While my European research travels have only just started, I’ve been taking smaller trips to conferences and festivals since January. These weekends away have been super fun and generative. A huge part of this is that the communities I’ve been working with are so strongly characterized by an ethos of collaboration and exchange. The Come Out and Play Festival, which took place in Park Slope this June, is a tremendous example of the positive discourse that can be cultivated around the issues of art, public space, and networked play.
With the exception of one manifestation in Amsterdam, Come Out and Play has popped up at various sites within the New York metropolitan area since 2006. I’ve written a more in-depth paper on the festival’s history (which I will sheepishly send over by request), but in short, Come Out and Play is run by a group of designers (Greg Trefry, Catherine Herdlick, Nick Fortugno, Mattia Romero, and Peter Lee) who had worked together at Gamelab (now defunct). While the event’s coordinators share an expertise in game design, their professional and academic backgrounds reach much further, into literature, performance, visual art, history, philosophy, and beyond. In one way or another, these fields were all represented at this year’s festival, making a strong case that Come Out and Play is more than just a programme of outdoor games, but a launching point for interdisciplinary collaboration, public art, and politically-charged discourse.
Many of the projects featured at the 2010 festival invited players to engage with real-life content through performative devices. Game designers facilitated this field for experimentation by establishing narrative frameworks intended to free players of their self-conscious inhibitions by way of asserting, “This is a game. In this moment, you are not yourself, but a temporary play-actor.” Some of the devices employed to facilitate this type of player comfort included the adoption of pseudonyms, the use of chance operations, and team collaboration.
For instance, Scoop!, an urban field reporting game developed by San Francisco-based situational designers Nonchalance, encouraged participants to adopt reporter handles and rack up points by calling in to report on festival phenomena.* Broadcasting on a super-low pirate frequency, Scoop! aired 27 hours of live reporting, accompanied by professional voice talent, station IDs, and on-air interviews with scholars, game designers, and other notable festival-goers (you can hear some of the audio here). The game ran for the duration of the festival, subsequently creating a multi-faceted archive of the weekend’s events. Under the guise of improv humor and fabricated characters, players inadvertently generated a solution to the problem of how to historicize experiential phenomena. The polyphony of reporting voices represented a broad range of values, thereby (temporarily) democratizing the process of determining what is and is not newsworthy. At a historical moment in which mainstream journalism is becoming increasingly hegemonized, Scoop! speaks to our collective responsibility to self-report and to keep a critical eye on how contemporary events become historicized.
While Nonchalance’s game operated on a more sustained and fluid level of engagement, Atmosphere Industries’ Gentrification: The Game was more modular and concentrated. After gathering players at The Old Stone House (a monument to the 1776 Battle of Brooklyn) and dividing them into teams, players were then randomly assigned the roles of either “Developer” or “Community Member.” The Developers’ objective was to earn points by gentrifying consecutive storefronts and opening up stores like “Bookbarn” and “American Hipster.” Conversely, the Community Members’ goal was to prevent and break up these monopolies by implementing tactics like bribing real-life neighborhood inhabitants with candy and collecting petition signatures from passersby. While Gentrification could easily be retrofitted for any locale, the game’s narrative referred to specific businesses in the surrounding area, ostensibly bringing to light Park Slope’s own history of affluence, commerce, and a significant demographic shift.** While players had very little at stake, their interactions with neighborhood inhabitants and their exposure (albeit parodized) to Park Slope’s socioeconomic history, catalyzed a contemplation of gentrification as an ethically ambiguous phenomenon in which all players had become unwittingly involved in.
Atmosphere’s project does not leave participants feeling chastised or ashamed for their participation in gentrification, but rather, the game’s conclusion is ambiguous. Rather than forcing a message upon their playing public, Atmosphere left the issue open to discussion, leaving room for talk-back, rule-changes, and reiteration. If I may make the entirely subjective evaluation of the game’s success as a social artwork, I find the lack of resolution to be far more successful than any dogmatic message could have been. I noticed players debriefing after the game, talking about what worked, what didn’t, and how things were in “real life.” With all due respect to the brilliant artists of the museum hall, I would be hard-pressed to configure a means by which a painting or sculpture could accommodate such reflexivity.
My entry on COaP got waaaay too unwieldly, so please consider this Part 1 of 2! In the next installment, I’ll talk about the ethics of situationism and the festival’s roots in political protest!
* Full Disclosure: Shortly after Come Out and Play, I began working part-time for Nonchalance.
** Shortly following the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, Park Slope was originally established as a suburban neighborhood for affluent white families. However, as commuting became more popular, affluent households continued to move farther from the city, and by 1929, most Park Slope inhabitants were extremely impoverished and living in run-down tenements. By the 1970’s, Park Slope (which had become a predominantly African American community) implemented several redevelopment initiatives that ousted the neighborhood’s poorer inhabitants. Subsequently, property values skyrocketed, and by the 1990’s, the neighborhood had been gentrified.