Usually, our live events have a core of people who know us: people who’ve been to a Sandpit or a Weekender before, people who like games, people who know a little about what to expect. Of course they’re often outnumbered by newcomers and passers-by and people who saw the brochure lying around and didn’t have anything else to do, but the familiar core is still there. On 1 January, though, our audience was people who were wandering around Edinburgh: residents out for a walk; visitors who’d come up for Hogmanay and couldn’t leave because the trains weren’t running yet; people with hangovers; wandering families. People who are almost guaranteed not to be reading this blog post. We weren’t really sure how many of them to expect. It turned out there were quite a lot.
It was a silly big game and hundreds of people were involved in making it work, on the day and in the months before: stewards and producers and drummers and actors and guys who put up Helter Skelters and Heads of Games and a samba band and the Lord Provost of Edinburgh and a poet and people on New Year’s Eve stapling sheets of cardboard at 9pm or printing out stickers at 4:30am. I’ve been trying to write it up and it’s just too big, there’s too much of it. But I can at least write down some of the things I want to remember for next time.
Team loyalties kick in straight away
Everyone who played chose to be either an Uppie, living in the north of their home town and loyal to the silver eagle, or a Doonie, living in their home’s south and loyal to the Red Stag. Every part of the game had a potential reward of tokens; the team that won the most tokens over the afternoon, and brought them back to their team’s sculpture, would be the winner.
The idea was based on a traditional Scottish game, and it turned out to be absolutely key to the success of the event as a whole. We’re used to dividing people into teams for games, but we’re really not used to having a thousand people screaming “UPPIES” or “DOONIES” when a few hours earlier they’d never heard of either. The combination of choice (your team was up to you…) combined with a level of predestination (…but most people do feel like they are more north or more south) seemed to create a really strong sense of belonging.
Sound is really important
In the National Museum of Scotland, there was a game of Dreadnought, devised with the artist spotov. Players with elaborate headpieces tried to safely navigate a field of obstructions – without being able to see. Their partners gave them instructions over a radio. Oh, and some of the headpieces were worn by two people at once; these were “wreckers”, chasing after the rest of the players on the field.
It was a gorgeous, gorgeous game, with spotov’s meticulous paper sculptures looking amazing in the huge museum atrium, but the thing that surprised me was just how important the sound was. All the radio instructions were relayed to headphones worn by the headpiece-wearing players, but also emerged from speakers around the space. This meant that if you were watching you could either listen to the wash of sound, or choose one radio controller and watch them, matching up their lips to their voice and picking out one thread of instruction.
For players, this didn’t make any difference, but for spectators it was the difference between something that was interesting look at in passing, and something that was interesting to actually watch. A lot of live games are interesting to look at, but because there’s no sound giving context or making it possible to understand what’s going on, that’s where it ends. As a result of Dreadnought, I’ve added “could the sound be doing something more interesting, or helping to make the game comprehensible to passers-by?” to my mental checklist of things to run through for any live game.
Player elimination is a mean thing to do, and you should have a really good reason to do it
Scotch Hoppers, made with choreographer and designer Brian Hartley and running in Dance Base, was a hopscotchy twistery movement game. Players had to navigate increasingly difficult courses, each covered in “foot”, “head” and “hand” spots. Each spot had to be touched once – and once only – by the appropriate body part. Some of them were on the ground, but as the courses got harder there were more and more in the air as well.
Hopping around is intrinsically pretty good fun, and the courses Brian designed were phenomenal: we spent a happy six hours hopping up and down one of the very simplest courses, mostly feet in only two dimensions, in the middle of the playtest process, coming up with ever more ridiculous ways of getting from one end to the other. And yet, until a week before the game began, I’d somehow decided that people would get kicked off the courses once they’d failed – and, worse, that once you’d been kicked off one course, you wouldn’t get to go on the next.
I’ve made worse game design decisions, but maybe not many. Imagine slipping over on the first course, and having to walk through the rest of the game watching your friends play on. In the end we awarded tokens on a per-course basis, so if you slipped up early on you could still make it up later. Of course, a lot of players chose to sit out of the later, more convoluted courses, or give up partway through. But why on earth should they be forced out because of a mistake, when there’s the built-in mechanism of “get fewer tokens” to penalise them with instead? No reason at all.
Fortunately players in the final playtest spent so long wanting to play every course they could – many times over, if we let them – that it finally sunk in that probably they should be allowed to do as much playing as possible in the actual game as well.
People are really good at things, and that matters
“Resonate the Labyrinth” was a game for St Giles Cathedral devised with composer Pippa Murphy - a Grandmother’s Footsteps-style sneaking game, with players navigating a maze in St Giles’ cathedral, trying to reach the minotaur at the centre without being caught in motion. Different elements of the gameplay – the number of people in the maze, the speed of the minotaurs – shifted alongside changes in the soundscape that Pippa had created, with moments of relaxation or greater tension or extra danger.
I’d run the game dozens of times in the real world and in my head; we’d listened to the music Pippa had written, and had phonecalls about the minotaur head and costumes; the minotaurs had rehearsed with Chris, and there’d been a lot of discussion about the maze with scenery-builders B Scenic. And of course I knew all these things were as important as the mechanics of how the game actually worked, but it wasn’t until I walked into the cathedral that I remembered just how good people are at things, and how transformative that can be. The difference between trained actors in costumes, and a member of Hide&Seek in a plastic mask, is obvious; the difference between a huge maze of woodwork in a cathedral, and a mass of tape and plastic chairs in a rehearsal room, means the two versions aren’t “basically the same game”, even if they have the same rules. People don’t just feel like it’s different: they genuinely play differently when there’s stone and light above them, and sound and singers all around, and a six foot four man with a bull’s head staring them in the face.
Photos by Chris Scott
Players aren’t interchangeable units
Throw Things At FOUND was a game in the Hub from arts collective and experimental pop band FOUND. Players found themselves on a balcony, looking at three spotlit instruments on the other side of the room, with nothing but a pile of dayglo paper and instructions on how to make a paper aeroplane. If they made aeroplanes and threw them at the instruments, then each time they hit an instrument (or went through its spotlight), they’d trigger a short burst of noise. Get all three playing at the same time, and they’d break into the chorus, with a rousing cheer from an invisible audience; then they’d fall silent, and the players would try again, triggering a song as many times as they could in ten minutes. It’s a really lovely challenge, right down to FOUND’s illustrations (of bottles and tomatoes) on the paper, and the genuine sense of triumph that kicks in with the applause, and the accumulating drifts of aeroplanes that piled up over the afternoon.
Photo by FOUND
The thing that surprised me most about Throw Things At FOUND was how different groups of forty people, in identical circumstances, could differ so much. Some groups co-operated instantly; some had someone take charge and boss the others around; others required nudging from a facilitator to start co-ordinating throws, or didn’t do it at all. We’d assumed that groups would all behave in a roughly similar way – that the group of everyone involved was homogenous enough, and groups of forty players at a time large enough, that groups would all be pretty similar. It turned out that just wasn’t the case: the facilitators could never settle into a comfortable expectation about how people would behave, because all the groups were different.
All the things matter
The physical heart of the game was the Grassmarket, a big public square: it was the location of the two wicker sculptures, and the finale, and outdoor games throughout the afternoon. We had street bands roaming around; giant boardgames at one end; a fair in the middle, with Helter Skelter Bingo and hook-a-duck for tokens; and at the other end a stage and a really big screen, home to our brilliant comperes Gary McNair and Eilidh MacAskill and Scott Wilson. Through the afternoon, Scott kept everyone updated on the progress of the game and coaxed passers-by into joining in, while Gary and Eilidh ran games for crowds: Gary’s pom-pom-waving quiz, Eilidh’s game of great big chains of people, silly things about unrolling balls of wool, even sillier things about the crowd humming songs to bewildered team members on stage. The screen was huge, constantly tended by Margaret and Tim Franklin, dominating the space even above the Eagle and the Stag.
You know how sometimes, when a project is getting near the end, you can get caught up in little things, and wake up in the middle of the night thinking “it’s the WRONG SHADE OF PINK” or “but what about the three people who might be on the staircase” or whatever? And then the next morning someone says something like “it really doesn’t matter, you’re just too close at the moment but you’ll feel silly you ever worried about it, later”?
That person is wrong.
All the things matter. All the different parts are important. All the surrounding experience, not just the games: what are people doing while they’re in queues, for example? We didn’t quite solve queuing, though we had some queue games to help pass the time. And if the artists and venue managers and producers hadn’t worried about it and made sure the flow of people worked, then it wouldn’t have mattered whether the games were great or not; nobody would have been in the mood for fun by the time they got that far.
And there might be games at very different scales, but players don’t have less fun because a game is smaller; people who are knocking over giant Jenga onto wet flagstones might enjoy themselves just as much as the 4500 people playing the massive ball-and-flag game that Tom invented for the finale.
When I started writing this post, I didn’t have a conclusion in mind, but now that I’ve got to the end, the thing I want us to remember next time is just that: all the scales matter. Every part is important. The two days Sarah and Brian spent moving small pieces of vinyl, Ivan’s 4am printing-and-cutting, FOUND’s jumping-up-and-down to see if crowd movement broke their tech, last-minute shopping trips for slightly larger balls, all the things. Worry about it all. Fix everything.
The Doonies won, in the end. Not all of the 300 people who worked on the game got to be there at the finale, to see the pyrotechnics go off and the the confetti canon explode, but a lot of us were, in the crowd or on the stage or standing under the big red stag statue and grinning like idiots and holding a red flare. It was pretty good.
Uncredited photos by John Need