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? 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


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.


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.


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.



, ,



7 responses to “Spirits Walk, Social Anxiety and Transgression”

  1. Dan Avatar

    This sounds interesting. Your opening paragraph reminded me of Improv Everywhere’s annual MP3 Experiments.

    The closest I have come to this kind of thing is playing The Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries wearing period hats at a local pub. A lot of people asked why we were wearing funny hats and talking like 19th century aristocrats, but anybody that was curious enough to ask was just that. I guess it helped that that particular game is a borderline drinking game and the theme was something the average person can grok.

    I have always been interested in what all of the people you pass on a daily basis are up to. I’ve started trying to strike up conversations with people while waiting in lines or hanging out in a park. I enjoy interviewing regular people and I’ve found most people are friendly after you break the ice.

    Anyways, just wanted to let you know this is a cool idea and if you are ever in British Columbia, Canada to let me know. I think this kind of thing would get good reactions in Vancouver and Victoria (also Portland and San Francisco, which I am sure you know are a bit further south.)

    1. Lukash Zalubniak Avatar
      Lukash Zalubniak

      Hey Dan,

      I am actually from Vancouver BC myself and I was thinking that perhaps with some insight and guidance from Grant we could bring this to life ourselves.

      It seems a fantastic premise and a wonderful social experiment. Drop me a line if you’re interested.

      Lukash Zalubniak

  2. Chris M. Dickson Avatar

    Hugely, hugely cool; well done, you, and I hope that people with wherewithal do get in touch. You might well be able to get funding from this from people who think first and foremost with the art nature rather than the game nature.

    Based on the description, I’m not sure I *want* to play this, which leads me to feeling that I sort of *should*, which is an unusual and slightly uncomfortable feeling about reading a game. (It’s sort of vaguely comparable to reading descriptions of worthy, important Oscar-nominated films.) Suspect the effect might be better if you’re not spoiled for what the very slightly uncomfortable tasks might be.

  3. Gavin Avatar

    Love the idea, you don’t get a city with more dark alleyways and history than Edinburgh or Glasgow (fewer dark alleyways but more dark nooks and crannies). Glasgows outdoor areas open themselves up to the weird and the wonderful – http://imgur.com/a/VMMK1

  4. Valandria Avatar

    Please run this again…. I know over 100 people who would love to do this bit didn’t know about it. From pagans, to gamers to swordcrafters…. Please do it again

    1. grant Avatar

      We will! Did you play in Melbourne?

  5. Seilimp Avatar

    I know this web page presents quality dependent articles and other data, is there any other website which provides these kinds of information in quality?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.