The magic circle of playful expression: Gaming and theatre meet at “Creativate”

Kieran Reid, theatre practitioner and game design lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand presents interactive gaming at #NAF18. Photo: Mandisa Mpulo

In the aftermath of the airing of the final episode of “Westworld” season two – a science fiction TV series depicting the engineered reality of a theme park populated by guests (human beings) and hosts (Artificial Intelligence beings) – I wandered into the “Gaming and theatre” exhibition seeking a form of narrative gaming I could wrap my consciousness around.

As part of the new digital art “Creativate/Engage” program at the National Arts Festival, the team behind the exhibition invites festival goers to enter the “magic circle of play” – where real world consequences are suspended and safe(r) exploration is possible.

“Being in a playful mindset is where experimentation comes from,” explains Kieran Reid, theatre practitioner and Game Design lecturer at the Univerity of the Witwatersrand as we discuss the importance of expression through play. “It’s where thought comes from, where we can engage with ideas in a way that’s a bit safer.”

As part of the inaugural Creativate Digital Arts Festival – described as a “new digital playground for adventurous audiences” – the intersection of technology and theatre reminds us that despite the story of “disruption”, multimedia and digital technologies can help to expand the magic circle of existing art forms.

From his own experience as a theatre practitioner, Reid reflects on the collaborative nature of both the performing arts, and the field of technology which he experiences as “a shared space where we can actually take everything a bit further”.

Upon entering the exhibition space, I was faced with a variety of gaming options. But I was intrigued by a table of board games – an interactive exhibition of experiences that “balance chance and choice”, as Kristen Du Preez (a Masters candidate in Digital Arts) explained.

Having completed her undergraduate studies in Theatre, Du Preez (currently looking into “narrative in board games”) explains that the board games demonstrate the mechanics of game design learnt by first year students at the University of the Witwatersrand. Enticing me to explore the computer games to my left, Du Preez described that “from second year, [the students] start coding and take the analog principles they’ve learnt and, apply them to the computer games they make”.

Taking advantage of the ability to try out the games, I was intrigued by a tactile comic book experience where the story blocks of the familiar comic book page exist as three-dimensional squares. With each block designed to display a different plot point on each of its sides, the game requires the player to change the narrative, with only the beginning as the constant control point.

This brought me back to the puzzle I’ve been trying to solve all week, the finale of a television series that followed a non-linear narrative, and in which one of its main protagonists declares that “these violent delights have violent ends” – a quote from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” uttered by a robot.

While the exhibition is mercifully free of violent delights and violent ends, and creates a space for safe exploration in a theme park filled with games, it presents a glimpse of what inter-disciplinary collaboration can achieve – a space where traditional art forms and technology push our imaginations further.

The exhibition is on until Sunday, 1 July at the Eden Grove complex at Rhodes University.

By Mandisa Mpulo