– A guest blog by Sofia Romualdo

As a former art curator turned PhD researcher, who studies the use of videogames and gameful design as interpretation and engagement tools in museums, one of my main interests is play. Playing is a natural instinct in humans and many animals. Its benefits are well known, even if, in general, play becomes less socially accepted and tolerated as people get older. Games appear when free play is constrained by rules, creating a space of possibility where actions take on new meanings, a space often referred to as the ‘magic circle’ of play, a term coined by cultural theorist Johan Huizinga in the 1930s. As technology evolved and games migrated to digital spaces, videogames were invented, becoming increasingly popular in the last two to three decades, surpassing most other types of entertainment. The idea that games can be art has also become more and more accepted, with institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum adding videogames to their collections, as well as with the appearance of institutions wholly dedicated to videogames, such as the National Videogame Arcade in Nottingham.

The popularity of games also means that they’re no longer being used just for entertainment. So-called serious games have been in existence for many years, seeking to improve areas such as health care, journalism, education, and marketing. Lessons from the types of interactive experiences players get from games are also being applied in other areas, giving rise to a practice called gameful design, which is designing experiences that, while not being considered full-fledged games, share many of their characteristics. In short, these experiences are game-like. The rationale behind gameful design is that games have a lot to teach us about creating experiences that are engaging, thought-provoking, fun, in a format that is both widely recognisable and appealing.

Having studied games and game-like experiences for many years, I am very happy to have the opportunity to follow Blast Theory’s work first-hand, as a research resident in their studio. Blast Theory are internationally-renowned for creating some of the earliest and most innovative artistic experiences inspired by games. Pioneer works such as Desert Rain (1999), Can You See Me Now? (2001) and Day of the Figurines (2006) have influenced many other artists and researchers to create gameful experiences, often relying on ubiquitous technologies and mixed reality to add a game layer to physical spaces, such as city streets, in the real world, changing the way participants experience those spaces. When it comes to museums, two of their site-specific works, Flypad (2009) and Ghostwriter (2011), are examples of how game-like experiences can impact museum visitors’ experience of the exhibition space and how they interact with other visitors. The liminal, temporary space that is created at the intersection between the game layer and the real world is what I seek to explore and understand during the course of my investigation.

Besides looking into their archives, I also had the opportunity to follow Blast Theory’s work on the second iteration of Operation Black Antler (2016), which happened in Chatham, after debuting in Brighton the previous month. I was given the chance to observe the preparations and participate in the behind-the-scenes work, gaining invaluable insight into the artists’ working process, and also a new appreciation for the complexity of creating works that defy easy categorisation and break the boundaries between creators and their audience. An intricate piece of immersive theatre with elements that approximate it to a game, Operation Black Antler is one of the best orchestrated experiences I have ever participated in, one that still leaves space to be influenced and changed through the agency and idiosyncrasies of both participants and performers. The performance is a living work, organically responding to the larger political and social environments, naturally evolving into a slightly different experience each night. The experience is uncomfortable, engrossing, but above all, thought-provoking.

This, for me, is one of the benefits of play: creating a space where we can push against boundaries, where we can test ourselves and our limits and see where they might take us.

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