Played: The n Games, Nuit Blanche edition

The n Games at Nuit Blanche

This edition of The n Games was conceived for the particular conditions of the larger Nuit Blanche event, a 12-hour overnight contemporary art festival that draws audiences of more than a million to downtown Toronto. The projects in Nuit Blanche tend to be spectacular, crowd-friendly, and built to face rowdy msses that don’t necessarily play by contemporary-art viewing conventions.

With the expected chaotic atmosphere and short engagement time in mind, this version of The n Games was conceived as a rolling pick-up game of invented sports into which a changing group of participants could readily jump: a laboratory for experimental play. Members of existing groups such as the Toronto Roller Derby League and Puckish shinny hockey were on hand to play. To organize these n Games, League collaborated with Department of Biological Flow, an experimental collective interested in the intersection of the political and kinesthetic. (We hope Sean from DBF will also post an event report here.) DBF brought some movement experiments, League brought some of our play-tested games, together we prepared conditions and equipment for some new games, and we agreed to let it all evolve like a League play event.


Based in the courtyard of the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, the games rolled swiftly from one into the next, as players continually came and went. We soon realized that the kind of deliberate negotiation of rules and strategy that is usually a hallmark of League play would have little chance to take hold with an ever-changing and impatient large group. Nor would games with complex rules or strategy work in an intense, frenetic environment in which verbal communication was difficult. We were dealing with crowd rather than group dynamics, and pressure closer to a match than a practice. Rather than strategize, the crowd had a strong will to just play. We adjusted by mustering stripped-down versions of the games we’d prepared or improvising new ones, but still created moments in which the playing group was presented with opportunities to make twists or adjustments to the games. This was how a two-ball soccer game evolved into Human Foosball, and how some random dribbling of a ball turned into Moving Goalposts, then evolved again to have multiple goalposts.

Scrumble players sorting themselves

The courtyard was filled a mixture of people arriving primed for play (a number of whom stayed for hours), those attracted by the action and game to join, and crowds arriving, leaving, gathering, and waiting in line for the museum’s exhibition. Thus the social conventions around museum attendance and large social events were also part of field of play. Many games saw players recruiting bystanders to participate, as in the many instances of Scrumble that broke out as people recognized words they could spell using the Scrumble pinnies. At times the museum lineup extending into the courtyard was drawn into the action, as when the queue was recruited to be the defensive line for a game of Red Rover.

The dynamic setting produced a multitude of interesting social interactions. It was fascinating how absorption in play altered conventions of behaviour. We saw strangers suddenly manhandling each other into position, pulling pinnies onto each other, holding hands to play, tackling each other, and ordering each other around with the particular urgency that game play sometimes demands. It was also interesting to observe how people got drawn into play, and the changes in behaviour when they did. We saw some watching eagerly on the sidelines until they could no longer restrain themselves from joining in. Others waited for the formal offer of a pinny before they joined in, while others seemed to be repelled by the appearance of a uniform.

The permeable margins of play

Play also transformed the space and movement through it. The games organically spread to accommodate players or contracted to allow for communication, while some of the games actually played with the flow and disposition of people in the space, as in the Force Field experiment or Red Rover. In some cases, the play melded with or intersected with the crowd, as in the multiple instances of Scrumble or a game of chain tag. For other games, the ring of gathered spectators organically defined an arena of action. Sometimes the games created a somewhat hostile environment, with an acute difference in the intensity of players and non-players. We were reminded that the energy generated within the ‘safe’ space of play can be threatening to those outside that emotional/physical space, when the normally well-behaved space became filled with flying bodies, projectiles, and shouting, and balls bounced alarmingly against the neighbour’s glass doors.

Unplanned play

Some of the most interesting play was not any particular or directed game, but arose from improvising in the moment. For instance, a deliberate attempt to invent a game using a long length of rope eventually disintegrated into a situation in which the rope was strung between people on opposite sides of the courtyard, in such a way that it caused the people flowing into and out of the museum to duck or climb over, movement that the players responded to by adjusting their positioning as different people approached. This was wordless, physical play between strangers. In another instance, at the end of the night, as we were untangling the rope from a game of Zigzag-o-war, we found ourselves with the rope held at opposite ends of the length of the 100-foot courtyard, and the very last activity emerged as the simple play of jumping rope, in the pouring rain.

Here in no particular order are some of my highlights from the quick succession of games:

Topogical Soccer Lab, Human Foosball, & Moving Goalposts

Human Foosball

Several of Department of Biological Flow’s movement experiments have to do with making simple but fundamental shifts to the known terrain of soccer, which they conceptually unite under the title of “Topological Soccer Lab.” Amongst the possibilities are no-ball, two-ball, and three-team soccer. In practice, at these n Games, a two-ball soccer game transformed elegantly and almost instantly into Human Foosball once that simple idea was inserted into the hive mind of the crowd. It was fascinating to see a number of bystanders puzzling for a few moments, suddenly exclaim “Oh! It’s foosball!”, and race in to grab the nearest stranger’s hand in a foosball line. On a different occasion, and evolving a bit less smoothly, a game of soccer with shifting human goal posts was crafted, and then modified by multiplying the number of goals to try to find a rewarding balance between numbers of players and the challenge of the moving goalposts.

Scrumble & Red Rover

Scrumble faceoff

The Scrumble pinnies, which feature different single letters on front and back, created many sudden irruptions of play, as people noticed the possibilities for text-based play using the pinnies worn by people in the crowd around them. Many undirected versions of life-sized wordplay unfolded over the night, as well as attempts to organize players to use the spelled words to determine game actions, and word-building battles between pinny-clad teams. The confusing physicality of arranging one’s own and other bodies, in the correct order and facing the right way, is a surprising challenge with this play equipment.

With that atmosphere of physicality established, and a feeling that it could be directed in some way, at one point I suggested a modified game of Red Rover that would engage the people in the museum lineup as the defensive line. The people in line were not given a choice: they were simply ordered to play defense, and the game began. Some accepted wholeheartedly, others more tentatively, but many did rise to the challenge in some way, whether working solo or with others in line.

Extra Sensory Proprioception & Octopus

Chain tag

Countering the more intimidating aspects of play as it encounters non-playing masses, there were also moments of impromptu consideration within the frenzy. On a couple occasions, we tried playing the League-tested game Extra Sensory Proprioception, in which blindfolded individuals attempt to navigate as close as they can to a whistle blown once. Although the conditions were not exactly conducive for the use of non-visual senses, it was interesting to observe how the crowd responded to the incongruous and vulnerable blindfolded people making their way through the courtyard. It seemed that an empathetic protective space formed around them as they made their way through the crowd. On another occasion, a game of chain tag or Octopus broke out in the courtyard, which was filled with people who didn’t realize what was going on. The octopus seemeed naturally to avoid people who were not prepared to join the play, but reach out to those who would be game to join. That wordless communication seemed to be what eventually also signalled to the octopus that the game was over.

Pamplemousse With a Catch

A couple participants arrived with an idea for a game of Pamplemousse with an added challenge – throwing and catching a ball at the same time as performing the counting. (Pamplemousse is an existing game in which players take turns counting up, replacing any number containing or divisible by 7 with the word “pamplemousse”.) It was a good mental challenge, but also a surreal instance of two guys arriving to throw down a challenge, see it taken up, and then ride back off into the night.

Force Field

Force Field was one planned experiment that turned out to be well-tuned to the crowd dynamics. Sean started it by arranging the assembled group into a grid spaced at arm’s length, with arms outstretched. On a regular cue, everyone pivoted to alternately face or align with the established pedestrian movement, essentially cutting off or permitting the foot traffic to flow. Different pedestrians responded in a several different ways: advancing and stopping when the path was opened or cut off, hesitating outside the field of action, simply barging through, or joining the arrangement. Over time, the synchrony of the human grid broke down, so that alternate paths appeared. Although I heard questioning from both participants and pedestrians about the point of the exercise, the point actually felt obvious: it was an informal dance of conventions performed by unsuspecting partners.

Zigzag-o-war, Contract, & JuuuuummmmmmpRrrrrrrooope

Unplanned play

Throughout the night, I felt a real distinction between the prepared and unplanned. At one point, I had the idea to try to set up a tug of war with the rope zigzagging between members of the opposing teams. The idea was that each group would need to pull just one person across the line, and assumed that the group could work together to position the zigzag in order to protect its weaker members and use its strongest, essentially maximizing the pulley-like arrangement. Although the energy of the crowd wasn’t really attuned to that kind of strategic calculation, I think it could be worth trying in a different setting, with some opportunity for the teams to strategize. This is one to try at a future League play day.

Another provisional ‘plan’ had been to have some of the group define a spatial arrangement using a 300-foot-long rope, while others decided on an action that would make use of the defined space. When we tried it, although the moveable hourglass-like shape that was created did spark the beginnings of a game resembling pig-in-the-middle, with people moving between the two defined ‘yards’ depending on whether or not they made a successful pass, the organized efforts disintegrated before long. However, attempts to then untangle the long rope produced a provocative situation which saw the rope strung between people, across the width of the courtyard, essentially complicating flow into and out of the museum. Before long, something vaguely similar to the hourglass arrangement was organically re-established by the group as a way of playing with impeding this flow by causing museum visitors to duck under, lift, or step over the rope. The players in this non-game instinctively ‘let up’ in the presence of people with mobility issues, and tightened up when challenged. There was no deliberate organization that caused the change in either the game or the rules of engagement; it was unspoken group decision-making.


A similar recognition of conditions is what was behind the last bit of play. As we were untangling rope along the length of the courtyard at the end of the night, Sean and I caught each other’s eye as we simultaneously recognized the situation: a 100-foot-long jump rope. We started twirling the rope, and all sorts of individuals rushed to jump in. Guys arriving from being drunken louts elsewhere in the city dropped their attitude as they intensely waited to jump in, while strangers confidently and fearlessly called advice to them about improving their jump-rope technique. It was a beautiful, brief phase in which normal social interactions were surrendered to the energy of the moment.

Upcoming League events

League gathers to play on the last Sunday of the month in Elm Park in Vancouver. Play days are free and open to all; bring both body and mind.

Posted under: Play reports