Testing plays with London playtesters

In this post I want to talk a little about the London Playtesters, and the phenomenon of playtesting more generally. I was speaking with a friend last night who asked me what playtesting is, and why we do it. I had an easy answer spring to mind, and then I thought about it, and realised that it’s not as simple as all that.

Most play developments will include at least a couple of work-in-progress showings, where the performance as it stands is put in front of a (more or less) sympathetic audience for feedback and input. It’s a pretty critical way of making sure the work isn’t veering too far into incomprehensibility or self-indulgence, as well as being a good way to mark key milestones along a creative process. But interactive performance has an even more vital need to put its early drafts in front of audiences, because a huge part of the creation of an interactive work is conjuring up the audience’s role.

That role can be anything from voting on a multiple choice outcome to getting onstage and taking on parts in the show. But no matter what it is that the audience is expected to do, at some point when you’re creating the game, you have to take on the role of the audience and imagine how they’ll respond to this game. Is it simple enough? Involved enough? Is it fun? Meaningful? And then whatever answer you supply, you’re going to want to check that against a real audience, because they have a way of completely confounding your expectations.

I don’t know if it’s like this for other interactive performance makers, but for me I struggle with making things simple. There’s often some convoluted idea or explanation for how a game works and what it means, and though it makes perfect sense in my head, when a group of strangers is confronted with it they look baffled and unimpressed. There’s also big questions about any interactive content which it’s hard to answer without testing it out – questions such as ‘why should an audience WANT to interact with this performance?’ and ‘why make it interactive when you could just do a straight narrative play instead?’ (my instinctive answer is usually ‘because this is how I want to do it’, which isn’t really good enough)

So there are lots of reasons for having outsiders come to play with your interactive performance while it’s in development. There are some practical problems, however – one is that it takes a long time to make games, and it equally takes time to organise even the loosest of scratches. If you’ve got people testing games every couple of days in the process, does that give you enough time to actually be creating the games for them to test? And the other big question is, who are you asking to be your playtesters? Often they’re your friends and colleagues, people who you’re not embarrassed to show an unfinished work to, and who you can trust to give you an honest opinion. The problem there is, given that these people know you and your work (and sometimes have even been to earlier playtests of this same work), are you really getting an objective perspective on the material?

We’ve been fortunate throughout the Modelling Play process in that we’ve had the support of Coney, who’ve helped wrangle our audiences for earlier scratches. This last week, however, we decided to explore another avenue and took some new games to the London Playtesters.

The playtesters are a collection of games designers and enthusiasts, headed by Lydia Nicholas, who meet monthly to try out and play with new games. From what I saw when we were there, these range from board to role-playing games, at various stages of development. We played a lovely horse-racing game which was beautifully crafted from wood and both really well executed and utterly aesthetically satisfying. And we shared two of our festival games.

First of all the balancing game, where you must curate your lineup by selecting artists from the tray, trying to keep things balanced by taking sponsorship from various corporations.

Then the site construction game, in which half the players roll dice to obtain materials and the other half use those materials to construct festival infrastructure, from stages to merch tents to toilet blocks.

The playtesters were lovely, hugely helpful and engaged, and it was an incredibly valuable evening. These are good people, yo, cross paths with them if you ever get the chance.

The question I’m left with is, How can we get the most value from our audiences at our remaining three scratches?

– David F

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