We called it earth

A Collective Participatory Game Project

Once upon a time we called it _______...

We Called It Earth is a participatory, digital platformer game that simultaneously creates the world it explores. Rejecting the myth of self-authorship, the avatar of this game is a black hole with a profusion of unruly limbs controlled by multiple players. Participation also occurs online, where a new planetary mythology is co-authored, and appears on a projected screen to fill in the barren landscape and help the avatar on its way. In this messy, playful, and often deadly quest to bind the wounds of a shattered planet, a formless and emancipated collective writes the story of a new world forged by relationships rather than individuals. 

 Visitors are encouraged to bring a well-charged mobile phone into the theatre. 

Research Supervisor: Nishant Shah

External Mentors: Souvik Mukherjee, Sonia Fizek

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The invitation

Outside the theatre, I greeted participants and introduced myself as their ‘host’ for the evening. I prepared them for an adventure by telling a small story of how the Earth had exploded into a million pieces due to ‘the Separation’, but now things were trying to come back together and had formed an entity that wanted to make a new world for itself. I told participants that they were the body and mind of this entity, and that the body could be controlled using the four game controllers they would find inside. I also mentioned that if they had never used a game controller before, they should just mash buttons until they got the hang of it. I made sure everyone had a mobile device and a wifi login (I provided these if participants did not have them), and distributed a QR code, telling them to follow the instructions on the website it took them to. In addition to these instructions, I added three rules for the space:

  1.  This is not a theatre—this is a game. Speak up, walk around, have fun!

  2. Be supportive. Rules can be hard to figure out, especially in the beginning. Offer help if you can and kindness if you can’t.

  3.  Keep an eye out for wires on the floor.

Finally, I told participants they would only have 40 minutes, but that they should not rush. I would move them ahead, if necessary, so they could experience the whole piece. At that point, the doors of the theatre opened. 

photo by daz disley

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The new context

 

The lighting was dim inside the theatre, accented with bright, indirect colors similar to a video game arcade. Gentle choral music filled the space. Four lit white plinths stood in the center with a game controller on each, and a projected image of a translucent Earth took up the breadth and length of the far wall. As participants scanned the QR code on their phones, they were instructed to choose an emoji and fill in the blank “We Called It _______.” As they submitted their answers, their text appeared on the screen in colored rectangles. I requested that four participants step up to the plinths to take control of the avatar. Once they had accepted and pressed ‘x’ on all four controllers, level one began. 

photo by Fenia Kotsopoulou

video by daz disley

photos by Fenia Kotsopoulou

The simulation

 

Upbeat synthesizer music began to play. On the screen appeared a 2D platformer game. An avatar also appeared as a black hole with brightly colored lips, one chicken leg, one cat leg, bee wings and a human arm. Each game controller governed one mobility function (right leg, left leg, arm, and jump) and one expressive sound (singing, whistling, yawning, and growling). Participants had to collaborate to maneuver onto the platforms and avoid deadly hazards like exposed rebar and plastic bags. 

On their phones, participants were offered a series of emotion-based icons that allowed them to ‘send energy’. When tapped, these would appear on screen above the avatar before floating into space. At times, the avatar would collect a token that would switch control of each limb to a different game controller. It would also sometimes encounter chasms it could not cross. When this happened, a red button was pushed to activate the storytelling aspect of the game. The camera would shift away from the avatar and into the chasm, where a story fragment appeared. Online participants needed to fill in the chasm with their responses before the avatar could continue .

At the end of each level, a glowing Earth token was collected, cueing the words “Let’s Dance!” and playing dance music for one minute. To advance to the next level, all four controllers were required to press ‘x’ and the mobile phone participants had to send 50 energy points within 90 seconds.