17 May, 2012
Cultural Cringe


There’s a certain level of responsibility resting on the shoulders of artist Sayraphim Lothian and her Pop Up Playground co-conspirators – writer Robert Reid and comic Ben McKenzie. You see if they get this wrong, it might be the end for a whole new art form before it even really gets off the ground here. No pressure folks. Lothian & Co have just wrapped up four weeks of workshopping their latest pervasive or social games in preparation for a three-day game festival, This Is A Door, at Theatreworks in July. The concept of pervasive gaming is still relatively new in Australia having only arrived when Tassos Stevens, a UK artist and director of Agency Of Coney, took a trip to Melbourne about a year ago. “Tassos put out the call for people who were interested in playful agent training and we went along. There were people from all types of backgrounds – theatre, live art, video games, cultural institutions,” says Lothian who previously worked with Theatre In Decay and still wrangles puppets for Terrible Comfort. The training was like nothing she had experienced before, yet it felt like a natural progression from theatre. “I think we were at the tipping point, lots of people were doing different things along the same vein but when Tassos arrived it kind of solidified it. We did a bunch of playful agent training. We have missions to accomplish. We had to re-learn how to play. As you grow old, you still have the ability, but you tend to forget how to play.” Pervasive games put the audience in the middle of the action as it’s their decisions and reactions that drive the experience. Think ‘How to Host a Murder parties’ but with a lot less reading from cards and way cooler. They’re interactive but “not in a daunting way where one person is dragged up on stage, because everyone is submerged in the activity.” While some of the games are conversational and strategic, some can be quite physical. “It’s definitely making us fitter.” Lothian attributes the quick adoption of pervasive gaming by Melbourne audiences with the rising popularity of live art. “From sitting in the dark being an audience member to actually being part of the work is quite a leap, but I think live art is helping people to make it.” Last year’s Melbourne Festival had a strong live art contingent as does this year’s Next Wave which starts this week. This Is A Door will contain games from companies in the UK and US, which Lothian says is important when the art form is so new here. “It’s great for punters to see there are these international companies doing this.” It’s also important for people to understand the breadth of gaming available as each creator comes at it from a different angle. Pop Up Playground naturally creates beautiful looking games because of the collective background in theatre; lighting and props are carefully thought-out whereas creators from other disciplines are more concerned with other elements of the games. Pop Up Playground will likely have one more workshop before the Theatreworks festival, join their mailing list at popupplayground.com.au if you’d like details. As they say: it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt – in this day and age just make sure you’ve got public liability insurance.

Rebecca Cook