Empathy Gaming


Today I found this article from a news publication back home – Empathy Gaming

“An emerging category of role-playing computer games is demonstrating how the genre can be used to discuss awkward, even painful subjects, writes Patrick Begley.”

I’m familiar with games such as Papers, Please and as Nathan said when I shared the article with him, it’s great to see games from indie developers getting coverage in publications such as the Sydney Morning Herald.

With Best Festival Ever, we are certainly attempting to use gaming mechanics to bring to light moral ambiguities, decision making tactics and questions about ethics and systems management. While the article makes the point that many of these indie ’empathy games’ are not focusing on fun, we definitely want the audience experience of our show to be very fun. Having fun means that you’re more likely to take risks, more likely to continue playing even when the results take a dive, more likely to participate in group games. (At least, I think so).

Take a look at the article and try out one of the games.

– Rachel



CONFIRMATION is showing at Battersea Arts Centre until October 25

CONFIRMATION is showing at Battersea Arts Centre until October 25

Blogging is not one of my strong points, so I’m going to love you and leave you with a short update.

Last week we all took a trip up the road to Battersea Arts Centre to see Confirmation. I recommend you check it out. I got a lot from the show, not least some new ideas about communicating new and potentially complicated theories to an audience.

We’re heading to Essen on Thursday for Internationale Spieltage, which is exciting. If you have any food recommendations for a gluten-free vegetarian within walking distance of the Messe, get in touch! I don’t expect anyone to though because wow, what a boring request from me.

I’ve been focusing my attention this week on an earl segment of the show – our performance contract and ‘What is a System’. I think it’s a really important part of the show, because we need to communicate the spine of our show in a way that is engaging, understandable, applicable to everyday situations, and serves the remainder of the show by setting up some dominos that get knocked down later. I’m almost done having my second pass at it, and then I’ll hand it on to someone else to tweak and edit. Sharing is caring.

If you’re at Spieltage, come say hi! Last time we went, one of the games was handing out free bananas as promotion. I hope someone does that again!


– Rachel




Reminding myself about cognitive attidutes

IMG_3176 Modelling can help develop cognitive attitudes.

In our 2012 ‘manifesto’, created at the start of our first performance development process, this was one of the messages we wanted to communicate.

I’ve returned to this manifesto to help me get my head around Best Festival Ever as we redevelop it for new audiences.

Audiences interact with our model using game mechanics to generate outcomes to feed back in to our model – but for me, that isn’t enough. Engaging in game play can develop the same cognitive attitudes that modelling can, and I want to make that the key feature of all featured game mechanics. Not only to they excite and add fun to the experience, but they enhance learning.

In the image to the left is a draft version of a game about transport. We use string to create paths so that our festival audience can navigate the landscape with ease and in safety. In choosing where to lay the string there are needs to consider – each building requires a number of entrances and exits, crossed paths increase travel time, etc. In refining this game, I’ll be looking at the attitudes below and trying to give the audience the best experience possible so that they can get more out of the rest of the show, and walk away with something to reflect on.

Cognitive attitudes we included in our 2012 manifesto:

  • The way we formulate goals
  • Interpret outcomes against expectations
  • Balance emotional responses (Curiosity, Frustration, Blame-shifting, Humility)
  • Tolerating high levels of uncertainty
  • Acknowledging mistakes
  • Searching for counter evidence
  • Self reflection
  • Discover new questions
  • Illuminate core uncertainties
  • Bound outcomes to plausible ranges
  • Demonstrate tradeoffs/suggest efficiencies
  • Build empathy

Here’s some additional viewing on gaming (Jane McGonigal on TED.com)


– Rachel

Wrap Up

It’s been over a week now since my return to Sydney and I’ve had ample time to steep in the aftermath of Modelling Play. It was honestly such a pleasure to present that work-in-progress show to such lovely audiences. The feedback that we received was very constructive, and I’m looking forward to the next development of this project.

During the final week I started reading this thesis paper on the impact of music in gaming.



I was searching for something like it because we were selecting the music that would accompany our Music Festival games. What kind of music would best suit this game, provoke a sense of time running out, help the player concentrate, etc? I’m going to keep looking into it because I think it’s a really interesting and important component of the experience an audience is part of in Modelling Play.

And so now we let Modelling Play rest for a while, until we can find the right time and place for the next phase. If you saw any version of the show and want to talk to us about it, please do. We’d love to hear from you.

– Rachel



We’re starting to physically piece together our model – ordering wooden blocks and bolts of felt online. We’re finishing off our systems description of the music festival that will serve as our setting.

Early on, the performers and the audience have to enter into an agreement. Both groups understand that the model is not to scale, and since they understand this, they can now ignore it.

We cannot then cheat this agreement by playing a game influenced by scale.

These agreements are big things that come in small packages. Once we agree that the blue felt is water, we can understand that if the little wooden man falls into it, he may drown.

I think it’s going to be really important that once we put our model together, we work out what these agreements are (suspension of disbelief, if you will) and make sure we include them in our system introduction.


– Rachel



Before I came over to the UK and began in earnest on ‘Modelling Play’ (we’re working on a better title) I had some idea of what the final showing in November might look like. I imagined two performers each at the ends of a long wooden table, half a dozen audience members on each side. The performers would communicate with each other across the table, telling stories of characters weaving their way through the city block that was built from bleak grey craft on the table. At the time, I thought the final scenario would probably be a city block. As the characters and their stories intertwined, the performers would play music and perhaps stand up on the table to deliver a moving monologue about…infrastructure? Public transport? Knife crime? There might be an electronic voting device in front of each audience member and the model would play out in ‘choose your own adventure’ style.

I had a copy of David Finnigan’s research report, and some links to other articles and reports on modelling. I read them all with the blithe disregard of a Year 12 student thinking they would probably ace the HSC so why bother studying, and anyway they did well in Year 11 so they’re probably a genius. WRONG.

I’m exaggerating. I read the articles, understood most of them, and felt I had enough pieces of the puzzle to be a part of creating an interactive performance.

After a week away engaging in extracurricular activities while David, David, Nathan and Nikki kept on working, I have returned to the UCL meeting room. On Tuesday we were invited to play with a computer-based modelling program assisted by Chris Brierly (creator of program) of the UCL Environment Institute. I went in cocky and came out terrified.

So this is what a real model looks like.

It was like HSC Chemistry all over again. It was too complicated for me. I sat back as Nathan took over the reigns of setting up the program and tried to take comfort in the fact that I’m not the target audience, having no training in environmental science, IT or mathematics, and no need to predict nuances of climate.

It made me question everything we had been doing. How can we, with games and funny little character stories, even begin to communicate something about modelling to a mixed audience? Our models cannot be anywhere near as complex or accurate as the UCL demonstration, and even that model was not as complex or accurate as it could possibly be.

I started to question what an audience might get, if anything, from our watered down systems model. They might learn something about game design, about decision making…but how would we incorporate anything about the process and value of modelling?

One of the reasons this project began was to see if modelling as a practice could create and then be at the heart of an interactive performance. I spent a while mulling things over, trying to pick out what was important and what was just colouring. Colouring can be important but if that’s all there is, we might as well be colouring IN. (ka-ching).

I finally got a grip on the showing. We aren’t trying to create a complete complex model to demonstrate to an audience. We can’t possibly give them an understanding of everything a model can be. What we can do is use the games, feedback loops and tradeoffs that make up our model to promote cognitive attitudes.

cognitive |ˈkägnətiv|
(see cognition)

cognition |ˌkägˈni sh ən|
the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.
• a result of this; a perception, sensation, notion, or intuition.

The cognitive attitudes are what is important. We have a list of them that we refer to, and some that we have decided to try and incorporate into the showing. David Finnigan had included them in his research paper and at the moment the original source is escaping me (I will amend when I find it). Modelling promotes cognitive attitudes, and provokes us to subconsciously or consciously:

Think about the way we formulate goals
Interpret outcomes against expectations
Balance emotional responses (humility, frustration, curiosity, blame-shifting)
Tolerate high levels of uncertainty
Acknowledge mistakes
Search for counter-evidence
Self reflect
Discover new questions
Illuminate core uncertainties
Bound outcomes to plausible ranges
Demonstrate tradeoffs/suggest efficiencies
Build empathy
Make the simple complex and the complex simple.

AHA. Phew. OK. It doesn’t matter if our model is entirely built on fiction and assumptions – most models have to rely on assumptions in any case. What an audience can engage with during the performance and through our little games and maps are these cognitive attitudes. I think they’re really neat, and I guess I like playing board games because I can also engage in them in that situation.

It’s not all about cognitive attitudes, but I think for me they are at the heart of what this interactive performance will be. And we probably won’t even mention them during the performance – by engaging with our model, you will be engaging with cognitive attitudes.

– Rachel

Community unrest.

Today David, David and I created ‘Community Garden’ (or ‘Martin’s Massive Melons’).

We have a list of possible settings (ocean liner, island…) and we have a growing bank of mechanisms (dice, discussion, sliders…) and we have a collection of aims and cognitive attitudes – things that can be promoted and strengthened through modelling.
We chose our setting and cognitive attitude at random. David Shaw (hereafter David) suggested that David F (hereafter Finig) and I both pick a number between 1 and 10. Finig picked 10, I picked 6. 16. David counted down to number 16 on the list and we landed on ‘commune’ and a cognitive attitude about acknowledging mistakes.
We had 90 minutes to create a model to test on Nathan and Nikki. We discussed the possible ideals of a commune such as sustainable living, being ‘off the grid’, yielding crops without modern technology, etc. After some realisation that we knew little about farming, we narrowed our setting down to a community garden.

What are we aiming for in our community garden model? We want the community to be engaged and happy with their efforts.

We decided that the players would begin the game by choosing 5 rules for the community garden. There was a sort of ‘on’ and ‘off’ for each rule.

– No fences/fences

– No pesticides/pesticides are allowed

– no minimum contribution/4 hours work minimum per week

– disputes are solved within the community/a chairperson is elected to solve disputes

– no membership fee/mandatory membership fee

We had 4 characters in our game. Each character had an idea of how the community garden should operate, and has particular rules that they would not abide.

Game Play:
Players set the rules.
If a character has a problem with 2 or more of the rules, they speak up.
Once the characters have spoken, the rules may be changed.
If a character has a problem with 2 of more of the rules, they speak up.
Once the characters have spoken, the rules may be changed.
and so on and so forth until a happy medium is reached.

If a character has spoken twice about the same issues (ie they have not been resolved) then they leave the community garden. While this is not desirable as it means a community member no longer wants to be a part of the garden, it makes it easier to balance the needs of everyone else as there are less needs to be considered.
Characters had personalities that affected game play. Questions about effective strategies for community gardens were raised. Individual preferences from players (and game makers) were emerging. It was stressful at times. Just as I imagine a community garden would be.

It brought up for me questions that I think relates to a lot of models and particularly participatory co-models. Questions about emotional involvement and how it can cast shadows. Questions about getting involved in a model that you don’t think has an outcome, or that you don’t feel attached to because it might not have a real world impact at the conclusion.
I have no real answers to these questions (which are more ponderings than questions, really).

– Rachel