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Making Immersive: Playability and Gaming in Immersive Experiences

We’re joined by Katie Day, Arlo Howard and Chloe Mashiter – exploring how playability and gaming intersects in immersive contexts to offer a deep experience for audiences. We discuss how generating playable mechanics form part of the creative process, the importance of playtesting mechanics before experiences come to life and the common challenges that makers face when introducing audiences to playable work.  

Our Guests:

Katie Day is an award-winning artist and Artistic Director of The Other Way Works, who create new immersive experiences with the aim of provoking positive action to create change. Katie is an artist and director developing work where theatre meets new technologies with the aim of creating magical, immersive experiences. Katie is a 2023/24 BOM Resident, regular speaker at conferences and events, visiting university lecturer and a producer of professional development programmes. Insta and Twitter @otherwayworks https://www.linkedin.com/in/katiedaytoww/

Arlo Howard They/Them is an international award winning, non-binary creator working at the intersection of theatre and games. Their work focuses on creating positive change and learning through playful theatrical experiences and games. Arlo is a current Associate Artist of Coney. They recently worked on “The Burnt City” with Punchdrunk and director/creator of “The Order of the Golden Scribe” www.arlohoward.com Insta: @arlo_howard

Chloe Mashiter is an award-winning game- and theatre-maker whose work spans tabletop roleplaying games, interactive theatre, larps, megagames and ARGs. They are an Associate at Coney and Creative Associate at Bridge Command. www.chloemashitermakesthings.wordpress.com and www.rollflipdraw.co.uk

Hosted by Dr Joanna Bucknall and produced by Natalie Scott for the Immersive Experience Network’s, Knowledge Bank. Funded by Arts Council England.

Podcast Transcription

Joanna Bucknall

Welcome to the Immersive Experience Network’s Making Immersive Podcast series, giving you the tools and insights into the making of all things immersive and interactive. I’m your host, Dr Joanna Bucknall. Over the course of this knowledge bank series, I’ll be having conversations with extraordinary creatives, production specialists, and makers, who shape this tantalizing sector and the worlds that draw us into this form. In this episode of IEN’s Making Immersive Podcast series, the discussion is going to focus upon how playability in gaming can intersect an immersive context to offer rich and meaningful experiences for audiences.

We’re going to discuss how generating playable mechanics form part of the creative process and how these mechanics can be play tested before experiences come to life. We’ll be spending the next hour or so doing a deep dive into the nature of various structures mechanics in gamified approaches used to build audience experiences. I am here today with Birmingham-based Katie Day, who is an award-winning artist and artistic director of The Other Way Works, who create new immersive experiences with the aim of provoking positive action to create change.

I am also here with Arlo Howard, an international award-winning non-binary creator, working at the intersection of theater and game, and Chloe Mashiter, an award-winning game and theater maker whose work spans tabletop role-playing games, interactive theater, LARPs, mega games, and ARGs. They are an associate at Coney and creative associates at Bridge Command.

Thank you all for joining me, it’s really lovely to have you all here this afternoon. One of the things I think that is really helpful for people listening is just to get a sense of your journeys to where you are and how you got into doing what you’re doing. I wanted to just get a little bit of a sense of training background or really just how you got to making playable gamified experiences. Katie, can I start with you?

Katie Day

Yes, you can. Yes. I’m very much from a theatre background. I did a fairly traditional degree at the University of Birmingham in drama. Then I went on to do a master’s degree down at Central School of Speech and Drama, which was in advanced theatre practice. That was making devised and site-specific work and interactive performance work with multidisciplinary groups. Then I started the Other Way Works, which is the theatre company that I’m the artistic director of. I started that in 2001 and full-time in 2004.

I was really interested in how technology could make experiences for audiences that felt magical in a contemporary world. That led me to applying to take up a role at Watershed in Bristol for a year where I ran the theater sandbox program, which brought together theatre practitioners and companies and pervasive technology, and gaming practices, to make new works and explore new ground in that area. I went on to integrate quite a lot of that into my own work following that year.

More recently, I’ve had an ongoing collaboration with a game designer and software developer, John Sear. We work together to make experiences quite often, which bringing together my background in theater and immersive and site-specific working and narrative-based working with his experience with game in real-world, that has led to the work moving in that direction I suppose in terms of introducing game into immersive theater.

Joanna Bucknall

Thank you so much. It’s that theater background has very much brought to bear in that game-based space. Chloe, if I could come to you next, if that’s okay, you’ve worked across quite a lot of different contexts. I’m really interested to hear how you’ve ended up where you are.

Chloe Mashiter

In terms of training, I don’t really have any formal. The closest thing I have is I did a philosophy degree. Not something hyper-specific but it does impact how I think about things and approach stuff. I started off similarly in theater. It was purely by luck though. I started working just in small roles on some large-scale immersive work often performing. I was doing a lot of assistant directing when I began in more traditional theater, but from working on things like earliest Secret Cinema projects, everyone who was working on those also did other things.

That’s how I met the folks that ran Fire Hazard, which I then worked with quite a bit and that was probably my most significant introduction to interactive gameplay performance because they did huge amounts of street gaming but also had some augmented reality bits in there and pervasive gaming, et cetera. Really cool mix of both performance and storytelling and gaming and site-specific stuff with them. Through just generally putting myself out at different events going to devoted and disgruntled and then meeting Tassos, who is part of Coney, then working more with Coney, et cetera.

Telling Tom Mansfield from Oscar Mike, oh, I read your Arts Council funding recap debrief, because I couldn’t see your show but I saw there was this documentation about it, can we go for a coffee? I think he was stunned that anyone had read the Arts Council post-funding debrief that had been posted online. Then things like that where it’s something that starts with a coffee and then 10 years later, there might be the project that you ended up working on, which in this case, was a mega game.

The reason that I have a lot of different bits and pieces is I’m very Magpie-esque and just follow what seems interesting at the time, which is what led me to getting involved with tabletop role-playing games, and then increasingly with stuff like LARPs and other forms of the games that you more typically find people playing at home or with close groups of friends, and then trying to explore how that works when you’ve got groups of strangers, et cetera. That’s my general journey has been very much picking up bits and pieces from different places, and it slowly amasses over time. So much of it is just patience, time, and slow gathering of stuff.

Joanna Bucknall

It’s play that links all of those things though in a fundamental way. It’s a fascination and an excitement with play.

Chloe Mashiter

Absolutely. The thing that I always kind of come back to is, and it’s something that became most clear for me when I started getting into tabletop role-play games because it was something that I realized I wanted more from theatrical forms and such is the idea that there’s something really wonderful about going to people and saying you have worth as a storyteller because that’s what tabletop does. It says, you are going to be part of the people telling this story, you have input, you have worth. Your creativity very much comes to the table. It’s really wonderful when there are shows and such that actively ask you to input into what happens and say your creative input has worth in this space.

Joanna Bucknall

Arlo, you are passionate about play and social change and play as a tool for social change. What’s your journey like? How did you come to be working in that space?

Arlo Howard

My journey, I grew up as a dancer, which is how I ended up in theater and got a degree in directing. I started my own theatre company in Chicago and we started making just weirder and weirder stuff until we ended up in immersive basically. It was really interesting. It’s really fascinating hearing your two journeys because in Chicago, there wasn’t anyone else making this kind of work. It was really a unique thing and actually, the lack of other things happening in Chicago is what eventually led me to move into London because I wanted to learn more from other makers. I think what got me into the ideas of social change and play, I feel like the desire for things to create change, to hold meaning, to explore difficult things has always been in the fabric of the things that I’ve done, even before I got into immersive things and playable experiences. I actually think that my draw towards play has come from that desire to explore these things.

I think the big Watershed-change moment where I started to think about my work quite differently was I had made this massive immersive show three floors, 13 rooms, 14 followable characters Sandboxie style show, and our stage manager who had been so important in the making of this had her father come and he had low vision and wasn’t able or wasn’t comfortable going downstairs with low lighting, and we had stairs with low lighting and a pivotal moment that happened in the basement that he wasn’t able to access. That experience made me pause and think more carefully about the types of things that I’m making, who I’m making them for, and what impact I want them to have on the world.

From that moment on, I started thinking more carefully and I made a whole show that was all about, Chloe was talking about this idea of efficacy that what you do matters even in a small way. That’s what has drawn me towards playable experiences because there’s all this amazing research about how play is how we learn. All animals utilize play as a way of learning. It’s a space for experimentation for saying, “Hey, what if we were like this? What if, in this situation, we behaved in this way? What would happen?” There’s a safe confined space for exploration and our brains register the learnings we make in a playful space much more deeply. I think there’s also incredible value in a playful space. You can explore things that might be otherwise taboo to talk about or preachy to tell about. That’s something that I got really excited about.

Joanna Bucknall

It’s so exciting to hear everyone’s journey to this because actually, one of the things I think that links everyone who’s sat at the table is exactly that, is the utilization of play as a tool for change or play as a tool to explore or play as a tool of expression as well even. I think it’s really interesting as a culture because we totally understand and recognize that as a tool for education with young children, but it seems that as soon as you get to adulthood, the rules just completely just go no more play. Play does not feature in every day at all for grownups, which seems so utterly counterintuitive.

Arlo Howard

It’s like someone decided at some point that we had to stop playing and stop learning at a certain age. I don’t know who decided and why. It’s so backward. It’s interesting to me because you see, culturally, this draw towards having something playful and I think the draw towards, oh, going out for a night drinking and letting loose. It’s that desire to have a space of play and that, how do we create spaces that give adults permission to be playful?

Joanna Bucknall

Permission, I think, is something that pervades what everyone’s been talking about as well like you were saying people being given an opportunity or made to feel that they have something to bring to the table and it’s permissive. It’s giving that permission. It’s just saying you can play. You can do these things.

Katie Day

I think adults do need more structure to engage in play though. That’s why I think play is allowed if it’s within a situation like an event that you’re attending in which you’re allowed to play in a particular way. I think probably that’s why people like us are makers because we just like to play. That’s why people do that. So they can still play.

Chloe Mashiter

There’s probably a whole podcast on the idea of adults need to be productive. Kids don’t have to be productive in at least the same way. There were some awful structures in which they are. Unless that I do of, you can get away with this play or something if you can show the productive learnings and results, et cetera, at the end of it because adults have to do things to be productive in some manner. I think whoever made these decisions probably also leaned on that a little bit I’m guessing.

Joanna Bucknall

It’s about steaks then if it’s structured and if it’s about productivity because a lot of shows, especially things that are gamified have stakes or an objective potentially that drives those things. I wonder, like you’re saying, Chloe, is if that is related to that idea of adult play has to be productive or meaningful. If you were to say to just a room of adults, you’ve got an hour just go and play.

Chloe Mashiter

I know groups of adults I could go to easily. You probably get away with going to the smoke, which is like an annual LARP festival in London. They actually, obviously make sure they already have LARPs in place but I reckon if you went and you just went, hey, anyone who doesn’t have a LARP, should we just go into that room and just mock about for two hours? You’d end up having a great time because of the culture that’s there. That’s something I found really interesting when I started to get into LARP design and playing LARPs about three, four years ago, going from seeing interactive theater audiences and tabletop role players and such in all those different groups and their cultures of play and ways of approaching those contexts.

Then seeing what LARPers were like because there is a degree of group competency like it’s a horrible term but that idea of if you have played enough and played enough with lots of different people and experienced all these different styles of play, et cetera, you’re going to be very comfortable and have a lot more just learned tools for doing that kind of thing and feeling able to jump in. I just want everyone to be like that. That would be amazing if everyone was just as up for randomly playing as certain groups. Though obviously, I also don’t want it to seem like I’m saying everyone must enjoy that particular kind of fun.

Joanna Bucknall

I think you’re right. I think it’s embedded in that culture because if you just got 50 adults off the street, a room, and you have an hour, go and play.

Katie Day

I would probably be one of the people making that face, to be honest. That’s why I like to be on this side of the equation.

Joanna Bucknall

This is what brings me to ask really about structure because play, especially within a live and location-based experience context tends to be about structure, mechanic, and facilitation. What opportunities do you think game mechanics and play structures bring to the design of live audience experience? What do you think is the real opportunities that come?

Katie Day

I think one of the benefits really is being able to hand more agency to the audience. I suppose I’m always coming at this from a theater perspective where I’m dealing with audiences who can be quite passive and they’re used to sitting down in a space and just receiving things just watching and listening. I suppose when you can bring to bear some of these game mechanics as a structure, you’re introducing opportunities to give people choices about how they behave in the space, how they interact, and to bring imagination and creativity to those responses and problem solving and different parts of their personality and their skills, and so on. I think that it opens that up in a way that’s more than just an interaction in an immersive theater with no particular game-based stuff where you might be walk over there or walk over there, or something like that. It’s more than that. There’s more that you’re bringing. You’re thinking of ideas you’re coming up with. You’re drawing on different things and your own creativity.

Joanna Bucknall

Well, I think game and structure gives something that isn’t just aesthetic because some immersive experiences are an immersion inside an aesthetic encounter, but not everything is playable in that same way. There’s always an element of play, even if it’s a large-scale free-roaming hermetically sealed aesthetic, ginormous, beautiful bubble. There is an element of play but not in the same sense as if there was mechanic or structure, I think.

Arlo Howard

I think one of the things that I like about playable experiences and what’s drawn me to is the idea that, as a player, you get to be at the center of a thing that the choices you make, make a difference. There’s this whole theory in theatrical clowning that is about putting your partner in the shed and then there’s this great potential for growth in putting someone in a bit of a sticky situation. I’ve made a couple of games where there is no way to “win”. There are always satisfying endings and satisfying conclusions to whatever choices you make but there is no wins day. You’ve done it right. You’ve won. It’s whatever choice you make works but you’ve been put in a situation where you have to make a genuinely difficult decision and that there is no clear correct way to play. I find that a really interesting moment of play.

Joanna Bucknall

That is ultimately, in a lot of ways, because it’s about ethics and it is about philosophy I think because you’re asking audiences to have an accountability and take responsibility for the choices, which is what makes them satisfying, even if it’s not a win. When you were talking about your degree earlier, I was thinking, it’s totally relevant because so much of this is about ethics and choices.

Chloe Mashiter

Ethics was the one module that I dropped the moment that I could. To be honest, it was what they had to make me do rather than I chose to. I think there was something interesting in the sense of responsibility coming back to what Katie was saying about the big thing that mechanics offer is agency because I do a lot of just going to stuff and then reflecting on why I behaved the way I behaved or what cues were being given the action, et cetera, et cetera because obviously, you don’t necessarily go to shows. Some shows you’ll go to and they will say, here are the mechanics, here are the ways to engage with the thing, and other ones, they are just trying to communicate it through the behavior that’s modeled and through the set design, et cetera. Through the general story that’s being presented in the presumable choices.

The reason that I go with the word responsibility is I often think in terms of mechanics about what is an instruction and what is a permission. At what point are you telling people in order to proceed or in order to engage, in order to get involved, you have to do this? You’re going to have to talk to other people. You’re going to have to choose which doors you’re going through as a very basic level of describing that stuff. Where are you giving them just permission of you can go explore this thing, you could do this, you could do this? I find that a really interesting thing because often you’ll find people where they think that every single permission is an instruction. They don’t want to break it. This has been said. This has been mentioned. Therefore, they probably should do it. Otherwise, they’re doing it wrong.

Again, that also comes back to failure. I think that’s such an interesting thing to try and explore in games because some people have grown up with this notion of games as competitive, they have to be won. They also have to be played correctly. If you break the rules, that’s terrible. There’s going to be an argument around the Monopoly board with the family, et cetera, and you don’t want to recreate that with the show. You go to the show when you just do everything they tell you to do, and you don’t actually choose to do anything. When I start to get philosophical about it, I start thinking more of the structure and the modes of communication in play.

Joanna Bucknall

Again, everyone around this table is interested in how that functions in a way that can be utilized to give people the opportunity to maybe change things or imagine how things might be different. I think that’s down to this radical potential that sits at the heart of games. I wanted to just get a sense of what people’s take on that might be.

Arlo Howard

I think it’s something I definitely think about a lot. I can’t remember where I first heard this but the idea that an interactive experience can be a rehearsal for resistance, the idea that we are practicing ways to be, I’m always thinking about, what kind of behaviours am I encouraging in people. How am I encouraging people to behave with these permissions, these invitations that we give within the structures that we’ve created?

Recently, I made a show and one of the core things I wanted to explore is, can I make it fun to be a good guy? There are so many experiences where the player is like, I’m going to be the baddie, and we’re going to do all these terrible things. I’m just not excited about that. As a player, I don’t find that exciting. That’s something I was really excited about is, can I create something that has that same thrill of getting to do something that subversive but you’re actually doing it for a good reason for being the “good guys”? That’s something that I think about a lot.

Joanna Bucknall

Tim Etchells who is the artistic director of Forced Entertainment. He’s talked about this for a really long time and that idea that playing with things that scare us because sometimes actually doing the right thing is actually the hardest and most difficult thing to do and the scariest thing. That was just ringing in my ears. That idea of we play with the things that frighten us.

Katie Day

In a production, A Moment of Madness that was reproduced in 2019 as a real-world immersive performance game that most of it plays out in a multi-story carpark, the audience there are cast as MI5 field agents. I’m not saying that they’re good guys. That’s probably a little bit more gray than that. The whole production is really about gray areas and there are morally gray areas around politics. You’re observing a politician and it’s all around the gray areas about where personnel and public crossover and what your role is as a citizen. Essentially, somebody’s holding these public figures to account but in this time, you’re actually also playing a spy, basically.

You’re performing this espionage, which is made to feel a bit awkward because not everyone’s happy with this. Is this right, this level of surveillance? What’s right? Is it right to be behaving in this way as a politician? What’s more important? The message or the means? All of these things are mixed up in terms of how, as an audience member or player, you interact with the piece, and we’re talking about making, this isn’t really particularly exactly, I wouldn’t say playable but at the end, the audience makes a call about how it ends. You choose whether you go public with this, the dirt really on the MP, or you decide to bury it. You agree to be complicit in burying that information so that he can go on and be Prime Minister possibly because you back his environmental agenda.

We’re trying to play off all of these different things against each other to explore. There is no win there because also in both ways, we make the audience feel bad about the choices. We say, you chose that? Oh, right. Okay. I think I enjoy using these kinds of playable experiences to make people think in a more complicated way about something I suppose and to have an opportunity to explore these moral gray areas and rehearse perspectives, I suppose, or experience perspectives and think about the implications of your behaviors and other people’s behaviors. Not necessarily being the baddie and tricking people but exploring where bad behavior sits in all of that and what your individual position is on that and how your own behaviors impact on that.

Joanna Bucknall

What you tolerate as well sometimes to achieve.

Katie Day

What the law tells about it. They eventually get rid of it.

Joanna Bucknall

To achieve a greater good though. That’s the real dilemma, then. The thing is, what will you tolerate? It’s about the what if. Is that what’s at the heart of a gamified structure? Is it about invitations and permissions and the what-ifs that sit beneath that?

Chloe Mashiter

The thing that I often come back to, which is I really love the whole rehearsal for resistance. I’ve not heard that phrase before, and it’s really good is the idea of just getting to model different types of behavior. For instance, there are some incredible tabletop games. I feel a bit bad talking so often about tabletop games but there are some where the whole point of the game is, you’re members of a resistance, you’re members of a rebellion, and the actions like on your character sheet, the things that you’re allowed to do are specifically, are you going to print a pamphlet or are you going to talk to this person to try and convince them of something, or are you going to destroy some property? That’s a very simplified version of a game that I read years and years ago and can’t remember the name of but it’s really interesting getting people to model different types of behavior and going well, if …

I think when you’re trying to get people to engage with a new perspective, this might also be because I’ve recently worked on a show currently called 1884, which is about in a thematic sense, the 1884 Berlin Conference where a lot of European and also some American leaders gathered to discuss how they were going to try and essentially, again, oversimplification split up Africa with minimal issues between them. To not damage Europeans’ interests basically. Obviously, that’s quite a big thing to try and engage with during the course of an interactive show but what’s interesting is being able to look at subjects like that, and I think it’s very easy for people to get qualified.

If I’d been there, I would have never let people do things like that to me and my family and the people around me and putting them in a situation where their resources are different, their power is different, their influence is different, the actions they’re able to take are different and helps with that whole imagining of something being very distinct from their own experiences, from their own life and the things that are available to them now. It’s really interesting to put those different, not just choices but actions and resources in front of people and using that to tweak how they might think of a scenario.

Joanna Bucknall

We’ve talked quite a lot conceptually and philosophically about game and game playing the role that works. I wanted to start to bring us down to talking about some of the real nitty gritty nuts and bolts of okay, where do you begin with this kind of work? What are the essential factors that inform game-based live experience? Do you start with the game-playing mechanic or do you begin with the narrative and see what serves that?

Arlo Howard

I always begin with what the takeaway is. What do I want people to leave thinking about feeling? What do I hope is the little gift that I give them to walk away with? Then I figure out mechanics that will get to that gift, and then I build narrative around that. Sometimes the narrative and the mechanics come hand in hand. For me, I always like to start with that takeaway because I find it for the way my brain works the clearest place to start.

Joanna Bucknall

Actually, what that is, is that’s a start with the audience. Is that the heart of that?

Arlo Howard

What is the little brain itch I’d love to leave people with? What do I hope that they’ll be talking about afterward? Those are the things that I’m thinking about and like to start with.

Katie Day

I would say I would start with different things for different projects. I think sometimes, it’s one thing that leads to the other but I would say, I think I have around four things on the table, I suppose, but they don’t come in a particular order. They all just inch forward a little bit at a time. One moves a step forward and then another one moves a step and then another one moves a step. I think it’s just very incremental and I would say that was things like the mitts off the mechanic, gameplay mechanic, the form of the work, which is my obsession, the story or the thematic content, and the audience, really how they’re interacting now, how they understand it, and so on. As we try something out with an audience and then an audience is responding in a particular way, we’ll feed off that to inform how that mechanic might develop or the storytelling. I think just generally try and keep moving everything forward in a staggering way.

Joanna Bucknall

They’re your four main ingredients or building blocks that do so.

Katie Day

I think they are. This is not something that I have formally in my head. Upon thinking about the question, I was trying to think, what are the things that I’m trying to take forward in a line together? Those are probably vaguely the areas. Yes. I’m not that systematic as to have a real actual process to state these things.

Joanna Bucknall

Sometimes it’s useful to hear that as well but it is actually quite chaotic.

Katie Day

It’s just intuitive I think. It’s just an intuitive understanding that your audience has got to know what’s going on and you want to know how they’re going to interact and how they’ll behave with the content and what they’re interested in it and then, well, if the story is about this, then the form seems to make sense that it’s this, and if the form is that, then there’s that suggests mechanics. Okay, great. Then what they engage with, and how do I tell the story? I think it’s just an intuitive thing.

Joanna Bucknall

Chloe, how about you?

Chloe Mashiter

I think similar to Katie. A lot of it is intuitive stuff for me but it varies project to project. I was just trying to think of where have I had to make very specific choices and, for instance, sure, I did a couple of years back, which was a beginner’s LARP for 40 people at a time. We knew that we were going to probably end each night with just a very brief blackout just because that was the easiest way for us to signal to everyone the role-playing bit is now over. It was the smoothest way to do it. That meant that a lot of the law for the world and stories of the individual festivals happening each night were light-based. It was about the sun or the passage of the stars or this fire or this candle because that just meant that the blackout felt like it meant more and fitted more with the overall thing. That then informed mechanics.

At the moment, I’m designing a time travel show. A lot of the stuff there is going, cool, what can I get people to do that is easily undoable if we are going to time travel? For me, a lot of it is just, there might be a specific story I’m interested in telling, and then I realize that it’s going to be an interactive thing. Sometimes it’s particular themes or historic things like with 1884. It’s very rare that I start with the mechanic I think because if I just have a mechanic but no story or narrative attached, I’ll just hold on to the mechanic in my head until it feels like it’s of use in something.

I think that’s more likely though an early part of design for me is often just for a few minutes listing up any verbs that feel relevant to what people might do because that’s just a really handy concrete thing for me of going, oh, if I want them to do that, that’s probably going to involve these things. Yes, it’s comforting to hear someone else say intuitive, no strict process because it’s easy to think that everyone else has some really specific structure and has worked out a way of doing it. Very much varies depending on the project.

Joanna Bucknall

One of the other key parts of this is there’s often moving parts and choices and lots of different almost audience journeys because of the way that game operates. Do you have any strategies that you use for capturing that? Of course, in theater, there’s a script, which has stage directions. That’s a form that everyone can share, everyone can work off that book, as we would call it in the theater. Do you have a system that you like to use to be able to track and almost create the equivalent of a script so that you can work with collaborators and the rest of the team that are helping you build it, or again, is that very bespoke and more chaotic?

Chloe Mashiter

Spreadsheets.

Arlo Howard

That’s what I was going to say.

Joanna Bucknall

I’ve seen some beautiful Excel spreadsheets, I must admit, from people who make this kind of work.

Katie Day

I don’t think it’s the perfect tool but it’s about the only thing that can even start to manage the complexity, I would say. It’s not just spreadsheets. It’s generally scripts in conjunction with spreadsheets. They’re not the right tools really.

Arlo Howard

That’s exactly what I did too because it is that it’s spreadsheets and then sometimes I title bits of script and put those titles into the spreadsheet because it is just trying to manage something that’s quite wiggly. Then stuff that I’ve made that’s been more open format, I’ve just been like, and here, the audience does something. I don’t know what it will be. We will roll with it. I actually know someone who’s probably more clever about this than I am and they color code their scripts. I was like, that’s really it.

Joanna Bucknall

I have seen some amazing color-coded things.

Arlo Howard

I’m like, I should color code things. I’ve just been using weird brackets and bolding. I’m like, color coding, of course, Arlo. Come on now.

Joanna Bucknall

I think you end up with some really complex, I’m the same. Square brackets are for this. If I have something in italics, it is something that is done, not something that’s said and you build up your own strange…

Chloe Mashiter

I’ve worked on shows where spreadsheets have been used. I’m not a spreadsheet person. I think it would destroy my brain because I think this is coming from sometimes a more game mastery perspective where either it’s a show that I’m making with various other people and we’re all performer facilitators, and therefore, a, just a big part is just being able to communicate with each other during a performance to whisper in someone’s ear, by the way, someone’s done this. This is probably going to kick off and then just walk away and you know that that person has got that.

A lot of shows that I’ve worked on whether it was Crisis? What Crisis? which did have a spreadsheet keeping track of all the numerical stuff like how many votes a certain politician had or how extreme inflation was at the time, we had the spreadsheets but a lot of it was just going to be about the chaos that came out in the room from what people did. A lot of it was just responding to the person in front of you who had the idea and then figuring out how to build on that or doing hidden torture, which was just a tavern. It’s absolutely fine if not everyone knows what’s going on in the other bits of the pub because that’s just how pubs are.

I think a lot of my approach is more of the game master thing where I know if they go more this way, then I’m probably going to introduce this thing. A lot of hidden content, though I don’t like the way that hidden makes it sound like it’s a thing to be hunted out and found, but stuff that will come out depending on what choices people make but in my head, it’s a bit more like a one-shot game overview where it says if they choose to go in the woods, then probably do these beats, if they don’t go in the woods, you can fit this beat in this way but also, they’re going to have these things happen. For me, it’s more of an oral tradition of a show where everyone just says stuff and then holds it in their heads if possible.

Joanna Bucknall

I love that. That’s very Viking. A northern European way of transmitting information and therefore forms like this will be super helpful again because actually, we’re doing that right now. That oral transmission of knowledge and insight to the listeners who then will continue that on. I think that’s a great idea.

Arlo Howard

Twine can do that in terms of tracking, branching narrative things. I’ve not used it for that, in particular, but yes, it can do.

Joanna Bucknall

I guess some of the concern is documentation and transmission because like you said, in your own process, you have a real intuitive way of working through that and holding that but as we start to think about our credibility and our visibility and our legacy, even as a sector, how do we start to transmit some of those things beyond our own practices. That is not the question. How do we think about that?

Katie Day

I think I would use a spreadsheet more for content creation really more than show running really. I’m not sure how much it’s really to do with the game aspect of it. It’s more to do with the multimedia aspects of it. There’s all different types of media content that is getting created and somehow, that all has to, I have to know what all of it is and when it comes in, and why it has to say what it says at a particular moment, and all of that.

We did create quite a complicated document with spreadsheets and they had links to each individual document. That’s when we were making A Moment of Madness. That’s because we had a lot of printed materials that had important dates that were needed to solve puzzles that intersected with a phone system. It was like we did remake the show. We made the show twice. One was in the pandemic for Zoom, one post-pandemic as a play anytime thing. If we hadn’t known what all of our content costs, if you like, then it would have been a much larger exercise to remake.

Joanna Bucknall

Do you think they’re slightly different then? The way you catch your process as to then how you do the show running.

Arlo Howard

Definitely. I think process-wise, I use spreadsheets to figure out how the different puzzle pieces fit together. My process usually involves, you’re saying just a little bit chaotic. It’s usually like a bunch of Post-it notes or scraps of paper if I can’t afford Post-it notes or an idea dump document. A spreadsheet for me serves as a place to consolidate where those nuggets click together. When I then transmit that information to a cast, I don’t tend to share the spreadsheet with the cast unless it’s helpful to them because sometimes it breaks people’s brains.

I’m not trying to break people’s brains. I’m like, there’s a spreadsheet if that’s the way your brain works. Otherwise, this is what you need to know for your bid because performers have this amazing superpower of focusing in on their bid, which I’m always dazzled by. So cool. I can’t do it. Then the running of it is also a completely separate format and in terms of just narrowing down to okay, what do we need to actually be tracking in this show? What is important for the running of it, which is different than what is transmitted to the performers? Which is different than what am I doing creating? There’s usually a lot of different documents on a lot of things.

Joanna Bucknall

The other really big part of this is obviously when you make these experiences and when you’re developing a playable experience, it’s quite hypothetical initially. At what point do you bring an audience in and how important, this is the really big question, is playtesting to the process of development?

Chloe Mashiter

I’m more than happy for other people to have different perspectives on this. It is so important. It is almost the most important. I will not back down on how important it is.

Katie Day

It’s all right. We’re with you.

Chloe Mashiter

The most important thing. I’m always keen on making that playtesting happen as soon as possible as early as possible. Sometimes that doesn’t mean, oh, no, you have to now get 50 people to come into the rehearsal room to go over the thing. Sometimes it can just be working on shows and going, okay, let’s all take a morning to do all different things. I’m going to come back with some scraps of paper that show how many points or whatever each of you have and what backgrounds or information each of you have and let’s just sit around the four of us seeing how that feels because it’s amazing how immediately you’ll see someone finds the glitch in the system and completely throw off the dynamics or the balance of what you expected the interactions were going to be because they’ve realized, oh, I can just do this, or they might ask, wait, can I just talk to this person and get them to give me the thing without doing that thing if they consent to it? You be like, oh, interesting. Got to think about that now.

I think the trickiest thing I found in the past that working in tabletop helped me a lot with is, it does feel very scary to put a partially made thing in front of people because there’s a bit of you that wants to go, oh, please, I promise. I know that bit is not good but please understand that I know it’s not good. It’s going to get better but please don’t judge me on the thing.

With tabletop role-playing games, it’s impossible to really properly develop them without putting them in front of people and seeing, can it be understood? Does it work? Does the gameplay balance right? How do people react to the language that you’re using and all sorts of factors? Through that, I got very used to just showing stuff very early on and not feeling embarrassed about it. Playtesting, massively important, and do it as soon as you can and do it without shame and do little miniature versions where you’re just testing one mechanic. If you can’t get everyone together to do bigger stuff, that’s fine. You can do that later but just as much as possible, put stuff through the wringer.

Joanna Bucknall

Would you say literally from the off really as soon as you have something to test?

Chloe Mashiter

Personally, yes. I know that for some folks, that feels very difficult because they want to get a bit further into making the thing or feeling like they have a stronger sense of what it is and what it involves. I’m much more someone that prefers iterative making of, let’s make them. Let’s try it. Would happily just put something together in a day and just be like, cool, let’s see how that runs.

Katie Day

I literally couldn’t agree more. Just nodding very heavily to everything you just said, and yes, that’s what I would say. Just with anything. Just even one thing. When we made A Moment of Madness, the first test was, we basically just gave people a sheet of paper that said, go and get in this car in this car park. Then we find them when they go there and said, come back. We learned so much from that. We learned that people thought that was really exciting, which was really useful to learn. We also learned that they struggle to find it. We just learned an absolute ton.

Then that massively informs how you think about that experience. Oh, no, that’s actually that is a fun experience. That’s an exciting experience. That’s a transgressive experience. That’s a difficult-to-navigate experience. Then that informs how you think about how you build the whole thing around that. That’s just one tiny, tiny thing. I think it just allows you to get your audience to be part of the creation of the work and to make it in tandem with them, which is so different to traditional theatre. Certainly, all of the teaching that I do when I’m teaching students and you say to them, maybe we’re going to over two days or something, we’re going to make a little interactive thing. Straight away, just do a small bit and then test it. They just hate it. Absolutely hate it.

The only way you’re going to make them do anything is to make them do it in front of someone because then they have to actually produce some content, even if it’s something written on it, a word on a piece of paper. At least you started, you’ve made something, you’ve interacted with someone, and you’re learning then. Otherwise, I think just the mistake of spending too long making high-quality content and then doesn’t actually work, I definitely learned that a while ago, but it’s probably a bit difficult for some people. If you’ve done it a lot, you realize you’ve got to start early but maybe one of the things you don’t realize at the beginning is that you need to start early.

Joanna Bucknall

Yes. It’s so counterintuitive to theater training.

Arlo Howard

Yes. I think a case in point for me was making, I was like, okay, I had pitched this game to a game festival that I absolutely had not made but I was like, I need to make a video that explain to people and like, I could make it in time. Basically, I had a bit of it made and I’d spent all this time on this bit that I thought was going to be super interesting. I play-tested it with some friends. The thing that I thought was going to be so cool was so boring for everybody.

Then I just did this thing on the fly, just made up this thing to just re-direct. It was hit and it just took off like that. I was like, oh, that’s where the gameplay is. It’s not where I thought it was, where I was like, oh, because it was really deep and juicy but it wasn’t very playable but I was just really excited about the lore. Turns out that was really boring but I did this other thing on the fly that was really exciting for people. I was so glad I did it earlier because then I knew where to direct my attention. I’ve also started using just pitching the project as a playtest.

I think of that as the tiniest way to playtest the thing is just explaining the idea to people and seeing if they get excited about it. Seeing if they lean in. If they’re curious to know more. That doesn’t cost you anything. That doesn’t cost you any time just explaining an idea to somebody and seeing do they go, oh, that’s interesting. Do they lean forward? Are they curious to know more? Then you know you’ve got something. If they go, oh, okay, that’s nice, then you might need to re-adjust, or maybe they’re not your target audience. That has been, honestly, the show I have been running in New York right now, I had a completely different idea. Started sharing it with people and just watched it land flat every time and then I changed the idea and people got excited about it, okay, we’ve got something here. It’s really useful.

Joanna Bucknall

Does behavior still surprise you? Do you start to get an instinct for what might work?

Katie Day

I think behaviors always surprise you but one of the things I think we fall foul of is having very different audiences. Having almost two different audiences that attend the work. If you’re making something that’s immersive theater meets real-world gaming, it’s like you’ve brought both of those audiences and if you’re at one extreme of the theater one, you’re at just a traditional theater audience and if your other extreme, you’ve got a gaming audience, not even maybe the audience, and those audiences have completely different expectations of an experience and they have different ways of engaging with an experience and different skill levels, that’s really hard I think to make experiences that work for both those audiences, whereas a theater audience might just come in and say, well, do I have to stand up? Well, goodness.

Then the gaming audiences come in and try to open every drawer in the room and open every door and I don’t know. You get these very big extremes in behavior. I think playtesting right up to the end and even into the start of the run is really crucial to finding those edge-case behaviors. You can get a sense that most people will probably just about do this but then there’s always these edge cases. If you keep rehearsing, keep testing, keep doing that kind of thing, then that does help to flush out a wider spectrum of what might happen and you can build in strategies to manage that before you really go into the full run.

I wish I can have particularly playable days but when we made our show Black Tonic, which is performed in bedrooms and corridors of a functioning hotel, so you were quite undercover in the hotel, this was years ago, this was 2009, I think, 2008/9, the actors were in the hall and the audiences were in two bedrooms next to each other. Well, they were in the bedrooms. I’ve been told to be in the bedroom. That was fine. They were in the bedrooms. Then of course, we didn’t really expect that they were just going to open the door and just wander around in the hallway. Our characters just waiting outside because they figure they’re backstage. Then people just opened the door to have a look and they were just standing there. It was like, oh. That’s a very basic thing. Obviously, after someone first did that, then we were like, right, well, you can’t wait there anymore. You’re going to have to be prepped for that.

Arlo Howard

A lot of it is about back to that idea of permission and how do we create space and permission for different types of people to play in the way that they would engage with the space of play that you’ve created, I think a lot about when I create things, I have usually a target audience in mind. I try to get really specific. Who exactly am I making for? Then how can I open it up to the people who might surround them in their lives? Then how can I open it up more to people who might have just heard that was fun and come along to it? That’s a lot of what I do when I think about it.

Also, when I playtest things, usually, I playtest things first with friendly play testers. Friends, people who understand this, it helps me with the nerves of playtesting being like, I’m going to test with other people who understand that this is broken and they’re helping me fix it. Then I usually have what I like to lovingly refer to as chaos play testers. I have friends who are particularly chaotic that I will invite to play tests because they will absolutely find the boundaries and do the thing you don’t expect to happen. It’s so useful and it’s such a gift to have that information. Then it’s great to be able to playtest with people who are not in your immediate circle of folks because they’ll bring in a whole other dynamic of play.

Chloe Mashiter

I think the only other thing I’d add in terms of playtesting is, once you’ve been making this work for say 10 years, 20 years, however long, it’s so easy. It’s very hard for me to go to an immersive run interactive show where, a, I definitely don’t know anyone who’s involved, and b, I am not familiar with something about the style of what’s going on. That is an active challenge if they still fall back and put me in it because I want to go see it. That’s not to say that everything’s the same. It’s just that if you have worked in a field for a very long time, you become very literate as it were in that field and how things work. I’m very comfortable with a lot of scenarios in interactive shows because I’ve been putting a lot of uncomfortable scenarios in the past and got used to it.

The thing that playtesting really helps me with is seeing what it’s like for people who are new to this stuff who might be trying out for the first time. Something that I personally do, which I guess is almost like a flip version of playtesting is when I started LARPing, I made copious notes. If I went to a field lab for the first time, I made so many notes of what I thought about I was going to get into beforehand and what I was feeling, and what I was scared of, and then afterward, a debrief for myself of, okay, oh, it was like this, it was like this was like this, it was like this. Slowly building up notes of what is it like for a first-time player in this area of play because the best access I can easily have to that is if I just take lots of notes and keep diaries of I’m going on blockbuster LARPs for the first time this year.

I’ve been keeping a lot of notes including the times where it’s like no one’s talked about it or sent an email for a couple of months. Have I done something wrong? I’m worried that I might have missed a thing. Then that’s stuff that’s so useful to go back to, to try and imagine what might feel intimidating or different or unfamiliar for new players. For me, play testing is always especially useful in just figuring out what games are like for people that haven’t played them for decades.

Joanna Bucknall

I very much feel that keenly when you said when you’ve been inside something for such a long time, you have all the things that come with being a specialist, which is all those short hands, all of that just intuition that comes, and all of us here have that. I think the hardest thing is actually to understand what that’s like to come on it fresh.

Katie Day

I feel like maybe my massive awkwardness around this is a help. I’m the control freak who has to make them but I get deeply uncomfortable doing them. Doing other people’s shows. I definitely bring that with me when I’m assessing my own work because I think about how I would feel to do it. Also, I’m pretty terrible at puzzles. I’m pretty, pretty bad. I feel like I’m able to advocate for the audience member quite well in that I’m quite bad at solving things and I get quite awkward in these environments.

Joanna Bucknall

I want to ask each of you for one either tip or pitfall. For anyone listening who might be new or emerging, what’s the one piece of advice you might give them to take away?

Chloe Mashiter

Mine, which is probably no surprise given my intro, is play all different sorts of games. Go to the Golden Cobra challenge. Search on Google and look at all the free LARPs and LARP scripts that you can just look at and potentially play with friends because there are chamber ones or online ones where you just have to get people on Discord or in a room. Go on Itch and find the many very cheaply or freely available tabletop role-playing games, some of which are one-pagers that you can just again, prep and play in an afternoon.

Go and look at Indie digital games and ARGs and such on sites like Itch and Steam, as well as going to immersive and interactive theater. Just because I think it can sometimes get easy to get a bit siloed, it’s also useful because sometimes it’s a lot more financially or physically accessible to engage with those games and it will absolutely inform the way that you make stuff because it will also expose you to so many different cultures of play and groups of people that play things. It sounds a bit obvious to me but maybe it’s not, but just go and play lots of things and there are some really good resources out there with very cheaply or free available games.

Arlo Howard

That’s an incredible tip. Can I plus one that? That’s so great. Yes, because I think playing things and chatting with other people who are making it, that’s one of the greatest things that moving to London or just the UK, in general, has given me is being able to talk to more makers. Going to a show and staying after and seeing if I can chat with people or asking people for a coffee or asking people, “Hey, can I come watch the back end and see how this runs?” It’s been incredibly informative for me just to get to see how people are making and finding my way into spaces, and getting just to talk to other makers about their process has been really incredibly helpful.

The other tip that I would say is, a deadline is a gift. I’ve done days where I’ve just been like, you know what? I’m just going to get in a room with a friend for this day and we’re going to invite people to show up at 7:00 PM and play a thing. We’re just going to make something today and then we’ve got friends who are going to play the thing at the end of the day, and it is going to be scrappy, and I don’t know what it’s going to be but we’re going to have something for people to play.

If you’re in a space where you’re like, I can’t make a whole show, it’s too much, just grab a couple of friends, set a day, invite friends to come at the end of the day to play whatever you’ve made because having that deadline that you’ve given yourself, it’s such a gift because it takes the pressure off of it as well I find to be like, you know what? We just did this today, and it’s going to be garbage. It’s going to fail epically. That’s the point. Giving yourself permission to fail just delightfully is such a great place of learning. You might not end up with anything out of that day but there might have been a piece of learning or a moment that you take away from that, that becomes something bigger.

Katie Day

I think probably mine would follow on from yours to say, just make something. You’re going to learn so much from making something. Make it and get people to play it. Then you’re going to have got so much information out of that. I think you’re never going to make it unless you just start making it. Don’t wait for something else. Just start making something small and get people to play it and then learn some information from that because that’s the only way you’re going to get any better. You might make something really bad but you’re going to learn a lot from that. When people don’t go the way you thought they were going to go or they start doing something completely different or start playing a different game, you’re going to learn that you needed to do something else and then you can work out how to do that. Make it and then get people to play it.

Joanna Bucknall

Even simple instructions and languages, the way you phrase something that you think is a really simple instruction can be misinterpreted or taken up as an invitation in so many different ways and until you start doing it and writing it for someone to attend to, you won’t know. The great thing about this kind of work is it’s exactly like you’re saying. You can write something on a piece of paper and get some people and just play it in your living room, in the garage, on the street. You don’t need a massive aesthetic build to start to do something gamified.

Arlo Howard

Even if you think you’re going to do something with lots of technology in it, you can start with some paper prototypes, like what is the core game mechanic? How can I make this on scraps of paper, or by giving high fives to each other?

Joanna Bucknall

Yes. I think there’s a DIY heart at this kind of work that makes it exciting and really accessible. Really accessible for being able to just start having a go-making.

Arlo Howard

I also find it really approachable for audiences because then that’s one of the things going back to the purpose-driven work is being able to be like, “Oh, it’s a game.” People are like, “Okay, sure. I’m up for a game. I like games.” You get people who might not necessarily go to the theater, which I find really exciting. There’s a whole lot to be tapped into.

Joanna Bucknall

There’s so much we haven’t talked about and so much more we could talk about but thank you so much for taking the time to join me today. I really appreciate it. Hopefully, we’ve inspired some folk listening to want to go and create some crazy games.

Arlo Howard

Go and make some mistakes.

Date of article - April 4, 2024
Updated - April 12, 2024

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