Rethinking Modelling Play from scratch, in my head

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So as we near the end of our two week development at Arts House, I want to scribble a few thoughts on the topic of, what is Modelling Play, and why are we doing it. It’s not unusual I think to start developing a work exploring one question or idea and end up somewhere very very different from where you began. In a way I think Modelling Play is well on track with the initial impulse towards this new project back in 2011 – in other ways it’s travelled a huge distance and it’s barely recognisable.

So what is this show? Well it’s an interactive performance for a group of about 20-25 people seated around a table. It’s a theatre show incorporating a lot of elements drawn from board games. It’s a performance lecture exploring concepts from systems science and modelling. It’s the story of a music festival on the edge of disaster and the musicians, audience and crew that try to bring it safely through.

It’s a lot of fun. This is important. The story is funny (if a little too close to comfort for anyone who’s ever had to organise a major event) and the boardgames are exciting and satisfying. This is where boardgaming has jumped ahead of a lot of interactive theatre / live art practice – the best boardgames have really perfected the art of engendering an instantly pleasant interaction. You don’t need to memorise complicated rules or tables, you don’t need to risk your dignity being pulled onto a stage or given instructions you don’t understand. Boardgames – at least the boardgames we’ve been drawing on for this project – focus on creating fun inviting experiences. And that’s what Modelling Play has felt like. We’ve had audiences of all ages and backgrounds in our scratch performances getting excited and invested in building their festival site out of wooden blocks, managing crowds of sugar and getting equipment onstage in time for concerts. It’s always pleasant to see the audience high-fiving each other after achieving something as a team.

But through this residency we’ve come back to the central question of the show, which is the science. We’re not making a show about boardgaming or running your own music festival, as fun as those two things are. The central question is the science. And this is interesting, because I think things have shifted – or maybe it’s better to say, they’ve come into focus.

When I started out in residence at UCL in 2011, the topic of my reseach was ‘Climate and Systems Modelling’. I wanted to better understand what a model was and how it worked, in order to use those concepts as the basis for a show. Which is, in the end, exactly what we’ve done. But what we spent a lot of last year’s residency in London discussing was the difference between:

a) Building a systems model with the audience, and
b) Showing the audience a systems model we’ve constructed

They might seem like fairly similar projects, but the more we talked them through, the more we saw that both variants would teach and convey very different things, as well as being very different experiences. If we wanted to talk about modelling, what it is, why people do it, how it works, variant A would be a better pathway. If we went with variant B, different things would naturally emerge.

So while we’ve flagged the possibility of A as a thing to return to, B is where we’ve gone with this current version of the show. And what we’ve discovered, quite naturally, is that the concepts that lie at the heart of this show are somewhat different to the concepts from modelling we thought we were building the show around.

What we imagined was that Modelling Play would teach an audience what modelling is, how a scientific predictive model is constructed, how a model reflects the system being modelled, what they are useful for and what they are weak in.

Instead, what we’ve done is modelled a complex adaptive system (a music festival), and given the audience a variety of levers and buttons with whch to control that system. And what they learn from that experience is less about modelling than about properties of complex adaptive systems. These properties include things like:

  • How complex adaptive systems (like a human body, like an ecosystem, like a music festival) are made up of sub-systems that have their own behaviours and properties;
  • How the different parts of a system are interconnected, and how those links can often operate in surprising and unexpected ways;
  • How it’s impossible to look at one part of a system in isolation – if you want to understand a system you need to look at the whole picture, all the parts and their interacting behaviour;
  • The ways in which managing a system is all about trade-offs and compromises – how squeezing the most out of one part of the system will often involve making sacrifices somewhere else;
  • That a complex system – especially one involving groups of human beings – will often involve different stakeholders who want and value different things from the system, and you need to understand and keep in balance those different priorities if you want to keep the system flourishing;
  • The idea of a feedback loop – how some parts of the system feed into other parts which feed back again, and so on, and how those loops can sometimes get out of hand. Managing a system often involves trying to dampen feedback loops before they get out of control, and the music festival provides a couple of nice examples of this behaviour;
  • How a system can easily absorb a whole series of shocks and then suddenly collapse – capably handling a hundred hours of rainfall and then abruptly falling over on the hundred and first. In general, the idea of Resilience – what is it that allows systems to absorb disturbances in some cases but not others?
  • How complex adaptive systems take place on different scales – and how often dealing with a problem or understanding an issue is a matter of viewing it at the right scale;

A lot of these ideas sound fairly intuitive, or even trivial, and to an extent that’s correct – this show (and systems science in general) isn’t proposing a radical overthrow of everything we know about the universe. Instead it’s about developing our ability to view the world through this perspective, to see when and where it can be useful and how to apply it. For that reason, it was important to us to bring these ideas into a setting where you wouldn’t normally expect to encounter them. It’s relatively easy to see how systems thinking can help make sense of a river catchment or a forest plantation – it’s a little more unusual to consider them in the context of a music festival.

So what is the rationale for building a show around these concepts? Why invest so much time constructing a playable systems demo in the form of an interactive theatre experience? Why is this show important?

Systems science is an interdisciplinary field that looks at the complex systems that exist in nature and society. It encompasses a huge range of ideas and theories across an array of disciplines. Maybe you could describe it as a conceptual framework – at one level, it is a way of analysing the things we see in the world by looking at them in concert rather than separating them. Systems science looks at the links and interactions between things, rather than simply at the things themselves.

Too simple. Not quite right. But there are many coherent descriptions of the field, and I’d be better off pointing you towards them than trying to repeat them.

Here’s one unambitious reason why you should care about systems science: lots of other people do. If you live in Australia, the USA or Europe, a lot of the decisions your government has made in the last decade or two have been influenced and informed by systems thinking. A huge amount of the scientific research (particularly in areas such as climate science and economics) has come from the systems sciences. This research has affected you, and will continue to affect you, through the decisions of your government and policy-makers. So maybe that’s a reason to be informed about it?

But beyond that, and for me, a far more important reason to care about systems science is that it’s a science about the world we live in. All science is about the world, even the most abstract quantum physics or obtuse mathematics,* but systems science engages with the messiness of the world we live in every day. The interactions between natural ecosystems and built infrastructure. The behaviour of nations and corporations in the political sphere. The way that interactions between individuals gives rise to the unique characteristics of a community or society. It’s messy and it’s relevant and it’s all around us and it’s going to impact you whether you like it or not.

I’m running the risk of sounding like a systems science evangelist, which is not my intention, so let me qualify what I’m saying: I’m not arguing that understanding systems will answer the deep underlying philosophical questions or solve all our problems. But the bottom line is, we exist in complex systems – all of us, every day – and we need better ways of understanding them. And systems science essentially provides some tools with which we can better get to grips with these problems.

What Modelling Play does is take these ideas – about interconnectivity, feedback loops, thresholds, tipping points and resilience – and place them in a real world setting, which is exactly where they belong. The show is not an abstract lecture about the mathematical properties of complex systems (I would not understand it if it were), it’s a show about a music festival in which those properties occur. We don’t instruct the audience about the definition of a trade-off – you know what a trade-off is, you deal with them all the time. What Modelling Play does is point out that maybe trade-offs happen more often in our lives than we often realise. You might look out for them in future and see them in other places and contexts. That awareness might be useful in understanding other situations you encounter in the world.

There is an element of the show in which we discuss these ideas explicitly – I’m a geek at heart, and I can’t help but enjoy the idea of a theatre show with a flowchart in it – but this is a pretty small part of the picture. Not because we’re ashamed of the science or trying to sneak it in sideways, either – I couldn’t be bothered trying to trick people into learning, that sounds depressing and futile – just because we don’t need to spend ages explaining things you already know. What it’s about is saying, ‘This thing happening in the music festival right now, this is an example of a feedback loop. You understand what it is and how it works – here’s some other classic examples of them and why scientists give a shit about them.’

For me, systems science was incredibly exciting because it took things that I already knew or felt and put words to them, placed them in relation to each other and highlighted why they might matter. It’s another way of telling a story about the world. You could view a festival as a unique artistic experience bringing together a once-in-a-lifetime lineup of bands and audiences. You could also view it as a connected set of systems, each with their own behaviour, interacting at a variety of levels and scales. Both are correct, but both focus on different things and tell you different stories.

The joy of Modelling Play for me is that we’ve found a form where those ideas arise naturally. Boardgames, by their very nature, allow you to explore ideas such as trade-offs, tipping points and feedback loops. But at their heart, boardgames are about having fun. So I don’t think we’re sacrificing anything to make this experience.

The other wonderful thing about a music festival is that it’s a setting in which stories arise quite naturally. There’s no doubt that you can tell a gripping and exciting story about managing a river catchment or an agricultural region, but we really gravitated to the music festival setting for the potential for fun and excitement. Because managing this system isn’t just a case of getting the stocks and flows right to ensure production levels are sustained for another year, it’s about getting the bands onstage in good shape and keeping the crowd happy by any means necessary. And when things start to go wrong and the disasters start ricocheting out of hand, it’s a high stakes tale of life and death, catastrophe or triumph.

– David

*Though I’m sure Muttley can find some examples of fairly useless maths research.

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