Play & Energy of the Unknown

Text and visuals by Zack Wood

March 31, 2016

More recently I identified the common force that drives all of these experiences: play. Play is a way to access the energy of the unknown and allow the potential to be transformed into the real. It can involve material change or physical work, but at its heart play is a matter of performing work on your worldview, shifting your perspective beyond familiar frames of reference and into the realm of the unknown. In the same way that there are various ways to move an object from A to B with physical work, some more efficient than others, when it comes to performing work on your worldview there is nothing more efficient and productive than play.

Though its outward form varies, the structures that give rise to itーthe settings, attitudes and expectations best suited for playーare similar to each other while at the same time dramatically different from those suited for manipulating physical energy through machines and labor.

In order to better understand this energy of the unknown, I will explore three play experiences in this essay to identify what they have in common and what this means for play.

Dancing into play

First, imagine you are on a small street filled with people in celebration, eating, laughing, and talking. Suddenly, in the distance you hear the distinct clang of a metal bell, and then the echo of drumming. A simple rhythm and faint melody grow louder as they come closer, up the hill, around the bend into your view. And then there it is, lumbering slowly through the streets, a beast that ignites all who encounter it with a surge of joy that impels them to dance.

The tangible energy that fills the air is almost frightening at first, the percussion pierced now and then by the shout of a dancer, swallowed almost immediately by even louder shouting from the others. And then the beast is moving past you, its melody gradually growing distant in the opposite direction. In its wake people are left glowing with joy and lingering excitement as they return to their more mundane festival activities.
This beast, a veritable joy machine, is Awa Odori, a festival dance from Japan. I had the opportunity to practice and perform with a student group at Kyoto Seika University in 2010, which turned out to be a moving experience of energy and play that I could neither understand or stop thinking about for some time afterwards.

The dance itself is familiar to most people in Japan thanks to being performed at festivals (typically the Obon Festival, a major festival in summer). This means a parading train of Awa Odori performers instantly creates a space that is both familiar and marked for celebration outside the realm of everyday life (what’s called the “magic circle” in game theory).

The dance is essentially a series of steps forward with accompanying hand gestures that are repeated over and over, allowing the group to parade down streets. Performing the dance for long periods is of course physically taxing, and mastering it takes a lot of practice; we spent many afternoons and nights practicing together to get these basic steps right. However, the undeniably straightforward and repetitive nature makes for a low barrier to entry for those who want to dance along.

The other core element of the dance is the call and response, a few sets of phrases shouted back and forth between one performer and the rest of the group (and members of the crowd), which happens on and off whenever people feel moved to initiate it by shouting the first line.

The repetitive nature of the danceーand the amount of practice that goes into these simple stepsーfrees you as the performer from having to think about what to do next, allowing you to focus more on each action you take. This in turn enables you to invest more expressive energy into each action, achieving a level of intensity not possible in normal situations, and the feeling of vulnerability that accompanies this push into the unknown makes the rush of support from others during the call and response all the more powerful.

In other words, the more energy you invest as you allow yourself to go “out of control” within the safe structures of the dance, the greater the energy that comes from the booming support of those around you. The performing train of Awa Odori dancers and musicians becomes a privileged space where it is not only safe but rewarding to bare your most raw expressive side.
The festival performance itself was thrilling, but I also felt a persistent sense of calm and joy for days afterward. This seems to be a common side effect of intense experiences of play, so let me move on to describing the next.

 

Playing to make a game

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After much searching you finally locate it far below, bright and blurry. You allow yourselves to sink down slowly into the depths, gaining a clearer view and growing more excited as you draw closer, going back to the surface every so often for air. On each dive you are able to move a little faster and further, almost as if that glowing something you know exists below is pulling you by its own force, and each break for air fills you with greater excitement about going down again. Finally you get close enough to touch it, indeed to grab a hold of it, and with the others you carry it back up together to share with the world above.
This was the creative process I experienced four years after Awa Odori at a game jam in rural Sweden. Game jams are events where programmers, musicians and artists form teams to create a video game from scratch over a short period of time, usually a few days, and are known for sleepless nights and tense teamwork as developers rush to add features and polish their games as much as possible by the deadline.
This stressful push typical of game jams is usually powered by participants’ excitement and passion, which makes the long hours of work possible, but many people are left exhausted afterwards. And at one week, this game jam was also longer than usual, so we made special effort to structure our time in a sustainable way to avoid burning out in the middle. As a result my experience on a team of four at the jam was less a push through a sluggish fogーwhat I would call “work”ーand more a feeling of being pulled towards something in an exciting rush of discovery. Although we invested a lot of time and effort in creating the game, which won an award at the end of the jam, the week was, far from draining, invigorating and even refreshing.
On the first night when most other teams were already hard at work, we were still searching for a core idea that all of us could get excited about. It wasn’t until the next morning that we reached a shared vision, both clear enough that we could see the path and our roles in getting there and open enough that there was room for personal creativity and discoveries along the way.
When it came to actually making the game, we followed what we called a 50-50 approach of “work and play”ーor, perhaps more accurately, “play and relaxation,” since the “work” of development was more like playful discovery. Whenever this began to feel more like work, we were strict about taking breaks to rest together until the pull of play drew us back to our work area. This downtime proved just as valuable as development time not only for regaining our energy but also for creating bonds between members that made for smoother collaboration.

In other words, our team’s approach relied on internal motivation and a clear shared vision to fuel creative development in a way that was sustainably energizing. For me, the week was characterized by a state positive tension, both during productive periods and when relaxing; it was like children going down a slide, where climbing back to the top to go down again can be just as thrilling as going down the slide in the first place.

Another way of looking at the process is that we located an area of overlap between our perspectives and built upon it, creating something new in this shared space and thus expanding each of our perspectives as a result. Just as with Awa Odori, a sense of calm and joy persisted for some time even after leaving the venue.

 

 

 

 

 

Play and the joy of confusion

Finally, imagine that an entity from another dimension has appeared on the street where you live. Though you can’t see it, you can always sense its presenceーeveryone passing by can, as if a border has been crossed or a switch flipped.

Sometimes the entity appears to you in physical form as a young man who gives you a strangely personal but playful message, or a child who breaks out suddenly in a delightful song, and at other times everything goes dark as a loud rhythm fills the air and you can’t help but dance. Eventually you realize that the entity can move, and when it goes far enough away you find everything back to normalーpedestrians are just pedestrians, there are no sudden changes to the light, and no strangers stopping to share a story with you… But is that a faint hum of singing in the air? And did that person just give you a knowing smile? You try to follow but can never quite tell on which side of the boundary you stand.

The entity was in fact a performance created by the artist Tino Seghal at the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin. Seghal is an artist and choreographer who makes “constructed situations” that are carried out by “interpreters” (performers who he trains), and this performance involved a group of his interpreters singing and dancing while moving between different rooms in the museum.
When I walked in I found a crowd gathered around a courtyard in which a handful of people sat nonchalantly in street clothes. I couldn’t tell where it came from, but soft singing filled the air, the chamber’s acoustics giving it the sound of atmospheric choral music. Every so often someone would step out from the crowd, sit down among them, and start to sing. At one point a girl walked onstage, too young and visibly uncomfortable to possibly be part of the show, or so I thought, but then she too began to sing, one arm crossed awkwardly over the other. At another point a woman strode out across the floor with confidence, but then she proceeded to walk out of the courtyard without stopping and into an adjacent gallery.

Unsure who the performers were, I ventured onto the courtyard myself as the singing slowly coalesced into a more intense rhythm, seemingly improvised but performed in calculated unison by the hidden interpreters lounging amongst us. Suddenly it became clear who was who as the interpreters began to stand together in song and dance.

They then began to gather at a staircase at one side of the courtyard and one by one disappeared into a darkened doorway there. The setting became more intimate and quiet as the numbers of both performers and spectators dwindled until only one young woman remained singing at the foot of the stairs with a few people gathered around her. Eventually she too went through the black doors, and I followed.

On the other side there was complete darkness, but I could sense people around me moving slowly around the room. Once again, the air was filled with sound, but this time I recognized the tune ー “Wait (The Whisper Song),” a popular American rap song by the Ying Yang Twins, but with slightly altered lyrics. The singing shifted between pop songs like this one, atmospheric singing as in the courtyard, and rhythmic percussion. As my eyes adjusted and I could make out the performersーand maybe some of the audience members?ーdancing. Now and then the lights would turn on for a moment, jarring and almost uncomfortable in the clarity they provided, and once the music stopped altogether for one person to share a personal story.

Finally the interpreters left the dark room and made their way to the large stairs at the entrance of the museum, where they performed one last act, a song and dance off. Here for the first time I could see them clearly and up close before the performance came to a close.

I left the museum in a daze, confused by the performance’s blurred divisions between audience and performer, and questioning what it means for something to be “part of the show” as opposed to “real.” I was also struck by the vision of how strangers can engage in public space through the power of song and dance. The point is that the performance created playful structures that enabled and encouraged this kind of reconsideration and re-envisioning, making shifts in perspective and expectations feel like the most natural and joyful thing in the world. It also left me, once again, and more intensely than either of the previous experiences, overwhelmed with a sense of calm and warmth.

 

Structures for play

As different as these experiences may seemーalternately active and passive, materially productive and completely intangible, with friends and among strangersーthe structures that gave rise to each are surprisingly similar.

One common theme is the freedom that comes through limitations, whether in pushing yourself to greater levels of intensity through repeating dance steps, discovery made possible by the focus of a clear shared vision, or the confusion of boundaries and expectations made possible by the limited role of audience member. In addition, these all took place in spaces sharply separate from everyday life, either physically isolated in a rural area, part of a once-a-year festival, or within the quiet confines of a museum. The time before and after each also seems to be just as important as the main event itself, whether for creating the structures to play within, to incorporate the new discoveries into one’s world, or to develop the connections with others that go hand in hand with play.

Many play theorists have also noted the voluntary nature of play, emphasizing that it can’t be forced. In a similar vein, all of the situations above offered an invitation to participate within a safe space where people could determine their level of involvement. Support from other dancers, the familiar nature of the dance and its role in festivals created a space where we as Awa Odori performers could feel safe going “out of control.” Establishing a shared group vision that was both clear and flexible while also being strict in giving ourselves down time to recharge allowed us as game developers to explore the unknown and discover something new in Sweden. And finally, Seghal’s interpreters’ open invitation to follow them through the museum and the blurred boundaries of their performance let us as audience members safely and comfortably engage with the joyful push and pull on our expectations.

 

The invitation to step into the unknown without knowing where it will be lead is, I think, at the core of play. Though often characterized as an act of agency upon an object or towards other players, play is in a sense an act of submission as the body and mind are allowed to go fall into the unknown without predictable results. Another way of understanding this unknown is as the realm of the potential, the universe of things that could be and creative connections that have yet to be made. To play is to access this world, catch a glimpse of what is possible, and physically embody the transfer of energy from potential to real, creating in the process a performance, a video game, or simply a shared experience of joy.

Going outside the limitations of one’s known world in this way can of course be frightening and stressful, which is precisely why structures of safety and trust are so important. This is why the focus provided by limitations helps us to process the unknown without being overwhelmed by it, and why a clear separation from everyday life helps us to mentally prepare for play.

And, at the same time that play is enabled by structures of safety, support and focus, and a magic circle, the act of playing seems to make people feel more safe, more supported by and connected to those around them, better able to focus, and more comfortable in the face of the unknown, thus forming a vicious cycle of ever greater warmth, connection and openness.

As Rachel Shields suggested in her essay in the American Journal of Play, the human body is the interface between the physical world and the infinite world of the potential, and play is the realization of this potential. Safe spaces for play are where the unknown becomes knowable, the frightening becomes familiar, and personal and social transformation becomes an act of joy. When it happens, accessing the energy of the unknown through play feels like the most natural thing in the world; it almost feels as if the mind and body want to develop in this way, which might explain why play feels so good and brings people such joy.

Play is as matter of performing work on the fundamental worldview at the base of your actions, shifting your perspective to find and develop areas where your perspective overlaps with others, and imagining the unknown into reality. As the interface for doing this, the human body is the ultimate alternative energy, and play is the catalyst that activates it. The question is when, where and how we can find and create structures that better enable the powerful transformations made possible by play.

Zack Wood has been researching festivals of games and play across Europe and America since 2014 and is the author of a chapter on these festivals in the recent book “Towards Broader Definitions of Video Games“. He is an artist and game designer from the US, currently based in Berlin. His work can be seen at wzackw.com.

2 Comments

    • Zack Wood

      Thank you, Cynthia, I’m glad you enjoyed it. And I’m looking forward to doing some InterPlay at CounterPlay next month!

      Reply

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