A clockwork mountain

This post is a little old now.  I wrote it immediately before Freeplay and then let it sit there while I wondered what to do with it.  I’m reposting it because it helps to frame my thoughts on GCAP, which I’ll get up in the next few days.


Freeplay 2010 was built around the theme of  ‘Play is Everywhere’ and we approached it as a way of looking at the fundamentals of the creative process.  As a result I ended up thinking a huge amount about the design of things – including a festival (and in light of GCAP, a conference too).  Some of this is a little out of date where I’ve explored it in more detail since, but what the hell?  It’s free content, right?

Designing a festival is a creative process

The whole thing is actually quite strange. Although, I guess every creative process must appear strange.

Freeplay 2010 began with the idea that we wanted to look at the creative process itself (albeit framed around games). We wanted to examine, and encourage others to examine, the generation of ideas, following them to completion, and identifying whether they were ‘good’ or ‘bad’. We were driven by the constant call from developers about owning and developing their own intellectual property (IP), but we felt that this process perhaps wasn’t that clear. Other mediums, generally, don’t talk about creation of IP, they just do it, they just write their books or make their films, and create.  There are obvious exceptions, but still – I don’t hear the local film industry shouting about IP. They tend to focus on individual voices or stories.

So, with that plan, what do you do? Where do you begin? Well, you begin, like everything, at the beginning, and you try to articulate that idea. In short – like writing a novel or  making a game – you try to find a unifying theme.

I’d become consumed by play and the ideas of learning and creativity as aspects of play. The first thought we had was to build the festival around the idea of ‘play is the wrong word’ because while it’s what we do as develops, and it’s what our audience does, and it’s part of what we do as creators, the word ‘play’ doesn’t entirely sum up the nuances of those disparate processes. It also has certain, childish, connotations that makes it hard for ‘serious’ adults to engage with. We also felt that the theme itself might read as too negative.

But we kept the heart of it and we began to think about what sorts of sessions would achieve our goals, and in doing so we began the design of our program.

It started without speakers. The first few steps were – as they generally are with any creative journey – thoughts along the lines of ‘wouldn’t it be cool to hear what a product designer thinks of design?’ or ‘wouldn’t it be cool if we could get someone to talk about the psychology of play and learning?’ or ‘wouldn’t it be cool if we could have some board games at the event.’

Out of that initial brainstorming emerged some sort of plan, some sense of how to communicate what is in our head as directors into the heads of our audience. A festival, or a good festival at least, like everything else creative, is about communication, and we were beginning the slow process of figuring out how to communicate what we wanted.

And then our theme shifted. In a late night brainwave, we came up with ‘Play is Everywhere’, something way more positive sounding than before, but also one that opened up our options to include games being used in schools and a greater engagement with digital artists. It’s not that we couldn’t do that before, but creativity frequently operates best within restrictions, and we were keeping to the restriction of our original theme.   With our new, more expressive, theme though, we had discovered something more expressive.  ‘Play is everywhere’ gave us something with edges to explore – and something which our audience could project themselves onto.  It shaped and freed us – something that all good themes naturally do.

The map is not the terrain

A festival isn’t the design, the program, the speakers, or the audience. It’s a mix of all of these elements as they come together on the day.

There’s something really interesting about that, especially as it relates to other creative forms.

When you’re writing a novel, or poetry, or say making a game, there’s an established grammar that gives you a framework to express what you’re trying to express.  I’m not sure that there’s any sort of festival grammar, and if there was, I’m not sure you could capture and encode the emergent and sometimes weird interactions that happen.

But it’s in those weird interactions that the secondary themes of the event emerge.  We consciously had our core theme, and we very much wanted to keep things positive, but we weren’t expecting how far the reach of the event would be – or how incredibly optimistic it would actually be.  Those things only came to be because of the gestalt interactions between the various parts of the event.

The festival experience is unique to every audience member

People move through a festival along their own path. In Freeplay, they could choose from the panels, the workshops, the games in experimedia, the digital art, the talks in Experimedia, play foursquare or backchatter, or just hang out on the grass out the front. In short, everyone’s path through the event was completely different.

Speakers each come with their own perspectives and opinions, and every audience member will focus on something different from each of those – whether they agree or disagree, whether they learn something or not.

Perhaps the best analogue is game design – crafting a series of systems and rules for people to experiment with, mixing it with some sort of spatial narrative, letting people explore and push against the edges, constructing their own story.

We’re a guide

This is sort of the same as the above.  As directors, we don’t really do much more than provide a framework for individual experience, using the shape of the festival to convince you that what we think is important is important.

In Freeplay’s case, the main message was that creativity needs to sit at the heart of what we do as game developers. Every decision we made in terms of the program was about shining a light on some aspect of that idea.

In learning, there’s the notion of Transfer – taking knowledge from one domain and applying it in another.  I look at Freeplay, and I guess all conferences or festivals, as great big transfer machines, with our role being to frame it and encourage it to happen.

There are no do-overs

You only get one shot at the festival. All of the iteration, editing, prototyping needs to happen in the time before. And even then, there are points of no return. Once the program is out there, you can’t redesign it. Once your theme announcement is done, you can’t really go back on it – and you have to hope that you can build a program around it.

Luckily, creativity works best within restrictions, as your brain shifts into problem solving mode, finding connections and relationships that you might never have made. It’s scary, but you need to trust the process and hope (know) that it will work out okay.

Paddling as slowly as you can

I’ve been involved at various levels with a slew of conferences and the one big thing that keeps striking me is how incredible it is that they ever come off.  There are so many moving parts, so many things that could – and do – go wrong in the pre-planning, the planning, the production, and the event itself, that it’s always kind of surprising when things happen – and happen they generally will.

The deadline of an event is like a massive, unclimbed mountain rising up on the horizon as you paddle towards it.  And no matter how much you plan, or how much you change, or how agile you think you can be, it’s always there as you scrabble around in your tiny little boat to fix things up.  It’s daunting because there is always more to do, always more you want to do, and you could always use more time.

But then you hit one of the major milestones like securing funding for internationals, or booking their flights, or launching the program, or selling enough tickets, or one of the hundreds of things that need to come together, and it all gets a little bit easier.

Especially when people respond the way you hope.

No matter what you do, someone will want you to do more

You can’t please everyone.  And the more you do, and the more people you attract or engage with, the more people, just through sheer volume, you inevitably disappoint.

Nobody sets out to do that.  We certainly didn’t when we started pulling the festival together, but there’s always something buried deep in the hundreds of moving parts of a festival, in the hundreds of people who come along, in the weird interaction between audience and speakers, between volunteers and attendees, between directors and everyone else, that are going to be things that rub people up the wrong way.

And that’s totally okay.  Because that’s the price of doing anything ambitious.  I might not like it in the long hours of going through feedback forms where the negative and not particularly constructive comments overwhelm the good will and positive and considered feedback, but it’s fine because I can see the whole thing: the event itself, the clockwork pieces inside the mountain, and how it fits into what we want to do in the future.

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