All Things Good and Strange

I love TV, and I don’t think I watch enough of it.

I’d watch more but it’s so slow*.  You can spend weeks of your life trying to hammer through season after season of just one show.  In Douglas Coupland’s 1993 novel Microserfs, characters “blitz” movies by watching videos on fast-forward with subtitles switched on.** My friend Katie, equally impatient, listens to audiobooks on chipmunk speed, but I don’t think I could sustain either approach for a full season of TV.

I watch television to get ideas for work. TV shows and community experiences like the ones I design have a lot in common. You need a central conceit which draws people in, and on which you can hang a series of recurring episodes. Action-adventure, problem solving, and play are closely entwined. This year’s non-speaking, musical keynote was inspired by dialogue-free sequences in the TV show Legion.

The teams I work with are pretty explicit about this link between TV and the events we run. The working title for Ann Arbor’s Wondrous Strange event was ‘Weirder Things’.

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Stranger Things is a difficult one for me because I’m not super into it, and that makes me feel bad. It’s so popular, I feel like I’m missing something. Like I’m out of touch. It’s doubly bad because I grew up immersed in – and totally in love with – the late 80s/early 90s world of Stephen King novels and pirate horror movies on VHS.

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Always Blow On The Pea: Hanging Out, Problem Solving, and Action-Adventure

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.

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