Singapore pushing the boat out to sea. Week 2.

Nikki

This week has been an ‘in the forest’ kind of week. It’s sort of comforting (in an icky, uncomfortable kind of way) because it means that we’re not just skimming the surface and coming up with the obvious stuff. We’ve also all sort of become more expert in our own specific interest area. It’s important when we’re making games that we have these different perspectives and little pockets of information because it means the games have more complexity, color and reach. But it’s not a totally fun experience.

This week I have been mostly looking at the hazard communication organization and roll out for Pinatubo in 1991. So it’s been interesting to realize the disaster planning and management that occurs (ideally) in that area and also what the issues are. Part of that is also realizing that even with excellent delineation of tasks and good planning things can go wrong, unforeseen things happen (even weeks or months after an event) and that not everyone understands things in the same way. In a great example today we heard from Adam Switzer about the term ‘higher ground’. To some people that means get to the top of the nearest mountain – when it might just mean get to the 3rd or 4th or 5th story of a building – or vice versa. It’s this kind of complexity and understanding of language and concepts that this whole project is about – but it’s such a common communications issue anyhow. I’m looking forward to working out a fun way to gamify it.

Nathan

It hasn’t been the easiest week, and after last week’s blitz it was a bit jarring to slow down and wander. I think we’ve gotten really good at working through our creative process, and last week’s productivity was testament to that, but it took me until the end of this week to remember that wandering is an important part of the process too.

I’m thinking about the difference between showing a specific structure of decision-making based on a real life case study, and showing something broader.

I’m thinking about a farmer during a volcanic event asking how long will this last, and having to make awful decisions.

I’m thinking about games that aren’t fun, and how sometimes they can be very fun.

 

Gillian

Every project has a material or a process you’ll never forget. You’ll be walking through a supermarket and see a container of toothpicks that are exactly perfect for a project you completed three years ago and think “Yahtzee!” before you remember the need has long past. This time it’s going to be origami paper and farm animal shaped pencil erasers. If you see any, let me know?

The primary goal of most design is to support and assist in communicating a concept. For this development I am creating prototype game pieces that can be picked up and played with, and that communicate a sense of location and familiarity that will help players understand the complexities of disaster evacuation. I’ve only been with the team here for a week, but the ideas are starting to take shape:

At the moment, the prototype consists of 5 interlocking tiles that serves as a kind of board which can be broken apart for gameplay in smaller groups. Although this game does not necessarily require a board to play, a board game is a familiar object to most people, and invites the players to touch and interact with the game pieces. The movable but linked tiles allow for mobile gameplay, and represent a linked ecology between the represented areas.

The materials that I am using to create the model for the prototype are also familiar ones, and the most prominent of these is paper. Paper suggests fragility and impermanence to me in a way that works well when illustrating concept of the threat of disasters. It’s also a universal material, is available in designs and patterns that evoke south-east Asian cultures, and can look both old and new depending on treatment. Paper also has the advantage of being both cheap and easy to work with, which is a plus during constant trails and errors of development.

After a week of paper and glue, the Beach Tile is rocking along, and I’ve started working on the model buildings for the City tile. I’m aiming to start the Farm by Tuesday, provided there are enough pencil eraser livestock left in Singapore.

 

David

I’m just going to second Nathan and Nikki’s comments from above about it being a slow week. But then, I sometimes want to catch myself when I think things like that, because when I say ‘I’m tired’, it becomes a bit of a narrative I tell myself. Last week was easy, this week was tough. And sure, there was a bit of that, but also, good things came through, and there were real moments of pleasure and breakthrough.

The best moments of the week for me have been small ones. I got a couple of hours on Wednesday to do a bit of scripting, and later, a sentence or two of that scripting came in handy when Nathan and Rach made a game about typhoon formation. On Thursday, Muttley pushed forward and ran a large-scales systems mapping process, and I was able to sit quietly and contribute nothing while I circled around some ideas for the most boring game I’ve ever made. (Getting to sit out of the conversation when you’re not feeling it, and it not being seen as a negative, is a really valuable feature of this collaboration – sorely missed in a lot of other settings.) And today, I wanted to write a bit about making the right decisions and getting the wrong outcome – and the exact text I needed was already there, notes from our meeting with scientist David Lallemand.

So the scraps are starting – starting – to come together. Something (sorta) exists which didn’t exist two weeks ago, that’s always a good feeling.

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Singapore sweat. Week 1.

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Rachel Roberts

This marks the end of Week 1. We’ve decided for this month that we’ll each contribute about a paragraph to a weekly ‘wrap up’ blog post.

We’re in Singapore working with Earth Observatory of Singapore to create a prototype for a new game about responding to disasters (specifically, volcanoes and typhoons) and managing evacuation procedures. We’ve been given a very detailed brief (thanks to Finig for coming over to Singapore a year ago to flesh out that proposal) and so have been able to dive right in, making games and systems models.

I’ve taken a slightly different approach to my own involvement for this project – rather than stressing about trying to know everything I possibly can about the system, I’m letting go of that and embracing not knowing. Instead, I’m trying to think and create mechanisms that are clear, engaging, hopefully even elegant. There are experts here who can tweak the science if it’s off a bit.

 

Nathan Harrison

I’ve spent a lot of this week thinking about how the system revolves around two key decisions – the decision of the government to order an evacuation, and the decision of the individual to evacuate.
Each of these decisions has a lot of complex factors and influences, and together they house many of the concepts we want to try and communicate in this project.
So unlike Best Festival Ever, a system with many points of management, and Democratic Nature, with a wide range of system features, it feels like this game hinges on those two decisions. I’m interested in how we can explore those decisions, through multiple iterations and changing perspectives, to illustrate the larger system. I think it’s a great opportunity to try new types of games.

Nikki Kennedy

Week one is done and it feels like I’ve not got through very much at all. I love reading about disaster management but feel like I have barely scraped the surface.

This week I have been quite interested in how we simulate memory of past events in our audience – or if we even need to. If you live in a volcano or typhoon prone area then you’ve either experienced an event, or an evacuation, some form of training/disaster preparation or even just stories of what happened. But if you’re an audience coming into this show/game then you might not have that experience, or have an experience but of a disaster in a specific location/conditions. Our fictional or based-on-real environment is unlikely to be one you’re familiar with and therefore you need to have some familiarity and connection with it.

I feel like you do need this grounding in past events if only to streamline experience for the participants and make the operation of the system seem more logical. If each audience member has a different idea of how the system works in a disaster situation then it’s much easier for them to find fault in the structure or the system represented – and to miss the points being illustrated. It’s not crucial to the process, but it does limit the ‘noise’ or contest-ability of the limits of the system, and allow for the point and focus of what we’re trying to explain to be easier to understand then it’s probably worth it. It might make our job a bit easier.

There is so much to be of interest right now – we’re trying to work out structure and all the things about disasters and disaster management and reactions we could gamify – as well as how to make this into something easily transportable and for just one facilitator – but reducing noise around the game focus is maybe useful for helping to get across a few specific things.

Also the Art/Science Museum was the best. I want nice, safe, comfortable, fun, adult friendly slides everywhere I go.

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David Finnigan

This is the first for the second development of our new project looking at natural hazard crises at the Earth Observatory Singapore. I’ve spent a lot of the week digging back into some previous notes from my last stay here, and surveying journal articles that EOS have shared with us.

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I wanted to write briefly about one of those articles, because I think it captures a little of the kind of science being done in this field – which is not just the science of how volcanoes and typhoons occur, but the social science that examines how communities and individuals respond to them.

This is from a paper on the ‘Protective Active Decision Model’ –  Lindell and Perry attempt to model the way in which humans decide what course of action they’ll take in the face of a natural hazard crisis.

The first thing that happens is the left column – people receive information about the disaster. It might be environmental (they smell the smoke, see the clouds), it might be a news source, it might be socially.

The middle cluster of boxes is a representation of that person’s internal decision-making state. The three big questions that each person (subconsciously) asks when they get this news are:

  • What do I understand this threat to mean?
  • What are my options?
  • What do I think/feel about the sources of this information?

The outcome of this thought process is some or all of the following actions:

  • They seek more information about the situation
  • ‘Emotion-focused coping’ (they worry)
  • They take action

When they seek more information, that means going back to the start of the process.

There are two key ideas from this paper that I took:

  1. Everyone has a particular set of criteria that they need met before they’ll take action. Those criteria are different for everyone. Roughly, people need six pieces of confirmatory evidence before they’ll do something as drastic as evacuating. (That number might be lessened if the evacuation order comes in the form of the military pounding on your door.)
  2. This kind of conceptual model is used to capture how people think about disasters so that you can analyse it mathematically, or simulate it in a software model (an agent-based model). It’s useful to know about these kinds of models because they’re how scientists understand and simulate human behaviour in natural disasters.

This is not something that’s likely to be in the show, but I wanted to write about it as an example of the sort of research being done in the field.

Question here: How will we represent people’s behaviour in a disaster situation in our game? Will it be through narrative, or will we use a simple model like the PADM?

Why are Boho in Stockholm?

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In 2012, 2 artists from Boho Interactive (David Finnigan and David Shaw) and 3 new Boho associates from Applespiel (Rachel Roberts, Nathan Harrison and Nikki Kennedy) were in residence at University College London developing what would later become ‘Best Festival Ever: How To Manage A Disaster’ (BFE).

BFE emerged from an initial prompt by the former Dean of UCL, climate scientist Lord Julian Hunt, to develop a module to help train policy-makers in systems thinking. Over the next few years, we delved into systems science to develop an interactive table-top performance that used game mechanisms to build systems thinking skills.  We used research from the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) in this process, and at the end of a  development period in 2014 were invited over to Stockholm to share BFE with SRC.

Since then, Boho have been performing BFE in Australia and the UK, and collaborating with new partners to create new works that use systems science and gaming. Anna Emmelin, our friend at SRC, invited us to join a partnership and work on the Flaten project – also known as ‘Democratic Nature’.

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Flaten lake and bathing area in February – completely frozen.

Flaten is a nature reserve and lake in the suburban area of Skarpnäck, in Stockholm, Sweden. This beautiful lake area is home to a unique project that brings together partners from science, theatre, education and government to look at the sustainability and governance of the area. The Flaten project is a blend of four elements that power a process of engagement, learning and co-creation. These are:

Youth education and engagement (School children are brought to the area through their schools and camp programs for experience-based learning)

A table top game (that’s us!)

A political process (Flaten is being used as a role model for modern sustainable governance of nature reserves)

Data observation (Programmes and processes to capture, understand, share and act upon data. Lessons from Flaten can be applied in a local, national and global context)

In February 2016, Boho was in residence at Flaten with our partners and friends Miljöverkstan, who are responsible for the incredible experience-based learning opportunities for school children and programs for newly arrived immigrants. Over 4 weeks we gathered information about the social, cultural, political and ecological history of Flaten and began to play with game mechanisms that might use this information to teach skills in sustainability and governance.

Now we are back in Sweden for about 5 weeks of development to create a prototype of our game, and continue the networking and learning process with the Flaten project partners (Miljöverkstan, Albaeco, GivingOS, and many individuals who share their time and expertise with the project). We’ll be back in 2017 to turn the prototype into a polished game that can be played in galleries, board rooms, schools – anywhere. We’ll also be continuing to work and share with our new partners, because this project is a really unique opportunity to share skills and knowledge long-term. It could be that we’ll end up with a game-making process that can be applied to systems anywhere in the world, so we can travel around and create systems games anywhere.

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It’s pretty cool.

– Rachel

Adapting to our audience.

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Each audience is different. Different ages, backgrounds, levels of science knowledge, investment in our process and our product. Some have contributed resources and/or expertise to Best Festival Ever. Some have no idea what they’re in for. Generally we have an understanding of each audience prior to performing each show. One of the first things we do when unpacking our props is decide who our eight headliner choices will be – this task usually falls to David Finnigan, who will take into consideration our perceived audience demographic as he chooses a spread of artists. We hope to have each audience member be familiar with at least one of the artists in our line-up.

The time of day generally has an impact on our audience – early morning is fairly formal, evening is casual, etc.

At the end of our first week in Stockholm, we performed Best Festival Ever for a group of students from Kärrtorps Gymnasium. These teenagers had been coming to work with Miljöverkstan in Flaten for several months, popping by once a week for a few hours to research the area in small groups.

There are a couple of things we needed to consider in order to perform BFE for this particular audience.

  1. English is their second language – and for some, it is their third or fourth. This means we need to enunciate and slow down a little in our delivery.
  2. They’re not here of their own accord. When performing in a theatre or science centre, we’re usually working with an audience who have chosen to come along of their own volition – they’re interested in the science or the games, or curious about seeing something new. They’re taken a step towards us, and we work to meet them in the middle. With ‘forced’ audiences, we have to take 2 steps to meet them. Not that they’re hostile! They just aren’t on the bandwagon yet.
  3. The jokes won’t land. We wrote the show for an English-speaking audience based in Australia or the UK – there are some jokes and humorous descriptions that some people might get, but most won’t. We have to ride that wave as performers the best we can, and try to keep our energy up without audible laughter.
  4. The trade-offs game may have less discussion of ethics.
    If our audience doesn’t have brand familiarity with our sponsors, they’re just picking based on weight.
  5. We may have to repeat some instructions
  6. They already have a social structure. Often we’re performing for groups that don’t know each other, and we have built an awareness of the moments where a sense of ensemble is established in the audience. It’s a little different with groups that already have a structure or hierarchy – still interesting for us to observe, though.
  7. They will NOT think we are cool, and might think we’re talking down to them. Teenagers ALWAYS feel as though we’re talking down to them a bit, maybe babying them, by asking them to play systems science games. Adults are much more on board, and often assume that teenagers would LOVE the show.
  8. We need to give audience members their scripts a bit earlier than usual. We have a few bits of dialogue that we ask audience members to read aloud for us. For an English-speaking audience, this is my process:

Rachel: *whispering* Hey, would you be able to read some lines out for me?

Audience: *nods*

Rachel: You’ll be playing ‘Ted’. *points to the highlighted lines* I’ll let you know when to start.

And then I stand a little behind them and give them a little tap on the shoulder when the line just before theirs is wrapping up. For a Swedish audience, I try to give them the text a line or two earlier to give them a bit of reading time.

When performing for an adult audience in Sweden, we still have to take some of these things into consideration – speaking a bit slower, enunciating, etc. Our three shows this week for various stakeholders and systems scientists went really well, and I hope that there wasn’t too much lost in translation.

The biggest problem for our Kärrtorps Gymnasium was my laptop dying mid-show (more on this to come…)

A question to end with:

How can we, as outsiders who don’t speak Swedish, creating a show to be performed in Swedish for a Swedish-speaking audience whose first language MAY NOT even be Swedish, make sure that our work AND the work of Miljöverkstan doesn’t get lost in translation?

-Rachel

Back to it – a glimpse of our process

Hej hej från Sverige, vänner!

Yesterday (Monday) was the first day of our second week in Stockholm. Last week, we were all sick. Today, I am sick again. Our delicate Aussie constitutions have been screwed around by the many hours travelling from beautiful, hot summer weather in Sydney to cold, wet London in a germ-filled plane.

Last week was about getting acquainted with Miljöverkstan, including taking a walk through the snowy nature reserve around Flaten and spending some hours systems mapping with Anna. Yesterday was our first real opportunity to sit around a table and begin to create our new game.

The first point of difference to our last few processes is that for Miljöverkstan, we are creating a game – not a show. Best Festival Ever is performed by three actors, who lead players through the narrative while also facilitating the games, managing the results and dealing with all the props and audience interaction. Taking into account that this new show is for a Swedish audience for whom English will probably be a second language, we are conscious of taking away some of the ‘show’ mechanisms and replacing them with ‘game’ – if there are bits of story to be read out, they could as easily be read aloud by an audience member with no performance experience. Miljöverkstan have also expressed a desire to have a game that could be set up in a gallery space as an installation as well as being something that can be played as an event.

These are our current boundaries as I understand them:

  • audience of 10-30 people
  • audience age range from 14 years upwards
  • modular – if time is short, a section of the game could be played for an audience or group of stakeholders rather than the full game, and it will still have an impact.
  • address the ‘respect x 3’ principle of Miljöverkstan – respect for self, respect for others, respect for the environment
  • be specifically about Flaten
  • using systems principles, encourage people to invest in Flaten as a natural resource – not just of clean air and water, but as a source of health. The Swedish ‘right to nature’ comes into play here, as well as the saying that Swedes don’t go to church, they go to nature.

Here’s what we did today for our first real creative day on the Flaten project:

  • gathered in the house in Skarpnäck, then walked together 20+ minutes across the highway and through the nature reserve to the beach at Flaten. There was some snow overnight, so everything looked nice and frosty.
  • we arrive at our Flaten workspace and take off our boots/gloves/beanies/coats. We make a cup of tea, and spread our systems notes out onto the big table.
  • we did a quick ‘check in’ and scribbled some notes on ‘what we want to get out of this week’
  • Nathan wasn’t at our systems mapping session with Anna, so we start the day by running him through all our notes on the big sheets of butcher’s paper. For the systems mapping process, we use the guide from Resilience Practice.
  • we spend about 5 minutes individually writing out our ‘ideal game’. This is a process we’ve done a few times, and it’s really helpful to get ideas out of ours heads and into a shared space. Also, once you’ve written down that idea that you thought would DEFINITELY be the one and only way forward, it’s easier to let it go. You HAVE to be able to let ideas go.

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  • we share these ideal game ideas with each other. This was really inspiring – they were all great ideas, and we have a lot more scope that I previously felt we did. The more time you spend away from the creative work, the less capable you feel.
  • After getting another cup of tea, we wrote down a list of Flaten-specific ‘settings’. Based on our info from last week, this is a list of all the potential game settings and conflicts that we can use to make games – different user groups, areas, system interactions, etc.
  • we split into 2 groups, pick a setting each, and spend 25 minutes coming up with a ‘terrible game’. This doesn’t mean we’re aiming to make something terrible – it’s just a reminder that we don’t have to make something that is perfect or that even works.
  • After 25 minutes, we share these games with each other.
  • lunch!
  • we spend the next few hours talking through game formats, story ideas, creating a list of the systems principles that we might include in the new game. We make some plans for the reset of the week.
  • We bundle up all our sheets of paper, put on our boots, beanies, gloves boats, and walk back to Skarpnäck

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My favourite idea from today was from Mutley (David Shaw). In his ‘ideal show’ he offered a format or framework that was centred around a familiar tragic tale – for example, Romeo and Juliet (or as I have renamed it, the Deer and the Fish*).

*there was no fish toy at Flaten so the duck is standing in for the fish.

Using a globally familiar storyline (star crossed lovers) gives us something to tether our games to, helps us with language barriers, places our game into a timeline that moves forward, etc. I think it’s a really clever idea and I’m keen to explore it more – but also aware that this is a process where we have to be ready to LET IDEAS GO so that new ones can emerge.

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I’m really excited to explore a few different narrative paths – in the diagram above, you can see that there is one journey (black) where the audience all travel through the game together going clockwise. There is another option, where the audience are in two groups, with one travelling clockwise and one counter clockwise. This would be very difficult to achieve, but oh my goodness I really want to try it. I think it would be beautiful.

Our rule is that you have to end each blog post with a question.

How generalised can we make our game and have it still be applicable to Flaten?

 

  • Rachel

 

Eyes on the prize

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So as we start our week at Battersea Arts Centre, heading towards our first public scratch season this Thursday. Setting up the space today, what felt really nice was how much work we’ve done in the last month and a bit. There’s a lot still to do, and a real distance from where we are to where we hope to get to, but it certainly feels like we’re fixing and tightening a working piece of theatre, rather than trying to build one out of sketches.

It’s so lovely having Gary’s design all here now to play with, and having a script to work off, and all the other elements that we’ve had to work hard to put in place. I felt a moment of being able to acknowledge how far this piece has come since we first began research, or even in the last few weeks.

Of course, along with that comes the awareness of how much there is still to do, and how far we hope to get. One of the biggest challenges with this work has been the shifting goalposts – every separate development, every week, every day, we’re working towards a different goal, and assessing ourselves against different measures. With a few days out from opening, I guess it’s really important to make sure we still have our eyes on the bigger picture.

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So with that in mind, I guess my question is, How can we best use this scratch to set us up for the next stage of development?

– David

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.