for Neural magazine
Please introduce yourselves to the readers. Why do you call yourselves Invisible Playground?
Invisible Playground is a group of seven people based in Berlin: Jennifer Aksu, Viktor Bedö, Daniel Boy, Josa Gerhard, Anna Hentschel, Christiane Hütter and Sebastian Quack. We make site-specific games and create playful transmedia projects in collaboration with cultural institutions like theaters, festivals, museums but also with companies. The name Invisible Playground comes from an interest in using as much of the real world as possible in our games. We don’t want to enclose our players in an immersive space that we design completely. We want the walls of our playgrounds to be transparent – so that people can see through them from the outside and players can see out of them onto their surroundings.
Play has always been physical – the emergence of separated, virtual gameworlds is the historical anomaly. Location based games are one way of reestablishing connections between a playing field and everyday life – or of making digital play more meaningful. I would not say that the festivals currently celebrating play in urban space are a form of resistance against this – on the contrary a lot of playful uses of new technology are explored in this context. We like to think of our approach to curating our festival and designing our games as post-digital – not anti-digital. We love digital technology. I just don’t think it is the only thing you can play with. The digital is part of so many aspects of our life in the city now, we might as well play with everything we find, there is probably a processor in it anyway.
Would you say that today’s revisited notion of physical play is affected by digital play? Do we tend to bring our habits from the digital world to back to the physical one? One of the games that people really enjoyed in Play Publik in Berlin was the “Charge of the Rubber Ball Brigade” . This game looked so much as an MMO played on real grass! Big teams were fighting and defending themselves with huge balls. How does our networked play experience affect our physical playing?
The design of games for urban spaces – like Greg Trefry’s Charge of the Rubber Ball Brigade – is definitely informed and inspired by digital games. I would say that being socialized with the possibilities of playfully manipulating the environment in digital games leads to a more fearless use of the city. We can imagine play to be more spectacular – perhaps even more physically engaging – due to the history of computer and video games with their battles and bodily challenges (jumping over things, throwing things etc.). But other influences and traditions like Parkour or Skateboarding or large scale outdoor sports are also very present.
I assume there are many different forms of such re-locations. Your Farmwell game for example is inspired by Farmville. What happens when social -so called- games take place in the urban territory? Do they become a form of critique?
Yes, Farmwell is a parody of online farming games in general. But it is also a really fun game – on the one hand because the economic game mechanics of farming crops and buying land etc. really pull you in and on the other hand because the social aspect is much more present in the real world interactions. You really engage with each other when you scrub colors and bargain and sing goofy songs while waiting for your “crops” to grow. It is fun to follow the complexities of what is going on when you let an ultra-capitalist online game collide with the physical remains of a communist capital. I wouldn’t say the game is a direct form of critique, it is more a space from which you can think about things like economic systems, ownership of land, different ways to live and work together in a shared space.
It is important for us to show that anyone can make games out of their own environment. You don’t need a big corporation to put a play station in front of you. Projects like ludocity.org – basically a wikipedia for street games – are not only a great way to exchange knowledge in the growing international design community that has an interest in real world space. They are also a political tool encouraging people to regain power over the spaces they inhabit. We do get quite a bit of feedback from people that try out our games on their own, but there is a lot that can be done to encourage more people to play these kinds of games.
The place you design and play in makes a huge difference on many different levels: the architecture, the social and economic aspects, a city’s history… There are so many different ways in which societies used and use their urban spaces, define what was and is allowed in them, explicitly or implicitly. If we get the chance, we love to let as many aspects of a place influence our design process. But it can also be interesting to play the same game in different places. For the game Flipside, I recently worked in Johannesburg with performance artist Anthea Moys, and seeing a socially and racially mixed group of people play in the streets there was quite moving – in a very different way than in Berlin.
In StadtRundKlang, you received instructions that guided you to a series of mini-concerts in secret locations. But we use audio tracks in games all the time – it is just such a great way to guide people through an environment without blocking their eyes or hands. You are free to look around and imagine the place you are in as something different – and it is very interesting to add a layer of fiction onto reality through a voice in your ear. Who is talking to you? Why are you receiving instructions? What secrets will be unlocked? Are you free to deviate from the predefined path or is it better to play along?
Flipside invites players to reenact scenes from a completely different place in the place they are now. We give them a very strict set of instructions on what happens in each scene, but allow for quite a bit of freedom in choosing the exact location, creating props etc. It is a lot like creating instant movies with a script you don’t fully understand. For example, there is a scene from Berlin where two bikers are controlled on the street by the police. This would never happen in Johannesburg, because very few people bike there; but players in Johannesburg could of course relate to the situation of being controlled and the injustice of only one biker being fined. The game is really goofy through the absurdity of displaced scenes. But at the same time there is kind of magic in it – you realize that the world has become so connected that even stupid everyday situations have started to travel across the world like software from machine to machine.
I think games and play will be much more present in the public spaces of future cities. This has good and bad sides. To me it feels important that the inhabitants of cities can take part in this process – that games do not become systems you are lured or even forced into and that no one fully understands, but that there is a space for games as temporary systems in which we can playfully try out new ways to connect with each other and our surroundings. I do not want games to be used as a form of government. I would love to see them as a tool in an open-ended democratic process.