A Year of Transition
2020 was always due to be a year of transition for Now Play This. Previous festival director’s Holly Gramazio and V Buckenham had stepped down, and I, Marie Foulston, joined the existing production team of Sophie Sampson, Nick Murray and Jo Summers as guest director. Since November 2019 as a team we had been hard at work developing the next iteration of the festival; one that was both new, but one that remained connected to the values and qualities that Now Play This was built upon.
We were immensely proud of the festival we were bringing together. But then came March and as you know, things changed.
Whilst the original event sadly could not be, we made a quick but considered choice to undertake a virtual festival in its place. Several factors helped us arrive as this decision – we know that videogames and play can work well virtually or remotely; we had months of momentum and ideas already behind us; we had continued support from funders and event partners, and we had a strong belief in ourselves as a team and the creative community we work with.
However we also knew that an online festival could not and should not directly replace or imitate one intended for a very different site and context. For us to truly justify this shift we needed to allow a new festival to change and find its own form and meaning.
There is an awful lot we hope to share in future about the festival, from our intentions and ideas in the two weeks of planning, the technical details and lessons learnt from a weekend of execution and the thoughts and reflections we have when looking back. But for now we wanted to share some broader insights that feel relevant for others following a similar path.
What Must Change, What Must Remain the Same
Whilst we had only two weeks to bring things together, our first step was to give ourselves the breathing space to gather our thoughts and reflect on our intentions. Before we could make decisions about how the festival needed to change we first needed to know what must remain the same.
A festival is not simply a conduit to exhibit the work of others, it is also a creative and purposeful concept in itself. It has identity, form and values and we had to fully understand what these were for Now Play This.
- Interaction & Play
Now Play This is a festival which actively fosters engagement from visitors, through interaction, play and co-creation. It was important that we not approach the festival as something passive or as a broadcast. This notion of interaction was not simply to be present in the work we showcase, but should remain an active part of how we exhibit it.
- Meaningful Connections
Now Play This brings families, friends and creative communities together whilst also creating space for meaningful and serendipitous meetings with strangers. This meant focussing on fostering smaller virtual spaces and environments that created space for conversations and communication.
Now Play This celebrates a radical and inquisitive approach to creativity both in the work showcased and in the way it is exhibited. We wanted to create a festival that offered space and opportunity to test out and explore new work and ideas.
Whilst as a team we have a great deal of collective experience in manifesting such qualities in a shared public ‘real world’ site, doing so in a festival that was virtual and remote was a new and different challenge.
Some aspects of the original festival carried over or translated well. The existing theme ‘breaking point’ (an exploration of work that breaks or subverts systems in radical and imaginative ways) remained relevant and gained a deeper more pertinent meaning. However we also knew that some work and ideas from the original festival would not. Rather than attempting to translate them poorly or inappropriately we made the considered choice against including them. These were all still important and valuable works to us and we hope we might be able to return to them in future festivals or events.
As our festival planning progressed two clear complementary strands began to emerge, one live and one ambient.
The ambient strand remained the closest to the original festival line up. This consisted of games, workshops and films that it was possible for people to access remotely. This strand was offered on the festival site as an official ‘Play at Home’ selection. Any number of people could access these works at any time.
The second strand consisted of ‘live’ programming. This was what we began to view as the core part of the online festival. Everything here occurred at fixed times, many events were ticketed, had limited audience capacities and whilst we streamed a lot from this strand it was critical to us that everything be interactive and participatory.
Our live programming was the most demanding strand to bring together. Almost everything was new and had not been part of the original festival. The nature of these events pushed us to learn new tools and skills, to adopt different roles and work differently as a team.
No standing starts
Whilst our ambition was to be experimental with our live programming, nothing we undertook was done from a standing start. With so many shifting pressures and complications facing ourselves and others we wanted to keep things simple but effective and to limit what we asked of people. Every event built on the existing work and practices of those we collaborated with.
Robert Yang led a tour group on an insightful but frequently deadly tour of the Black Mesa Research Facility in Half Life. Alistair Aitcheson hosted a massively interactive and chaotic game of Twitch Plays Pawns. Melissa McGlensey and Doug Wilson lead a group improv workshop in creating social games for video chat. Gareth Damian Martin took a herd of spacemen on a landscape photography workshop in No Man’s Sky. Look then Leap guided families through creating playful sculptures and films in their own homes. Audience members played alongside the developers of Dustnet during a live Q&A. The White Pube and House House flew to an Animal Crossing island for a live streamed keynote talk.
The conflict of capacity
When moving events and experiences from the physical to the virtual there is an often unspoken shift in value. A talk in the real world that brings in 100 attendees can be a success, but that same talk on YouTube with 100 views can feel like a failure. This was a tension we felt as a team. But just because something ‘could’ reach a bigger audience does not mean that it should. Audience size can have a strong impact on people’s behaviour and their ability to communicate in shared digital public spaces just as it does in those that are physical.
Instead with our programming we frequently made the conscious choice to prioritise smaller audiences. This choice was directly motivated by two of our core principles, that of creating a festival that was interactive and one that fostered meaningful connections. So in order to successfully run truly collaborative workshops, and to invite people on interactive and personal virtual field trips meant intentionally limiting the number of attendees.
These types of events also came with a bigger ask of participants. People had to book in advance, they had to set up and have access to certain technologies, they had to commit to each event for its exact and full duration. Whilst each of these asks does limit participation and access (something we should remain critical and aware of), they also foster a radically different experience for a visitor than that of tuning in to a mass broadcast.
Making choices about capacity and setting expectations based on the behaviours we want to encourage in events feels incredibly important. But we are left wondering how we can evaluate the qualitative impact of such experiences in a context where so much evaluation and value is focused on raw numbers and reach.
Some Answers, More Questions
It’s now been over a month since the festival and we’ve had some time to reflect on what we achieved. At the time things happened very fast and during what was (and continues to be) an intensely complicated and anxious period.
We’re proud of what we managed to pull together and to have done so at such speed and under such complex conditions. We’re hugely thankful to everyone who took part as supporters, collaborators or attendees. We’ve received reaffirming positive praise from many people and it’s wonderful to know that the festival made an impact.
As many other festivals and events follow similar trajectories in switching to the digital we hope that there are some thoughts or lessons about our approach that might be supportive, helpful or inspiring. We did not come out of this experience knowing all the answers for how to successfully transition an event from the physical to the virtual, but we are confident that through experimentation and a focus on core values that we have come out from it with better questions to ask and a curiosity to continue exploring them.
If you would like to revisit any of the events at Now Play This at Home then many of these are now online for you to view.