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Not all Fun and Games

f.taylor23 July 2020

This blog is written by escape room designer, museum freelancer and queer historian Sacha Coward. It explores gaming (then and now) and how playing games has always been about more than just having a good time.

Under lockdown games have become a welcome escape for so many of us. Just before typing this I was in the saccharine world of Animal Crossing sending virtual presents to a friend. Before that I was immersed in the gritty realism of The Last Of Us 2, a game which despite its exaggerated zombie apocalypse setting, can sometimes feel a little too close to home! I have been involved in online quizzes and boardgame marathons with friends over Zoom for months now. During a crisis, and particularly in times of hardship, games, as ever, are here to fill the void. But they go a bit deeper…

Photo Credit: Dan Vo, Videogame themed escape room built for the V&A by Sacha Coward, 2019

It’s worth saying that as an escape room designer, videogame fanatic and recently a dungeons and dragons Dungeon Master, in terms of gaming-nerdom I have got pretty good credentials! But I am also part of the LGBTQ+ community, a museum and heritage worker and I am outspoken about inclusion and diversity in arts and culture. This means I have a real fascination with games and gaming; Where they come from historically and how they are used by different people today and in the past.

Before lockdown I built a giant immersive game of Snakes and Ladders for the UCL Grant Museum of Zoology, so here I want to reflect on how and why I did it. Also I want to take a chance to briefly explore games, and look at some of the surprising things they can reveal about us. I want to think about the games we play today, the way they are evolving, and how you can see the seeds of this even in prehistory.

Floor vinyl created by Sheldon Goodman for ‘Snakes and Ladders’ takeover of The Grant Museum January 2020

To begin with, what is a game? It’s challenging to define exactly what a game is that includes everything that we lump under this broad category. It is more than just play (although that can be a part of it) it is a special kind of play, one that requires mutually understood rules, the presence of some kind of challenge to overcome, and an outcome or objective.

Such a description would fit equally well with Mario Kart, football, hide and seek and chess! With this definition in hand, humans have been playing games since the dawn of time. Although we don’t have physical material evidence for many games that might have been played through spoken word or action, we can still presume they were taking place. It is the ancient games with physical pieces, props and boards that we know the most about through the archeological record. The often cited oldest evidence of a game with materials associated, is the Egyptian game of Senet.

UC2320: An intact board game identified as Senet at The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology.

Senet dates back to at least 3100BCE. It represents the journey of a part of a person’s soul, known as their Ka, through the afterlife. it shows us something else that many games share; as well as being a fun way to pass the time, there is a central lesson or teaching goal that often applies to broader ideas of morality and society.

Even before Senet we can pretty much guarantee that games in some form or another have existed in human populations across the world since at least the dawn of modern human beings. In fact playing games is one of the defining traits that makes us human!

Great ape skulls, The Grant Museum of Zoology

Today we see a myriad of games existing, played by all ages and in all areas of society. These games tell us a lot about who we are, and where we come from. A classic example is the ever fought over Monopoly; A game based on an older form known as ‘The Landlord’s Game’ created back in 1904. This game was originally designed as a teaching aid, to show and explore how economic disparity and ‘land grabbing’ was harmful and unfair. The game has since become a symbol of capitalism used by all sides of the political spectrum to explain and defend their beliefs. Most recently it was the powerful centrepiece of a speech on the impact of oppression against black people, made by Kimberley Latrice Jones during the #BlackLivesMatters protests. Games are more than games, they are some of the earliest structures we use to understand the good and bad of the world we live in.

Even one of the most seemingly simple and ubiquitous childhood games ‘snakes and ladders’ has a fascinating story that shows it too had a powerful learning objective relating to the human soul and how one should live.

Moksha Pattam boards, Wikipedia Creative Commons

Snakes and Ladders is not a Western creation, in fact its presence in the UK and Europe (and in America as the slightly neutered version ‘Chutes and Ladders’) is a direct product of empire building. ‘Moksha Pattam’ was a game which began in the Indian Subcontinent, it was part of an entire family of games arguably dating back as far as 1500BCE. These games, much like Senet, and even Monopoly, demonstrated principles relating to human life, religion and philosophy. The snakes and ladders in the game represented the conflict between Karma and Kama, I.e. destiny versus desire. Simply put, the fact that you are constrained by the random roles of a dice demonstrates the random way one might experience good and bad outcomes in life. The Victorians took this game as part of an obsession with taking, borrowing and stealing Indian aesthetics and culture. They repackaged the game with Christian values: The snakes therefore became vices, and the ladders virtues.

Moksha Pattam boards, Wikipedia Creative Commons

The fascinating colonial history of this commonplace game, and that it is a fantastic way to illustrate unfairness and bias led me to run a collaboration with the Grant Museum at UCL. On the 30th of January 2020, just before lockdown, I developed a giant immersive game of snakes and ladders as part of an evening takeover of the Museum. Working with illustrator and tour guide Sheldon Goodman and UCL museum staff I produced a giant vinyl game of snakes and ladders that had visitors walk around the cabinets as playing pieces.

Character card created for ‘Snakes and Ladders’ takeover by Sheldon Goodman

We also created four different rule sets, each aligned to a different character archetype. These characters and rule sets aimed to get people to think how race, identity, sex, class and sexuality interplay in creating unfair advantages and disadvantages in real life. (This was part of the Grant Museum’s ‘Displays Of Power’ exhibition.) I felt like we were getting back to the roots of Snakes and Ladders, a tool created 3,500 years ago to teach about privilege.

Photo of board for the ‘Snakes and Ladders’ Takeover at the Grant Museum

Now in lockdown I am no longer building physical games, although I am creating digital escape rooms and online experiences. I am also playing a LOT of videogames; Boardgames are still alive and well but we have entered into a new world with the advent of digital gaming. Today the games we play are becoming more and more rich, complex and immersive with every iteration. Long ago this was seen as a safe space for only heterosexual cisgender male nerds, now games like every other artform are pushing for more diverse casts, and better storytelling. Mario saving Princess Peach from the castle is just not enough anymore!

Sacha runs videogame themed tours of the British Museum, where despite the lighthearted nature of the topic he covers themes of race, gender, colonisation and empire.

Even tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons have started to realise that despite their fantastical setting, they need to mirror the lived experience of their players. Wizards of the Coast who produce the official rule sets for D&D have made a decision to remove ‘evil’ alignment from races in their series. They argue that in today’s climate talking about entire races as inherently bad or wrong is unhelpful. This is arguably in direct response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Games, as ever, and just like their players, do not exist in a vacuum.

Sacha runs videogame themed tours of the British Museum, where despite the lighthearted nature of the topic he covers themes of race, gender, colonisation and empire.

There has definitely been pushback against these decisions by a vocal minority. The newly released Last Of Us 2 by Naughty Dog, features an incredibly diverse cast including a lesbian protagonist. This resulted in an orchestrated campaign of ‘review bombing’ before the game had even been released! Some gamers feel that gaming is becoming too ‘political’ that it should just be about ‘fun’. If anything, from my time building games, but even more from studying their history, I can see that games have always been hugely political. They have always had morals and were nearly always designed to teach us about real world principles.

Same-sex kiss from The Last Of Us 2, Copyright Naughty Dog

All in all, games are this strange cool byproduct of human brains! We have been making them since the dawn of humanity, and there is something beautiful and cool to think that there is a thread that links me, killing zombies on a TV screen with a kick-ass lesbian protagonist, directly to an ancient Verdic game used to teach the Hindu and Jainist concept of karma! We play games to escape, and to let off steam, but games are created by and for real people with their own ideas, and feelings, and objectives. Next time you boot up your console, roll the dice, or shuffle a deck of cards, spare a moment to think what those sometimes hidden messages might be. But don’t worry, it’s just a game…

Creating the best festival ever: Gaming, systems and decision making

f.taylor29 June 2020

 

This month we have been exploring the theme of Games & Play at UCL Culture, from solving the mystery of the ancient Egyptian game of Senet to exploring why we laugh through neuroscience.

As part of this, we spoke with David Finnigan. He is a playright, game designer and member of science-art ensemble Boho and UK interactive theatre makers Coney. For the last decade and a half, they’ve worked with government, business and research institutions to model complex systems and future scenarios.

From 2011-12, Boho were in residence at UCL to develop a new game exploring complex systems.

This is his story about the importance of games and play as a means to introduce people to new concepts, systems and ideas.

Best festival event

What is a system?

A system is made up of many simple parts that are connected – ants in an anthill, neurons in a brain, people in a crowd. Systems are made up of smaller sub-systems, like a muscle cell nested within a heart, and a heart within a circulatory system – and they are all interconnected and linked.

A lot of science tries to understand the world by breaking it down into small parts and looking at those parts in detail. But in the real world, everything is connected. Systems science attempts to understand the parts in relation to the whole.

We are all embedded in systems – like climate systems, social systems and political system. We need to better understand these systems in order to manage them and change them.

The way that Boho looks at systems is to break them down and turn them into games.

Games are systems

A game is a kind of system. Like any system, a game is made of simple parts that are connected – and it’s how they’re connected that is important.

Pull a lever over here and see the consequences over there. Place a token here and see the other players’ responses.

Playing a game can be a useful way to get to grips with a system, to start thinking about it works.

So we set out to create a game that would model a complex system, to give people a sense of how systems behave. We wanted to illustrate some of the interesting dynamics that pop up in complex systems, and ask, ‘how can we better manage them?’

We needed an example of a system, and the example we chose was a music festival.

Music festivals are systems

A music festival is a complex system. It is made up of smaller subsystems, such as:

• Ecological sub-systems (the land the festival takes place on, the flora and fauna, the weather and climate)
• Transport and energy sub-systems (a festival is like a temporary city, complete with all the infrastructure you find in a regular city)
• Economic sub-systems (there are formal and informal trading networks)
• Social systems (the interactions of tens of thousands of staff, artists and festival-goers).

And like many of the systems we are a part of it, festivals are prone to disasters.

So looking at a music festival is a good way to help us think through the challenges facing us in other complex systems.

Best Festival Ever game

The game itself

In Best Festival Ever: How To Manage A Disaster, players take on the role of festival organisers. They plan the festival from start to finish, programming the bands, building the festival site, and then dealing with the increasingly high-stakes crises that threaten to overwhelm it.

Each phase of the game looks at a separate sub-system within the festival and illustrates a different aspect of complex systems science: feedback loops, trade-offs, common pool resource challenges, tipping points, phase transitions and resilience.

Best Festival Ever started life for a season at the London Science Museum. It’s since been presented in theatres, festivals, conferences and boardrooms in cities including Singapore, Shanghai, Stockholm, Sydney and Melbourne. We present the game for general public groups, but also for schools, research institutions, businesses and government departments grappling with complex challenges.

Debrief

Playing the game is only the first step. We find that the real insights come in the debriefs and discussions that follow. That reflective space is where people make connections, draw comparisons, and start to feed the experience of the game back into their own practice.

For that reason, we often present Best Festival Ever with a scientist who works with complex systems. We play the game, and then follow it with a Q&A with the scientist where they unpack and discuss some of the concepts within the experience.

These conversations highlight the fact that everyone understands systems. We all get how feedback loops or tipping points operate – it’s familiar to us from our everyday lives. What we do in Best Festival Ever is not to teach people things they didn’t know, but to give them a shared language for things they already understand. That shared language is one of the biggest gifts that systems science has to offer.

Tactility

One crucial feature of the game is that it is entirely lo-fi, or even no-fi. There is no digital technology involved. The game illustrates complex systems dynamics using tactile objects such as wooden blocks, table tennis balls and toy trucks, designed by Gary Campbell.

During the development of Best Festival Ever, we were presenting a test show with a guest audience, reading the script off our Kindles and iPads. We realised the audience were paying great attention to the tablets in our hands, and that they assumed that all the systems in the show were being calculated in these machines. They therefore assumed that the science in the show was too complex for them to understand – that things like feedback loops were the province of computer technology.

When we got rid of the tablets and presented the show using paper and clipboards, the experience was very different. Suddenly people could see that feedback loops and tipping points can emerge from simple agents interacting through simple rules. Lo-fi – or in this case, no-fi – completely changed how people engaged with the work.

With that in mind, I’ve been drawn to representing complex systems through tactile objects wherever possible. Representing a system through a hands-on game is a powerful way to connect with people.

Make Games

If games are systems, then one of the most effective ways to learn about systems is to learn how to make games.

“If you want to learn about systems, don’t play games – make games.”
– Paolo Pedercini

To make a game based on a system, you need to map that system. You need to create a systems model which captures connections and dynamics. How are the different parts of the system connected? What is the shape of their relationship?

You need to consider the system from the perspective of various stakeholders – what do different groups need from the system, and how do they go about getting it? Then and only then can you build a working game.

One of the most satisfying parts of my job is to run game design workshops to introduce people to this practice. We start with some of the core principles of game design, and some simple exercises, then gradually work towards helping them make a quick and dirty prototype of a game based on their own system – whether a business, a community or an ecology.

Reimagining your system as a game can be a circuit-breaker to help you reflect on how it functions. It’s a useful way to thinking through where change might be needed, and what interventions are possible.

It’s also a fundamentally playful way to engage with our cultures, environments and institutions. That mindset of play and experimentation is a profoundly useful tool for us in reimagining our world for drastically changing times.

Best festival ever game

Real world play

So for people grappling with the challenge of managing complexity and engaging with systems (which is probably most of us), games such as Best Festival Ever can be a useful training device. Games can act as a kind of flight simulator for decision-making – letting us try (and fail) without consequences, before we have to make high-stakes choices in the real world.

The fictional music festival of Best Festival Ever is a place to try ideas, to debate and test strategies, to learn to work with colleagues or strangers, and to get to grips with the science of complexity. And also, if possible, to keep Chris Martin from Coldplay from getting crushed in a moshpit riot.

Petrie Menagerie: The Lions

Edmund Connolly2 August 2013

Last week our hippo specimen was proudly placed in the menagerie, bobbing along in his lethargic way. Continuing with our wanderings through  the animal objects Petrie brought back to Britain I will look at one of the most notorious and influential exotic animals: the Lion.

 Specimen # 2  Lion:

I don’t need to describe a lion, we all know them, recognise them and have probably seen one in one form or another.  The lion is sadly extinct in modern Egypt, however Ancient Egypt would have most probably played host to a beast similar to the Barbary lion, a huge species which were hunted to extinction in 1922.

A lion gaming piece. With rather sticky out ears

A lion gaming piece. With rather sticky out ears

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