The Danger of Games in Improvisation

The difficulty I have with the “games” is how attached some people have become to them, especially in, of all fields, improvisation.

Games are often used to “warm up” and “loosen up” for improvisation performance. They are used a lot in training and workshops.

Let’s take a look at the process of play, which lies at the heart of improvisation.

In play, if a game is too structured, the variety and kind of play will become a function of the structure that play is hanging on, or being influenced by.

If a game is repeated there is at least a danger that only certain kinds of flow will emerge, also limiting the play. An invented game, spontaneously emerging from play, from a group process, can be a wonderful temporary and sudden change of direction for improvised play. But repeat that game in a way that is habitual, turning renewed rhythm into fixed repetition and the game becomes a weight on the lightness of playfulness. Structure supports but can also weight down.

Those playing may not be aware of the Nightingale’s cage they are now flying around in, playing within habitual boundaries.

According to the great Neva Boyd:

The vitality of the game lies in creative process of playing it . . . The discipline of making judgements, often instantaneously, and of acting upon them within a static frame of reference, i.e. the verbalized rules, is unique to the playing of games. While the game is an imaginatively set up structure into which the players project themselves psychologically, they act consistently with the demands of the situation, and thereby subject themselves to the self imposed discipline, which involves many aspects of social behaviuor. (Neva L. Boyd, Handbook of Traditional Games, H. T. Fitzsimmons Company, Chicago, 1945)

This gets to the heart of games in improvisation, in a workshop or a performance context. Structure supports. We can enter a relative improvisational state and get very close to pure flow. Entertainment and engagement become emergent properties of these structure-supported flow states as the players dive in with varying degrees of bodily and psychological commitment. But structure also has weight. This is the very weight that sometimes earths the play to heavily. Repeat this once too often and that repetition can become a rusting structure. Make those structures too elaborate and complex, and their become even weightier. What is the “one less thing to do” that Harrison Owen entreats us all to look for is ever-repeated audience participation? Or ever-repeated game structures? What happens when we stop improvising the play structures themselves?

Games are better when they are simple. Simple toys with archetypal shapes can become entire worlds in the imagination of a child. Give it a Star Wars lego kit and, having followed the instructions, the child will often turn to the box and play with that because it is more interesting! Complex games can become virtual worlds for play (you can find them online) yet even the improvisation within that complexity often has a hidden rooted simplicity and “essence”.

Games, when they become, “format”, start to format the flow; and formatted flow is not improvisation.

So, play games. Indeed – just play. But improvise even that form and the format. Improvise the improvisation. Play archetypally and essentially.

Drop dogmatic notions of status, if only because they are repeated notions. Let the play fall into glorious failure, embarrassing silence and glorious surprise. Forget the “laws” if only to discover them anew.

Let improvisation breathe in ways other than laugh-chasing speediness.

Improvise your improvisation.

Improvisation isn’t about anything until you improvise. You can only really look back on it with delight or horror.

Stop making improvisation into something, in advance of the emerging whatever.

So, I mentioned all this to a well established “improv” performer in my home city of Brighton. Yeah, yeah, yeah, she said. Interesting, she said. But we can’t take the risk!

And that’s the nub of the issue from the point of view of commercially focused improvisers. This same point came up at the recent open space conference in the UK “What shall we do about improvisation” organised in London by Improbable’s Devoted and Disgruntled. Comedy improv is money. Comedy improv is part of the commercial comedy circuit and we cannot risk our show or, indeed, even one skit from our show, bombing – dying on stage. It all as to work. So many comedy improv performers have evolved formulae and recipes for zero or low risk discuss. We “fix” things just enough in advance to ensure that the laughs flow into further box office bookings. It sounds like I am being cynical and, even if I am, I also do understand the world of performed live comedy. It’s tough out there, and the risks are high and there’s a lot of competition. The consequences of a scene dying on stage too often because we decided to truly experiment and let the whatever flow in the moment, could be commercially dire for a company. So, in the “market”, the games are used to warm us up, not only to some kind of diluted improvisation, but also to ensure the show is a safe bet. And why not, if it gets people laughing and punters paying?

So, at the level of commercial comedy, improv is part of a game that includes stand-up and sketch comedy, clowning and comedy theatre. The level of scriptedness is always at least somewhere above zero because the risks of failure are too great. But it does create the paradox at the heart of this article – that real improvisation is rendered taboo.

And yet, in comedy, there are stand-up comedy performers, (few I admit) who improvise on the night. And there are some long-form improvisers such as Katy and Rach in the UK who come a lot closer to real improvisation. But it is rare.

I think the issue is this: by mainstreaming practice that essential seems to root from a commercial model, a lot of improv training has been kind of infected by that model. Improv games become mainstreamed, not to encourage pure improvisational flow, but, instead, versions of safer, live, performed, comedy improvisation. And this has largely happened in fields such as applied improvisation – where improvisation practices are used in business and organisational training and consultancy. The “games”, derived largely from the improv comedy industry are too safe, self-limiting, and ultimately sell the clients short.

Games can be keys that open doors into possibility and play. But they must never becoming the rooms themselves. When games become repetitive, directive structures, the possibility becomes defined by game structure – limited and shaped. Those in the structure can quickly confuse the defined play space with the wider universe of possibility. Then we lose improvisation to a variability limited by the parameters of the game.

And that isn’t improvisation – it is a tragedy.

Want to read more? There’s a companion post to this here – here:

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8 thoughts on “The Danger of Games in Improvisation

  1. Thank you! You have articulated wonderfully what I’ve been feeling lately. Though games are helpful to provide structure, if we lean too heavily toward being successful it shifts us off the true purpose of improvisation–to discover and explore the unknown,

  2. So true! Appreciate the improv that happens , games are a starting point. Take a risk, let yourself and other players find something they didn’t know they had.

  3. Hi Paul, thanks for the post. Definitely a good conversation to be having. I think the “danger” in games is a good thing, because as improvisers we know, that games can be beneficial to teams and organizations. The tension between dangers and benefits is one that we have to, and can, monitor and adjust by adjusting the game itself. And we can do it more quickly and nimbly than, let’s say, a consultancy using less playful means of helping its clients implement go-to-market strategies. The danger of games, as you point out in your post, is not in games themselves, it’s the idea that games are a finite and fixed vocabulary. As a teacher of mine says, “Don’t look for THE Game. Look for A Game.” When it comes to the use of games in a business, or applied setting, I have three ideas to add: 1) There’s a far more insidious movement in the marketplace than improvisers who let their games get too dogmatic. It’s “gamification.” As improvisers, it seems to me we ought to be unified in aggressively differentiating what we do, which focuses on heads-up communication, and what “gamifiers” do, which is to to define games as “computer games,” by definition heads-down activities conducted at a distance. Jane McGonigal, the Joan d’Arc of gamification, has often been quoted as saying that if people could spend two more hours a day playing (serious) computer games, we could solve the world’s problems. WRONG! Heads-down gaming is a form of pacification. To prove this, one only has to conduct a simple thought experiment using McGonigal’s game, “World Without Oil,” and applying the question, “How many members of the Saudi Royal Family, the Walker/Prescott/Bush cabal, or the C-level oil company execs played that game?” Until they do, that game has zero real world impact. 2) Game is a useful construct for business, because, in my experience, most executives and managers will acknowledge that there is ALWAYS a game. This acknowledgement sets the stage for a discussion about productive vs. unproductive games, which is where applied improvisers can bring valuable perspective and do the actual work. 3) Strategy emerges from play. By focusing the discussion on productive vs. unproductive games, applied improvisers can get ahead of the inevitable debates about different strategic approaches, which are highly subjective. This approach to “game before strategy” aligns strongly with the Agile Development and Lean Start Up movements, which are more about putting things (e.g. fast iterations of a product) into play and letting strategy emerge from the dialogic of the marketplace.

  4. Very important points! I agree that games sit well within applied improvisation if one condition is met: that the applied improviser improvises both game choice and game delivery. They have to meet it anew. It is hard to repeat and get meet with freshness and new-page-ness. I’ve met many applied improvisers who agree that is important but I can count the number who walk that talk on one hand!

  5. I agree completely with Michael. I also draw a distinction between improv for audiences and improv for the classroom or for skills development. Games (particularly Spolin’s) focus on skills, but also add some protection so that learners don’t fail (it’s dispiriting to fail when learning – how many people quit tennis in despair because they can’t play at all in the beginning). I have taught and created curriculum for high school students for 40 years, playing games with rules has repeatedly helped students to grasp what improv is, what teamwork is, what listening is, etc. My program has trained over 40,000 students from every region of Canada using games/rules. As Michael said, do it enough and the skills become second nature. The world renowned “Harold” is just a fancy games with rules. After high school, our students who have acquired skills and who continue on in improv are soon able to do 30-60 minute “pure improvs” (with no rules whatsoever) because the games and the rules (like training wheels) helped them to develop the skill set to perform improv for paying audiences without having to play games.

    Willie Wyllie,
    Co-founder, Canadian Improv Games

  6. Thanks for another important post, Willie.

    It seems there is a question about the extent to which games (and their holding structures) prepare and enable people to later enter pure flow improvisational states, or whether they simply improve the ability to improvise relative to an earlier less improvisational state.

    I do wonder how we can know if another is in a pure improvisational flow state.

    I still feel that games possibly create structure-habit, even dependency and they take us to the door of pure improvisation but then they also erect a barrier for stepping through.

    Structure supports, but also weighs down.

    The games need to be archetypal because pure flow, flows through archetypes. They need to be simple, never habitual, always improvised even when repeated. It is vital we discover our games anew, as if for the first time, each time.

  7. “Structure-habit” is an awesome phrase, Paul. Instead of characterizing it as a bad habit, I think of it in terms of the question underlying your post: “What are our habits when it comes to structure?” our Structure-Habits? Do we impose structure too early in the process, so that the creative possibilities of play are lost? Are we hooked on certain game formats? Do we differentiate between the objectives of games and their outcomes? etc. etc. etc. Personally, I feel it’s equally legit for structure to emerge through play, and for play to be liberated within the constraints of structure. The critical question, which you’re getting at in this dialogue, is whether we can find the happy balance between institutionalized games (where most transactions happen) and emergent ones (where most new opportunities exist).

  8. I’d like to underline your superb comments here, as I’ve written a lot about emergent structure elsewhere.
    I love the notion that transient and temporary games arise out of improvisation. Structures can emerge and then dissipate. They can even endure for a long time if they renew authentically in the flow of pure improvisation.

    In a pure improvisational state structures emerge as a mystery. We look back on them with wonder.

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