Novel Dramatic and Ludic Tensions

Nicky Donald is in Copenhagen this week at ICIDS (8th International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling) presenting his latest paper Novel Dramatic and Ludic Tensions Arising from Mixed Reality Performance as Exemplified in Better Than Life. Which was based on Better Than Life, a performance we staged last year with Coney.

The paper presents an analysis, from a theatre theory point of view, of the way the performance was able to support new forms of dramatic tension, centred around asymmetries of knowledge and metalepsis (if, like me, you don’t know what that is, well, you’d better read the paper).

Here is the abstract and the full citation and link are below:

We observe that a Mixed Reality Performance called Better Than Life gave rise to novel dramaturgical and ludic possibilities that have not been observed elsewhere. Mixed Reality Performance is an emergent genre that takes many forms, in this case a live experience for a small group of physical participants (PP) and a larger group of online participants (OP). Both groups were offered individual and collective interactions that altered the narrative in real time. A mixed methodology approach to data generated during the performance has identified two key moments where both physical and online participant groups are split into many subgroups by ongoing live events. These events cause tensions that affect the trajectories of participants that make up their experience. Drawing on literary, theatre, cinema and digital game criticism we suggest that the possibilities for engagement in Mixed Reality Performance are exponentially greater than those available to previous media.

Donald, Nicky and Gillies, Marco. 2015. ‘Novel Dramatic and Ludic Tensions Arising from Mixed Reality Performance as Exemplified in Better Than Life’. In: International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling. Copenhagen, Denmark.

Better Than Life Final Report

The final report for our Nesta Digital R&D Fund for the Arts project “Better Than Life” has now been published. You can find it here:

This was a collaborative project with Annette Mees and colleagues at Coney and also the (sadly departed) live streaming platform ShowCaster.

This is the executive summary of the report:

We are in a period of significant change. The interconnectivity that the web offers and the quick rise of pervasive media has changed how we communicate with each other, how we access information, how we experience news, stories and the world.

These changes have had a deep impact on storytellers of all kinds. The tools we use to tell tales are evolving, becoming more modular and tailored, more participatory and more engaging than just the printed word or the moving image. These new forms of digitally-enabled storytelling move beyond reinterpreting a text for radio or screen. We need to find new structures, and new relationships with audiences.

Better Than Life, led by Coney, an immersive theatre company that specialises in creating new forms of responsive playing theatre, brought together an extraordinary multidisciplinary team involving award-winning interactive theatre makers, digital broadcasters, developers, multi-platform creatives, academics, VR experts, a magician and many more.

We wanted to create a project that focused, in particular, on how live performance fits into the landscape of this terra nova. The aim was to see how to create an event for a large online audience that combined digital connectivity and interactivity with the liveness and shared experience of theatre.

In particular, we wished to understand what kinds of agency and control audiences might want and enjoy when engaging with this new form of live performance, and we set up a system that allowed both audiences – in the live space and online – to participate in and comment upon the show in several new ways. A total of eight public rehearsals and performances took places in June 2014, with over 300 people taking part either in the live space or online. At the end of the R&D process there emerged a narrative of a new medium. The material in the R&D wasn’t normal theatre and it wasn’t quite broadcast and it wasn’t a game. It was a cultural experience that built on the live-storytelling and visceral nature of theatre, but combined it with the social interaction of MMO (Massively multiplayer online role-playing games) and the delivery infrastructure of online broadcast.

The show was held at a ‘secret’ location in London, with 12 people attending and entering the fictional world of the “Positive Vision Movement” (PVM). In the live space, the audience promenaded through the storyworld of the PVM, following three actors, playing, solving puzzles, chatting, debating and witnessing magic as they went.

Online, people spoke and instructed characters, found commentary, spoke to each other, made choices and switched camera views at will. At points, the online audience could even take control of lighting in the space in order to create specific atmospheres, or shine light on a particular place or person.

In every show the audiences were monitored carefully, questioned at various stages within the show and, in some cases, interviewed in depth about the experience.

Interestingly, interactivity – the ability to ‘take control’ of a situation, make a decision about plot or performance or change the mood through lighting or sound – was not rated as highly, by either audience, as the opportunities to socialise and engage with each other.

Data suggests that the online audience, in particular, enjoyed the ability to form strong social bonds each other, and that they favoured elements of the show in which they were able to connect and communicate directly with performers in the show.

This would suggest that this new kind of hybridised digitally-driven storytelling and play environment is seen first and foremost, as an opportunity to connect with others in a theatrical context – interacting with each other more as one might at a music festival or a house party. This is not then simply theatre with an online component bolted on.

For the three R&D partners, the project was also a great ‘social’ success in terms of what we learned from each other. The project genuinely worked within the gaps of the knowledge overlaps between Coney, Goldsmiths and Showcaster, and we pushed each other to deliver a project with as many interesting new features as we could cram into one production space.

Better Than Life explored what is possible – and proved that hybridised models of entertainment and performance can open up experiences to audiences that genuinely span beyond the geographic boundaries of a single location or building.

Better Than Life

The Better Than Life Logo

Coney, Showcaster and Goldsmiths have been experimenting with new ways to create live experiences online. Blending elements from theatre, gaming and TV, this is an exploration of a new type of live event which generates drama by giving audiences online and in the physical space the agency to influence the narrative world of the piece.

Screen Shot 2014-11-05 at 10.03.07

Throughout June 2014, we developed a series of 45-minute interactive theatre experiences designed for a small live audience and an unlimited number of people online simultaneously to research the possibilities of this medium.
Over the next months we will be writing a report about our findings. If you would like to be notified when we present our results please sign up to the Better Than Life mailing list below

You can still explore this site to find more information about the project and story fragments from the Positive Vision Movement.

You can read a review of the piece by Andrew Haydon in the Guardian.

We are now analysing all of the data for the performances and looking forward to publishing the results of the research soon.

This project was supported by the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts – Nesta, Arts & Humanities Research Council and public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.