Punchdrunk Kids: How The Oracles mixes real world immersion with video games

Immersive theatre company Punchdrunk continues to experiment with ways of integrating its unique style of
performing arts with education and digital platforms. Its latest project with its punchdrunk Enrichment team, The Oracles, is an educational campaign aimed at primary school children aged five to eleven that mixes real world immersion with video games.

This mixture of video game and real world experience allows the kids, who play the game together in class during school time, to be introduced to the world of Fallow Cross digitally before being physically taken there. The game is a relatively simple first- person adventure, played on tablet, which allows players to explore the small town of Fallow Cross. The town has been abandoned after the mayor, Hercules, was killed (pretty dark for a kids’ game!) and the player soon begins to uncover a mystery about an evil sorceress who tormented the townspeople with her weather magic.

We’re exploring this replica game and this intuitive physical space and how you can connect the two

Peter Higgin, director of enrichment, Punchdrunk

While they do this, the kids are gathering mint (good for fresh breath and sealing away evil weather-mages, it seems) in a collaborative environment with a hint of competitiveness. Even though each child has a tablet to themselves (they don’t know they’re born, etc…) a central screen will announce when each player finds some of the hidden herb. Once one player has reached a certain point, the fourth wall is broken and the game designer’s hidden message requests that they come help save the real town of Fallow Cross and begin their Punchdrunk adventure.

“We’ve had a really positive response,” says Matthew Blake, director of The Oracles. “Some of the teachers have been playing along really well and saying ‘no, you’re not going, it’s too dangerous,’ and the children wrote an email to their head teachers, laying out all the positive reasons why they should be allowed to go. Such as ‘because we are learning empathy, because we are working well as a team. We are improving our skills every day, if we don’t help these people their village will be destroyed!’”

Once they finally ‘persuade’ their teachers to let them go, the students visit the real Farrow Cross at Punchdrunk’s office in Tottenham Hale. Here they have a space called The Village, which the company created to explore and experiment with different ideas.

“The village is a private space for us to explore certain ideas,” says Peter Higgin, director of enrichment and of Punchdrunk Village. “At the moment we’re exploring The Oracles. We’re exploring this replica game and this intuitive physical space and how you can connect the two. But every single structure within this space holds or embodies a future idea for us.”

The Village symbolises the future of Punchdrunk and many of these experiments could go on to become full experiences, in whole or in part. “Essentially it’s a space where we’re trying to flesh out new ideas for the company,” Higgin explains. “Some of them are going to go on and become shows, some of them are just sensory works that we’re interested in, which could become nothing, or it could help us tease out an idea elsewhere. Across a lot of the future work we’re exploring we are thinking about how you ntegrate digital technology, or gaming or game mechanics.”

Once the kids have arrived at the Village, the mint they have collected in the game is magically sent to the real world, allowing them to cast a spell together and create protective lanterns. These lanterns are a large part of the tech Punchdrunk is experimenting with. Even if that means technically electrocuting children.
“It’s a very, very low non-electrical current. A very low level signal, sent through the body to your hand, to the touch of your skin,” says Higgin. There is zero danger whatsoever.

This technology allows Punchdrunk to track positioning and variable data in a physical space in much the same way as in a video game. It’s the reason they’ve been working with an external team in order to integrate the tech with their performance.

The teachers have been playing along really well

Matthew Blake, director of The Oracles

“We’ve been working with Google’s Creative Lab, based in Sydney,” says Higginm who has also been working with Austrailian-based gameplay lab, Grumpy Sailor. “Together we have been looking at how do you make an intuitive physical space. When you play a game, the game knows where you’ve been, it logs how much mint you’ve got, it knows what level you’re on, etc.What we’ve been trying to do, and are beginning to explore, is how can a physical space know who you are, know where you are in the space, and know what theatrical content it should deliver to you, based on where you are in the game world. That’s the ambition.

“We’ve been working with a technology called ultra-wideband, which is a new unwieldy technology. Essentially, it can do the job of knowing who you are and where you are. So we’ve been using it in magical objects, and in the lanterns. When that tech works properly, the physical touch of touching that door handle outside the mayor’s house will either unlock or not unlock the door depending on certain variables.

"What that simple proof of concept has allowed us to do is to build a system whereby we can sense where they are in the space, send that to a game server, and that also sends information to the game. It can talk to the game server, and can influence the game, and then it also sends information to Qlab, which is our theatrical cueing systems to fire sound and lighting.”

What this means is that the entire space is automated. There’s no-one backstage cueing the events that take place while the kids are in Fallow Cross. It all runs on game logic. But it also means that when players make choices within the physical space, the consequences are displayed within the game world on their tablets. The children come back to Fallow Cross a few times, to find the dead mayor’s ‘labours’. Twelve magical artefacts (based off the labours of Hercules, of course), which will bind the evil sorceress away when placed in the fountain at the center of town.

The kids have the choice to place each labour within the fountain’s slots in whichever order they wish. This is then visible when they return to the classroom and play the game, in a similar way to the digital mint the collect becoming real when they return to the village. Blurring the lines between digital and physical like this creates a personal, intimate connection to the world.

The potential of this technology feels quite limitless when you extrapolate it out to more adult Punchdrunk experiences. Blurred lines between game and reality also heightens the realism. The thunder and lightning (automated through the village’s game logic) can be quite scary for the kids, because they’re immersed in this world. But they’re also well aware that, as long as the light of their lantern shines blue, they’re perfectly safe.
Which is why some of them spend more time staring at the lantern than they do at the puzzles.

These puzzles are the real educational meat of the experience. By solving maths problems set in various shops and houses around the village, the kids get a peek into the lives of the inhabitants and an opportunity for some cooperative puzzle solving. Only by working together and discussing the problems, helped along by the Punchdrunk performers (who over the course of the three visits, the kids become very familiar and friendly with), the village of Fallow Cross can be saved.

As long as they can keep their eyes off their lantern…

(Photo credits: Paul Cochrane)

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