The Festival of Double-Edged Swords

As a setting, the music festival was an idea that had been thrown into the fray very early on, I think even before we started our residency at UCL. A music festival is fun, accessible, and has a lot of the system relationships we want to let an audience explore.

But there were others, too. We have a massive list we made one afternoon and kept adding to. A school, city block, river catchment area, nursing home, ski resort, beach resort (which we used for our mid-residency showing of Bateman’s Vegas), ant colony, and much more. These are all, more or less, examples of complex systems, and many of these turned into small games we made along the way.

In the end, we decided on a festival. A festival has a complex series of relationships, and is a point of convergence for social and environmental systems. It has a clear boundaries – both physical and temporal – that are very useful for translating the system into an interactive performance.

A lot of the benefits have some drawbacks though, and we’ve discovered a few things in the last couple of weeks as we’ve analysed and modelled the festival system.

As I said before, the festival has boundaries. It’s a useful system for us because we don’t need to invent lines to mark out the territory we’re talking about. Everything in the show happens inside the festival’s fences. Simple. Our festival isn’t dependent on, or a contributing factor to, change in another system.

The drawback to this is that we miss out on having any drivers – things outside a system that cause change over time. Long term changes in climate or the economy are good examples of this.

Similarly, our festival lasts three days. That’s pretty perfect for a performance under an hour in length. It has a clear narrative structure, and three days lets us show how events that repeat can change as their circumstances do. In our social sub-systems (things like camping, crowds, foodstalls and concerts) a lot can happen in three days.

But environmental sub-systems have a much larger time scale. Change in these systems (changes in river, soil erosion, change in vegetation) happen over years, decades even. One of the nice things about Bateman’s Vegas was that with a cycle of one season/year, we could depict how change might occur over a longer timespan. In a festival, this is harder.

These are problems that aren’t deal breakers, by any means. I doubt there is any one system that ticks every box we might want to tick, let alone be accessible as well. The music festival is an entertaining system that contains a lot of the science of modelling we’d like to share. But some of the things that make it great for performance also make it less great for a few elements of system modelling. This is something to think about not just for the coming week (when, quite frankly, we’ve got more pressing things to attend to), but for future stages of this project. One possible solution we’re trying out next week is stories that illustrate a festival over a longer period of time.

This is more of a side-note at this point in our process, but one that’s interesting. I guess a question to draw from it is
Should we attempt to introduce important elements of systems modelling if they’re not immediately relevant to our particular system?


A Festival Showing at UCL

This week we presented a performance showing to mark the end of our time at UCL. We showed a first skeleton of the final scratch work (to be performed at BAC next week) for a group of the lovely people here at the Environment Institute at UCL who have been hosting us, and a few awesome friends who dropped by to help us out.

Coming to this showing we originally had around fifteen games that we had constructed that displayed aspects of the way the festival system operates. We narrowed it down to around eight of our best, wrote the beginnings of the story that will be embedded within the performance and drew up the (much simplified) flow chart of the festival (part script, part road map) to guide us through the show.

Among other things we wanted to see if this setting worked in our favour. We suspected that it might – a music festival is a pretty engaging environment, and planning one is a fairly common cool idea – but wondered if it would support the structure of a systems model and display the processes of systems management we interact with everyday. We also wanted to see the games we had come up with played with a large group of people; to see if our explanations for them were clear and concise enough, and if  they represented their sub system clearly whilst also being entertaining. On all accounts they seemed to be reasonably successful which is a huge relief. These are aspects we will continue to be looking at before and during the scratch performances, but it is nice to have an early indication of heading in the right direction.

The showing has indicated to us that we can get through what seemed like a lot of material in a much shorter time than we had previously thought. This is awesome because now we can think about which of the other games we can add in again. It showed us what we can simplify and where different techniques of explanation are required. The feedback from our audience also has indicated the sections where we weren’t as clear as we could have been and where we needed to stipulate some more conditions of play. We will also spend some time developing the stories of our characters in the festival a little further and giving them some more air time, interacting with one another, enjoying the festival and suffering the outcomes of some of the planning and management decisions our audiences make.

Thankyou so much to those who came along and made up our audience. You all did extremely well at managing your festival. Thanks also for all the valuable feedback and responses that you so kindly stayed around to give. They were all very much appreciated.

Here are some of our audience skilfully playing the festival curating game.

Bring on the Scratches!

– Nikki

Sell out (tiny) shows!

The crazy news is, we’ve now sold out our two public scratches at Battersea Arts Centre!

The qualifier is, the shows have a maximum capacity of 16 people each, so. This is both the joy and the frustration of small-audience performances.

The nice news is, we’ve been granted permission to add another showing, this one for 4pm Wednesday 28 November. This is entirely invites only, so if you’d like to come along, drop us a line at modellingplay at gmail dot com.


Why Board Games Rock

Giant Jenga at Spieltage 2012

One of the questions that has come up during my attempts at explaining this project to people is, What have board games got to do with it? If you’re looking at systems modeling, and analysis, in whatever environment – What place does using board game mechanics have?

It seems a strange fit, however the moment you begin to play board games, or rethink common board game mechanics to the contexts we are talking about you realize just how fitting they are. Board game mechanics have cause and effect relationships, can show tradeoffs (to get 4 green in a row you may have to pick up 2 blue), require predictive thinking (those cunning plans you have to thwart your opponents) and give you a fair indication of how effective your attempts to hit your goal have been. They reflect many of the same processes as systems, and our interactions with those systems.

When you’re presented with a board game you must learn the rules – just as when you approach any system you must learn how it works and what parts affect one another-, in a board game you must learn what your goal is (how you can win) – approaching a system you identify what you wish to understand about the system, what your goal is in looking at it-, in a board game having identified the element (or elements) that you as a player have control over you attempt to change and alter these to the maximum efficiency and benefit of yourself using all of the processes highlighted above. Board game mechanics are also common to understand, easily explained and naturally associate themselves with investment and FUN!

In our analysis of various systems (a Newsagency in Euston Station, Batemans Vegas: our beach town system, and now our music festival) we have gone through a process of analyzing the system step by step, from as many different perspectives as possible, then streamlined them into displaying the points at which it functions and those at which problems lie. We identify the spots where there are feedback loops – small chains of cause and effect processes that feed into one another –  and then use those, and other points where the sub systems interact to illuminate interactions within the wider system with ‘games’. We’ve been using board game mechanics within these sub system ‘games’ to show these cause and effect relationships in the sub systems, and how they then feed into the wider interactions of the system as a whole.

In trying to convey the operations of fictional systems, quickly and in a manner that is easy to grasp  board game mechanics are very efficient. This is not to say that we are creating a board game. We are nowhere near capable of doing that, or wanting to do that. I have nothing but admiration for those who set their minds to that complex task. We are employing the mechanics common to board games to benefit from their familiarity and to get our audience as hands on and involved in these systems as possible. We don’t use the competition bit though. Unlike board games in most systems there is no way to win. There is no set of requirements you must achieve (or that it is possible to achieve) available.

– Nikki

A memory of modelling

The mighty Murrumbidgee
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Bidgee CC/BY

Back when I was a student, I took a course on environmental modelling. Well, that’s what it said in the guidebook – it was almost entirely about modelling water flows in river catchments. (Either way, if you’re studying maths at ANU, I recommend looking into it.)

Early in the course, we looked at a very simple model.  It worked like this:

  1. Get a reading from the rain gauge
  2. Assume rain is even over the entire area, and work out how much water that is
  3. Stick in a delay (maybe half a day) before the water reaches the river
  4. Assume that the water will come fast at first, and gradually tail off
  5. After a few days, assume all the water that hasn’t come yet will all come in a pulse, so you don’t have to keep calculating things.

So essentially, the entire model is delay, then decay. No consideration for the season, temperature, soil, vegetation or anything. An entire river summed up with just two numbers.

We moved on to more complex models, some with multiple decay functions, some with rudimentary soil hydrology. Obviously, since they modelled the mechanisms more accurately, they’d give better results, right?

Turns out they gave different results, but they weren’t necessarily any better. A single rain gauge doesn’t give particularly good information about rainfall over a whole area, especially when it’s only being checked once a day. River flow measurement wasn’t particularly accurate either.

Since no model was particularly good, the lecturers used the simplest one when doing field work. It gave useful results, and it was easier to explain. And that’s an important point – if you want people to use your model, make sure they can understand it.

Show and Tell Salon

As we veer into our final two weeks in London (one week at UCL and one at the Battersea Arts Centre) we’re starting to feel the panic and heartache that comes with taking eight weeks’ worth of ideas and experiments and throwing them all out, in order to end up with a final show. But before that painful (and ultimately really rewarding and exciting) process begins in earnest (tomorrow), I’m going to post a couple of clips from the Show and Tell Salon the other night. Coney curated and presented the salon, which was an evening of artists and creatives talking about the intersection of their work with science at the London Science Museum’s Dana Centre. We were lucky enough to present alongside Coney’s Tom Bowtell, Emilie Grenier and other sparkling thought-mongers.

Here’s Muttley and I talking about Boho Interactive’s show A Prisoner’s Dilemma.

And Applespiel discussing their works Sexy Urban Design Team and Snail Piece.

Thank you kindly to Coney and the Dana Centre for having us, and to all the audience who showed up and had opinions about things.

One other sad note – at this point in the process, we say farewell to Muttley / David Shaw, as he has to return to Australia to be a maths journalist. This is a shame, as Muttley is a pretty key piece of the puzzle in terms of how this piece has come together. On the other hand, we’ve been fortunate to have him as long as we have. So now we get to see what happens when the four of us (Nathan, Rachel, Nikki and myself) set out on our own.

– David F

Wooden blocks and festival flowcharts

Four times throughout this process we’ve undertaken a ‘system description’, whereby we attempt to capture the interacting component parts of a system on sheets of butcher’s paper. Under headings like ‘Drivers and Trends’ and ‘Conflicts and Tradeoffs’, we’ve written down everything we could think of that characterised that system, whether it be a news-stand in Euston Station or a fictional coastal town on the east coast of Australia. We’ve even undertaken a system description of another interactive show, Coney’s Early Days of a Better Nation.

In every instance, the whole process has only started to make sense and feel rewarding when we get to the point of assembling all our data into a threshold model. This takes the form of a flowchart, in which we describe all the potential triggers that could knock the system into a different state, and identify how they link together. When completed, a threshold model is often a very simple visualisation of the danger areas in a system, the risks that you want to keep it away from (or drive it toward, depending on the system and your purpose with it).

At the end of last week, we finally produced a flowchart of our music festival. And it is a MESS. Check it out:

Over the last few days, we’ve created further iterations of it, cleaning away the unnecessary information and digging deeper into the components of the system we need to make a functioning performance of. But I’m not going to show you our most recent attempt, because it will give too much away.

At the other end of the project, we’ve had some support and advice from designer and Coney affiliate Gary Campbell with regard to the materials and pieces that we’re actually going to place on the table – the physical model that the audience will get to play with. And as soon as we started to assemble those, we had a much clearer sense of what this show will look and feel like. Sneak preview:

This has all got me pretty excited. Looking forward to our showing next week where we get to throw all this in front of an audience.

My question today is, How can we communicate and share the information contained in this flow chart on a setting which looks more like a scaled up boardgame?

– David F