On paper, a discussion about play in public spaces seemed an odd choice of topic this deep into 2020 given the difficulties currently associated with simply being outside, never mind the idea of playing there. Yet the thoughtful discussion during Creative Dundee’s recent InGAME Insights event quickly proved that this is a crucial time for how we think about play in public spaces – one wracked with challenges, but also teeming with potential.
The panel included theatre and festival director Jude Kelly CBE, digital culture expert Sarah Brin and game designer Malath Abbas, all of whom have significant experience creating public events and work either in or around the games sector. A recurring talking point was the important role that the intersections between creative disciplines play in generating innovative and provocative ideas. Meaningful experiences, the panellists agreed, often come hand in hand with dissolving the kind of longstanding boundaries that are rife in the art world and prevalent in the games sphere.
In a similar vein, the panellists talked about how encouraging playfulness in public spaces can challenge our established perceptions about what those spaces can be used for, as well as reinforce the value of those spaces.
Streets of potential
Abbas suggested that public games and interactive experiences could be an answer to the question of Dundee’s growing number of empty public spaces – especially at night time. For one, the kind of challenges that come with organising public activities at the moment would be more manageable due to the lesser numbers on the streets in the evenings. He also proposed that such a project could curate installations internationally, bringing a world of ideas to the streets.
Kelly pointed out that such a project must reckon with the fact that women enjoy much less freedom on city streets at night than men. From an American perspective, Brin also highlighted the threats that people of colour face in public spaces from the institutions which should protect them.
With this in mind, the speakers emphasised the fact that play in public spaces can’t help but speak to and challenge issues surrounding behaviour in those spaces. Not only does it underscore the potential of spaces, they also highlight the damage that happens in those spaces.
Now is that time
Moreover, Kelly argued that creative public spaces are most likely an idea whose day is still to come. Parks, after all, used to be private spaces. Nowadays, everyone accepts that they are a necessary part of a functional society. There was never a debate about whether we should have a National Health Service or parks – it was simply accepted that we need both. The same is true of gyms, she reasoned. They didn’t exist even 20 years ago and yet they’re here to stay. Surely the same thing can be true of playable public spaces?
Indeed, perhaps now is that time. While many familiar uses of public spaces are currently taboo, Brin suggested that there are many tried and tested public games which would fit the current circumstances perfectly. She offered two examples from Playable City, an international project designed to connect people within and between cities through experimental public games.
One was Shadowing, an installation in the form of a street lamp created by Matthew Rosier which records the shadows of people who pass underneath it. After the person has gone, the shadow takes on a life of its own a bit like in Peter Pan, repeating the motion independently.
The other was Gigantic Mechanic’s Dance Step City, another projection-based game that shines white footprints on the pavement for the player to follow, leading them through a Gene Kelly routine that you can’t help but crack a smile at. Crucially, nether experience requires any physical touching whatsoever.
Bringing things to a close, the panellists agreed that the need for more creativity and play in public spaces was twofold. For one, the current crisis we’re facing marks only the beginning of the many ways in which public spaces will continue to transform as we head into an uncertain future likely to be marked by more global challenges. Secondly, and for that very reason, it’s vital that creatives rethink how these spaces can be used and provide answers. Seeing the world through a more playful lens, that panelists concluded, is a significant step towards creating a better one.