“DOING something somewhere CAUSES something else to HAPPEN,” a chat with Iain Simons

Iain Simons presented Playing with Platforms on day 2 of This Way Up 2017 and here he reflects on the conference and gives his top tips for engaging audiences using interactivity.

Iain Simons is the CEO of the National Videogame Foundation and the co-founder of the National Videogame Archive and National Videogame Arcade, both of which, among being a collection of Videogame software, hardware and ephemera, raises awareness of video games in culture and developing their role in society in general. His many accolades include writing articles for the Guardian and three books, Difficult Questions About Videogames, Inside Game Design and co-authoring the book 100 Videogames.

Specialising in videogames,  video game culture and it’s interactions with the general public, Iain travels the world talking all things video game, and he travelled all the way to Hull to be one of our brilliant guest speakers at TWU back in November 2017. Here we catch up with Iain about his thoughts on the This Way Up conference and his top tips for engaging audiences.

Could you tell us about your experience of This Way Up 2017, and what you think of TWU as an addition to the calendar?

For me as a ‘games guy’, coming to TWU is always a great experience. As an aligned industry with so much in common, I’m always really surprised at how few games folk are there, although I fear once the secret gets out that’ll change and then I’ll regret mentioning it. TWU is put together with a huge amount of care and the audience clearly responds to that. It’s a hugely plural event in its outlook and encompasses a great variety of emergent themes. For me, as well as technological concerns, that’s especially apparent in this fearlessness. As a conference, it’s unafraid to confront the profound problems within the industry it represents, shining a light into some of its dark corners. This year, of course, that’s been especially timely. TWU anchors itself into the contemporary industry agenda in that way, performing a vital function.

Perhaps the greatest compliment I could give is that as a film industry conference it’s now a firm fixture in my calendar – and I’m from the games industry.

What would be your top three tips for film exhibition organisers to start implementing to engage audiences with interactive elements beyond film?

1. Interpret them with care. 
Games are fragile. Given their economic might, it’s tempting to think that they can stand up for themselves in an exhibition environment but they really can’t. Just because games are often also displayed on screens, don’t assume that they can get away with the same level of exhibition interpretation that film does. We can screen say, ‘Toy Story’, and in order to comprehend it at the simplest level, we require the audience to be able to see, hear and understand the language that it’s dubbed in. From that point, we can at least assume a basic shared experience. 
Now let’s think about exhibiting ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ to the same audience. In order for them to play it, they need to be able to hold a controller with 15 or so buttons on it (and know what a controller is), they need to use it to navigate a menu system, start the game, and then they need the motor function, hand-eye coordination and conceptual understanding of what’s going on in order to move the hedgehog through the level to achieve their goal (having understood what the goal is). Not only that, but every individual player is going to have a completely different experience. 
Even at the simplest level, games have a barrier to entry that film doesn’t which shouldn’t be simply ignored.
This all adds up to building a shared critical understanding of even the simplest game, quite challenging to achieve — but a fascinating challenge. 
Know your audience and make any assumptions with care…

2. Games are a performance. 
It’s tempting to think of games as things that are played, but luckily for the purpose of exhibition, they are also things that are performed and spectated. From performance of excellence in things like eSports to more physical performances in things like Singstar or RockBand, games offer a remarkably diverse potential for the staging of performance. 
The assumption is that to be appreciated, everyone needs to be playing. That’s wrong. 
Don’t forget though, like all the best performances of art or sport they often benefit from some contextual commentary and some of them require it to make any sense at all.

3. Use the converted. 
As a venue programmer, you might not be an expert on games. I guarantee you that somewhere in the community around, there will be experts who would love to share their passions and knowledge to help you exhibit. A word of caution though, don’t be afraid to confront their passion with your ignorance and force them to meet it head-on. When shaped and corralled into inclusion, gamers’ passion can be incredibly powerful and develop new audiences. Left unchecked though, through no fault of its own, it can drive the unconverted away.

How can video games or the interactive elements be better incorporated into the cinematic landscape?

This is a pretty big question! For me, this is gently starting to happen, largely through closer collaborations in production. Particularly in areas like VR, the divisions between film and game production are rapidly breaking down. I think one of the key problems to be defused is the assumption about what we mean when we say ‘interactive’. There’s often an implication of a baseline of complexity which it doesn’t really need to be. At the VRWorld Congress last year, one of the most striking points being made was about a more ‘gentle’ level of interactivity that audiences are enjoying, particularly in VR. 
To give ‘players’ agency in an experience doesn’t necessarily mean that they need a complex set of controls and goals. Simply feeling ‘present’ and being able to explore is sometimes enough. Keeping exploring and revising what that spectrum of interactivity consists of will be vital for answering your question.

Could give us an overview of your TWU session, recapping the core ideas and any interesting input from the audience?

My session at TWU was largely concerned with thinking about exhibition and cultural spaces as ‘platforms’ that could be described in simple, computational terms as systems. Having done that, multiple ‘platforms’ could join together to make new work together particularly to the end of creating time-based festivals.

Simply, it’s about Input and Output. DOING something somewhere CAUSES something else to HAPPEN.

For example, an audience member in Hull pushes a button that causes a tone to sound in a room in a venue in Brighton. The button is the input, the loudspeaker is the output — but of course, the fun comes from playing around with what those could be…

Given that agreement between multiple venues, that then presents the opportunity to create time-bound appointments where locations could sync-up to play these experiments together. You could call these appointments ‘festivals’. Finally, when the network gets internationalised, it gets even more exciting to sync-up e.g. If you’re in Hull, Kyoto is literally living in the future… The idea was called ‘sync’ and it’s something we’ve been playing with for a little while now.

And please could you let us in on any exciting developments that have occurred within the intervening months?

For us, the biggest development has been our organisation transitioning into becoming the British Games Institute, for which I’m now the Culture Director. This has been a huge step forward for us, which for me personally now presents a much richer platform for reaching other organisations with. We’ve a rich programme of work developing.