A workshop on Playing Systems at Camden People's Theatre

Coney recently took part in CPT’s Hard to Resist Festival, presenting a scratch, a workshop and a Salon. Game designer Paul Callaghan facilitated the workshop with Tassos Stevens, and shares his experience below…

On Jan 19, at Camden People’s Theatre, a group of game designers, musicians, activists, theatre makers, and educators gathered for a workshop on playing systems, part of Hard to Resist : A Short, Sharp Festival of Protest. I was lucky enough to be asked to help run it (as one of my first projects since returning to the UK from Australia) by Coney’s Tassos Stevens, building on ideas we’d talked about since first meeting over in Melbourne in 2011 and followed up via email, Skype, subsequent trips, and my return.

Our aim was simple: to use what we know about games to explore and uncover the systems that exist in the real-world, map them, and then to figure out how to make them do what we want. In many ways, it’s anti-gamification. We didn’t want to save the world by inventing new systems, instead we wanted to discover those that already exist, the aims, intents, values, and power inherent in them, and see how they could be made to better serve us.

The first step was to work out how we already think about systems. As people started to explore their own sense of things, common threads emerged – systems are about how things work, they’re about rules, they’re about feedback, patterns, cause and effect – and people’s specific experiences gave them useful lenses too – they’re about creating narratives, about metaphors, about the politics of naming, about interstitial distance, about harmony, about robustness, about objectives, about planning, and about negotiation, cooperation, investment, and balance.

From there, we moved from the abstract to the concrete, breaking open real-world systems and trying to map high school, a museum, and the self-service checkouts in the supermarket across the road. Just as with our deconstruction of how we already think about systems, there was a mix of commonality and uniqueness in each group. From a high level diagram of how people experienced a museum to a detailed deconstruction of the interface of a self-service checkout, the ideas shared demonstrated the extent of systems that we engage with day to day, their influence on us, and how much we might be taking for granted as we go about our lives.

Our last task of the day was to think about how we might enact change within those systems, identifying the tipping points and what tactical decisions we might be able to take, including one that required a change in career & 3 years of retraining as a systems admin to end up working on the servers of the supermarket, and another that involved creating a fantasy league game that simulated the experience of high school cliques through play.

Reflecting on these ideas afterwards, I found myself thinking about the workshop itself as a system – one bound by enough rules and harmony that we were all moving in the same direction, but one chaotic and complex enough that where we ended up as a group couldn’t have been predicted. Thanks to everyone involved for taking part, to Coney for bringing it together, and to CPT for hosting us.

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