Context is everything. This couldn’t be more true in our journey to Poland to share ROOTS at a games festival focusing on ‘neighbourhoods’.
We designed ROOTS in Bristol in England. By that I mean we designed it within the social and political constructs of England. I hadn’t really been aware of that until we delivered the game in Łódź, Poland last week. Running an activity about place shaping in a country where the concept of participation is young was a stark reminder of what we take for granted in our own lives and why shifting perspective is so important.
ROOTS usually starts with ‘what change would you like to see or make in your community?’ It’s been just over 30 years since the fall of communism here and the notions of agency and deliberation in terms of civic discourse are not common practice. Barriers to engagement in such conversations are deep rooted and enormous. For older citizens ‘what change would you like to see?’ is alien. For people in their 40s it is slightly more familiar but still abstract. Culturally it is not common place. At Play:Disrupt we talk about permission to play, permission to participate. We talk about permission of self, our peers and authority, reflecting on these as barriers to overcome in the design of our interventions. The starkness of these obstacles here was clear. To deliver ROOTS in Poland we had to rejig the context and rethink the invitation.
We worked with a group of young Polish volunteers. The idea was for us to train them to do the activity. Roots is a quickfire, collaborative, project planning game. It is used to programme, generate ideas and design while quickly testing place based projects. Context is important in this activity – people want to know what the outcome will be, where does it lead? At Raban games festival, (Raban is Polish for Rumpus!) it was about imagining projects and activities that may lead to actual activities in neighbourhoods in the future. It was more of an imagination game- a group of strangers imagining something collectively. After some conversation we suggested it may sit in the context of the existing participatory budget scheme- (citizens can suggest projects and the public can vote. Maybe similar to CIL process, but government money, not developer). Our first location was a civic square. Every project was municipal. Alternative traffic lights; tree planting; better cycle lanes. Starting with ‘change’ meant that each idea was to improve current civic structure. One person highlighted that all these are Western ideas- they were positive about the Westernisation. I wondered what a positive Easternisation would look like in Poland and sat with an uneasy viewpoint of chastising the consequences of Western capitalism while basking in its very rewards.
The next day we played in a park and started with Activity. A quickfire game in England was a round of chess in Poland. Very difficult to get traction. So we adapted: ‘What is an activity you would like to do or take part in here?’ Even that we reduced to: ‘What do you want to do today?’… ‘Swim!’ (it was 30 degrees and humid as hell).
With the start of something we could draw in others: ‘Where do you want to swim?’… ‘Here!’…’What would we need?’…‘A hole!’… ‘How could it go wrong?’… ‘Well, it must be in harmony with nature… ‘What would that result in?’… ‘A different place to refresh, to relax, to be. It would bring smiles, community.’
We crowdsourced projects: one person said ‘dancing’ and another gave a location. Then came the context- ‘What would happen as a result?’…’I may fall in love!’ a placemaking game that designed a pathway to romance. In a beautiful post communist city on a summer’s day. Perfect.
The context of the park led to themes of swimming, exploration, love and play. Either our approach or the setting led to more abstract and creative projects. It was challenging to make this work, but the results were beautiful and surprising. Department Geir (the organisers) now have their own set of cards in Polish and English and as consultation is a big part of their income, will use the game to generate ideas and encourage participation in the future. It was a games festival and so of course we got to play other people’s games. Friday night I ran around a park in the dark seeking illuminated tubes to fill with Stardust in an effort to recapture the light from the forces of darkness. Thankfully we won and I walked home dreaming of large scale street games that empower people to change lives….