Play Journal: Playpublik 2014

by Thom Kiraly

With this Play Journal entry, I’m aaaalmost up to date with the present. At least in terms of what I’ve played recently. Another post, summarizing October, is coming shortly.
I’m not sure I’ve caught up to the present in any other terms. In fact, I suspect I actually exist in an entirely different timeline, flickering in and out of existence without even knowing it. This may be true for anyone reading this as well.

It’s probably nothing to be worried about… Silly me. On to the journal!

Playpublik 2014 – I missed the 2012 Playpublik and last year no Playpublik happened, so I was excited to attend this year’s edition of the public play festival. This time, Invisible Playground (who you might remember from my Roskilde adventures last year) collaborated with the Goethe Institute to bring Playpublik to Kraków. I submitted A Drift and was invited to come play, speak and be part of the festival. It was truly a pleasure and an honor.

I arrived a day early (Thursday) and had a chance to check out Kraków as well as the No Pain No Game exhibition at the same venue as the festival HQ (more about that exhibition later). Being used to Swedish/Danish prices, I treated myself to some local food and was much pleased indeed. Caramelized onion; why is it not part of every meal?

On Friday (Oct 3), I participated in a walking talk about landscapes/cities and bodies. What’s a walking talk, you say? Well, a walking talk is a ambulant panel discussion using silent disco technology to broadcast the speakers’ voices to everyone tuned to the right channel. So, we basically walked through Kraków while talking about bodies and cities, spaces and play. It was great. I’m happy so many people showed up and took part, and I’m happy the other panelists were so well-spoken. I was going to follow the panel with some night session games, but ended up going for a lovely meal with great conversations. Je ne regrette rien!

Saturday was showtime and I ran A Drift twice: once at 10 am and once at 7 pm (i.e. after dark, a first for A Drift).
The first run went well. We started out exploring the area around festival HQ, but quickly drifted farther away. We visited a store and stared at hot dogs turning and turning and turning. We ran around on benches and through a park. Towards the end of the session, we ended up drifting into town and across two squares. At the first, a sort of safety demonstration/family day was held by emergency services. We walked backwards through the crowd, waving at them as we left the square. The second square was Kraków’s main square, which meant there were a lot of people (tourists) around. The group became much more focused on performing when more people were around. I don’t think this was entirely negative, it just hasn’t happened before. We became part of wedding photos, sat down in an arched passage, and held hands in the middle of the one of Europe’s oldest marketplaces.

The second run of A Drift was the first ever to take place after dark and I think this changed the mood a little bit. More stores and buildings were closed and the people moving in or through town were doing it for other reasons than the ones we had encountered earlier in the day. The most spectacular thing that happened was probably one player led the group on board one of the trams that travel through town. None of us had tickets and there was some hesitation, but everyone got on and luckily no ticket inspector was in sight. Instead, we used the bars usually reserved for holding on to in sharp turns as monkeybars and swung and climbed on them until the next stop, where we got off.

All in all, I didn’t play much else at Playpublik. I was too busy just organizing my own game and preparing (cleaning earbuds between games) to have the time or energy to get involved. At the Saturday night party, however, I did get the chance to play a game heartily recommended to me by a friend: Baking With Friends. It’s a crazy game using the constraints of the Kinect and Oculus Rift beautifully. You stand in a kitchen. You try to bake a cake. Your arms are basically sticks. You end up with a hotdog (at least I did).

The last thing I want to do before leaving the topic of Playpublik is to give a shoutout to Invisible Playground for the amazing job of putting together a festival that really tried to open up spaces and invite the general public to play. Augustina Woodgate, who brought her Mega Hopscotch to Playpublik, also deserves recognition. The hopscotch is a collaborative street painting project and goes on for as long as people keep painting. I think the Kraków one ended up at 1100 squares, disappearing and reappearing around the city centre. It was probably the most visible presence Playpublik had in Kraków and helped communicate the festival’s good-natured intentions.

No Pain, No Game exhibition – As I mentioned above, the venue hosting the Playpublik festival also exhibited a collection of truly strange and interesting games. All of them were interesting but two stand out.

The first game that left a mark (literally) was the dreaded, the legendary Painstation. I had read about this and heard about it. It’s studied as a fringe example of game design and whispered about in underground government research labs (maybe). And there it was. I was lucky to meet someone who was up for the challenge and I completely wussed out sooner than I would have wanted to. I blame the first electrical shock, which caught me off guard and had me retracting my hand before realizing I was about to lose. But, seriously, the whip. The whip is pure pain.

The second game I was utterly fascinated by was a pinball machine. Now, a pinball machine may not sound like such a big deal (though some machines are), but this was no ordinary pinball machine. No, this was an elevated pinball machine that you stuck your head up into to play. Your view is from right behind the bumpers, so you’re actually looking up and across the machine, trying to time your shots as the ball comes at you. Also, the buttons controlling the bumpers are actual triggers attached to something that looks like a weaponized spacecraft’s steering handles. I could have played that all day.