Spirits Walk, Social Anxiety and Transgression

What would it take to get people to dance with each other to music only they could hear on a crowded street?

What would it take to get people to dance with each other to music only they could hear on a crowded street? To sing on stage in front of strangers without a rehearsal? To write down a secret and give it to a man under a bridge, only to have it displayed later on a banner that you’ll march beneath? To cut their hair for a madwoman in an alley?

Spirits Walk – the game I ran last weekend at Fresh Air 2014 in Melbourne – is a game about transgression.

Here’s the gist of the game, for the uninitiated: players must track down some of the spirits of Melbourne and perform tasks for them. Tasks grant tokens, and tokens make a standard paper mask into a magical key that picks the locks between worlds.

The Mother Bird asked players to find trash and help her use it to build a nest

The Mother Bird asked players to find trash and help her use it to build a nest

MAGIC CIRCLE

The spirits are Gaiman-esque and written in broad strokes with funky names – we have the God of Buskers, the Whispering King, the Waif in the Alley. Their tasks are deliberately transgressive. That was the design fulcrum I decided on, back when this was all ephemeral and unformed; rather than a physical or mental challenge, I wanted to provide a social one. To toy with the idea of the magic circle, the safe-space in games.

It turns out that the game is about social anxiety.

Social anxiety is a big thing for me. I do okay, mind, but I’m forever worried about overstepping an unseen mark, of violating some unwritten law, and I over-think every social interaction I undertake. Writing a game to try and examine and unpack that is a natural way of dealing with it, I think. Plus there’s all sorts of interesting stuff with identity and mask play and groupthink, too, that makes it safe to use this stuff in a controlled environment.

The Jack of Dollars asked players to trade a playing card with a stranger for something of value.

The Jack of Dollars asked players to trade a playing card with a stranger for something of value.

BEYOND THAT

But the game started to transgress beyond the tasks; for the players to feel safe enough to transgress, I needed to establish a magic circle – a game-space – around them which gave them license to act in a strange way. Seeing as I was doing this in the city, I had to build little pockets of strangeness around the spirits. The city didn’t like that.

People swore at my actors, and at me. They got hassled by folk of all ages. The transgression wasn’t just on the part of the players’ actions, as strange as they were, but the presence of the spirits on the streets – we were taking over tiny parts of the city with oddness, bits of art and game, and it turned out that some people felt upset enough – anxious enough, even? – by that to have a good old shout at it.

That’s an interesting thing. I’ve never put my work outside of game spaces before – in closed-off buildings, as part of a larger and visible festival presence, on special nights in museums – and it was strange to have people hoot and jeer at it. I suppose that’s only natural, and it’s a response, and I didn’t write this game to be ignored.

Players rush back to the start point to make masks and prepare for the parade.

Players rush back to the start point to make masks and prepare for the parade.

LEGS

Rather; I wrote this game to be watched and remembered. I wrote Spirits Walk to give the city strange things to see and hear. I wanted to make the sort of game that I could walk past by accident and feel drawn into – why are those people talking to that odd man in the funny costume? Why are they singing and dancing in paper masks at this revel in the centre of town? I wanted to make a curious thing, and to have it penetrate the public consciousness, it needed to stick out enough to cause concern.

It is an odd beast, this game – this art – I’ve made. It is a show where the audience never ask to be shown the play, but I hope they like it; it is a game where the players are actors and celebrants, participants more than contestants; it is a strangely performative thing.

But it has legs, for sure, and it straddles the gap between LARP and livegame in a way that I specialise in, and I reckon we can tour it, now. I need a city with dark alleyways and history, I need a mask-maker, and I need seven actors who are prepared to Get Weird for not much money. A plane ticket wouldn’t hurt either, to be frank.

If you’d like to help, get in touch.