Games you play in the dark: Anonymity

07 March 2011 | 0 comments

British Summer Time will be starting soon, and it’s making me think about the Animation Decathlon, a game from Quadratura that I was involved with near the end of March 2009. It was a rush to get it ready by then – really it’d have been better to leave it till April – but we needed to squeeze it in before BST began, because it had to happen while it was still dark in the middle evening. It was for the most trivial of reasons: the game used projections, and they don’t work in the light.

Which is a bit odd. Usually, games are a thing you play in the light: if it’s too murky, you turn a lamp on so you can see the board better, or you adjust the contrast on the screen. There’s something different about games you play in the dark: stuff that needs projectors, Murder in the Dark, Somethin’ Else’s recent Papa Sangre, Waldschattenspiel.

I’m not sure, yet, what the differences are; the nature of the specific affordances of the dark. What types of play does it makes possible that can’t be done in the light? In order to think about it in a bit more detail, I’m declaring it GAMES YOU PLAY IN THE DARK week on the Hide&Seek Blog: I’ll be going through five different types of emotion or gameplay that the dark allows, starting off today with anonymity, then running through fear, secrets, focus and blindfolds.

Anonymity is something that comes up again and again in the work of Andy Field, whose Moveyhouse and First and Second Wilderness induce players – in the dark – to follow a certain set of instructions. In Moveyhouse, they’re watching a big screen which tells them that somewhere else, probably not too far away, some people are sitting in a cinema and watching a film. The things that are happening in the cinema – rustling sweets, surreptitious phonecalls – are being recorded and sent by text message to the screen that the players are watching. Slowly it dawns on them that they’re being asked to recreate this other (imaginary? real?) cinema. Props mentioned on the screen are available on a table at the front of the room, and sooner or later someone is brave enough to stand up and grab one of the bags of popcorn, or the rustling newspaper. Play begins.

First and Second Wilderness is broadly similar: there’s a screen with instructions, in this case telling players the story of a single soldier in a far-away war. The small group of players is provided with a setting and a collection of props: a sand-covered table for a battlefield, toy soldiers, all sorts of tiny toys, a keyboard where every key makes a different sound of battle. They also have a small video camera, running constantly, relaying everything it can see to a screen outside. The players are making a film, reenacting the war as described in plain words on the screen. It feels strange, and then fun, and even more fun, as you get carried away; snipping off arms, finding the gun-effect noise you find most satisfying, never really questioning whether this is a slightly creepy thing to be doing.

Both of these games happen in the dark – not pitch black, but a thick, murky darkness where you can make out other people’s outlines, where the light that’s there comes mostly from the white letters glowing on a dark-background screen. And this is absolutely vital. It provides a degree of anonymity which accomplishes two things:

1. It inhibits self-consciousness. It makes people feel like they can do things they wouldn’t in the light: they are licensed, by the fact that they’re not clearly them, to stand on chairs, to play chords of gunfire, to tear limbs off toy soldiers and laugh, to throw popcorn, to dance.

2. It inhibits showing off. The experience that emerges from Moveyhouse or First and Second Wilderness has no clear author, no stars; it feels like the sum of everyone’s actions, and it’s really hard for any one person to make it about them. The urge to show off, to do something that will make people pay attention to how great you are, disappears.

Pictures by sleepytom and Kevan Davis.

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