I’ve just finished working on a Fun Palace in Parkes, New South Wales – Australia’s first. Taking place in public venues like museums, theatres, and libraries, Fun Palaces invite people to explore art and science on their own terms. In Parkes, that meant letting the community try their hand at games devised by local kids and teens.
Much like our zombie, time travel, and giant monster events, all the effort was in the preparation. If you set up the activities right, participants don’t need much from you on the day. Their own fascination draws them in – and keeps them engaged.
Preparation for something like this includes obvious stuff – admin, logistics, testing the games. Last year, we even managed to boil down the process to six bullet points. What gets missed in that brief version is the inspiration and writing phase, which involves a lot of long walks, daydreams, and listening to music. As David Mamet once said, writing is to hanging out as tasting food is to cookery.
I’ve always cherished that line. It’s one reason why, alongside Fun Palaces, I recorded a podcast about Transformers with Neill Cameron and Daisy Johnson this month. It let me hang out in the world of pop culture while planning for Parkes. That kind of thoughtful immersion is a vital underpinning of the events I run, because in many ways pop culture is the folk culture of this mediatized world. I think very hard and probably way too much about how to mine the media for ideas when creating events and opportunities to play in public spaces.
Today I want to talk about how action-adventure, that most popular and often least profound of genres, can be a fruitful source of inspiration. That’s not just because even the dumbest slam-bang narrative drips with messages about gender, society, power and culture. It’s because the very business of action-adventure is problem solving.
Blowing on peas and walking up to hand grenades
So much of writing action is about coming up with ingenious solutions to practical problems, irrespective of the character who faces them. How will the hero cross this chasm? How can you defeat a swordsman if you’re only armed with a spoon? I’m fascinated how writers revive tired conceits like swordfights and space battles in movies, comics, and television programmes.
Even a relatively unmemorable action movie can throw you a few surprises. In 2001’s Tomb Raider, Angelina Jolie’s character finds herself trapped, unarmed, in a workshop with three henchmen. She loads a screwdriver into the chuck of a power drill and creates a rather implausible nonlethal ranged weapon. I don’t think it would stand up to a Mythbusters test, but it’s certainly not a solution I’d seen in the movies before.
This isn’t just the stuff of Hollywood in the jaded 21st century. There’s an even better example than Angelina’s in a 1966 episode of the British spy show The Avengers – not to be confused with the American movie. Our hero, Steed, is made to drink heavily, then challenged to remove a dried pea from a table before a man with an axe can chop it in half. We see a previous contender has lost two fingers playing this game. When it is Steed’s turn, he simply blows on the pea and avoids risking his hands under the blade. (I wouldn’t be surprised if this story has its own roots in some prior folk tale).
Steed’s canny solution translates to the immersive games I’ve been running in Australia and New Zealand over the past few years. One aim of those events is to let players come up with clever solutions we didn’t predict, just like an action hero facing an obstacle.
In the early days, I remember getting a hundred high-schoolers to write using their feet instead of their hands. There was a competition to see who could write the most legibly. One kid was turning out perfect letter ‘O’s by wedging the chalk between his toes, then spinning on his heel. The others said it was cheating, but it wasn’t against the rules; it was a smart solution. Similarly, no-one at our zombie siege roleplay in Tupu, South Auckland foresaw teenagers venturing out with guitars to distract zombies and lure them away using the power of song – but it worked!
This is also where the instructional value of even the most action-oriented videogames becomes evident. I played a bit of Call of Duty: Ghosts in the planning phase of my current Australian project. In it, you take the role of a futuristic infantryman on a 21st century battlefield. I’m no great shakes as a gamer, but the experience was useful.
This won’t surprise anyone who games seriously, but as a novice I was amazed how deeply a modern videogame can challenge your spatial awareness. You have to react quickly and accurately to events on screen. You must also think ahead and be judicious in your use of movement, position, and cover. The most successful Call of Duty kids thought about their use of space before they acted. They might not have the best grades in school but they laid land mines in clever places, hung back and sniped enemies from afar, trapped opponents between pairs of hand grenades, danced and dodged when they themselves came under fire. As a result, they wiped the floor with more reckless berserker-charging gamers.
The Parkes team took these lessons and applied them to the games we created for the Fun Palace, where cardboard boxes and junk modelling were used to create various spatial challenges. Librarian Sandie’s Giant Robot game, discussed in this Fun Palaces article, was in part inspired by the ‘Freight’ level of Call of Duty.
During Sandie’s design phase, we looked at how Call of Duty‘s designers had arranged obstacles, tunnels, and “rabbit runs” to shape the way players moved through space, and used this for inspiration in our own cardboard box challenge.
Giant robot attack! One young player takes cover before opening fire on her target with red pom-poms
In my Transformers podcast, children’s literature scholar Daisy Johnson said that she liked adventure tales because they ultimately boil down to stories about relationships, people, and the choices those people make. I, too, believe this is true – even of the most gratuitous guns-blazing action movie. In events like our zombie roleplay, we paid homage to this, by building in opportunities for cooperation, collaboration, rivalry, and even betrayal among players. We seasoned the challenge of survival with a strong element of social interaction. I think that’s what raises those events to a special noteworthiness.
However, the mechanics of action-adventure – “How the hell is she going to get out of this?” in a movie, “How the hell do I do that?” in a game – are also rich and useful food for thought. Thinking about space and finding canny solutions to problems are as big a part of our play activities as pop-culture themes, or addressing literacy challenges.
After all, sometimes all you need to do is blow on the pea.
For more on creating play-based learning activities, check out my original six-point post “Immersive play in the 21st century” on this site. You can also pre-order a copy of The Library Innovation Toolkit; out in Spring 2015, this book includes a chapter on children’s and youth play activities which I co-wrote with my Parkes Library partner-in-crime, Tracie Mauro.