Now Play This: what next?
About five years ago, we ran the very first Now Play This. It was a prototype festival, with games running in six rooms instead of ten, for three days instead of the nine we’ve built up to this year; but a lot of the principles we’ve tried to stick to for the last five years were there already. A lot of the core team was there already as well: me and George Buckenham on curation, Jo Summers and Sophie Sampson on production (they’ve been joined in more recent years by Nick Murray), and of course support from Somerset House and the London Games Festival and ACE.
We showed digital games and physical games and hybrid work and interactive art that didn’t generally position itself as a game, drawing parallels across types of play that might not usually sit next to each other. We commissioned new work. We brought together game makers and enthusiasts and families and a general arts audience. We behaved really hard as if nobody would be rude enough to question the part games play in culture, their status as a cultural form with strengths and trends and conventions; and we tried to make an event that could take this for granted, that could look at games and playful work in detail, pull out themes, examine experiments, without having to waste time and attention going “actually games are super interesting did you ever think about THAT”.
None of this was unprecedented, of course! There are festivals and exhibitions and events all over the world doing this work, bit by bit, year by year. But it was unusual, and it was all important to us.
And now five years later, we’ve run five festivals! We’ve shown hundreds of games to thousands and thousands of visitors; we’ve commissioned twenty or thirty entirely new pieces; we’ve experimented with talks and conferences and hanging-out spaces for people who are already interested in making games, we’ve found different approaches to making playful work legible to general audiences.
And we’re looking for a new director to figure out what happens next.
I’m writing this because a lot of people, when I’ve told them I’m stepping down, have asked why in a slightly shocked tone. So here’s why!
It’s good for Now Play This. Five years is pretty young, but games festivals don’t tend to last very long: something breaks, whether that’s a venue’s interest, or a funder’s ability to support the event, or the team’s energy. There are exceptions: maybe a director who dedicates themselves entirely to the festival, maybe an academic context that supports a long-term team. But if I think that Now Play This is important - and of course I do; if I didn’t, I would have been WAY less stressed over the past five years - then I have to want it to be able to exist without being tied to any particular individual. So we’ve been building a board (chaired by Hilary O’Shaugnessy, of the Pervasive Media Studio), and we’re gonna try appointing a new director now, at a point when a lot of the team is still around and can support the transition (including me and George from the board). In doing this we’re going to try to make Now Play This an independent entity that can hopefully keep up its momentum and keep going even if, another five years down the road, none of the original team are still there.
Plus: honestly it’s hard to develop radically new ideas for a festival when you’ve got the fundamentals pretty much working, and all your attention is going into “write this funding application” and “finalise the commissions for this year” and “get all the curatorial text written” and all the other day-to-day work. I don’t think I’ve been replenishing my stock of things I’d really like to do in a festival context at the same rate that we’ve been getting through them! So a new director will have, you know: new ideas, new networks, new ambitions, new possibilities, new pet obsessions and aversions, just a chance to do new things.
It’s good for me. We've never got to the end of Now Play This and gone “great, that was PERFECT, couldn’t do it better”: there’s always stuff that didn’t quite work, or things that were too rushed, or ideas of what we might be able to do if we magically had double the budget. But a lot of the stuff I really cared about when we started it, the ideas I was eager to test out? We’ve done ‘em! The games I came into the festival desperately wanting to show to more people? Well, we haven’t shown all of them, but we’ve got through a pretty decent wodge.
So now I’m going to have more time to do other work: more writing, perhaps different types of curation (a one or two room exhibition that stays as it is for a month? One-off evening events with a much narrower focus? Dunno! Maybe!)
Hopefully, it’ll be good for the new director. There still aren’t that many contexts that allow curators of games to try out interesting things - and even fewer that have a venue like Somerset House on board, or a funder like the London Games Festival that’s provided consistent and predictable support over five years; or a production team as experienced as ours; or support from other funders like ACE and the British Council and Ukie, which has allowed us to commission new work and bring artists over and expand our running time and just generally keep being ambitious. I think directing Now Play This is a super exciting opportunity for someone to take on, and I hope we find someone to do it who also thinks so.
I’m not gonna list everything I’m proud of us for doing over the last five years, because honestly this is already a pretty long post, but here are a few of them: we’ve paid at least an honorarium to all the artists we’ve shown. We’ve paid our facilitators. We’ve shown work without requiring the artist who made it to attend, which should be more common at games events. We’ve got visitors making games at the festival itself. We’ve shown work from people who got interested in making games by coming to Now Play This, who went home and made something and then submitted it to next year’s festival. We’ve shown big free outdoor stuff; we’ve kept pushing on things we’ve found difficult (like showing slower, quieter games, or putting work in the enormous Edmond J Safra Fountain Court) and found new solutions. We’ve hired a whole bunch of trees.
If you showed work at Now Play This, or sent it in for the open call, or helped us think through our plans or took photos or designed logos or laid out print or stuck placards on walls or moved boxes or explained games for the hundredth time to visitors, or if you came along and played: thank you! I love the festival and all the people who make it happen so much, and I am so excited to see where it goes in the future!