How can we use randomness to produce positive change?
“All theater is necessarily political because all the activities of man are political and theater is one of them.” – Augusto Boal
That was the initial question. A very difficult question at first, that haunted me and made my mind blank for about two weeks. I couldn’t think about any idea or answer. Then, I brought the idea of playing and chance. How could we use the idea of play and the use of chance could create change in an individual and society? So then I started to have conversations with friends at ITP about the subject.
From there, I decided to use randomness as a way to think about issues that we face in our context. Problems that affect us, or others. To use randomness to bring some of those problems that others face, so we can think about them by a process of empathy with them in a playful but meaningful way.
In the process of thinking about this question I also decided to address something, I’m concerned about. The quality of our daily conversations. I often find myself talking about very trivial and boring things, that don’t move my mind, or the person I’m talking to, and don’t leave us anything to learn. It’s ok to have stupid conversations once in a while, but interesting conversations really change our minds and lives.
Thinking about conversations and their quality, the topics and also their limitations, I thought that there was an important thing to think about: our own beliefs, backgrounds, sets of values and egos. These often get in the way of a good conversation. Very often I find myself defending ideas because at some point I decided they were right. I think this is common. I’m not Freud or anything close to that, but I suspect that in order to keep our sanity, we have a mechanism to create a narrative about who we are and what we believe, our values, rules, things we like/dislike, are part of that. We feel comfortable playing our own character. But sometimes we get stuck with the character, and we need some conflict to make the character change. We need to force the character to look in a mirror, not only to recognize himself, but also to realize what’s good to change, and what to keep.
So then I decided to make a game to trigger conversations. I thought about the idea of the game of life. But I didn’t want a narrow and conventional narrative as we find in that game. I wanted the players to have more room to imagine and create more complex, weird and why not absurd and funny narratives. Narratives that would also address issues that as citizens and responsible humans, we should think about and bring into our thoughts and actions. The next question is what good can this bring us?
I have been also thinking about that for some weeks. Talking to some friends we realized that we are all the time facing what we sometimes call “random events”. Things that happen and come out of the blue, not out of our Google calendar. We have to embrace this “random events” in life and try to harmonize them with the ones on our Google calendars. We accommodate them in the best possible way. That skill is gained with the passing of time and what is often known as experience. So maybe by playing a game that makes us face random events and circumstances we probably would never consider to be close to our life paths, we could gain skills to face the ones that will certainly come our way. At the same time, this could lead us to understand why other people react in ways we could condemn or question. We could also ask what could we do from preventing people to face these difficult situations. Even when we are talking to others we are making predictions, we are calculating the effect of our words and gestures, and the tone of our voice. We try to read their gestures, attempting to predict what their reaction to our words will be. We also make our phrases trying to anticipate what others will think about them. This makes us think about another important question: how do we make decisions?
It is difficult to decide, isn’t it? Maybe… Let’s flip the coin!
We are aware that our decisions will produce an effect, but we never know the total reach of their effect. We calculate as much as we can, and then make the decisions. So how free are we when we make decisions? Another interesting question! Considering this last points, I thought about the idea of negotiating with someone else, to create a fictional person that can create a distance from both people, and will force them also to negotiate, and to think in a slower way about how they will act and react to the “random events” that they will face. By playing someone else they will have to adopt other problems that are distanced from their experiences. They will have to practice the art of decision making, but this time, their consciousness will have to negotiate with another one. In this process, they will have to face another way of thinking about decision making, other moral values, and beliefs, other ways of reaching logical conclusions, etc.
As I mentioned in the previous reflections about this project, the random conversations, led me to hear about the Theater of the Oppressed by Augusto Boal. A theatrical experience created to produce social and political change, by means of making people think about particular circumstances that are problematic in different contexts, and need to be addressed urgently. In very short terms, Boal’s idea is to hack in the traditional structure of theater and use it as a subversive tool to create the dominating narratives that are leading to the oppression of individuals and/or groups of society.
“Theater is change and not simple presentation of what exists: it is becoming and not being” – Augusto Boal
In the process of deciding what to do I took the theater of the oppressed as the main reference for the game to be created. But the goal was to take some of its strategies into a game that could be played by small groups of people, between 2 and around 8 people at most. The goal here is creating a flexible and easy platform to create an experience that would be as engaging and meaningful as the one they successfully accomplish in their performances. The difference I want with the Theater of the Oppressed is giving more room for the participants to keep thinking about the questions that came up during the experience. I wasn’t absolutely convinced about the possibility of creating a fast agreement, as seemed to happen in the experience of the theater of the Oppressed experience (or the illusion of it). I think that the process of assimilating new beliefs and ideas, arguments, etc, take some time to be digested and assimilated.
The part of creating the game is the current state of the project. I found the Story cube dices to be very effective to trigger the imagination of players to generate narratives. I also found how engaging the Oracle of the eight can be. People would start rolling them compulsively and would start asking questions about their lives. I decided to use this tools as components of the conversation game. Something else I liked, was the game cards form the workshop by Sarah Rothberg. The cards would also allow interesting dynamics and associations. The other component to be introduced would be a bag with a list of topics to be addressed in the game. This, taken from the Bingo games.
The instructions of the game:
For each player, pick the roll to play in the game between this two:
The Event Cards
When Fate hands you the Time to die card follow these instructions:
The story cubes (Pick one and roll it to get an icon)
The Oracle of the Eight (Roll each of the three dice and make a number, then look for a message)
“We may become a part of our local community by sharing stories but we discover who we are through the narratives of our family. Some stories take on the status of the written word. They have been told so often that they cannot be altered. “
Elizabeth Grugeon and Paul Gardner
What did I learn?
I learned how to narrow my disperse interests into a particular one, that includes that most important aspects. That means making decisions after thinking and analyzing the ideas and goals. Clearing things out is not an easy task, but now it’s better with the tools I learned, like the way of making maps and diagrams, from different kinds, that allow us to see and think about our projects in different ways.
What would I do differently?
I would follow the idea of making and then thinking and not the other way around. Both are valid, but I got stuck in the process by thinking too much and leaving the designing for later. I found out that I’m very shy for playtesting, and need to solve that, given it’s importance. Also how central that is when you are designing games. The players or users are the bosses. They have all the power, and it’s better to make things easier for them for the game to work. Then you can adapt to that, and insert your interests in the experience.
- What critique/feedback did you receive?
I should test and playtest and test…
Something that was criticized by different people, was how difficult and complex the rules of the game were. I had to struggle to make it as simple as possible, to clean up the experience to keep the most important aspects. To make it easier for the players, while keeping the central goals intact. I’m still in that process. The audience for the project is not clear. Why would people be interested in playing this game? Who would be interested? In which context? Those questions still remain unresolved.
- What was inspiring? What parts?
Thinking about the purpose of randomness as a tool for creating change was at first something that seemed like an absurd idea. Something that sounded like walking a camel through the hole of a needle. In the end, it was inspiring to see how what seemed like a forced idea gave way to interesting questions and a whole field of possibilities, starting with this project, that I hope to continue and to see it creating a positive impact somehow.
It was inspiring to see the reaction of people that I talked to about the project. It sounded like it has the potential to become an interesting and real project. I’m excited about the idea of taking the project to the real world and having the chance to go outside and talk to people with similar interests, like the Theather of the Oppressed in New York. I had never done that with a project, and now I understand the potential of reaching out for research and collaboration.
- How did you balance research and experimentation?
I really was surprised by the power of the academic research. I didn’t expect it to be so important on a practical project like the one I’m starting. I found fascinating and very inspiring books and areas of knowledge I had never considered to explore, that certainly are opening my mind to understand the nature of learning, communication, and social interactions. This is key to the project and will contribute to make the project more solid conceptually and pragmatically.
What will you take with you going forward?
The idea of making and thinking on parallel as a creative process will be central to this and other projects. The importance of socializing the project to get feedback and references will be something I will also look forward to do in the next projects. Also the practice of reaching out to other disciplines to make things more interesting. I also learned how to look for books, articles, and resources in a very useful way. Linked to this, the necessity to filter the immense resources and references, that could lead one to get lost in the ocean of information and possibilities. Something I need to learn about is to generate a structure for managing the project in terms of tasks, timeline, activities, and stages of the process. To create a workflow that will allow me to advance in practical experiments and theoretical research, field research and play-testing, and moments to stop and see what has happened, and then decide what actions to take.
Something I’ll take away from the guest of the class is the idea of allowing the flow of things in the projects. To trust pieces will eventually fall into place, even if they are not perfect. As my mother says, perfect is the enemy of excellent things. In this particular case, that means I should have play-tested even at the risk of failing in a ridiculous way.
Experts I talked to:
Katie Diamond. Member of the Theater of the Oppressed organization in New York. In charge of Community Engagement and Events.
Sarah Rothberg. Professor at ITP Tisch School of the arts. NYU. New media artist.
I should also talk soon to the teachers in the game department at NYU.
Theater of the Oppressed. Agusto Boal.
The art of storytelling for teachers and pupils. Using stories to develop literacy in primary classrooms. Elizabeth Grugeon and Paul Gardner. David Fulton Publishers London. Published in Great Britain in the year 2000. ISBN 1-85346-617-4
Life Lessons through storytelling. Children’s Exploration of Ethics. Donna Eder with Regina Holyan. Foreword by Gregory Cajete. Indiana University Press.2010. Bloomington and Indianapolis. ISBN 978-0-253-22244-2.
In the presence of each other. A pedagogy of storytelling. Johanna Kuyvenhoven. University of Toronto Press 2009. ISBN 978-0-8020-9915-0.
Learning through Storytelling in higher education. Using Reflection & Experience to Improve Learning. Janice McDrury. Maxine Alterio. Dunmore Press Limited, 2002. ISBN 0 74944038 4.
How to design educational games; a game design manual for teachers and curriculum developers. Raymond A. GlazierCambridge, ABT Associates 1970 ISBN 9783838264233
Developing serious games.Bergeron, Bryan P • 2006 Publisher: Charles River Media ISBN: 9781584506409
Serious games : mechanisms and effects Michael J Cody; Ute Ritterfeld; Peter Vorderer New York ; London : Routledge 2009 ISBN: : 9781135848910 (e-book: PDF) ISBN: : 9781135848866
Another important resource to use is the NYU game library. To explore games and find references that could be useful.