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ENDgame: Engagement Lab Hosts Jam to Devise Games About Death

It’s 3:00 pm on a Monday in the Little Building Cabaret, and a woman in red sneakers and a bandanna is playing a Twister knockoff with the Grim Reaper.

She won’t win this game; no one beats death. But she might come away with some ideas of her own for making the march toward oblivion more personally meaningful and interactive, via a performance piece called THE END.

The woman was one of roughly 20 participants in Theater Game Jam, a two-day event hosted by the Emerson Engagement Lab and Swim Pony Performing Arts, a Philadelphia company that produces site-specific, interactive theater experiences.

“We’re calling it a Theater Game Jam because it’s not something that’s ever happened before, at least from all the research I’ve done, where we’re trying to fuse the theatrical site-based performance stuff, and then use the format of the game jam, having people from the community create these scenes,” Engagement Lab Creative Producer Jordan Pailthorpe said.

The Engagement Lab opened the event to anyone interested in game design, theater, or both. On June 20, they participated in game design and improv activities, and got a backgrounder on the performance’s themes and goals from Swim Pony representatives.

THE END, with support from the Knight Foundation, will be a month-long performance requiring significant buy-in and commitment from players, who will take part in a series of theater/game hybrids at locations across Philadelphia. It will be divided into phases, beginning with the players learning their “death” is imminent and ending with, well, “the end.” Throughout, players could be asked to participate through a variety of ways: giving personal information, following instructions, watching performance, or interacting with others.

In Swim Pony’s shows, the audience is the featured player.

Pailthorpe and Senior Game Designer Sam Liberty presented the Grim Reaper Twister game as an example of how an END game might look.

In Reaper, the player comes to a public space where they are greeted by an actor dressed as the Grim Reaper and a Twister-like game called Reaper. The player is asked beforehand to name four hopes for the future, each of which is now represented by a glass of champagne on the mat. The player then plays a game of “Reaper” with death; each time a glass is knocked over, that’s one more hope the player must say goodbye to.

If, when the game is over, any glasses are left standing, the player can drink the champagne. But it’s a fleeting celebration. By the rules of the game, she’s still going to lose.

It was inspired by the 1957 Ingmar Bergman film, The Seventh Seal, in which a knight plays chess with death, and by the 1991 cinematic masterpiece Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, in which our heroes defeat death in a game of Twister.

The point of the Theater Game Jam, though, was for everybody to come up with as many ideas as possible to be used in the performance.

“Originally, it was going to be a workshop where we talked about game design and kind of consulted [for Swim Pony],” Pailthorpe said, “but then we got more interested in how we can engage the community and engage them in work, not only of how they can generate ideas, but also opening people’s minds up to this new genre of theater performance and give people skills to interact with each other.”

Adrienne Mackey, artistic director and founder of Swim Pony, said the company has always done site-specific performances, but introducing the gaming aspect of the performances has been “kind of an evolution.”

A friend with whom she’d attended “nerd theater camp” became a game designer, and the two would debate the relative merits of their respective artforms. Gradually she started to see the way games could draw audiences in in new ways and make them part of the show.

She was talking about this evolution with another friend from college, who happened to work at the Engagement Lab at the time. They met in Boston with Pailthorpe, and the Theater Game Jam was born.

“I love being in the room,” Mackey said on Monday, “particularly with people who don’t come from theater backgrounds, because it’s interesting to see how people interpret material in different ways.”

On Monday, participants brainstormed their own games centered around death. One group scribbled their thoughts onto bright orange sticky notes as the ideas—some abstract, some really blunt—came fast and furious. Jam participants then selected the ideas they wanted to develop into actual games, which would be licensed under Creative Commons.

Vicki Rapti, affiliated faculty in the Writing, Literature and Publishing Department, thought of a game that led players to take seemingly unrelated elements and use them to make connections that are meaningful only to the player. New York University student Melody Loveless conceived of a “shower” where players could wash away their regrets. Fang Huang, another NYU student, thought about a fortuneteller who could predict the player’s future early on in the game while the player watches the prophecies come true throughout.

Stephen Suen, a recent MIT graduate, went for the emotional jugular. One of his ideas was to videotape the player interacting with family and friends before the game, then edit them out of the video and play it back to them.

“I kind of like the idea of making people confront death in uncomfortable ways,” he said.

Which begs the question: Are there many comfortable ways to make people confront death?

“I have a lot of anxiety about death, myself,” Mackey said. “I worry a lot about regret, I worry a lot about making wrong choices in life… I have a personal interest in something literally everyone has to experience, so the universality of that is interesting to me. And it’s something that we don’t talk about as a culture.”

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