in general, see Rob Shields Places on the Margin). They are zones of carnival and play, symbolically sitting on the border between land and sea, jutting out  excitingly over the sea. They evoke, both in their presence and their rides, a sense of what Caillois would call vertigo, a dominant feeling, but mixed in with competition, chance and mimicry. Just by walking out on the pier one engages in a very sensual engagement with gravity and the elements.

Sitting watching the West Pier from the shore, one is reminded of all that without being able to take part. Sitting on the beach you are now separated by a true boundary from what was a liminal space and is now a symbol of the dead carnival. It is very similar to the ancient Egyptians looking across the nile to the tombs on the west bank and seeing a threshold, the routes to the lands of the dead, the routes to the afterlife.

announcements, game studies, playing with reality

ISEA, Pervasive Media, Street Games and Hipsters

This year I’m going to ISEA in Istanbul. Though it is hectically cut short by going to DiGRA right beforehand. I’ve got two things going on. I’m presenting a paper entitled “Big Games and Hipsters: Cool Capital in Pervasive Games” and I’m quite excited to be considered to be commenting on the politics of gameplay.

Pervasive and big gamers will be compared and contrasted with the now infamous subcultural group known as Hipsters, showing that although they are quite different people there are many functional similarities. Artists, designers and taste-makers from both groups have similar backgrounds and social roles and are engaged in creating cultural capital and constructing markets in cool. Specific attention is given to the emergent aesthetics that are shared between these two groups. These being a tendency towards historic referencing, intertextuality and lo-fi, appropriative design strategies.

I’m also convening a panel on the practice and ecological value of pervasive media, with Jon Dovey and Constance Fleuriot of the Digital Cultures Research Centre and Tim Kindberg from the Pervasive Media Studio.

New, pervasive, ubiquitous and mobile technologies promise us an ever more connected world and the possibility to access ever more detailed information about context. Although these promises contain drastic changes to media and technology, they don’t engage with the necessary changes to the practices of media production, distribution, technology creation and the commercial and practical realities that could make these promises a reality. These will be drastically game changing; creating new business possibilities, whilst making others obsolete. These promises, and changes, will be critically addressed during this panel.

And I’m not finished with hipsters yet.