Tag Archives: Sleep No More

Playing With the Past, Part Two: Magic Circles and Interaction Alibis

The previous post tried to posit a set of characteristics of good cultural experiences. It’s a personal, idiosyncratic, and obviously incomplete list, but I meant it to serve as the beginning of the answer to the question of what gaming can teach us about making better cultural heritage experiences. Given what we know about play, games, and learning, what can we pull out of the mass of research? For me, the two biggest tools I’ve come across are the concepts of the magic circle and the interaction alibi. These (and so much more) were introduced to me at the Alibis for Interaction masterclass and subsequent conversations with Johanna Koljonen. I wrote about this previously, and still consider it the best one day professional development event I’ve been to in years. It’s mind-expanding and genre-crossing in so many good ways. For me, it connected ideas that I’d associated only with game design to a larger realm of practice. These ideas have caused me to reframe a lot of what I thought I knew about museum experience design, and their potential in the heritage sector is vast, and as yet largely untapped methinks. So, what are they and who uses them well?

Magic Circles

I’ve referred to the magic circle a few times, but I’ve held off defining it until now.  The term goes back to Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens where he uses the words “magic circle” in a list of special places where play occurs.

“All play moves and has its being within a play-ground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course. Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the “consecrated spot” cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground. The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc., are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. Forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.”

– Huizinga 1938

It owes its current vogue though to Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, who wrote “To play a game means entering into a magic circle, or perhaps creating one as a game begins.” In their 2003 book, Rules of Play: Fundamentals of Game Design. Since then, it’s become a foundational concept of game design, and has its own sub-literature devoted to critiquing or defending the idea. What Salen and Zimmerman meant by “magic circle” was the idea that it is a boundary. On the outside is the world, and on the inside is the game. And when players cross that threshold, the rules change, norms change, and people’s roles and behaviors change. What is verboten or discouraged in the world can become acceptable inside the magic circle. The stereotypical quiet, meek person who turns into a cutthroat poker player is just one example of how play redefines the rules, or at least establishes a different set while the play is occurring.

What Koljonen and others showed me at Alibis was that the Magic Circle could be useful to heritage professionals as a way to see the visitor experience holistically. In the diagram below, even though the magic circle is in the center, the visitor’s journey starts long before they get to the magic circle of the thing you’re designing for them. Their journey is rooted in the larger cultural context of wherever they are and their particular personal experience. Along the way, they’ve picked up expectations about what is going to happen when they enter that magic circle. It is very easy to spend all of one’s time deciding what to do with visitors when they arrive at the entrance to your thing, but by then, they are already a long way into their journey, and you’ve lost opportunities to influence them.

Breaking Out-final

Johanna Koljonen’s diagram of the user experience of the magic circle.

When a person enters the magic circle, they change, and become “a player”. This role play involves explicit and implicit acceptance of new norms, rules, and relationships. The participants have agency that allows the experience to transform them. There are social affordances designed into the experience through rules, suggestions, and the physical environment. And most importantly, the thing that happens inside the magic circle is well defined. Have you ever accidentally played a game? Me neither. Have you ever wandered from one part of a museum to another and realized belatedly that you’ve entered another exhibition? Me too.

After they leave the circle, the person begins to reflect on it, and build their story about what happened, and turning it into a memory of the event. While I’ve been part of my share of projects that attempted to expand or deepen visitors pre- and post-visit engagement, the magic circle makes the whole journey seem more amenable to design than I ever thought it was. And it’s as applicable to the security line at the airport as it is to a game, or a cultural heritage site.

What might this look like at a museum? I am reminded of a conversation I had with Ben Gammon back when dinosaurs ruled the Earth (or maybe it was the mid ’90s). Anyway, the Science Museum, London’s leadership commissioned a study to explore how visitors navigated to get from one gallery to another. Their interest was in the galleries, but what they found was that of the two hours the average visitor spent “in the museum”, 60% of that time was spent just getting around, getting lost, going to eat or pee, visiting the shop. And the part the staff had focused tremendous effort into creating was the remaining 40%. They realized that they needed to expand the scope of what the visitor experience was and devote the same kind of effort to the 60% that had been going into the 40%.

Interaction Alibis


The classic example of an interaction alibi: Twister. By Flickr user oks20i CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Interaction Alibi: A rule, object, or change of state that allows a human to interact. This idea is central to designing for participation.  An alibi might be a role, a rule, a narrative, a game, a mask, an instruction, an introduction. An interaction alibi helps you understand what you’re expected to do, feel safe trying something new, and trust that the outcome will be worth your time.

An alibi is an excuse to perform an act and an action of some kind without fear of the consequences without fear of social punishment. If you as a experience designer want somebody to try something new, or do something scary like interacting with people don’t know, giving them an alibi is an explicit way of giving them permission to be someone else. Getting tangled up in knots with other people is usually frowned on, but if you’re playing Twister, then it’s expected and the transgression of invading someone else’s personal space is forgiven because it’s part of the game. Interaction alibis are a way of overcoming the embarrassment that keeps adult humans from acting in ways that might draw unwanted attention to them. Screaming is generally frowned upon public behavior, but if you’re at a music festival or sporting event, it’s understood to be OK and you can scream til you’re hoarse. Demonstrating how bad a singer you are? Not OK, unless you’re at a karaoke bar where everybody is doing it. Thank goodness…


Greg and me, leaving it all on the floor at karaoke. CC BY 4.0

So alibis are an important tool to provoke playfulness – especially among adults who have been socialized out of playing. Sebastian Deterding explains in “Alibis for Adult Play,” “…the most obvious motivation for play—autotelic enjoyment— also sits in most direct tension with adult identity. To account for their play, adults therefore regularly resort to alibis, motivational accounts that deflect negative inference from their play behavior to their character. Adults account for play as serving their adult responsibilities”. I’ve seen this countless times, particularly at science centers, where adults will excuse their playing with the exhibits as something they did to help the children they were with. Or at Sleep No More, where the masks they give guests anonymize them and make the audience seem (and feel) like ghosts. With all the freedom that entails, for good or ill.


Souvenirs of Sleep No More. CC-BY 4.0

And to bring this back to playing, the interaction alibi can be playing. By adopting a playful or gameful mindset and experience design approach, we can create that alibi that gives people permission to do something they mightn’t do otherwise. And it’s I think an important distinction here that you enable people to do something theywant. This is not about manipulating people to do something they don’t want. There’s enough of that in the world, thank you very much, and we don’t need to play along (pun intended).

To sum up, play helps perceive things from alternative angles and in different light. It helps us engage with our surroundings in a new way as we perceive and break norms and routines. In a playful state of mind, we can not only see the adventures that surround us, but we feel safe, possibly even too safe, to take that plunge. Play and games serve as an alibi: as they are perceived as being somehow less, we can get away with more. And finally, playing together we can create new and surprising social worlds that, as long as we all keep playing along, are as real as any other world.

– Stenros 2015

So in the context of an art museum, let’s say, what kind of alibis could you make to help create the kind of space where people feel that their presence is welcomed and they feel confident that if they look at something they don’t understand, they can approach it with curiosity and openness, instead of “the art museum pose”. The best example I know of is still the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, Tasmania. I visited MONA several years ago when it first opened, but I’ve yet to see it’s equal since. The alibi that the museum’s creator provides is a complete lack of wall text, and a mobile content delivery device to every visitor that asks you whether you love, hate, or feel nothing about any object you inquire about.

Magic circles and alibis in practice – immersive theatre and Nordic larp

The final posts in this series will look at challenges and opportunities around cultural heritage organizations working with game designers. First, though, I want to expand the idea of “game designer” to include add two very different new kinds of “play” that really excel at creating magic circles and providing clear alibis for interaction: immersive theatre and the Nordic variety of live action role play, or larp.

Immersive Theatre

As opposed to traditional theatre, with players on stage and an audience in their seats, immersive theater is a performance form that emphasizes the importance of a specific designed space that both the cast and audience inhabit. Stephen Eckert’s piece in Contemporary Performanceis a great starting place to learn more about it. Immersive theatre creates lush, tactile sensual environments that become both the setting for group experience and diverse individual audience experiences. No longer confined to seat, the audience is free to explore the space of the performance, players and audience mingling and often interacting. Immersive theatre creates a story world where the performance of the actors, though central, is not the only means of conveying the narrative. Sets contain hints and clues, bits of backstory, and additional information that can profoundly influence a given audience member’s understanding of the performance. It is both social and deeply intimate. Punchdrunk UK’s Sleep No More is the poster child for the form, but is only one example of a growing trend. In a world where so much of what we do is mediated through flat pieces of clear glass, immersive theatre offers an opportunity for audiences to exist in their bodies in actual locations and encounter expansive, multi sensory, and visceral stimuli.

Nordic Larp

Live action role playing, or larping, like so much else that use the words “role playing”, traces its origins back to creation of the Dungeons and Dragons role playing game in 1974 and its successors like Vampire: The Masquerade. In the Nordic regions, with their long tradition of community-supported self-programming youth groups, a new kind of role play grew and expanded, taking the idea of players taking on roles and collaboratively creating a fiction together, and fusing it with the social, community-based experience of summer camp. In Nordic larp there is no audience, only players. As Stenros and Montola explain, “Larps are created for a first person audience, for players relating to the fictional world from the first person perspective of a fictional character. As such, they are almost impossible to truly comprehend from the outside, looking in.” Their massive 2010 book Nordic Larp presents highlights from the first fifteen years of Nordic Larp, and tries to impose some kind of order on what is at best a loose coalition of mostly like-minded communities of players.

One of the many features of Nordic that interest me is the way the form has developed to tackle incredibly diverse and delicate subjects, which Stenros and Montola directly attribute to the power of the alibi, “the playful nature of humour, theatre and games lends a social alibi for pushing the boundaries of what is tolerated.” Recreate a Norwegian fishing village in 1942 to play out life under the German occupation? Sure. Use a decommissioned submarine as the setting for a Battlestar Galactica-esque science fiction larp? Already done.  Larp designers have explored what it would be like live through the events in Hamlet, the aftermath of a nuclear attack in a shelter, the early days of the AIDS crisis, and the plight of refugees. There is a fearlessness to Nordic larp that I find appealing. It’s lack of commercial viability is an asset, as Stenros and Montola point out, “this commitment to expert amateurism allows authors to realize their visions without compromises, freely tackling mature themes and adult content… without concerns of offending the mainstream, and themes such as political apathy, heteronormativity and immigration policy can be addressed without watering them down.”

Immersive theatre and larp both ask a lot more of participants than the traditional heritage tour, and may seem like media that have little to offer cultural heritage, but I think they both offer unusual ways to bring together interested people to interact with a narrative in powerful ways. And added to the rich stew of thinking, design, and products coming out of the gaming industry, there’s a lot to look at with a critical but hopeful eye.

To wrap up, we’ll look at some of the challenges and opportunities of collaboration between cultural heritage and gaming.

12 March 2018 UPDATE: Mea culpa time. I neglected to properly credit Johanna Koljonen for her crucial work on magic circles and interaction alibis. I’ve gone back and pointed out that debt. I’ll also take this opportunity to formally thank Lizzie Stark for recommending the Alibis event in the first place. So much reading and learning has happened as a result of one pretty casual conversation. 

Immersive theatre, part two

As follow-up to my post on theatre, I finally rescheduled a Google+ Hangout to try to unpack Sleep No More and look forward to exploring it with other attendees.

I also got an exciting email from my old friend and former colleague Catherine Hughes. Catherine started the Museum of Science’s Science Theater department back in the day, and is now the Project Director of Meet the Past at the Atlanta History Center in Georgia. Her book, Museum Theatre: Communicating with Visitors Through Drama, is a good place to learn about museum theatre in general. Here’s the scoop from Atlanta, which she kindly allowed me to post,

 I read your piece on immersive theatre and thought I’d share the most recent project I’ve directed, a fully participatory play called Four Days of Fury, which opens tonight. We’ve gotten lots of good feedback (see this and this) so far from the press opening. Fingers crossed, regular audience will feel the same. It feels like we’ve managed to do something new for a museum.

We’ve sold out each performance and are attracting a far more diverse group and having these incredible dialogues following each show. People are talking about difficult issues, race and fear, in an open forum with strangers! We’ve had the head of the Georgia Council for Humanities and the director of the Office of Cultural Affairs for Atlanta attend. We have three shows today and then next weekend. Whew. We are emailing a post-show survey to all who give us their email (we’re asking everyone) for the evaluation. Fingers crossed we get more than the usual 5% response.

So, stay tuned for details!

On immersion, theatre, and museums

Souvenirs of Sleep No More

Souvenirs of Sleep No More

Over the Christmas holiday, my lovely and talented wife and I went down to New York City for a few days to see friends and go to the theatre. I had been meaning to see Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, an immersive, participatory theatre experience that had run in Boston for months without us going, and had almost completed its New York run. Seb Chan had written a longish piece about his experience months ago, and several friends who opinions I value had raved about it. I’ve been thinking and writing a lot lately on alternate models for developing exhibitions and it sounded like a model worth exploring to see how it might inform what I do.

So, with high hopes for an “aha” moment, Jennifer, a friend and I walked up to the McKittrick Hotel on West 27th and got in line. Three hours later, we were discharged onto the street; tired, conflicted and unsure of what we’d seen and done. Weeks later, I’m still not sure whether I liked it or not, but I’d still probably go back and see it again. That is a first for me as a theatregoer. And I still recommend it to museum people. I’m hoping to convene an online discussion amongst a group of folks who’ve seen it to help me process what the experience was like. There might even be a conference session in there… We’ll see.

So, what happened when we went to Sleep No More and how might it apply to museums?

What is it?

For those of you who are coming at this fresh, Sleep No More is a theatrical experience (not a play, per se) that combines elements of Macbeth, film noir, and uses an abandoned hotel as the setting. The audience are all given white masks and instructed to remain completely silent throughotut the performance. Actors move about the hotel, up and down stairs, and scenes take place throughout the builidng over the course of a night. The performances build to a climax, but aside from that, you don’t really get any guidance on how to experience the night. Some people follow actors, some camp out in a space, all of which are extensively decorated and full of objects that reflect something about the plot. You can rummage around in desk drawers, open doors and wander as the events play out around you. Parties are encouraged to split up, and while I was there, I saw a couple actively separated by ushers and deposited on different floors as we rode the elevator up. Definitely not your typical night at the theatre.

Our night started with us handing in our tickets and getting playing cards in return; two kings and a queen. We were ushered into a nightclub with a 1930s vibe and waited for the event to begin. We also got masks. Before long, everyone in the club with a queen card was called and ushered out of the room. After a few more minutes, they called the kings and off we went. Jen had been in the bathroom when the queens were called, so she managed to stay with us as we crowded around an actor in evening wear who gave us an orientation.

Getting lost in a play

I’m a big fan of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series of novels, which imagines an alternate Britain where it’s possible to enter the storyworlds of books. Being in Sleep No More is very much like the theatrical equivalent, only you’re a ghost. We wandered through a series of rooms dressed as offices, taxidermy shop, a 1920s witch’s lab (?) and a creepy bedroom full of dimembered dolls. I looked under curtains, inside desks, and around corners. It was fascinating to feel the freedom to go wherever I wanted. And I wanted everything to tell me the story. I picked up every phone I saw on the off chance there might be somebody else on the line. Along with all the other ghosts, I flitted around, looking for signs of life. As we got deeper into the hotel, we started to encounter actors silently moving about, casting meaningful glances at one another, and interacting, sometimes violently. I knew enough to want to know who I was seeing. Is that guy Macbeth? Who’ s the pregnant woman? Are those two lovers? It was a bit maddening to have the actors standing right in front of you and not know who they were and what they were doing. The actors don’t speak, all the action is done through gesture and dance. The only sounds are a powerful ambient soundtrack piped throughout the hotel and the sounds of people moving.

We watched several quick scenes happen and were immediately faced with a decision point. When the actors left at the end of a scene, you as an ausience member had to choose how to react. Do I follow Actor A? B? Stay here? Or wander? Nothing about the scenes gave me a sense of how to make an informed decision. It seems like the creators wanted to keep the audience off-guard and on their toes throughout the whole event. This became a theme of the evening for me; feeling like I was having to make decisions based on no information. I didn’t like it. It made wandering around a high-stakes affair. Was I leaving someplace where something was going to happen in a moment? What if this actor I was following was a bit player and not one of the main characters? I did manage to find a couple of of pivotal scenes; Macbeth murdering the king and Lady Macbeth’s “out, out damned spot” bit. But by the time the finale rolled around, I still had no sense who most of the characters were, or what their relationships to each other were.

Immersion, immersion, immersion

The set design was incredible. Whole rooms full of intrguing, evocative objects, a nightime forest, a graveyard. And all in a black-box theatre! I loved being able to really get into each space, root around, and interact with the environment. And for the scenes I did stumble into, it was very powerful to have actors performing a scene all around you as if you weren’t there. And on the occasions when an actor would suddenly lock eyes onto an audience member and stare them down? Powerful, powerful stuff. The one time it happened to me I kept saying to myself, “Please don’t let her drag me off through some unmarked door!” Not the relationship I usually have with actors in the midst of a performance. Being able to be that close made it a very different experience, more like modern dance or performance art.

Losing the story, or not finding it

After it was over, we spent a long time talking about theatre, and inevitably comparing Sleep No More to other shows. One of my favorite theatre experiences of the past decade was seeing Elevator Repair Service‘s Gatz, which is a verbatim recitation of “The Great Gatsby” done as a play within a play. Though it’s a slender book, when you read every word, it still takes seven hours, or in our case, two stints of 3.5 hours with dinner in the middle. Going into it, I thought I might be making a terrible mistake. But at the end of seven hours when the narrator finally said, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”, the house erupted into deafening applause. As the cast were taking their bows, Jennifer leaned over and said she wished they’d lower a picture of F. Scott Fitzgerald, because we were really applauding him. And she was right. His prose, so easy to read, turned out to be as easy to speak. The story was so compelling that seven hours flew by, in a way they didn’t at Sleep No More, though I worked much harder to try to put a story together.

At the time I wondered if knowing as much as I did about Sleep No More had interfered with my ability to suspend my disbelief. If I was coming at it fresher, would it have made more sense to me, been more moving? My friend, who knew nothing, felt the opposite. As we sat over drinks, recapping the night, it seemed clear that none of the three of us had a clear grip on the plot. Jennifer and I argued over which bits might be from scenes we rembmered from Macbeth and Peggy just felt lost.

…and the museum connection?

In some of my more recent posts, I’ve started trying to work out a different model of exhibition development than the one I learned of objects in cases and texts and graphics. Sleep No More seemed like a potential example of how to make the kind of exhibit experiences I’d proposed as part of the Making a Museum from Scratch series. It’s opaque, it’s participatory, it offers its users tremendous freedom to construct their own experience. But I left it profoundly conflicted over whether I’d had a meaningful experience or not. I’m still not really sure. But I have come to some preliminary conclusions about the night and what it mean mean for how I might conceive of exhibitions in the future.

The solo thing isn’t for me

The masks and enforced silence really rubbed me the wrong way. I didn’t go to the theatre to be alone. Going to a museum is a social event by and large, and I don’t think making it a solitary experience would engender much goodwill from our public. In some ways, the whole faceless silent ghost thing reminded me of watching live streams on my computer, where there was something happening in the real world that I was spying on though the Internet.

Nothing immerses like complete immersion

Duh. But it’s something we do very rarely. It’s expensive. It’s hard. It takes a lot of work to make it “real”. But when it works, wow!

Interactions with people are more satisfying

Strangely enough, the one museum-like experience I could think of to compare Sleep No More to was visitng a living history site, like Plimoth Plantation. The difference, of course, is that the interpreters at Plimoth interact with you, and are brilliant at immersing you in their world.  Someday, I’ll write up the story of the strange afternoon I spent at Plimoth with a bunch of Soviet rocket scientists…

Being able to find a way in, out and about is key

Getting lost can be fun when the stakes are low, but when your enjoyment relies on being able to get around, it’s not nice to feel lost. I felt that too often in Sleep No More. I tend not to like exhibitions that channel you down one path from room to room, but I also don’t like feeling abandoned in a space. Unlike a storyworld game like Myst, where my action drove the narrative, in Sleep No More it was happening on its own timetable and I’d better keep up. Sink or swim doesn’t seem like a workable mindset for an enjoyable exhibition experience.

Story is king

Sure its a hoary old chestnut, but it’s truth is undimished by how it often its been repeated. Why did plain old Gatz keep me glued to my seat for seven hours while Sleep No More couldn’t hold me for half that time? The story. My main takeaway from the night might be that no amount of innovation and technical proficiency can overcome a weak story. The museum implications of this are obvious, I think. It doesn’t matter how cool your interface is if the content in your CMS is rotten, or incomplete, or just boring. Same for your exhibition, program, or event.


I’m sure there are others that will continue to bubble up to the surface. I’m looking forward to talking to others who’ve seen it. After that happens, I’ll add a postscript with whatever interesting thoughts come out of the discussion. If you’ve been, I’d love to hear what you thought of Sleep No More.