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Concept: Dark Play

Richard Schechner, New York theater maker and one of the co-founders of performance studies as an academic field coined a term useful term for urban game design: dark play.

In an essay on play included in his 1993 book The Future of Ritual: Writings on Culture and Performance Schechner describes situations in which not all participants know that they are being involed in play, for example pranks and jokes, but also more peaceful individual forms of play in public, where passers-by are oblivious that someone is playing.

Dark play occurs when contradictory realities co-exist, each seamingly capable of canceling each other out […]. Dark play subverts order, dissolves frames, breaks its own rules, so that the playing itself is is in danger of being destroyed, as in spying, con games, undercover actions, and double agentry.

Here’s Schechner talking about the concept (and the related idea of deep play) in a short video:

Dark play is an especially useful and challenging concept when discussing ehtics in urban play projects.

  • In your design, who is left in the dark about the activities of players?
  • Is the fact that some participants are ignorant essential to the play experience?
  • Who should be informed about play taking place? When and how?
  • Under what conditions might it ok to “use” uninformed people for your game? Where does is become just plain mean?
  • Is urban play possible at all without a certain element of dark play?