The ever-erudite Rob Reid dropped me an email a little while ago asking some questions for a paper he’s writing on games and performance. Rob is one of the architects of Pop-Up Playground, the Melbourne gathering that has brought together a whole fascinating world of participatory makers, from digital gaming to interactive theatre to roleplaying to escape rooms, and on.

It felt like a good opportunity to wrap some thinking around Boho’s practice, where it’s come from, how we think about our work, what we’re aiming for next. So, here goes.

How do you approach the design process for your interactive work?

Boho’s process really centres around working with research scientists – typically climate or systems scientists, but also urban designers, epidemiologists… Our shows usually draw on concepts from sustainability science, systems thinking, game theory, network theory, complex systems science, resilience – these fields which are often gathered together under a broad heading of ‘complexity’.

Basically, we’re looking at any sort of system in which lots of different elements are interconnected, and what arises from those interconnections. That’s the raw material for our games.

Working with scientists, we’ll go back and forth with them, building up our understanding of the system – whatever that system is – and creating a systems model. That model – which usually looks like a flowchart diagram, plus a whole series of maps, lists, other visualisations – becomes the basis for the show we build.

An example of the kinds of systems models we construct / adapt in our work.

We then go through that systems model, looking for key linkages and systems dynamics we can turn into games.

In the last couple of years, we’ve started breaking things down into two kinds of interactive activities – what we’ve dubbed ‘skilltesters’ and ‘games’.

‘Games’, in this parlance, involve choice – any kind of decision-making, resource allocation, negotiation, etc. Anything where the audience needs to predict how the system will behave, and make a call about what they’d like to see happen. Things where they have to use their strategic brain.

The other kind are ‘skilltesters’ – games where the purpose is just to win. Can you fly this bird over here holding it between two sticks, can you sort these counters out into piles of different colours in less than 30 seconds, etc… These games are often more active, more playful, and we use them to give us inputs into our system model, so we can read out different scenarios. But we don’t hinge big choices on them.

Most shows will have a mix of these kinds of activities – some games where the audience is making key decisions, thinking through problems and coming up with strategic solutions, and some skilltesters where we’re introducing ideas more playfully, giving them a quick input into the show without too much weight being placed upon their choices.

TEDxCanberra - Balloons - Image by Gavin Tapp

TEDxCanberra – Balloons – Image by Gavin Tapp

How do you account for the unexpected in your work?

Look, we’re not improvisers – we build a structure with some different pathways, some resilience to shock etc, and then we guide audiences through it. There’s room for discussion, but in some senses there’s still the chance that the audience can break the show.

That said, one major advantage we have in building an experience is that we’re very transparent with our aims – ‘we’re here to talk about this concept, we’ve made these games that do that, here’s how it’s gonna work’. The performers are usually playing themselves, facilitating and helping the audience. So, for example, when Nathan was running a piece of ours called Volleyball Farm for a Forum for the Future event in London in Nov, the game broke because we’d never calibrated it for more than 5 players. But Nathan was able to discuss the intention behind playing the game, what point we wanted to illustrate, and that worked almost as well.

Can you describe the encounter between a participating audience and your work? (ie, what’s it like to play?)

We go for gentle, non-confrontational, casual. Me, I get more anxious and stressed as a participant in interactive shows than anyone, and we make putting the audience at ease the key watchword.

So you’ll be met – in say a foyer, if we’re doing it in a theatre – and you’ll be told what’s going to happen, and you’ll be guided to a table, or to your seat – given a little more of a heads up about what’s going to happen – and then you’ll be introduced to the facilitators, and then you get your hands on whatever it is. Gentle, all the time.

The games themselves, often are drawn from boardgaming, and there’s a well established practice in boardgaming of how to introduce rulesets to players – good, thoughtful advice I think we’d do well to learn from. There’s an order to how you introduce information:

1. Who you are in the game
2. What your objective is
3. How you achieve that objective
4. What does a turn consist of

and so on. Not always appropriate, but it’s nice to have a clear, logical structure for how information goes.

The experience is often divided roughly into three different forms: games/interactive components, theatre/narrative, and performance lecture. We’d tend to cycle between these three forms rapidly over the course of a show, with the weight shifting between them as we build to the end.

How does narrative/mood/meaning emerge from the experience of your work?

It all happens in the post-show discussions!

Well, mostly. We usually build a show with a post-show chat built in – a conversation with a guest scientist or an expert in the field we’re discussing. Then we’ll have a glass of wine, and a really informal conversation with the audience. That’s where the ideas underlying the show get unpacked, that’s our chance to dive in deeper.

Of course, that’s not to say that the show itself doesn’t also bring out the ideas, but we think that explicit conversation afterwards is really important.

What/who have been your influences?

We started off making interactive work in Canberra with no-one else around doing it – not in the way we were, anyway. We knew we weren’t the only ones making it, but we couldn’t easily find out who else was out there, and what their stuff looked like. So we made a lot of stuff up.

Our initial impetus was to do computer games live on stage. We adopted frameworks and conventions from old computer games, and adapted them to stage. Hacked gaming controllers (console controllers, joysticks) where the audience controlled the actors live onstage. Our first piece was a game called Playable Demo, where the audience piloted the actor through a short scene in the style of an old LucasArts adventure game, using a torchbeam as a mouse cursor on stage.

A little deeper into our practice, we’ve taken a lot from some of our closer collaborators. Applespiel, obviously, and Coney. Applespiel for their actual genuine expertise in participatory theatre (as opposed to our make-it-up-as-you-go style) and Coney for the superb philosophy and vocabulary around how a playing audience could and should be treated.

Finally, we’ve learned a lot from scientists, particularly those working in the field of participatory co-modelling. This is a form of practice whereby scientists collaboratively construct a working model of a social-ecological system – for example, a region of farmland, or a river system. Then they bring together stakeholders from that system to discuss and debate issues facing it, with the model as a platform to facilitate discussion and compromise. Their tools for audience engagement may be a little rudimentary, but the sophistication of the underlying models they’re using put most theatre-makers to shame.

Young Boho. Jack & David in A Prisoner’s Dilemma, circa 2007.

What drew you to working in participatory/playful performance forms?

We started Boho in late 2006: Michael Bailey, Jack Lloyd, David Shaw and I. Jack and I had made an interactive scene called Playable Demo in 2005, based on old adventure games. (In the floppy disk era, you would often get a single scene from a larger game as a kind of interactive advert for the whole game.)

We took that format and combined it with the science of Game Theory to make our first show, A Prisoner’s Dilemma. Game Theory is a great tool for game-makers because it breaks real world scenarios into well-defined mathematical structures. We created a whole series of micro-games based on different Game Theory thought experiments (the Prisoner’s Dilemma, Chicken, Dictator, Ultimatum) and threaded a Harold Pinter-esque narrative through them.

That show really placed us in a very particular niche: ‘interactive science-theatre’. What even is that. But it was good to be able to label ourselves as something for a couple of years, even though now we’ve spilled out in a lot of different directions.

 Food for the Great Hungers, 2009. 

What’s the benefit/advantage of playing with a participating audience?

Ahhh, well, the trick is what we all know now, you and me and all the artists making participatory theatre, which is: the audience is always participating – it’s just a question of how. Sitting passively in the dark watching and not talking is a form of participation – we’re just so trained by theatre conventions that we take it for granted and don’t realise it’s a choice, a compact we all (artists and audiences) agree on.

Same with making site-specific stuff – you realise that the theatre venue isn’t a necessity, it’s an option – you use it sometimes when the moment calls for it, at other times you let it go.

Whatever level of participation the audience engage in, that’s a trade-off. If the audience are moving around outdoors experiencing your work, they’re feeling much more exhileration, excitement, there’s opportunities for happy accidents and beautiful unique experiences, but you run the risk of losing their focus, of them being distracted, feeling lost or confused.

If the audience are seated quietly and watching a well-lit stage, that’s ideal for delivering complex information and making sure everyone sees the same thing, but you’re talking at them rather than having a conversation, and you run the risk of boring them / annoying them if they feel like they can’t leave.

We (Boho) choose the level of interaction based on what we want their experience to be, what we’re talking about, what we want to discuss. If we want to talk with them about how tipping points or regime shifts occur, maybe that’s best if we just explain it as clearly as we can, using whatever theatre imagery works best. But if we want to illustrate the challenges facing local government when they’re evacuating small communities from a potential volcano eruption, maybe we want to give them the experience of trying to make decisions and negotiate compromises with imperfect information.

 True Logic of the Future, 2010. Pic by ‘pling.

What mechanics do you use to encourage and support player agency?

Typically our games are quite short, and there are lots of them throughout a show, interspersed with narrative / storytelling moments, or micro-lectures. That means we can guide the audience through the aesthetic experience quite closely, rather than setting it up at the beginning of the night and just letting them roam free.

That gives us a better chance of managing certain player dynamics – reining in hot players who are dominating the games, or drawing in quieter, more passive players.

But player agency? Not our highest priority, honestly. We’ve usually created quite a curated experience, and though each game is completely interactive, and the whole show has a lot of different states and outcomes (usually in the thousands, if you tally it all up), we’re not running a LARP – we have quite a detailed sense of where we want the audience to go, and we’re happy to take them there.

– David

For a high-speed example of all of these principles in action (more or less), you can check out Jack and Mick’s 18-games-in-18-minutes performance at TEDx Canberra:

So Boho have just been in Stockholm for the last five weeks, from the last warm burst of summer through to the first winter snow. We’ve been working with Swedish NGO Miljöverkstan, on the second phase of our collaborative project Democratic Nature.

Democratic Nature is a development of the model we developed at University College London over 2011-12, and tested out for the first time with Best Festival Ever. The format of the work is based on the methodology of ‘participatory co-modelling’ – a practice whereby scientists work with community members to map and model a social-ecological system, and then use that model to help facilitate discussions and conversations about that system.

Our goal was to try to bring some of the skills we’ve developed making interactive experiences to bear on this process. Best Festival Ever was our first full exploration in this area – building a playable model of a fictional music festival. Democratic Nature is the next step for us – using these same skills to map and model the real world system of Flaten.

Flaten is a nature reserve just south of Stockholm. It’s a beautiful lake, surrounded by a forest of oak, pine and spruce trees, right on the edge of Stockholm city. In the 1930s, it became a hub for young Stockholmers learning to swim, and it’s still a major recreational destination. It’s been a space for various groups to set up camp and live in, legally or illegally. It’s the home of various endangered species, insects and birds. And it’s coming under increasing pressure as Stockholm suffers a housing crisis in the wake of increasing migration and asylum seekers.

In January – February this year, we undertook the first phase of this new process: research, meeting with experts, mapping, making new game devices and talking about possible structures for the new work. This month, our focus was on building a prototype. Over the month, we constructed a full working version of the show, which we tested with three scratch audiences this last week.

Democratic Nature consists of a few key games: a sequence we call ‘Worldbuilding’, in which the audience play through the history of the region, from the end of the last ice age through to the modern day. There’s a game looking at the competition between oaks and spruce in Flaten forest, a game looking at the algal blooms that impacted the lake in the late 1990s, a game about Flaten beach on a summer day, and our collective favourite; a game we call ‘Governance’ about managing the nature reserve.

We’re really fond of the Governance game – it’s a nice mechanism that we haven’t used before, in which the audience undertake a number of different projects scattered throughout the room simultaneously. It’s a nice mix of cooperation and competition, and it’s generated some interesting discussions in the scratch shows.

We were lucky enough to be joined this time by two of our favourite collaborators: sound designer Nick McCorriston, who produced a soundtrack based on field recordings from the Flaten area, and designer Gillian Schwab, who constructed an incredible array of set and props.

Following three scratch showings of the prototype, we’ve now wrapped up this phase of the work, and we’re heading out of Sweden on to the next thing. We’re planning to be back in Sweden in mid-2017 (Scandinavian summer!) to undertake the final development; tightening and calibrating the work, and then working with local artists to translate it into Swedish.


image by Peter Newman

David speaking.

This week I was lucky enough to attend a CSIRO workshop on Modelling Planetary Boundaries. For three days I got to sit in the room with a swathe of 12 very smart people, listening and learning as they moved toward crafting a new science paper.

As well as being fascinating in and of itself, this kind of workshop provides a really valuable perspective on the work Boho is currently doing, and for that reason I thought it might be worth trying to unpack a couple of the broader ideas that lay behind it. I’m afraid I won’t do any justice to the depth of concepts the group explored, but hopefully I can illustrate some of the general principles, if for no other reason than to indicate why I found it so valuable.

Unpacking the title of the workshop ‘Modelling Planetary Boundaries’ is illustrative in itself. To put it in rough terms, it’s about conceptualising the earth as one linked system – a holistic view of the whole planet and all the processes within it. That includes everything, from the atmosphere to the oceans to the cities to the economy to culture to education to the behaviour of families.

A model, in a scientific sense, is some kind of representation of a system that helps you understand it. There are many different kinds of models: some of them are physical, some are software, some are pen and paper and some exist entirely in our head.

The kind of model you use depends on what you’re interested in. At the more complex end, detailed software models such as global climate models (GCMs) calculate huge volumes of data in order to generate predictions of weather patterns under different future trajectories. At the simpler end, conceptual pen and paper flowchart models help us visualise the links and connections between different parts of the system, and help to bring incredibly complex phenomena into the realm of what we can understand.

This workshop was about creating a conceptual model at the simpler end of the scale, but something that could in future be added to and enriched with quantified data. What these scientists were seeking to create was a model of the human-earth system that they could use to better understand the dynamics of the earth, and where we’re heading as a species and a planet.

One of the things distinguishing this particular workshop, and the model these scientists were seeking to make, was the focus on social dynamics. There are lots of conceptual models that describe the behaviour of the earth from a biophysical perspective – ie. as a functioning system without human involvement. The idea is, you put together a model of how the earth works without humans, and then you add humans to the model as external drivers, or you borrow the models of human behaviour created by economics.

This approach is useful up to a point, but for many (most) people, one of the important questions is not, ‘How does the earth behave without human involvement?’ but, ‘How does the whole earth work?’

One idea which has been gaining significant traction in recent years is the idea that we have recently moved into a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. This is a period in the earth’s history in which humankind has become one of the most significant drivers of the planetary systems. For decades, if not centuries, humans have been altering the composition of the earth’s atmosphere, changing the biosphere by driving species extinct and transporting new species around the planet, altering the activity of river systems and changing land use, all at a global scale.

In hundreds of million of years’ time, when humanity’s existence has been reduced to a thin smear of rock in the geological record, future species or alien visitors will still be able to detect our presence through the spike of radioactive minerals resulting from humanity’s nuclear weapons tests.

(This has been a preoccupation of Boho’s for a while now, to the extent that we called our 2010 show True Logic of the Future a ‘Parable for the Anthropocene’.)

Given that the choices and actions of human beings now has such significant consequences for the behaviour of the planet, it is more and more important that a model of the earth system include human social processes, not as an add-on but as a fundamental part of the system. This workshop sought to capture some of these social processes: What humans want, need and aspire to, and how they go about satisfying those desires.

The challenge was to put all these elements – the biophysical and the social – in one model. One of the jumping-off points for the workshop was this conceptual model, put together by my dad.

There needs to be a reason to create a model such as this; a question you want answered or an issue you’re grappling with. That helps to focus your attention, prioritise what’s important and clarify what’s relevant and what’s not. In this instance, the goal was articulated by Doug Cocks, CSIRO Research Fellow in Human Ecology (and collaborator on Boho’s Food for the Great Hungers) as ‘Quality Survival’ for humankind.

Given that the world population is predicted to peak at around 9 or 10 billion in the next few decades, Quality Survival means, roughly, ‘the removal of hunger and poverty and their attendant ills as expressed for instance in the Millenium Development Goals. These aspirations imply a significant increase in food production and wealth creation, all of which we hope to accommodate without crippling the ability of the planet to support future generations.’

Achieving Quality Survival means, in the language of the model, staying within the ‘safe operating space for humanity’.

The idea of a safe operating space, expressed in this way, draws a lot from the idea of Planetary Boundaries, first introduced in 2009.

The Planetary Boundaries paper identifies nine different boundaries which, if crossed, run the risk of tipping the planet into a different state – one that we cannot be sure will be amenable to human existence. It might be possible to transgress one or two of these boundaries temporarily, but crossing any of them means incurring serious risks.

The original Planetary Boundaries research focused on biophysical dimensions – ozone depletion, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss and so on. The workshop this week looked at identifying potential boundaries in the social dimensions as well – wealth inequality as one possible example.

Finally, the workshop reached the question of trade-offs: In order to stay within these boundaries (both social and biophysical), what trade-offs will we have to make? How can we measure and assess those trade-offs against one another, and who decides between them?

As an off-the-cuff example: What if, in order to save billions of people from starving to death, most of the Amazon rainforest and African savannahs were turned into farmland? Would saving the elephants (along with all the other biodiversity loss) and preventing those huge sinks of carbon from being released into the atmosphere be worth the death of billions?

Whether we like it or not, these kinds of trade-offs are already occurring, as the cumulative outcomes of many small-scale decisions made unconsciously (or more or less unconsciously) by people unaware of the larger picture. By bringing some of these trade-offs into focus, the workshop aims to help us better choose between difficult options, or to help us seek for alternatives when the only available options are bad ones.

I’d never seen the inside of a science workshop like this, and watching how a group of scientists collaborate (at least in this one instance) to produce something new was incredibly informative. There are a lot of similarities to the creative process, though it was unlike any devising workshop I’ve ever been part of. Still, it hit home watching these scientists work how much of that job requires inspiration, creativity and innovation, alongside all the knowledge, technique and technical discipline I took for granted.

This sort of conceptual modelling process took me very much out of my depth, but it’s this kind of work that Boho is drawing on with the Best Festival Ever project.

Rather than create a global model which includes everything in the human-earth system, Best Festival Ever presents a conceptual model of a much smaller system – a music festival. And instead of a model which is used to predict or to guide policy, the Best Festival Ever model is intended largely as a demonstration of some of the key principles and techniques used in modelling.

Best Festival Ever presents a participatory hands-on model in which players get to construct and manage their own complex adaptive system, using tools from boardgaming as the levers and inputs. The behaviour of the music festival explores the concepts of feedback loops, tipping points, phase transitions, interconnectivity and resilience.

Best Festival Ever is the first of a series of new interactive performances based around systems models. We’re now looking for new partners with whom we can collaborate to build participatory models of specific systems – from cities to ecosystems to companies to institutions. If you’re interested in working with Boho to develop a new playable model, please drop us a line.

The first iteration of Best Festival Ever will be presented at the London Science Museum from 10 – 21 November 2014.

Something is wrong.

In the last few months, a new disease has emerged that is transmitted not by water, by air, by contact – but by speech. Language. Via text messaging and email, telephone or video.

This disease attacks thought itself, undermining our ability to think critically and resist other people’s influence. This is an epidemic of harmful ideas and broken logic. And it’s spreading. Whole communities of people, highly contagious, wandering about, unable to talk, unable to take care of themselves, looking for things to believe in.

Don’t believe everything you hear.

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Boho’s new show Word Play is performed on-screen from across the city. The audience are situated in the CSIRO Discovery Centre lecture theatre, while the performers are live-streamed from a laboratory across the city using a high-speed video broadband connection.

Using text messages and a purpose-built phone app, the audience are able to interact directly with the performance, communicating with the performers and controlling them through a series of live computer game sequences.

Word Play is a performance lecture exploring concepts from epidemiology, a live cinema experience and a hands-on video game in the survival horror genre.

Bring your phone.

Where: CSIRO Discovery Centre, Clunies Ross street, Acton

When: 7:30pm Wednesday – Saturday 15-18 May, 22-25 May, 29 May-1 June

Tickets: $20 – buy tickets here.

Images by Rohan Thomson.

This is a Centenary of Canberra project, proudly supported by the ACT Government & CSIRO.

We are very excited to invite you to a work in progress showing by Boho Interactive, on Saturday 27th October at 12:00pm, at the CSIRO Discovery Centre Theatre in Acton.


Following several months of intensive research and script development, including visiting the Australian Animal Health Laboratories in Geelong, we are presenting a development showing of our project based on concepts from epidemiology, microbiology and antibiotic development.

Conceptually Transmissible Aphasia: Current understandings of pathogenesis and modern methods of control is a performance in the style of a scientific lecture with videoconferencing, that looks at the emergence of a novel disease agent. At this showing we will present a small suite of ideas that we are hoping to get your input on. This showing is the culmination of research and development work that has been undertaken with the support of an ACT Arts Fund Project grant for 2012, CSIRO and Centenary of Canberra.

Following the showing there will be a Q&A session, where we would very much appreciate your feedback to assist in the ongoing development of the work. Refreshments will be provided and we will be happy to have a chat with you in person at the end of the Q&A.

In coming months, we will be heading back into script development to prepare for the presentation of the work in its full iteration as part of the Centenary of Canberra program in May 2013, once again generously supported by the ACT Government and CSIRO.  You can see our program listing here. RSVPs are appreciated, to info@bohointeractive.com or through the Facebook event. We hope you are able to attend and help us shape the future of this work.About the project

As a result of widespread use of antibiotics below effective levels, every type of harmful bacteria has become stronger and less responsive to treatment. Antibiotics that were once reserved as drugs of last resort are now being routinely used, and bacteria are now showing resistance to these medicines. Meanwhile, dormant animal reservoirs of novel diseases such as Hendra, SARS and Ebola are increasingly brought into contact with people through evolving networks of human behaviour – agriculture, travel and urbanisation.

We use systems of antibiotic resistance and pathogen emergence as a jumping off point to apply to other resistances – our inherent ability to resist external social and cultural influences. We consider the potential ramifications of epidemic failure of critical thinking and an unstoppable spread of harmful ideas and broken logic. For instance, were a disease to emerge that was transmitted person-to-person via text messaging, email, telephone or video, what steps of biocontainment could be taken to identify the pathogen, halt its spread and develop a cure?

The format of the showing draws on conventions of scientific lecture. This repurposing of an existing presentation style for narrative theatre offers the potential for a hyper-real experience wherein a seemingly mundane and credible presentation is contrasted with a surreal and highly speculative scenario.

The showing employs elements of theatre, film and video gaming. The performance will be viewed by audiences in the CSIRO Discovery Centre lecture theatre, with one character in the theatre and one in a second venue, elsewhere within the CSIRO Black Mountain facility. For part of the showing, this second performer is visible on a large screen in the theatre via high bandwidth videoconference. The audience interact in real time with the other stage using mediated communications channels. The audience as individuals and as a group solves a series of puzzles within the narrative to resolve an immediate crisis.

With the advent of accessible, high quality live video transfer, new methods of performance interaction have become possible. Given the pace of the National Broadband Network rollout, these techniques are likely to be ubiquitous within the next three years. The use of lecture theatre spaces opens up a vast new resource of readily available, high capacity, low cost venues which are otherwise underutilised for creative works.

Videoconference is essentially scale-free, offering the potential to tour nationally or internationally with minimal cost, with the performance set, cast and crew remaining in place in Canberra and performers travelling with nominal technical equipment to venues with appropriate broadband capacity. Future implications of this or similar work include the presentation of the work to multiple theatres simultaneously, vastly increasing our potential reach, and it would be a trivial step to simulcast performances to desktop computers anywhere in the world.

The development of this showing is supported by the ACT Government through the ACT Arts Fund 2012 project funding. The upcoming major performance season in 2013 is supported by the ACT Government through the ACT Arts Fund 2012 project funding.
This is a Centenary of Canberra project, proudly supported by the ACT Government.

 

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