This paper explores the relationship between play and power in the context of civic infrastructure and institutional systems as manifested in the work of Pop Up Playground. It focuses particularly on the ability of play to reveal the hidden tensions of ownership, negotiate social power structures and construct social spaces through temporary/fleeting communities of play.
Keywords: play—public space—pop-up playground—live games
Playing in Public Places
Public places are fraught environments to play in. Play and games need mean no harm to be disruptive as they renegotiate the use of space that is thought of as functional for other playful purposes. Depending on the game being played public space poses a range of risks for the players, particularly if the appropriate authorities do not sanction the play.
In the work of the Melbourne-based Live Games and Immersive Theatre Company, Pop Up Playground, of which I am Artistic Director, we encounter tensions around the use of public space regularly. This paper intends to discuss some of these tensions, how they can arise from the playful reappropriation of space, and to sketch a theoretical framework around this form of play along with some historical context.
Our games take place across a range of locations and many of these spaces are public. For instance, in our work #TrueRomansAll, a development program with Bell Shakespeare, we staged the first three acts of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar on the streets of Melbourne as an interactive drama. Players gathered in the city square to hear actors in character debate tyranny and freedom, and joined factions based on what they heard and whom they agreed with. From there the actors led the players off through the streets of the city and into hotel rooms, back alleys and city bars. The players could take either of two different journeys, one in support of Caesar and the other a sinister plot to assassinate Caesar, during which players were challenged to complete tasks such as collect signatures in support of Caesar, desecrate a Roman banner and execute a traitor to the cause. All the players’ actions contributed to deciding which outcome the event would have, for example, would Caesar be assassinated or would the conspiracy to kill him be revealed? Throughout, players were free to communicate with each other across social media and via the in-game newspaper we’d set up. Players often used social media to update each other on what was happening on their path through the game and, in one epic case, brokered a peace deal between the two factions while the leaders were busy posturing and plotting.
#TrueRomansAll, like all our games, was designed specifically to motivate certain behaviours and enact given scenarios. In this case, we were working to engender a conversation among players about the responsibilities of democracy by simulating the days of the coup in ancient Rome.
Naturally, the ephemerality of the lived experience is a common problem for the documentation and analysis of live performance events. Siobhan Murphy describes this struggle as ‘The intrication of looking forward and looking back, [which] is particularly apparent when narrating an entity that is in a constant process of becoming.’ (Murphy 2012: 22). Whether the subject is play, theatre or sport, the live event proceeds by encompassing the unfolding phenomenology of the whole and is in this sense unknowable. Any attempt to draw a unified theory of play from a specific instance of play then must ultimately be partial. Nevertheless, there are observations to be drawn from the anecdotal, and indeed the sharing of stories of play in the post game period is an essential element of the play experience.
What is play?
Play is a broad category. Play can be characterised as the rule-free imaginative playground games of children as much as it can be the commercially available console and computer games of the digital games industry. Play has regularly been co-opted by tourism campaigns to describe social activities such as drinking, dining and shopping, and similarly used in marketing campaigns to describe sporting activities and gambling. Clearly not all play is alike and yet most types of play share some important commonalities. Play is active, play is participatory and play is bounded by an agreed set of systems that give temporary meanings to social interaction within a limited physical environment governed by a contract of shared behaviours.
Cultural theorists have grappled with the description of play for over a hundred years. Johan Huizinga describes play as ‘a free activity standing quite consciously outside “ordinary” life as being “not serious,” but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it’ (Huizinga 1949: 13). Roger Caillois goes further and breaks down the forms of play into four distinct categories defined by how much
the role of competition, chance, simulation, or vertigo is dominant. I call these agôn, alea, mimicry and ilinx, respectively. All four indeed belong to the domain of play. One plays football, billiards, or chess (agôn); roulette or a lottery (alea); pirate, Nero, or Hamlet (mimicry); or one produces in oneself, by rapid whirling or falling movement, a state of dizziness and disorder (ilinx). (Caillois 1958: 12)
Though Caillois’s categories aren’t universal, they provide a useful filter through which to view the work of Pop Up Playground and to consider its relationship to space and power.
Pop Up Playground has been developing and staging live games and playful experiences in Melbourne since 2011. We make live participatory events and immersive/interactive experiences in collaboration with a range of artists, designers and cultural institutions. Common across all of our work has been the investigation of play as a cultural practice.
We describe the work of Pop Up Playground as ‘Live Games’. Live games are a form of play designed largely for mature audiences that focus on social interaction, shared narratives and playful re-contextualisations of space and place, and are often though not always digitally supported. The term ‘Live Games’ is, of course, immediately contestable. It can be fairly asked if all games aren’t live in some sense of the word. Perhaps the active participation of a player implies an element of live interaction rather than the passive consumption of an audience member. Live Games is a relatively recent term and has emerged as an accepted shorthand to describe a specific set of approaches to creative engagement with a participating set of players. Companies such as The Agency of Coney, Invisible Playground and Atmosphere Industries can all be described as creating Live Games, though their work varies widely. This haziness of Live Games as a formal description reflects the broad range of experiments in the field to date and also the still developing nature of the practice.
The work we do with Pop Up Playground tends to fall somewhere between Caillois’ definitions of agôn and mimicry. Many of our more physical games use competition (individual and team based) to motivate play, where our more immersive games rely on simulation to support shared fictions, role play and collaborative story telling. In practice, as each individual instance of play is negotiated by the players, specific play events tend to fall in between, across and sometimes outside of these categories, and play itself tends to resist strict delineations. The fluid nature of the game play is, in practice, closer to an ongoing negotiation of temporary and symbolic social contracts. The game in progress changes as we play it and adapts to better suit the conditions of play.
Pop Up Playground’s approach to each new work is founded on our belief in the benefits of play. In our work we regularly see how play is of real tangible benefit to the players. Play makes us stronger, smarter and safer. Stronger and smarter are perhaps the obvious benefits of play. The physical activity of play—the use of the body and the exertion physical play requires—lead naturally to improved physical fitness. The practice at decision-making, strategic thinking and imagination that play affords has a similar effect on the emotional and intellectual health of our players, depending on the types of play involved.
In our work we often see play negotiate and transgress established and anticipated social barriers. Play allows social barriers to be negotiated, crossed and ultimately deconstructed, acting as a theoretical space for critical interrogation of existing norms. From our observation of our players across a wide range of ages, cultures and contexts, we have seen that the more we play with strangers, the more open we are to accepting and understanding them. The more we work together as teams to win a game the less we are strangers to one another—we are strangers no longer, we are team mates.
A brief history and theory of play
Since the early 2000s play has become an increasingly central element in the work of performing arts companies in the UK, Europe and Australia. The work of English immersive theatre companies such as Punchdrunk and Shunt offer their audiences a certain level of agency to explore fully immersive theatricalised environments and, to some extent, direct their own experience of the performance. More recently, companies like The Agency of Coney in the UK and PVi and No Show in Australia, have turned to more formal game rules and familiar social structures to extend the agency of the participants in their work. Such participatory events are structured so that the participants are able to contribute directly to the event and to receive systemic and social feedback that demonstrates the impact those contributions have made. This then allows for the outcomes of the work to be altered—sometimes radically—by the cumulative decisions made by the players.
Though play as a mode of creative cultural engagement has experienced an intense concentration of new work in the last ten to fifteen years, it has deep roots in the alternative arts and the live performing arts communities that can be traced back for decades. The inclusion of a participating audience in the immediate production of a work, the negotiation of its outcomes and the ultimate meaning of each individual experience can be identified in the work of theatre artists such as Augusto Boal and his Forum Theatre (1980s/90s), in the experiments of the New Games movement lead by Stuart Brand and Bernie DeKoven (1970s/80s) and in the physical spaces of Alan Kaprow’s Happenings (1950s/60s).
The work of Pop Up Playground proceeds from the assumption, borrowed from theatre director Richard Schechner, that human activity exists variously along a continuum drawn between play and ritual. In Performance Theory Schechner describes one end of this continuum as follows: ‘Ritual is strictly programmed, expressing the individual’s submission to forces “larger” or at least “other” than oneself …. It is in these activities that people express their social behaviour’ (Schechner 1988: 15). Schechner describes ritual as the formal performance of cultural and social signifiers. For Schechner, secular religious ceremonies, national days of remembrance and common tasks such as a handshake, are intended to demonstrate belonging to a social group or order. The meaning of these actions are fixed and drawn from outside of the actions themselves. They refer to a larger idea or narrative—such as god or society or community—for their value and must remain essentially unchanged to retain their meaning. Play, on the other hand, Schechner describes as fluid. Play draws its value from itself and has no value, no symbolic meaning, outside of the social contract that constitutes the game. This understanding of social engagement as a continuum of performed behaviours governed by shifting sets of rules allows us to approach these activities as always being in motion. This indeterminacy and inconsistency is, in many ways, the primary condition and a primary benefit of play.
The Experience of Play in Public
In the practice of Pop Up Playground’s work we have frequent occasion to play in public. Our public games need to co-exist alongside the expected and authorised uses of space and often do their best to blend into the accepted activities taking place. In many instances these public games involve private/intimate moments staged in public using social mechanisms that call no overt attention to themselves. Quiet conversations between players and performers conducted just out of earshot of the general public, map reading, way finding and puzzle solving all make up the repertoire of playful actions that we hide in plain sight. On the other hand we are also sometimes called upon to make large-scale participatory spectacles in which players from the public and our game runners work together to operate giant puppets, chase around after colourful objects and make a whole lot of noise while doing so. These much more visible works are almost always constrained within tightly regulated and temporarily designated play zones, are authorised by the owners of the space, and are accompanied by at least two senior Pop Up Playground staff to oversee, coordinate and explain the activity for players and passers-by alike. These more spectacular works clearly mark themselves as play using commonly recognisable play signals and ludic markers. The bright colours, the laughing people acting according to a set of rules that, while not necessarily immediately discernable, are no less transparent and accessible, all act to announce that something playful is occurring. These spectacle works are designed to attract audiences to watch the players playing and, once the expectations of the game are resolved for the onlookers, they can move from being a passive audience to active spectators. They cheer the players and dispute the referees and thereby move from observer to observer/participant. From here it is only a short step to becoming a player and our Game Runners are trained to encourage new players to join the game as it goes on.
To illustrate how this kind of play finds its expression in public spaces and the tensions it can enflame, I will focus on a particular game that we play in Melbourne that blends invisible play with an element of agôn and so tends to attract the concern of the official keepers of the public space—security guards. The game is called City Dash, originally by a company from the UK called Fire Hazard Games, and Pop Up Playground have regularly presented it in various locations around Melbourne and its suburbs. City Dash players, ‘Work together to uncover secrets, crack cryptic clues, and outwit or outrun patrols in this high-energy immersive experience. It's a high-energy scavenger hunt crossed with hide-and-seek’ (Morfey 2017).
When we play it in public we are acutely aware of the security guards that patrol the play space. Even when the games are approved of and authorised by the organisation in question we have still found ourselves moved on by grim faced security guards. The presence of unapproved behaviour, or the unexpected and playful appropriation of space, is a particular anxiety for the people who own that space. For instance, Pop Up Playground were recently working for a very high profile organisation staging a game of City Dash for a group of players recruited through one of the organisations’ social programs. We arrive and begin to set up a table and our gear for the game and within five minutes the venue security guard has approached us and is talking to me, asking to see our permit. The guard is perfectly professional, calm, understanding, helpful and dispassionate. They are exactly what you want from a security guard; there’s no judgement, just procedure. The difficulty is that we don’t have a permit at this point. We are booked to be there, it’s an official event, this is just a last minute paper chase and the sort of thing that happens between big organisations and small projects but in that moment there is no doubt about who owns that space—a space that many thousands of Victorians might think of as public.
Though play and games use social contracts, agreements between players, to draw liminal spaces around themselves and create a ‘magic circle’ that supports and gives procedural shape to the playful relationships and temporary communities of play contained therein, (Huizinga 1949) they exist also in the real world. Those people outside the magic circle, who have not agreed to the social contract of the game but are impacted by the play nonetheless (owing to physical proximity, for instance) can find themselves attracted to the game out of curiosity and so drawn into the magic circle, or they can be interrupted/intercepted by the game and so find themselves confused and inconvenienced.
For Pop Up Playground this leads to our belief that play needs to be mindful of its surroundings. We are careful to ensure that our play can co-exist with the non-playful without causing interruption to, or only interrupting with purpose, what is happening in those negotiated spaces. We design our work with a careful eye on how spectators and passers-by will see and interpret that work if they encounter it. We rely on clear ludic markers, such as bright colours, a referee and player uniforms to quickly communicate that this is a game.
Quentin Stevens describes this potentially disruptive aspect of play in public in The Ludic City.
Physical boundaries are also not always enough to prevent play. Boundaries of various kinds frame limits to human experience; but these limits are part of what gets tested through play. Understanding the ways in which urban space both collects people together and separates them, how it shapes the arrangement of serious and frivolous activities, and how it helps support particular roles for players is crucial for understanding what makes urban space playful (Stevens 2007: 35).
As the physical design of an environment tends to shape the way people use that space, so play tests how else that space may be used. Where there is play in a relationship it allows room for negotiation.
Augusto Boal described the participation of his audience members in his forum theatre projects, in which members of the audience would join the performers on stage. Each participating audience member ‘changes the dramatic action, tries out solutions, discusses places for change—in short, trains himself for real action … No matter that the action is fictional; what matters is the action’ (Boal 1985: 122).
Boal’s work was generally presented in a traditional theatre, restricting the magic circle in which these playful negotiations can take place to a contained and controlled environment. In a theatre there are walls and a physical division between audience and performers to maintain control of what ideas are being explored. Playing outside in public in spaces intended for shopping or pedestrians, or designated for non-specific uses such as city squares, opens up possibilities for negotiation that are not so constrained. When the player takes on the protagonic role, as described by Boal, the player is empowered to question, challenge and reinterpret the potential use of a public space or environment.
For Pop Up Playground, play as a form of creative cultural engagement shares a recurrence of social contracts as agreed upon fictions, the concentration of experience or flow, the extension of agency to all participants and the practice of generalised reciprocity. We use these elements to shape the playing experience in such as way as to encourage our players to play along and play together. Our games are bounded by these shared fictions and social contracts to allow for complete immersion in the moment of play. The rules and systems we construct are designed to support temporary other ways of being, which encourages critical re-engagement with the existing social structures of the world outside the game. There is a range of physical, mental and social benefits that proceed from participation in our games but these are not didactic or consistent. Like play itself, we believe that the value of the work of Pop Up Playground, lies in the fluid and responsive nature of the systems used to support it and the feedback it offers to and gains from its participants. It shifts and changes with each group of players and from one game to the next, even different instances of the same game played by different people or the same people under different conditions. In this way play resists stasis and builds inclusivity and strengthens individual and community resilience.
When we play in public we are mindful of our surroundings and the people we share the space with. Depending on where we are playing, more or less of these people may want to join us, or simply watch, or be left alone. We take this into account when we design our games. Some kinds of public play renegotiate space in spectacular ways and attract a great deal of attention to themselves, other approaches turn to more covert and unobtrusive approaches to play in order to carry on in unauthorised spaces. Pop Up Playground takes the safety of our players and our environment very seriously and works to account for all scenarios that might disrupt the game or any one in the vicinity. Play need not be a threat in a public space, but this is as incumbent on the designers of the game as on those given charge of the space.
Boal, A 1985 Theatre of the Oppressed, New York, NY: Theatre Communications Group
Brown, S 2009 Play, Carlton: Scribe
Caillois, R 1958 Man, Play and Games, Paris: Librarie Gallimard (English trans. 1961, Simon and Schuster, Inc.)
Csikszentmihalyi, M 1991 Flow, New York, NY: Harper Perennial
Huzinga, J 1949 Homo Ludens, Abingdon: Routledge
Montola, M 2010 Nordic LARP, Stockholm: Fea Livia
Morfey, G 2017 ‘City Dash’, at http://games.fire-hazard.net/citydash/ (accessed 1 January 2017)
Murphy, S 2012 ‘A narrative of practice’, in L Mercer, J Robson and D Fenton (eds) Live Research, Nerang: Ladyfinger, 21–32
Putnam, R 2000 Bowling Alone, New York, NY: Simon & Schuster
Schechner, R 1988 Performance Theory, New York, NY: Routledge
Stevens, Q 2007 The Ludic City, Abingdon: Routledge