Welcome to my first Hobo Games Blog. Let me try to explain what this blog is all about. Earlier this year, I was awarded a Winston Churchill Trust Traveling Fellowship to do a research project on Serious Game Design and this blog is intended to describe the things I learn on my travels. Now, whenever I tell people about this Game Design project they're always slightly confused. I can see them thinking 'But you're a theatre director...what has theatre got to do with game design?' Well, one of my aims in this blog is to show that games and drama are actually pretty similar. Both take place within a physical context (a football pitch or a stage, for example) and both involve players or characters overcoming obstacles and pursuing goals.
But before going any further into what the Fellowship project is about, I want to give a bit more background on how I've ended up on the GO square of the Monopoly board. I come from a fairly traditional theatre background. I trained as a director at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) and I started out doing plays, you know, with a script. Then in 2007 when I was working at the National Theatre Studio I decided to try my hand at making improvised plays where there is a narrative structure but NO script. A couple of years later I was doing a production of one of these non-scripted plays and a guy called Andy Pawlby came to see it. Andy runs a company called London Quest who specialise in interactive experiences and he asked me if I wanted to make a play where the audience interact with the characters in the story. I said 'yes' and we made an interactive show called Beyond the Pale at Southwark Playhouse.
When we started working together, the first thing I said was that if there was to be meaningful interaction between the audience and characters, the audience members would have to have OBJECTIVES to pursue in the same way that characters pursue OBJECTIVES in traditional plays. Essentially, this makes people 'participants' or active 'players' in the action rather than passive observers. Many of you will have gone to shows by companies like Punchdrunk, Shunt or Secret Cinema that create immersive experiences that seem to offer a bit of 'interactivity' but most shows that claim to be interactive aren't really interactive in a meaningful sense. You might be able to have a wee chat with an actor but do your words or actions have a quantifiable outcome? Usually not.
I should say that this criticism of half-baked interactivity is a criticism I would also apply to myself. In my work with London Quest, we struggled to develop narrative structures with enough flexibility to allow participants to truly affect outcomes and at times I asked myself 'Is interactivity really necessary? Is it important? And if so, why?' The answer I found to these questions took me back to my very first job out of University. I worked for a youth organisation called The Mayhew Program in New Hampshire in the U.S. and one of the main things we did was play games with the kids (think team-building style games). This game play made a huge impact on me because I could see the children learning a huge amount about themselves specifically because they weren't being told what to think; rather, by choosing their own actions and seeing tangible outcomes, they formed meaningful conclusions about how to live with each other. Connecting this back to interactive drama, I'm excited by the prospect of participants finding their own sense of meaning by being able to take action within a story and see the outcome of that action.
So I knew that I wanted to make interactive drama that had the narrative richness of a great play but also the flexibility of a great game. But how to make it happen? By chance, a guy called Ben Mason (who runs a company called The Tom Sawyer Effect) invited me to a conference called Digital Shoreditch where lots of boffins meet to talk about games. Most of them were talking about digital games but there was a guy called Clay Ewing running a workshop on designing Serious Games for non-profit organisations and some of his games were non-digital! As a theatre director, face to face contact with other human beings is pretty important for me, so it was great to meet someone who valued games that take place in real world locations, but above all, he was making games about big serious stuff: the U.S. healthcare system, dengue fever, HIV in Uganda... When you think 'games' you often think of frivolous things that are just for fun, but these were some serious topics. Hence the term 'Serious Games'. I was impressed. And excited.
About 20 odd years ago, my sister (who is a textile artist) was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to study weaving techniques in Croatia and my Mum was always saying to me: 'Why don't YOU apply for a Churchill Fellowship? Think of what you'd really like to do'. Well, now I had something I really wanted to do. I asked Clay if he would support me in the event that I received a Fellowship. He very kindly said yes and the Churchill Trust very kindly said yes too.
So what am i actually going to do? Well, in November this year, I'll be traveling to the U.S. to work with Clay and his wife Lien (who is also a game designer) at the University of Miami where they both teach. I'll be looking initially at the fundamental structural building blocks of games, then at some point next year I'll pay Clay and Lien a second visit to work on the practical play-testing of a 'yet-to-be-determined' game. I'm really looking forward to starting my Fellowship project and I hope this blog will be of interest to other curious folk who are working at the intersection of games and drama. I've just finished reading the epic 'Rules of Play' by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. This book is described as 'The Bible' of game design and that will be the subject of my next blog entry.