Playing in Public With Pop Up Playground

By Daniel Donahoo

Playing with my kids is probably the finest thing I get to do with my life. From boardgames to roleplaying through to wrestling the youngest on the bed and wandering through Minecraft servers with the older boys. I love to play (what GeekDad doesn’t?). Importantly, GeekDads know that play need not be something that stops at childhood. In Melbourne, Australia, there is an organization interested in helping all adults re-engage with play.

Pop Up Playground is a games and experience design collective based in Melbourne. They use game systems and structures to make reactive immersive events. They were inspired by similar groups in the UK, including Coney, Hide and Seek and Slingshot. I’ve had the pleasure of engaging in a few of their games and play-tests and as they lead up to some new games they are about to launch. I had the chance to put a few questions to the team.

Pop Up Playground works because it has a crew that comes from a diverse range of backgrounds, but with the same sense of fun and playfulness at its core. The Pop Up Players are playwright and director Robert Reid (Artistic Director) who has written some great works for Australian theater companies and knows how to construct a fine narrative; comedian and writer Ben McKenzie (Game Mechanic) who brings a commitment to roleplay and fantasy and all things geeky; and public artist Sayraphim Lothian (Constructive Communities Director) who contributes to the visual and tactile and aesthetically pleasing aspects of the games they create.

Pop Up Players engage with a wide audience and are drawing on the public’s desire to interact. When I asked Reid about the finest moment they have had playing to date, he summed up the essence of Pop Up Playground with this anecdote:

The night of our first Public Event, a play day at the National Gallery of Victoria Studio at Federation Square. We’d been playing games with the public all day through out the precinct and the sun had gone down. There were only a few us left still playing by this stage, playing Grandma of Launceston (the traditional Grandma’s Footsteps game with a new mod by some friends of ours in Tasmania). Out of the bar near by came some guys who were already kinda drunk and had beers in hand. Being a theater geek I was already a bit on the defense assuming these guys would take a look at what we were doing (public cultural practice in my mind) and start heckling or worse. Instead, they watched for a couple of minutes and then started cheering and disputing the referee’s calls. Instead of reacting as they might to a “performance,” these guys intuitively understood their role as spectator, quickly worked out the rules and started engaging with the game. If they hadn’t already ordered a steak I’m sure they would have come over to play. It was a defining moment for me, it demonstrated just how accessible games and play are and how vital they are for breaking down suspicions and prejudices.

Pop Up Playground has a range of excellent up coming games for those in Australia to check out. For those in Melbourne, they should check out the “Fresh Air Festival,” the organization’s international festival of Street Games and Constructive Play at Federation Square, on February 8-10. It will be jam packed with a diverse range of games for all ages, and you are sure to find something that takes your fancy. They are bringing a wide range of games from across the globe and into Melbourne for residents to play and interact with over three days.

The crew is also sending a game they have created called “The Curse,” an immersive social game about fortune tellers and creepy clowns in a carnival after dark, to the Adelaide Fringe Festival.

They are also running “The Whispering Society” – a city wide distributed narrative game of ghost hunting puzzle solving at the White Night Festival in Melbourne on the 23rd of February.

It is a hectic schedule, but also it is great to see the demand and interest people have in playing games together. I’ll leave the last word to Reid, who when I asked: “Why should we play?” provided this insightful and elegant response. Keep playing!

Play is an incredibly important aspect of ongoing human development. Play, particularly the kind of social play Pop Up Playground works with, improves problem solving and strategic decision making, encourages imagination and innovation, increases physical activity and also improves social skills. Cultural practices (like performance, sport and ritual) developed a one way broadcast mentality through the 20th century, but in the last ten years, these practices have become increasingly social, wide cast and participatory. In short, play makes you healthier, smarter and friendlier – so really, it makes you a better person who’ll probably live longer.

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