an actor in a complex system controls almost nothing, but influences almost everything
– Scott Page

Hi! Nathan here. I hope wherever you’re reading this from you’re doing well, and taking care of yourself.

The week before everything collapsed and we all went home for a few months Nikki, Muttley and I spent a day with the 3AI Institute at ANU. We ran a couple of sessions of Best Festival Ever, where one of the groups managed to get a crowdfunded music festival running, only to resort to a scorched earth policy the moment things took a turn for the worse. It was wonderful chatting to the staff and students about the process of making Best Festival Ever, and how the game is impacted by different playstyles.

The last few months has been an interesting time to think about remote interaction – how games can be delivered digitally but still create a meaningful, live experience. Over the last few years we’ve toyed with games that can be self-facilitated, and remote games present an opportunity to pursue that. When a game is run by someone who downloaded it ten minutes beforehand it has to be clear and very difficult to break – we can’t rely on our charm and improvisation skills to smooth out the wrinkles.

So we’ve been playing a bunch of games, and messing around with things like Twine, and David’s been making some lovely little games with Coney in the UK – check them out over here.

We’ve also been talking to some groups about some new commissions– games looking at systems like health research, and the ways that cities can recover from shocks. There’s going to be some big conversations over the next little while and we’re eager to engage.

If you’ve got an idea for a project you’d like to work with us on, or some interesting remote games you think we should play, drop us a line!

At the end of October, for Safework NSW’s Consultation@Work Conference, we presented a consultation best practice workshop. Participants included workers and health safety representatives from around the state, and we were assisted by Health and Safety Inspectors who guided conversations with their expert knowledge.

The workshop was developed over several meetings with inspectors and Safework NSW staff. In these meetings we linked systems science to issues of workplace health and safety, and built a narrative featuring a workplace incident and characters occupying different roles in a factory. We wanted to present decisions that were hard to make, and scenarios that would provoke discussion.

Throughout the workshop, participants took part in several games responding to the events in the narrative – prioritising workplace values, managing a safe factory floor, and responding to a crisis. The narrative and games served as a reference point for conversations with the inspectors, where participants could respond to the narrative, discuss their own experiences, and develop strategies for better consultation practice in their own workplace.

We took elements of previous games, including Best Festival Ever and Run A Bank, and tried to pack a narrative and repeated games into a tight 60 minutes. Another challenge was building the workshop for over 100 people across 18 tables, but with the tables working towards a common goal. We designated the tables as Workers, Managers, and Health Safety Reps, and led them through some games that were just for the table, and other games where collaboration and consultation with other tables was crucial for success. The tables also provided an opportunity for people to role-play to a particular perspective.

It was interesting seeing people take on roles in a workplace they don’t usually occupy. One table was characterised as managers and clearly justified their priorities early on, before reflecting after the game that were they to play again they would reverse them completely. We noticed the ultimate goal stay the same between tables – the goal of safety in the workplace – but the strategies to get there were different, and those strategies were all based on different perspectives. The inspectors did a wonderful job of unpacking these experiences in the context of safety regulation and workplace culture.

Working with Safework NSW was an exciting opportunity to adapt our games and skills to a new setting, and work directly with experts in a field with which we don’t have much experience. Like many of our processes, this development was all about listening and finding games to communicate stories from a group of experts. On the day the participants played hard, only suffered a few minor disasters, and had animated discussions rich in experience and passion. Plus Nathan got to meet Adam Spencer.

After each presentation of Best Festival Ever, the audience join us for a glass of wine and a conversation with an expert who helps explain how some of the systems science and resilience concepts from the show are used in real-life contexts.

We are excited to announce the guest scientists for our Seymour Centre season from Wed 31 May – Sat 3 June. Tickets available here.

Wednesday 31 May – Dr Michael Harré

Among the seemingly disparate issues that concern many of us are how our retirement years will be affected by the prevailing financial markets and other economic conditions, and the implications of climate change for the long-term prospects of human life on this planet. Dr Michael Harré’s research into complex adaptive systems has applications in both of these areas, among many others. He studies how systems as diverse as financial markets and environmental ecosystems evolve and are affected by variations in human behaviour, with the aim of allowing us to better manage these systems and to thrive as a society in the complex environments in which we live.

“We are not well equipped, cognitively speaking, to deal with the complexity of the systems that have come to dominate our world: financial and economic systems, climatic systems and even our social interactions and how information is spread. Everything depends on everything else, often leading to the impression that chaos and disorder dominate, and that trying to understand such systems is a lost cause. But if we scratch the surface, there are often some basic underlying principles. Understanding these is the biggest challenge we face today, and this is what my work aims to do.”


Thursday 1 June – Dr Joseph Lizier

Dr. Joseph Lizier is an ARC DECRA fellow, and Senior Lecturer in Complex Systems in the Faculty of Engineering and IT. Dr. Lizier studies how biological and bio-inspired systems process information.

“We examine complex systems – systems made up of a large number of small entities, whose local interactions produce emergent behaviour at the system level. Classic examples are the emergence of consciousness from billions of interactions between neurons, or shock-wave traffic jams emerging from the interaction of many cars.”


Friday 2 June – Dr Mahendra Piraveenan

From human relationships to the body’s neural networks to the internet, almost everything in the world can be conceptualised as a network, says Dr Mahendra Piraveenan. He studies how complex networks operate, and how this knowledge can be applied to such diverse challenges as arresting contagious disease outbreaks and designing better software.

“There are many structural and functional commonalities between various types of networks – from the social to the biological to the technical – and we can use our understanding of these to design better networks in each domain.”

Saturday 3 June (matinee) – Dr Ramil Nigmatullin

Dr Ramil Nigmatullin uses computational and analytic techniques to study complex systems near criticality and far from equilibrium. He seeks connections between seemingly disparate complex phenomena using the notion of statistical mechanical universality. He is also interested in quantum technologies, in particular, in the questions of robustness and scalability of quantum computers.


Saturday 3 June (evening) – Dr Joseph Lizier

Dr. Joseph Lizier is an ARC DECRA fellow, and Senior Lecturer in Complex Systems in the Faculty of Engineering and IT. Dr. Lizier studies how biological and bio-inspired systems process information.

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.

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