Urban life

The City as Gaming Platform

Farmwell (Invisible Playground) Ein experimentelles Social Game rund um Anbau und Ernte von gar köstlichen Farben. Foto: (CC BY-NC 2.0) Merlin Nadj-Torma, 2012Picture gallery
Picture gallery

An interview with the game designer collective Invisible Playground.

In the two years of the group’s existence, you have designed various games in which really only a single leitmotif is recognizable: you develop a set of fixed rules and then look from above on the behaviour of the participants. What interests you about this restriction?

Christiane: Exactly these rules open a free space: by emphasizing these temporary rules, everything else is blanked out. A focussed time in which you can have completely different experiences. What concrete effect that has is difficult to judge. That’s of interest more for gamification, as it’s often used in business or in the area of education, where it’s about imparting specific skills.

Jennifer: We try rather to open a space of possibility where anything can happen. In this way we can broach themes which people wouldn’t otherwise speak or think about.

Your games always operate on two levels: there is the game itself and simultaneously a reflection on the form of the game. How do you manage that?

Game designers from 15 countries presented their games at the Playpublik in Berlin. Curated by Invisible Playground, video: Asia Dér

Jennifer: We’ve developed a special format, Playpublik. This is a festival that doesn’t simply present the games scene, but combines playing in public with scholarly and scientific discussions and lectures.

Sebastian: At the first Playpublik in Berlin, we invited, among others, architects, urban historians, designers and sociologists, who offered reflections on practices that move on the border of play and public. This combination of play, science and especially workshops was quite new: it was about games as an instrument that can produce a public. The festival wasn’t merely a pure event, but also a forum for culture with an aspect of self-empowerment.

Your games are always strongly addressed to the sites where they take place. As part of the project SPIELTRIEB! [i.e., Gaming Instinct] you’ll now be travelling a lot in Eastern Europe. How will that influence your games?

Sebastian: Certainly not in the way that we’ll be designing every game to have something to do with secret police. It’ll be more about producing connections between usage patterns of urban space in the border area between public and private spheres. These spaces have a very different history in the post-socialist context of Eastern Europe than they have in the West. We therefore plan to tender certain locations on the festival grounds to local artists and enthusiasts, who can then play on them themselves. This is about imparting a site-specific practice with the emphasis on fun. Experience has shown that this is often quite new in Eastern Europe. We’re used to working in Berlin, where everything is allowed. Here there are so few problems that we almost have a problem to identify problems we can treat.

Will this be your first attempt in Eastern Europe?

Sebastian: We’ve already done projects in Budapest and Prague. And we noticed that for people there using their own city in a way that it really belongs to them and taking the freedom to do with it what they like signifies a real transgression. What they then do concretely doesn’t even have to be illegal; merely the appropriation of public space for private enjoyment was unfamiliar to many.

Behind this appropriation, is there something like the anti-authoritarian gesture of squatters?

Sebastian: Squatting would mean that we were giving up playfulness. The rhetoric of appropriation may sometimes recall squatting, but we assume that what is being done is a temporary form of use, a kind of bubble that will then disappear again. It’s more about a kind of relaxation exercise through the constant shuffling and reassignment of spaces. Any game would be terrible if it were to go on forever. We want to try out alternatives to the existing system, alternatives that aren’t sustainable but are rather always on the brink. Or that are so extreme that you wouldn’t even want to be able to endure them beyond the length of the game.

So you test very sensitive social and political situations?

Sebastian: Playpublik is about producing a genuinely democratic public space, which even in a purportedly liberal, capitalistic society is far from being a matter-of-course. A space where parallel usage patterns are allowed and are reciprocally fruitful, without a plan being laid down, whether by the state or a corporation. That’s perhaps the great utopian moment of our work. You shouldn’t be able to say in the end: this is the playground and that isn’t, here are these rules and there those, here you may congregate and there not, and so on. Of course there’s legal framework that marks the borderline to criminality, but remaining within it we’re for maximum freedom and want to develop ideas about how to realize this freedom.

Are these games perhaps sensors that make set mechanisms visible?

Christiane: The eye sees things only on the basis of contrasts. There’s a well-known experiment, the ganzfeld experiment: it shows that the eye perceives a monochrome surface after a while only as grey if it sees no other colour. At the analogical level, the game is the contrast that sharpens our view. We hardly perceive anything that is continuous and constant. The strength of games lies in their changing for a brief moment the rules. It’s less about squatting in and re-conquering spaces than about contrast between everyday behaviour and the play-action in which you do very different things.

Is it important to you that your games are preserved and can be replayed, or should they be over once and for all when they’re over.

Christiane: We document our games and want to make them re-playable. As a kind of tool set, as ideas that are open to modification.

Jennifer: The games can be repeatable; but most important to us is that they’re further developed. It’s expressly important for us that other game makers find starting-points in our games for their own ideas.

Christiane: If our games were animals, we wouldn’t want to stuff them or put them in a zoo, but would rather release them into a reservation where they could meet other animals and reproduce.

Invisible Playground develops site-specific games. The group was founded in 2009 in Berlin and today consists of Jennifer Aksu, Viktor Bedö, Daniel Boy, Josa Gerhard, Anna Hentschel, Christiane Hütter and Sebastian Quack. The new art form of the urban game measures the tensions between parody and analogy, criticism and entertainment, individual participation and social rules. It raises the question of who controls our public space and lays down the unspoken laws that prevail there.
Felix Stephan
studied literature and journalism. He writes freelance inter alia for the newspapers Süddeutsche Zeitung and Die Welt.

Merlin Nadj-Torma
Except for:
Lies in the Sand, Photo: Asia Dér
Invisible Playground, Photo: Invisible Playground

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut Poland
January 2014
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