Trying to change the world, not understand it
Games and models both help us think about the world, in order that we can better transform it
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As an artist who works with scientists, I see many similarities between the 'two cultures' of science and art. Both scientists and artists use a process of experimentation in their work, both disciplines combine creativity and rigour, and both use models to make sense of the world.
A scientific model is a simplified representation of a real world system. A model, whether a software simulation or a pen and paper diagram, includes some parts of a system, while leaving out others. Climate and economic models represent some parts of the atmospheric and financial systems, but leave out other parts to make the model workable.
A work of art can also be a model. A book, a theatre show, a film - these are also representations of the real world. Like scientific models, they focus on certain elements of the real world to help us understand them, and leave out those that are irrelevant.
In my practice, both solo and as a member of Coney and Boho, I design games. These games tend to involve groups of players navigating a fictional scenario, either in person or online. In Boho's Best Festival Ever, for example, a group of players around a table are in charge of programming and managing their own music festival, from start to finish.
In Boho, we think of games as models. Our games are interactive representations of systems, just like the climate and economic models used by scientists.
For both scientists and artists who create models, it's critical to fit the right model to the system. A model that's too simple will miss out crucial parts of the system it's describing. A model that's too complex will confuse rather than illuminate. Fitting the model to the system is a critical art.
Over the last two months, I've been working on two very different systems, and I've been faced with very different challenges of finding the right game to model them.
In the first instance, I was invited by a network of financial institutions to create a game for an online meeting of banks, climate NGOs and regulators. My brief was to design a game that illustrated the challenges for banks to transition to net zero.
In the lead up to COP26 in Glasgow, banks are under pressure to make announcements about their net zero plans. The tricky thing is that 'net zero' is an ambiguous term, with no fixed meaning. Each bank must decide for itself what their commitment will be, and how they'll go about meeting it.
Of course, there's an impulse for each bank to protect their profits by doing the minimum that they can get away with. Even for those who want to do the right thing, however, it's not clear what that entails.
JP Morgan recently announced that their lending will be 'Paris-aligned' from here forward. Now they're trying to figure out what that means in practice. Obviously that means limiting financing for coal mines, oil wells and gas fields. But can they still make loans to concrete factories, airlines or battery farms? Construction, transport and agriculture are all high-emissions sectors, but we still need buildings, travel and food. Where do you draw the line?
Within banks, sustainability advocates are clashing with those who think that the biggest risk is transitioning too quickly. And shareholders still tend to punish banks for moving earlier than their peers.
These are some of the factors at play within the financial system. My task was to turn this into an hour-long game for 50 participants, played over Zoom.
The first thing I did was sketch out the possible net zero actions available to banks, and the likely rewards and punishments they would receive for those actions. There is lots of nuance, but one simple way to describe the system is this: It's easier and more profitable for banks to behave unsustainably, but if every bank does this, all banks are worse off.
This is a familiar dynamic from the world of Game Theory - it's known as a prisoner's dilemma. It appears in countless domains: biology, politics, ecology, economics... Wherever there's a reason to cooperate but a temptation to be selfish, you can frame the situation as a prisoner's dilemma.
So the game I created involved a number of teams, each playing as a different bank over the course of the 2020s. Each team makes a series of choices about their bank's sustainability commitments across their business and lending portfolio. Along the way they negotiate with shareholders, climate NGOs, public pressure campaigns and policy-makers introducing new regulation. A simple scoring system tracks each bank's profits and the impacts to the biosphere.
Underlying all these choices is the prisoner's dilemma mechanism, a simple trade-off between short-term and long-term priorities.
This played out in fascinating ways with different groups of players. In one session, the most financially successful bank was eventually beset by internal strife and reputational damage over its lack of climate action, while a group of the most impoverished banks formed a consortium to lobby politicians for favourable regulation, turning the tide in their favour.
The intention of this game was not to accurately depict the financial system - not even the most sophisticated economic models can do that - but to capture a few key dynamics of the system in an evocative way. While the players of this game were experts in their fields of investment banking and financial trading, the game provided a structure where their decisions and interactions created a rich and meaningful story. They then spent the next part of the workshop discussing that story and what it illustrates about the way the market might respond to different strategies.
The simulation was a tangible demonstration of how precarious our chances are of hitting the Paris targets. It took only a small number of institutions behaving selfishly to derail the efforts of the whole community. At the same time, the game offered vivid proof of the power of players to change the system by working collaboratively and thinking creatively.
The other project I've been working on focused on a very different kind of system, and required a very different kind of game.
The Lowitja Institute is Australia's national institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research. Boho was commissioned by the Lowitja Institute to make a suite of games about the process of doing health research in Indigenous communities. These games will be played by early career researchers who are interested in doing research in Indigenous communities, to introduce them to some of the challenges and possibilities in this space.
Lowitja have produced several guides to planning culturally acceptable research in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Our brief was to create games to illustrate some of the core principles from these guides. These principles state that:
• Research in Indigenous communities should be led by relationships,
• Research projects should provide a benefit to the community,
• A project requires the ongoing consent of the research participants.
If any of these conditions aren't met, the research project should not go ahead.
This was an interesting dynamic to build a game around. In this setting, unlike the financial system, there's no competition between groups. Health researchers and Indigenous communities aren't competing with each other. Nor are there obvious trade-offs between short-term benefits and long-term priorities. If a research project doesn't fulfil all the requirements, it simply shouldn't happen. There's certainly no place in this context for a system of point-scoring.
Instead, we turned to the format of storytelling games. This is a form of game that focuses less on rules and scoring, and more on collaborative storytelling. Emerging from the world of roleplaying, these games are a way for a group of players to collaboratively explore or create a narrative.
Led by Nathan Harrison, Boho created several games in this style. In one, players took on the role of researchers travelling to an Indigenous community to investigate a failed project. A university has set up a 'Healthy Eating Choices' program in this community to provide young families with training and ingredients to prepare better meals. Unfortunately, no-one has attended any of these workshops, and the university's emails are going unanswered. Through conversations and encounters with community members, players must uncover what went wrong with this project, and why.
In another game, a series of prompts guides players to collectively tell (and map) the story of an imagined research project from beginning to end. The players imagine various project crises - mismanaged budgets, cultural fumbles, losing key local contacts - and how they were resolved.
The value of this kind of game is in its openness, its fluidity, and the space it creates for different players to share their voice. 'Winning' in games like these is about creating a rich narrative, and achieving a feeling of collective creativity.
Although the games for these two projects are very different, they both serve the same purpose - to generate rich conversations about the systems they're describing, and to help us change these systems. By allowing participants to experiment, make mistakes and see the outcomes of their choices, these games can help participants see the real cost of banks taking action towards net zero, or the risk of planning health research projects without community involvement. When we understand the systems we're a part of, we are better equipped to change them.
The same is true for scientific models. Our climate models and economic forecasts are not intended to be precise and accurate descriptions of the world. They are tools to help us think, to help us understand, and above all, to help us act.
This for me is the other key similarity between art and science. They're both about action. Every artwork and scientific model is in its own way an attempt to reframe our understanding of the world, to change our behaviour and to nudge us to act. We set out to understand the world in order that we can change it, little by little.
NEWS AND PROJECTS
The year suddenly got very busy, in a good way. As well as the two projects discussed above, I've been lucky enough to get to perform TWO shows live onstage. Hell of a thing in the 2020s.
In April, Reuben Ingall and I performed the second in our six-show cycle You're Safe Til 2024 at the Canberra Theatre. This episode, Deep History, looks at the last 75,000 years of human history and the 75 hours at the end of the last decade when Australia was hit by the worst bushfires in recorded history.
In May, Jordan Prosser and I performed a short season of CrimeForce: LoveTeam, our interactive show about the future of genetic surveillance and pop music, for Melbourne Knowledge Week.
Most exciting of all, tickets are now on sale for Moonshine and Tits' production of my ecological rom-com 44 Sex Acts In One Week at Belvoir Theatre in Sydney this September.
The Sydney Morning Herald said 'You've probably been waiting all year for something to make you laugh this hard' - and the season sold out before opening last time, so: book. Do it.
For your soul: the 2021 BigPicture photography competition winners. Scroll to the bottom and click on the 'Out of the Ordinary' photo series for some extremely good pics of chill-looking grizzly bears.
And musically, this week I highly recommend Sofia Kourtesis' Fresia Magdalena EP - a bright little burst of glory that is making my heart happy.
As ever, you can get more background on my practice in my New Rules for Modelling series, or you can check out my website. And if you have any questions or offers that might make my life more interesting, feel free to get in touch.