The Humans of Waiting Rooms

Over the past month, I’ve participated in public-facing playtests of the latest Nathalie Pozzi and Eric Zimmerman installation game, Waiting Rooms at The Rubin Museum here in New York City. Unlike many games exhibited in museums, Waiting Rooms is a work in progress and barely substantiated by any sort of physical object, making it feel more like a performance piece than something you’d see in a typical games expo. In general, the game had players moving between rooms across the museum which had different rules of obtaining various currency, mainly pennies and tickets, in which they could use for the exit fees needed to leave rooms. As one could discern from the name, many of these rooms involved various forms of waiting, reminiscent of time spent in the many bureaucracies of life. I didn’t actually play the game (well, we’ll get to that) but you can get a writeup of a player’s experience over at Kill Screen since I’ll be talking about my thoughts and experience as an attendant who facilitated one of the rooms in the game. Overall, I found it one of the more interesting pieces they’ve done considering the landscape of games in galleries, an environment I see challenging experimentation with games to find if it’s just some fad or has a strong sense of purpose outside of entertainment products and turning life into a credit card reward program.

Among conversations I’ve had with curators who are interested in exhibiting games in galleries, few are satisfied by current methods of having visitors sit at computer terminals, consoles, or tables to play games as they would at home. For example, a person possibly won’t understand what’s interesting about Final Fantasy VII by attempting to play it from the beginning in a gallery setting. This is reminiscent of how art institutions had to adapt to a lot of contemporary art, particularly performance. And that a museum space acted as a slate for playtesting and the iterative process is particularly interesting. Despite what people took away as my opinion on playtesting, I do find playtesting an underused creative tool, that is, intentionally creating layers of a play experience that lie on top of each other like a palimpsest, each iteration of the game present in the final presentation, not wiped away with polish. This acts as a sort of psychic patina where the space play takes place holds all moments of time, separated by their tweaks and balances but showing a complete picture when a light shines through them. Often, older iterations are discarded, sometimes completely from public history, as there is this idea of a perfect, or near perfect, version of a game that you must strive towards and deliver as a product to consumers. It’s common in design fields to hear advice akin to “fail fast, fail often,” suggesting that you’re going to build something good on the corpses of the fallen. There’s something, then, at work when Waiting Rooms’ iterations were a public experience. Is this a method to show a 4-dimensional change of sorts, using the model of playtesting for expression and a main aspect of the experience rather than simply a tool? I’m interested in creating layers of play over our spaces used to witness change over time, or the use of contrast for some sort of affect. Potentially, a ‘game’ could be interpreted as a stack of these layers of play that reveal, obfuscate, and reinterpret space.

Yet not many people were in the position to see many of these changes and their possible effects on how the game went. In fact, players’ understanding of space were dominated by the constructed system of the game, central to many, if not all, formalists’ understanding of games. It is not uncommon to hear a phrase like “games are aesthetic forms of systems” when batting around affective qualities of the form. So when discussing Waiting Rooms, how it was changed, how it affected people, it all came around to a person’s experience with its system, where they followed and broke the rules, their behavior in response to the economics, what felt balanced versus what was missing that one felt entitled to after paying for such an experience. Yet systems are not just made up by rules in this game, but also by people. If there were just signs explaining what people had to do to move from room to room, the experience would be completely different; but even more importantly, it means that the people of this system were unintended participants in this experience since they weren’t just rule-dispensing or -substantiating robots. They brought with them their own feelings, attitudes towards bureaucracy, and without meaning to be significant, their bodies and identities. Meaning, different manifestations of these qualities would create a different experience for the attendants of the game despite this game, and all formalist games really, being about the experience of the player, not the system. At least, the idea of ‘experience’ is normally only interpreted as something ‘players’ can access. This privileging overlooks that systems, particularly of power, can exert themselves through people, or even the opposite, signal exertions of power from others. Can a game focused on players and not the entities that facilitate its connection to reality ever be honest?

As for my experience, I was an attendant for three iterations of Waiting Rooms, all of the ones performed at the museum and the only ones with my room present in the plans if I’m not mistaken. Upon entering my room, I would announce “Please be silent,” gesturing to a stanchion with the rules on it and telling people who spoke “There is no speaking in this room.” My instructions at first didn’t really give direction on how to say these things, and there was an option for me to read the rules to players instead of making them read. What drew me to the role was finding amusement in disciplining players from a position of authority and training them in the customs of my space so they moved in and out efficiently. At the time, I did feel like I was just an extension of a system, carrying out directives. I didn’t really think that it mattered that I was doing it, players were just seeing me as another part of the game. But the second time through the game, I encountered a player who created a real friction in the experience. I knew immediately there would be a problem; there is a way certain people look at me that is a cross between contempt and disgust which is often a reaction to reading me as trans, or at least, not cisgender. I felt that familiar fight or flight heart-skip. So when I recited my lines, I wasn’t surprised at his bad reaction, and I became extremely self-aware that I was being read, not completely as a faceless, bodiless cog in a system, but a person who is in a position of power and visibility, no matter how trite, that I am not usually afforded. He openly defied the rules of my room and his interaction with me felt personal. Even if it was small and the surface reading could be a defiance of the game’s system, I couldn’t help but feel it happened because of my specific body and the context around it. This matters because this wasn’t the vision of the artists; this was supposed to be a structured experience for the players, not attendents. But I did deeply feel that futility, that complete disregard for my personhood in that player’s words and actions, brought on specifically by the context usually found when encountering the people who make up our unpleasant but mandatory visits with bureaucracy. I don’t think this was a mark of a bad game or faulty planning, rather that, after witnessing this experience three times from the same vantage point, I have my own experience and understanding of the feelings Waiting Rooms engenders, seeing the game as the contrast between each layer of play. It has little to do with economics, or winning, or even being fully cognizant of the entire system, which I wasn’t and still am not. Instead, I saw how small changes over time, along with just random chance, influenced how people related to my body and attempt to grasp authority. In the last playtest, where it seemed like revolt and cheating was more encouraged, there came a point where players would just talk right over me, and I ceased to be person, if I ever was.

Which isn’t to say I was completely without power and influence. In fact, my bias entered and changed the outcome of how people flowed through my space without the knowledge of the creators until after the game. My room functioned by randomly sending players to different rooms by draw cards with room numbers on them. I would fudge this a few times if players stood out to me in a particular way, for instance, if they were rude, I would trap them on my floor, forcing them to either pay to leave or be escorted back to the beginning. If friends or couples came together and wanted to stay together, I intentionally split them up, no matter what the cards said. I also let particularly stylish women and men I found attractive upstairs even when they didn’t earn it. It wasn’t enough to completely skew the game in a discernable way but, you know, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings.

As a case study, I see Waiting Rooms displaying games’ struggle with time and space. Games are often delineated by space with concepts such as the magic circle, places away from reality in which we explore and experiment. Instead, I felt a different kind of experience had to do with the repetition of time, being able to recall multiple outcomes of the same situation at once and coming to grips with the composite. We see this through valorizing the mundane, waiting, aimlessly collecting and spending, repeating routine, where we spend most of our time, and then rupturing it so we’re able to critically reflect. I’ve noticed this sort of repetition in games by queer creators, which most typically reads a body ridden with the effects of PTSD to me. Systems are an inadequate proxy to what we are manipulating for experience in this field; systems are an attempt to order interactions into something discrete. Systems themselves do not exist without a person to construct and read them into their surroundings. I feel like the next steps of Waiting Rooms would be addressing what does it mean to represent a part of a system, or least, seeing that facilitating the game is its own play, meaningful and in need of focus as it is for those currently thought of as players. There are a lot of design and expressive issues games has to work out here, considering the potential for inhabiting public space and imbuing it with political dynamics.

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