In the first week of June, a new world started online between neon borders in the so-called “Mother City”. The New Normal Game is loading and where it goes is up to us.
“We have the power to make your wildest dreams an immediate reality, if the Council offers you their good faith. Tell us, where do you imagine we begin?” These words open the nostalgically textured video that launches round one of an interactive social media game that will unfold on Facebook over the next two months.
Part activist intervention, part digital performance art, the game is an experiment in expanding the creative commons: a reference to the political ideal of collectively managing resources and a play on creative commons licencing that influences the sharing of online content. It is an attempt to imagine together, inspired by the “new normal” we have entered during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The rules are simple. Every week, a scenario based loosely on current crises is put to the seven players, who each suggest a solution. The Game Masters translate their ideas, submitted by text and voice notes, into a visual art piece and present it to the public. Members of the game’s Facebook group make up the Council that decides what direction the future takes by voting for the preferred solution.
“The ultimate goal for us is to move the thought dial slightly to just get people to see where the edges of the boxes are, so they can start thinking outside of it a little bit,” said co-creator Fuzlin Esau, explaining that the imagined solution chosen in each round sets the scene for the next crisis.
Step by step, we edge away from reality and into a new normal, releasing the boundaries of present structures as we go. “Move that dial just a bit so people know they don’t have to work within the structure that they’re currently in,” said Esau.
Collective of ‘artivists’
She is part of a multi-genre temporary collective that accepts the name “artivists”, for lack of a better term. While guiding play, they go by the moniker “the Game Masters”. This group was drawn together by Sarah Summers and Kelly-Eve Koopman, who felt that the Covid-19 pandemic had “scrambled the pieces” on a great global playing board. “It’s an opportunity to make new places, but that might not be in our favour,” said Summers.
These words reflect healer and social justice facilitator adrienne maree brown’s theory that we are in an imagination battle. In the book Emergent Strategy, maree brown writes: “Imagination turns Brown bombers into terrorists and white bombers into mentally ill victims. Imagination gives us borders, gives us superiority, gives us race as an indicator of capability. I often feel I am trapped inside someone else’s imagination, and I must engage my own imagination in order to break free.”
The pandemic may be “a portal”, but breaking free to move through it is difficult when facts of the present erase much about the past and limit what we can visualise looking to the future. This game is designed to help us through that. It exposes our problems, but layer by layer it asks us to imagine what new possibilities open up as we make changes.
Frantz Fanon wrote: “Man is what brings society into being. The prognosis is in the hands of those who are willing to get rid of the worm-eaten roots of the structure.” Those willing to participate in this game are healers, justice dreamers, investors, creators, seed planters and thinkers of all kinds. They have agreed to be the players. It’s significant that, as black people, many of their own histories have been marginalised.
“To be a woman and a person of colour, so often we’re reduced to our survivalist self not only by the society we live in, but in the ways we’re meant to resist or react,” said Koopman, an interdisciplinary storyteller whom some may know from the online dialogue platform Coloured Mentality, a project she and her partner Summers developed.
“I think we all deserve to be supported in our full selves,” Koopman continued. “Imagining, dreaming work. If we who are marginalised by the system are not supported in doing so, and actively doing so, those things will be strategised and come up with in the minds of those who have always ignored us.”
The imaginings offered are drawn together by documentarian and editor Khalid Shamis along with filmmaker and composer Jannous Aukema. Their first creation feels like a dreamscape, an associative kaleidoscope of archival photography, pixelated comic illustrations and nature scenes.
“I didn’t fully understand the game concept initially, maybe even now, but I liked the spirit with which they were approaching it and with which they allow me to play with their ideas,” said Shamis, who has drawn the visuals together to inspire creative connections in the thoughts of those watching.
In the video, players’ voices echo against the edges of that box Esau mentioned. The sonic language of The New Normal Game reflects the sounds of vintage gaming, an arcade flickering in pink neon, with music by Brian Eno or James Blake somewhere in the distant background.
“My main intention was to use sound as a means to build a home in which the voices and perspectives of each player could be heard and supported,” explained composer Aukema. “Having said that, the voices of players take centre stage. Iʼm really just a sonic cheerleader for radical thought.”
Leap of faith
Trust is the string that lets us draw creativity in. It’s there in the tentative steps between art and activism and it’s what allows us to play. But as adults, too aware of a dangerous reality, it isn’t easy. Summers acknowledges this, but goes on to explain how central trust has been to the collective, intuitive creation of this game. Trust in each other and the process is key, but trust is also extended to the people who play it.
“Ultimately, any step forward is a leap of faith, which requires trust. The want for something new is to trust that it’s possible,” Summers said. “As an audience, even though you’re watching this, there’s the hope that you trust the process, but also that you trust yourself to take part in the process.”
In many ways, it doesn’t seem like a time to play. We’re in a pandemic. People across the world are taking to the streets for justice despite that. Hacker group Anonymous is back and blasting NWA’s Fuck Tha Police over the Chicago police department’s radios. It feels a little like somebody table-flipped the playing board to the floor. But exactly because of all this, relief may need to be about more than food packages and basic services in this crisis.
Going to the root of the word relief, in the Old French relever or “to raise up”, part of the Covid-19 relief work this intervention offers is about lifting us, letting the spirit be just slightly lighter so that we go forward. “Our ideas of what we would like our lives to be are important,” Koopman said. “This is the world we live in. We cannot escape it anymore. We make art through it, and we make art that holds it and responds to it but still allows us to enact the act of imagination.”
Summers added: “Revolutionary action is also something we must know that we have the ability to do. It’s not just small, incremental steps only, which are vital, but massive shifts in the way that you understand your life and your lifestyle. Your purpose and what you need to work towards are within your grasp, for everyone.
“It’s about agency.”
If you’re interested in being part of the voting Council, join The New Normal Game Facebook group. A small amount of funding for prizes has been granted by the Atlantic Fellows programme to projects that offer relief for the spirit during the coronavirus pandemic. Its contribution, and the freedom it has brought, is gratefully acknowledged by the creators.