A Soft Landing

Playing Deviation Game by Tomo Kihara & Playfool
‘Deviation Game’ by Tomo Kihara & Playfool

Now that the dust has settled on the ninth year of Now Play This Festival, it’s time to look back and reflect a bit on how it all went. For good descriptions of the festival experience, see some of the press coverage we received, with in-depth reports in The Guardian and The Evening Standard. And for a selection of pictures from the festival see our 2023 gallery.

When I joined the team as director in 2020, I mapped out a three year thematic zoom-in for the festival, and it was really satisfying to complete that movement this year. Beginning from a planetary perspective, in 2021 we investigated the connection between the climate crisis and play. We spent 2022 on the societal level, exploring how games and democracy interact. This year we zoomed in all the way and arrived at what to me is the emotional core of game design, and one of humanity’s foundational experiences: love.

Long Distance Starship by Karenza Sparks and Alex Fleischli
‘Long Distance Starship’ by Karenza Sparks and Alex Fleischli

I was excited to work on the theme, but also felt a bit apprehensive. Given the problematic history of gender stereotypes in games, it felt important to not reproduce too many of the clichés and simplistic gestures of love. Reading bell hooks’ All about Love, I realized that being too vague (as in “love is something magical you cannot possibly define”) would also just perpetuate existing power structures. We needed a genuine openness that could hold space for the caring and joyful aspects of love and talk clearly about more difficult aspects, including consent, abortion access, discrimination and manipulation.

Luckily, one of the best things about Now Play This is the the fantastic community of artists and makers around the festival, regularly bringing in a huge variety of works through our open call and responding to the theme in ever surprising ways. And so, given the especially good submissions this year, it turned out to be a joy to put together the programme, combining many of the most interesting, fun and challenging works from the call with a few curated moments like the room showing two very different works by Angela Washko, the Lyst room, and The Grannies, which had originally been commissioned for the 2020 festival.

Exhibition view of the 'Breakup Rooms' area
Exhibition view of the ‘Breakup Rooms’ area

Early on we made a few key decisions around the format. Given the theme, we wanted to take it slow, and allow audiences enough time and space to linger and process their emotions. So we decided to go for a 9-day duration across two weekends. The longer duration meant a slightly smaller, more focussed exhibition. At the same time, it allowed us to create a deep events programme with breathing room for intimate conversations, workshops and evening events. We were also able to open some of the hands-on formats from last year’s design camp to the general festival audience, such as interdisciplinary labs with practitioners from outside the games scene (such as the researchers from The Care Collective or relationship therapists from Relate).

A wonderful collaboration with the class of artist Valentina Karga from Hamburg enabled us to have a dedicated soft arena for the events in Lancaster Room, creating a beautiful, calm space for festival visitors to relax and interact in.

Laurence Young: How I taught my mum to play Elden Ring
‘How I taught my mum to play Elden Ring’ with Laurence Young and Maria Pattinson

Finally, we knew the 9-day festival would be a challenge for our small team and wanted to extend the theme of love and care into the making of the festival itself. We prioritised team-wellbeing in a number of areas, like making Monday a rest day with the festival closed, creating a comfortable and easily accessible backstage area and keeping the frequency of events down for each day, so that the team could participate and enjoy the festival as well.

The last few years directing Now Play This have been an absolute pleasure for me. Given the challenge of bringing the festival step by step back into physical space after 2 years of online activities during the pandemic, it feels like we have arrived in a good place.

A heartfelt thank you to the whole festival team, to all of the brilliant artists who participated in the open call and the festival itself this year, to all our partners – and to the one-of-a-kind Now Play This audience, that has been along for a wild ride over the last years and continues to amaze us with positive energy, helpful communication, curiosity and boundless playfulness.

'Triangulate' by Timothy Snowdon
‘Triangulate’ by Timothy Snowdon

All photos by Ben Peter Catchpole. Check out the 2023 gallery for more.