“What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night.” – Crowfoot, Blackfoot warrior.
Following an open call for proposals to collaborate with Manchester-based pervasive gaming collective Larkin’ About in partnership with The Library Theatre Company and Manchester Histories Festival 2012, I was fortunate to be selected and commissioned to create a playful in-situ experience that responded to a chapter of Manchester’s past of my own choice. The festival culminated in a day of pervasive gaming within the mosaic-patterned hallways, vaulted chambers and cubbyholes of Manchester Town Hall.
My installation and game, Prairieland, required participants to hunt down the animal totems of six Native Sioux who found themselves abandoned in Salford and Manchester after Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Exhibition and Congress of Rough Riders left after a successful extended stay on the banks of the River Irwell in 1887-8. The company included in the region of one hundred Sioux, many on the run from The Battle of the Little Bighorn, a herd of bison, sharp-shooters, trick riders, broncos and assorted North American beasts.
The animals were represented by transparent, colour-tagged balloons, camouflaged in full sight against the ornate gothic ceilings. Players were issued with black capture balloons tipped with inverted duct-tape, sticky-side exposed, to enable a ‘reverse fishing’ technique. On the flip-side of each tag was an encrypted message, decoded using a red gel strip to reveal the name of the associated Sioux, although some were empty red herrings and required repeat attempts. A sharp pull would then release the prey and allow it to float back to the ceiling and rejoin the others.
Designed by architect Alfred Waterhouse (1830 – 1905) in the Victorian Gothic Revival Style, the interior is often used as a stand-in for The Houses of Parliament due to filming being forbidden in the latter, most recently by Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady and Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. I felt that if I was going to make the most of access to the site, I needed to incorporate the setting and not simply encourage players to rush through it. The backdrop was too good not to make the most of.
To succeed, players had to trace and interpret all six forgotten names by capturing balloons from the six animal groups in order that the shadows of the lost Sioux might find release from wandering our rain-flecked streets and pass over to the Happy Hunting Grounds. Desiccated, dissolved and dispersed, their spirits seep and bleed through blankets of soil and the strata of centuries past to emerge and regroup in latex bubbles above. All that remained was one final act of remembrance.
One of the Native Sioux Indians affected, Black Elk, wrote about his subsequent two-year journey to return home to North Dakota via London, Paris and Germany in his memoir, Black Elk Speaks. The fate of the remaining five remains unknown, although additional members of the troupe, including Sioux, purposely stayed on in Manchester and Salford, married and integrated amongst the population.
Players who tracked and traced a full set of names were rewarded by selecting one of six colour-matched tumble stone runes at random, identifying which lost Sioux offered thanks and knowledge of their animal totem. The gift was one of six different hand-pulled memento mori (the Latin phrase for ‘Remember Your Mortality’, a popular Victorian response in art and literature), illustrated by artist John Powell-Jones (aka Savage Wolf), each depicting hybrid animal-human forms reminiscent of Dia de los Muertos designs: bleached skulls upon robed forms representing the balance between life and death.
Although the many kids participating in the game loved these, it did strike me as being a little odd as I handed one small child a picture of a half-rotted nightmarish cadaver, the paper apparently drenched in blood (such was the ink pattern, unique to every one) with an arrow through the creature’s head, saying “Here you go, Susie Shot In The Eye thanks you for playing the game and finding her name”… which the child eagerly accepted, but which her parent quickly snatched and confiscated!
Initially designed for adult play but designated as suitable for children with accompanying support, what came across on the day was the hunger and need for family-friendly activity in the context of the festival, especially immersive and make-believe based pursuits that built an engaging story around historical reference and didn’t simply lay out a dry assortment of fact like pinned butterflies under a glass lid. History is something that should be handled and worn, not dusted and placed out of reach.
Children and adults both responded gleefully to the challenge of releasing the spirit wanderers, while the ghoulish nature of the prizes accidentally confirmed that far from being an off-topic subject, the concept of mortality (albeit light of touch) was not one that younger players recoiled from. On the contrary, it may yet go some way to offering a more palatable means of processing mind-mashing fears. We are not the first to leave these lands, nor will we be the last.
The feedback was entirely positive, many parents (unlike the one cautious mother mentioned) expressing surprise and delight at the nature of the resulting gifts, but it was the words of one little girl, aged about six, that I’ll remember most:
Little girl: “I like how you have used a special cup to put your pencils in, and not a normal cup. That is a very good idea.”
Me: “Thank you! I’m glad you noticed!”
Little girl: “Also, I think you look like a very beautiful wizard”.
Me: *wells up with tears*
Additional thanks to Savage Wolf, headdress and neckpiece by Aliyah Hussain plus tie-dyed tee by Mariel Osbourne of Sacred Geometry. Production support from Larkin’ About and The Library Theatre Company in association with Manchester Histories Festival. A hearty pat-on-the-back to fellow game designers Frolicked, Oscar Mike, Gareth Cutter and Peter Keeley, who all delivered their own commissioned games to appreciative audiences.