Blimey! It's been over two weeks since my last blog post. The last week in Miami went by quickly, then I was travelling and now I'm back in the UK. So, it is high time I set fingers to keyboard to recount the things that happened towards the end of my time in Miami. The 2nd week started off with a play test of my card game 'Rule the School'. As i suspected, the rules were way too complex. The students in Clay's class who volunteered to play were straining every sinew to try to digest all the details as I explained the game and, in the end, I abandoned some of the rules to keep things simple. The play test went okay, I thought. The game worked pretty well and the players seemed to get into it. There were some good learning points, though. If players ended up with a bunch of useless cards (its no good having diamonds (science cards) if the class you're in is arts (heart cards)) they got frustrated - so it would be good to have some way that they could swap cards or ditch some of them. They also thought the scoring system should've been simpler. What was good to see, however, was that the game generated some discussion on the pros and cons of being a good student as opposed to a rebel or bully. Some of the players thought it wasn't 'fair' for the mean kids to do well by cheating and bullying but some commented that life in school is often distinctly unfair.
I had hoped that later in the week I would be able to do an improvisation workshop with some University of Miami acting students but unfortunately the Head of the Theatre School couldn't find a way to free the actors from their regular schedule at such short notice. This was a real shame for me and Lien as we had hoped to use the session to look at the possibilities of weaving narrative and games together, with a specific focus on her Immigration project. But - it wasn't to be. Instead, I decided to work on a 'twine' game based on some immigration research. A twine is basically a text based digital game in which the player navigates their way through a narrative, making choices about what they want to do next (very much like a Choose Your Own Adventure style book). The first thing I needed was some story material and I found a great piece called Enrique's Journey, a Pulitzer Prize winning book about a boy who travels from Honduras through Guatemala and Mexico to try to enter the United States and find his Mother. It was a brilliant but harrowing story. Enrique and all the others heading north have to avoid many hazards on the way. There are immigration authorities (La Migra), corrupt Police and brutal gangs to contend with, not to mention the dangers of riding freight trains and basic problems of food, water etc.
Having read and digested the story, I started picking out the parts of it that could be written as story 'units' with choices for the player to make in each unit. These units were then sketched out on post-it notes and laid out on the floor to form a rough structure. As I started doing this work, I was constantly tempted to create binary choices that would lead to alternative outcomes. The problem with this type of structure is that you very quickly start having to write myriad stories to account for an A or B choice at every stage. The theory that I wanted to try to explore was to make a relatively linear story in which the choices you make don't necessarily alter the 'destination' of where you go next but DO alter the 'way' in which you go there. Hmmm, that wasn't very clear - let's try again. The choices you make don't affect your destination 'quantitatively' but they do affect your journey 'qualitatively'. For example, Enrique will decide to ride the trains through Mexico to the U.S. and the player's choices cannot 'quantitatively' affect this destination. However, the choices made about how to say goodbye to members of his family, for example, will affect the 'qualitative' state in which he begins the journey (if he says a sweet goodbye, he may be given money, if he decides not to talk to his family about it he may go off feeling guilty about abandoning his loved ones etc. etc.)
By Wednesday of the 2nd week, I realised that the design process I had started was VERY complicated and that I couldn't conceivably finish a first draft of the twine before I would have to leave. The 'qualitative' approach can be done through the twine programme but it requires a bit of coding ability which I have yet to master! The other thing about twine that I don't like is that its based on 'choice' and in life we're rarely given 'choices' like 'Hey Jamie, do you want to do A or B?' Most of the time we try to get what we want and either succeed, fail or change our minds and try to get something else. Essentially, the twine structure is not that realistic but its a good tool for looking at building interactive narratives so I'll keep working on the Enrique's Journey twine game.
On Thursday, we did another play test. This time it was Lien's 'Cops and Rubbers' a game about sex workers making choices about their sexual health while trying to avoid corrupt police. The game is largely based on the Condoms as Evidence policy which posits that possession of condoms is evidence that a person may be engaged in prostitution. It was pretty shocking to hear this! You start the game with a character identity (you are a sex worker) and you have 2 objectives: Make a certain amount of money to help you make your life better (enrol in education etc) AND keep yourself safe from sexually transmitted diseases. To help keep you safe, there are kindly folk who give out condoms but if the cops catch you with one you get penalised (a night in jail, for example) AND you have to decide whether or not to have unprotected sex with clients. I was super careful and never had unprotected sex but it meant that I didn't make any money for my education course. It was a good game and certainly an eye-opener but I wanted some kind of reward for making 'good' decisions and I felt that there should have been some cops who weren't total scumbags!
On the final day, I met up with Lauren Gutman from ICAN (Immigrant Children Affirmative Network) and we went to a special Thanksgiving session with about 50 UUIM (Unaccompanied Undocumented Immigrant Minor) kids. They were doing a class about the Mayflower and it really struck me how strange but also fitting it was for these kids to be learning about people who did the exact same thing as them 400 years ago. The pilgrims made a hazardous journey across the ocean to reach America and many of these kids (mostly boys) made a hazardous journey across the railroads of Mexico. Lauren brought a group of about 15 boys outside onto a grassy area and we played one of my 'classic' games: 'Speedball' (unfortunate title). This game involves passing a ball around so that everyone in the group touches it and the aim is to make this happen in the shortest time possible. Lauren translated into Spanish for me but pretty soon I felt we were basically communicating with gestures and, as the boys took ownership of the game, I stepped back and let them work out how they could improve their time. Some boys were confident, some were more quiet but they all played and each time they made a quicker time they applauded which was cool. In the debrief afterwards they reflected on the game and how it related to other things. One boy talked about how you sometimes don't try to do something because you decide in advance that it won't work. One boy said that the game felt important. I asked him why and he said 'Because we had a goal'. I've played this game with middle class drama students in the UK, boys with 'challenging' behaviour in New Hampshire and now a group of teenage immigrants from Central America. Everyone liked playing it. After spending the week working on the twine game based on Enrique's Journey, the visit to ICAN felt like a very fitting way to finish the time in Miami and I really hope I can come back and work with them again.
Thanks for reading...