Jessica Creane on "Gamifying Chaos: Embracing Uncertainty Through Play"
Magda Nassar: Hello. This is Expert Open Radio, and I'm Magda Nassar. I'm a member of the TEDxAsburyPark team. Today, we're here with Jessica Creane. Jessica is one of the speakers at this year's TEDxAsburyPark Conference on May 18. She's an artist, designer, instructor and on and on and on, so I'm going to leave her to introduce herself, but, before I do that, welcome, Jessica, and thank you very much for joining us.
Jessica Creane: It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Magda Nassar: So, to open things up, we'd love to hear a little bit about yourself, and your background, and why you are called the most hyphenated person on Earth.
Jessica Creane: I have to say I borrowed that language from a friend of mine, who was also having trouble describing my existence, and so he started referring to me as a creative multi-hyphenate, and I thought that is easily the best description of my life that I've ever heard.
Magda Nassar: I think it's very cute.
Jessica Creane: Thank you.
Magda Nassar: We'd love to hear a little bit about yourself and the background.
Jessica Creane: Sure. I grew up in Connecticut, and I started doing theater at a pretty young age. My parents used to say that I was the only calm five-year-old backstage before a dance recital and all of the other little girls would be crying, and I would be running around telling them that everything is going to be okay, which I have no memory on, but I hope it's true. But I kept doing theater and performance as I was growing up, and I ran a college theater company when I was in school, and stayed with it for quite some time. I lived in New York for a little while after graduating from college and worked mostly on new plays.
I worked a little bit on Broadway and off-Broadway and had a wonderful time working on new shows and bringing other people's words to life and started thinking a lot about what comes next, and what was the next step for me. I was doing a lot of directing, and found that I had other stories that I wanted to tell as well. So, I ended up going back to grad school for Devised, Physical Ensemble Theater at the Pig Iron School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which is basically just a creative free-for-all in a lot of ways, and it really taught me that I love improvisation and that I love character development, and so those have been the two strongest threads that I have pulled with me from school, and that also introduced me to game design. The last class that I took in school was an elective in game design, and the history of games. And that class taught me that this was the missing link in my creative existence, that I really loved doing immersive theater already. I loved creating spaces and giving audiences a place to play and make choices for themselves, but the step that was next in line from immersive theater for me was game design, really crafting these experiences that led audiences through a narrative, that gave them chances to make really meaningful choices within that narrative and within those theatrical spaces.
After that, I just ... there was no stop. I just started making a lot of games really fast and found that the Philadelphia games community was incredibly warm, and generous and accepting and really encouraging of wild, creative work, and they have really remained a creative home for the last few years.
Magda Nassar: Oh, that's wonderful. So, given that your experience, can you tell us a little bit about the topic that you're going to speak about in this year's TEDxAsburyPark?
Jessica Creane: Sure. So, I'm talking about gamifying chaos. I really love turning abstract concepts into games. I think it makes them really accessible and much easier to understand than they are when they're just sort of these unmorphed, crazy, wild, abstract scientific or mathematical ideas. So, one of the things that game design does really well is it lets us look at the mechanics of something, and the mechanics are basically just actions. What are like the action points of an idea or a system? Anything with a system can be turned into a game. There are a series of steps or actions that can be taken and you can make a game out it. So, chaos theory is essentially a system, and there are a lot of different factors to that. Like, fractals and self-organization and the butterfly effect is probably the best known facet of chaos theory. And each of those has an action to it. So, for instance, the butterfly effect is this idea that one small action, any action like the flapping of the butterfly's wings in one continent, can eventually create a hurricane on another continent.
So, I started thinking about what that would look like as a game. How could you take this one tiny action and let it just evolve into something wild, over time. So, essentially the piece that I made, this piece called Chaos Theory, is an immersive theater piece that is built on game design, where I take these particular aspects of chaos theory and turn them into games, and then weave them into a broader narrative that the audience gets to participate in over the course of the piece. And in order to learn those things, I knew nothing about chaos theory when I set out to make this piece. So, it was a lot of research, reading, reading articles on folks and then finding mathematicians who would talk to me about what the formulas of chaos theory actually looked like. I would never have been able to do this piece without their help.
Magda Nassar: That's really cool, because when I first heard about your interest in TEDxAsburyPark and heard your video for the first time, I really thought you were a scientist in chaos. So, you definitely studied very well, and you extracted important points in a very concise way.
Jessica Creane: Yes. My plan is working.
Magda Nassar: Uh-huh.. It sure is. It sure is. So, can you tell us the title of your talk?
Jessica Creane: The title is: “Gamifying Chaos: Embracing Uncertainty Through Play”.
Magda Nassar: That's really impressive. So what inspired you to look in chaos? I understand as I looked at you work, you’ve been looking into it for quite while, over a year now. So, what inspired you to get into chaos theory and why now? Or why a year ago I should say.
Jessica Creane: I think deep down I've always been a little bit of a chaos agent. So it's always a word that has felt very comfortable and exciting to me. But like many people I woke up in November of 2016, day after day, thinking that the world had gone a little it mad, and no longer really made as much sense to me as it had even a month before. So, it felt very much like chaos, that whole month of realizing that the world as I knew it in America, and American politics had been really upended. And so I figured this chaos is not going away. This feeling of chaos is going to stick around for a good long while now, so I'd better get to know it and figure out what exactly chaos really is and if there's anything that we can do in the world to transform this feeling of chaos, this feeling that this is unsustainable and doesn't feel right to me, and do something that is more a feeling of agency. How can we turn these feelings of chaos into positive actions?
So, I started researching chaos and that led me to chaos theory and I realized that there are really two kinds of chaos. There is the feeling of chaos, this feeling that something is wrong, and then there's chaos theory, which is not at all disorganized. It's actually, it really is a system. So, I started figuring out if these two things could live together in the same world and in potentially the same immersive theater piece or game or whatever this piece might be. And I found that actually they really meld very well together, that we can actually turn this feeling of colloquial chaos through systems and mechanics of chaos theory into pretty strong agency and empowerment in participants through games.
Magda Nassar: Yeah, actually it's very interesting you brought this, because my next question in my prepared questions, were what's the difference between colloquial chaos and chaos theory. So, can you elaborate a little bit about that? You said you brought them together to have an influence on motivating people to take action. Can you tell us more about the different between the two?
Jessica Creane: Sure. Colloquial chaos is just sort of the phrase that I started using to help myself differentiate between these two kinds of chaos, that I was, that I was, feeling like I was drawn to in the work. So, colloquial chaos I think is really, it's kind of in a lot of ways the antithesis of chaos theory. Chaos theory is very, very structured. There are certain formulas to it. There are rules to it. There are many, many experiments that have been done that say this is exactly what chaos theory is. It is this series of events. Each one leads to the next. It is incredibly orderly. There's not a lot of room for feelings, necessarily, in chaos theory, but in chaos itself, or what we think of as chaos in society, it is pure feelings. It is just the sensation that everything is totally out of control. It is generally not a positive association that people have with chaos. It is the sensation of like, "Okay, well this situation is chaotic and now we have to either turn it into an orderly situation, or extract ourselves from that situation."
So, being a little bit of a chaos agent, I find myself drawn to chaotic situations. So, I, the work that I'm interested in making is taking that feeling, that moment where you think, "Okay. Here's a chaotic situation. Either I will turn it into order, or I will take myself out of the situation" and instead say, "Oh, chaos might be an opportunity. What can I actually do with the state that we are currently in and how can I use this state to my advantage?" And I think that's particularly important nowadays when the whole world sort of feels chaotic to say, "Okay, I can't change the whole world. The whole world is not going to become orderly and I can't extract myself from the whole world. So, how can I be the most creative and agentic human being that I can be, in circumstances that are in many ways out of my control?" And I think that's what the link is between colloquial chaos and chaos theory is moving from this feeling of chaos, through an orderly system of events. In this case, games... games based on chaos theory... so that we can go from this feeling of chaos as being uncertainty and fear, into a place where chaos is actually an opportunity, and we can see that there is order within chaotic situations and make the most of them and really become, and be able to embody chaos and experience it as a more positive feeling.
Magda Nassar: That's really very impressive. I was very impressed with ... because many of your action, because many of us felt the same way you did in 2016, and some people just get depressed and looked inside and some people took action. It's very impressive that you used your creative abilities to do something about it, and share the wisdom if you will.
Jessica Creane: Thank you.
Magda Nassar: So, I assume that gamifying chaos, working, creating games addressing chaos is your way of achieving that. And you do that through immersive theater, or game theater. So, I wasn't really familiar with the concept of immersive theater before I was introduced to you and learned about your work. Can you share with the audience a little bit what's immersive theater, and how do you use it to make your point about gamifying chaos?
Jessica Creane: Immersive theater is a very broad world and it's really sort of an emerging world as well. It's sort of saying that the fourth wall in theater doesn't exist. In a lot of traditional theater, you'll go sit in a seat and actors on a stage will perform as if they are in a completely different world from the audience, and the audience is watching that world. But immersive theater says there is no wall. We are all in the same world, where no one is going to pretend that this is a different reality. So, often what that means is that, the space that performers and participants, audience members are in is very different than a traditional theater. Actually there is a much broader space. Some of the giants of immersive theater are Sleep No More and Then She Fell, which both allow audience members that are free range in a warehouse space, and they can follow narratives. There are actors in the space and people can either follow these stories and watch actors do certain things, or they can often completely ignore the narrative and just wander around the space and see what comes to them, or they can open up drawers and look in mirrors and open letters, depending on what the space looks like. So, immersive spaces tend to be sort of at the heart of immersive theater.
For our piece, for Chaos Theory, it's a little bit different because we are actually just asking the audience to be the audience. They don't have to take on a role and they don't have a wide, huge space to explore. They are essentially playing themselves, which is a little bit rare in immersive theater experiences, but if you're looking to transform certain aspects of peoples’ lives, then it's no good transforming a character that they're playing. You want to transform who they really are. We like who they really are, so we want them to play that. So, immersive theater essentially gives people the opportunity to be making choices within a story, and within a space that they wouldn't necessarily have in a passive theater experience.
Magda Nassar: And I have to say that was very impressive, when I attended your performance couple of days ago. It was ... and the audience really resonated well with your asking them to do. It was cool. So, are you going to use immersive theater in TEDxAsburyPark presentation? We only have eight minutes for that presentation. So, how are you gonna introduce immersive theater? Or are you going to use it?
Jessica Creane: I'm pretty sure there will be some game involved.
Magda Nassar: Oh, you will?
Jessica Creane: I'm not sure exactly what it will be yet. Yeah.
Magda Nassar: Okay. So, we will have a challenge managing the time with that. Looking forward to hearing from you, how you're going to do that. I'm gonna bring to the immersive theater Dr. Saoch. I think that's her name, the character you use in your piece about chaos. So, tell us about Dr. Soach, and how did she emerge in your work and will she have an appearance in TEDxAsburyPark?
Jessica Creane: I'm not sure yet if she have an appearance. She might make a cameo. She came out of, she was the second thing to come out of this piece. The first thing that got designed was the first game of the piece, the first aspect of looking at chaos theory. So, I made a game first and then I started creating a world around that game. So, this character just sort of emerged from this game. I don't remember how exactly she came into existence, but as soon as she, she came out fully formed. There was no real editing. She just existed from the moment that I created her, and has stayed pretty much unchanged throughout the entire rehearsal process. I've learned more about her, but she's pretty quirky. She loves love. She has strangely low empathy. She feels her own feelings and is sometimes a little bit socially unaware of what the repercussions of her actions are, but she cares very, very deeply about the people around her, and feels very deeply about the world. And she is a professional chaologist who has found herself in some challenging times.
Magda Nassar: And some chaotic situations.
Jessica Creane: Absolutely.
Magda Nassar: So, she uses nudity in the ... she ends up in a nude situation, how she ends up with her work. Can you tell me a little bit how did that help the point you're making? I...we're not going to do that on the TEDxAsburyPark stage, obviously, but I want to learn why did she end up there, and what's the point she was trying to make from the nudity situation?
Jessica Creane: Yeah, she is the kind of person who puts her work ahead of absolutely everything. So, sometimes she sees, she will only see her research in the world where others see social norms being broken. But for her, it's just pure research. So, for the character ... well, I guess I'll speak first to myself as a creator. For me, there is a game in Chaos Theory where the audience is asked to refer to certain actions or phrases, as either order or chaos. And in that game the audience is being implicated in making choices. They have to decide whether certain things are order or chaos, and there's really no sitting back and not choosing and even if you are sitting back and not making a choice in those moments, you are choosing to not to take a risk. So, it's a very actionable moment for the audience and for this particular character, she has just found herself losing everything, including her reputation.
So, it was important to me that she be extremely vulnerable in these moments, and for the audience to see that the reason that she is in this vulnerable place that she has found herself in, in her career, where she has been really let down by the patriarchal system of the scientific community, is because she has this particular body, because she has a female body, and that if she had had a male body, she wouldn't be in this position. But because she's female, she has found herself losing everything. So, the audience has to be constantly making these choices about what is order and what is chaos confronted with the fact that we are only in this situation because the body standing in front of them is a female one. That is the only reason.
So, for me it was about really highlighting what it’s like to really put yourself out there in a community and be incredibly vulnerable, and to take chances and risks and to have to deal with the repercussions, which are not always positive. We tried the game without nudity, and found that it really makes all the different to see that it is this body going through the story and also I'm about to ask the audience to do things that scare them. So, in order to do that, I had to put myself out there first and do something that scares me. And it’s... we find that if you want the audience to, on a scale of one to ten, if you want them to do something that is a four that scares them, then as a performer I'd better be ready to go to a ten, and be able to set that example to say you're not alone. I'm not throwing you into the deep end. We're all in this together.
Magda Nassar: I think that worked really well in your presentation. I would have to say that. Yeah.
Jessica Creane: Good. I'm glad to hear that.
Magda Nassar: Well, I read the following statement in your work, so given what you just said maybe you can clarify what you meant by that. It says, or you said, "It may feel that we are sliding into chaos, but all too often, we are slipping into excess of order." Given Dr. Saoch's situation, explanation... what you just said, is there a relationship between what you said and that statement, or maybe you can clarify for us what you meant by that?
Jessica Creane: Absolutely. Yeah. I think a lot of the situations that we find ourselves in that feel chaotic, when we feel that things are chaotic, we want to have orderly situations, but the more that we try to create order, we are actually creating an internal chaos and the more that we attempt to create chaos, the more we realize we're actually creating orderly situations. I think a good example of this is actually just gendered bathrooms. Gendered bathrooms are set up so that there is a particular order in the world, but actually it creates this internal chaos for a lot of people who don't feel like they fit into either of those norms. So, the more we try and order the world and say this thing goes in this box, and this thing goes in this box and there is no space in between to be making any other choices, then we, by creating all of these orders in the world, we actually find that we are making things much more difficult for ourselves, and creating situations in which we are going to feel internal conflict and uncertainty and chaos, when we can't always adhere to those norms.
I think by this idea that we are ... yeah, I think order is really just in a way, in a lot of ways it sort of like a false sense of security. The world is always throwing uncertainty at us. So, we can either try and block that, with this sense of order and this sense that we can control things, or we can embrace the fact that change is always going to be occurring, and then that way we don't have to structure quite so many things as long as we can keep rolling with whatever situation comes along.
Magda Nassar: Yeah, your game of drawing the perfect circle, where you had six or a few people playing with you the perfect, how to do, to draw a perfect circle, or to draw a perfect circle I may say, really made the point that you can be on a team and you think everybody's like you, but they come from a completely different place. And if you want to do a simple thing, as simple as drawing a circle, you may not be able to do that, because all the interferences and chaos that can come your way. It was very interesting to watch that game.
Jessica Creane: And you saw one of the more subdued ones. We usually have a lot more of colloquial chaos in that game, but actually this week's group was very calm I thought. Still some chaos, but definitely an efficient chaos.
Magda Nassar: Yeah. For our audience, if you wanna learn more about what Jessica and I talk about, just google. I don't know what they should google to get the game for drawing a perfect circle or ...
Jessica Creane: Yeah, they would have to come and see the show. It's the only place where the game exists.
Magda Nassar: Okay. Here we go, because I agree. Some of the videos I've seen with other teams and other presentations, were more chaotic and more, more alive than what we had a couple of days ago, but it was still interesting and very insightful.
Jessica Creane: It's kind of what makes the show so fun is that it is going to be completely different every time, that we go through it. Every cohort, every group of participants is wildly different.
Magda Nassar: Yeah, I can see that. Especially when you open your presentation to the audience. Audience participation. So, Jessica, in all your game and immersive theater experience, what did you think the audience resonated well with, and had the most impact on them? In the performance I watched I have my choice, but I want to hear from you and then we can compare notes. What do you think the people resonated with, and maybe in a way also surprised you?
Jessica Creane: I think the biggest, I'd say the thing I think that resonates with people the most is the end game, or that last series of games. Where participants get to make sort of larger, and larger choices about the kind of small social risks, starting with very small social risks, and growing into larger, and larger ones. And I think that's the thing that ends up being the most empowering for people.
I think the thing that surprised me most that has resonated with an audience is that people really love this character, and at a talk back a couple of months ago one person asked me if I ever let her out. If I ever take her into the world, like if I ever just don this character out of a show, and go grocery shopping as her so that she gets a chance to get out, and I thought that was pretty interesting that people really like her and they want to hang out with her, but of course, she is just me. So, she generally does not go grocery shopping. It's just me going grocery shopping. But I thought that was really interesting, and has really surprised me that people have really come to identify with her and really like her and want her to exist and succeed, and thrive in the world, which is really exciting and encouraging that this fictional character can be so resonating.
Magda Nassar: Yeah. I am surprised at that. Actually, that's a very nice surprise too. For me, from the performance that I watched, which I only watched one performance, what was really interesting to me how everybody, rallied around one of the ... Adam I should say. It’s just that everybody was cheering up for him. We don't know Adam. We never met Adam before, but he became a friend and everybody supported him, and the fact you were able to get the whole community in the theater to rally around him, was really, very impressive. I don't know how too, how did that happen. I'm trying to think how did you manage to do that and all of sudden he became the focal and everybody's cheering for him. Any insight? Can you say? Did it just happen? Or are you, actually, in your game creation, you're doing some performing, or taking the audience through a road where they end up there? Do they always end up in that place with other performances?
Jessica Creane: No. Yeah, we definitely do not always end up in that place. It is, the ending is very, very open. It's gone many, many, many different ways. So, part of it, that's part of the challenge of the piece is just staying really present in the moment for me as a performer, and just identifying really what it is that is at the heart of what someone wants in the world. So much of this piece is about identifying what you want to be moving towards in life. That might feel really scary or uncertain and feeling empowered to move towards those things, so in those last moments there have been times where it has been much more interactive with the audience providing resources. We had that happen for sure in this week's show where people were offering up, "I have this expertise. I can help you through this. Let me know. Let's exchange contact information." But sometimes really, what people really need is actually just a huge dose of social support. So, there have been a couple of times when the pieces ended in a way that was similar to this week, and I think it's probably my favorite way to end the show.
It's not always the way it is. The show has to end organically with just listening to what it is this person sort of in the hot seat is talking about, something they really need in that moment, and what we as a group can do to genuinely, truly support that at the very deepest level of figuring out why they want the thing that they want and helping to respond to not just what they want, but why they want it.
Magda Nassar: That's cool. So, maybe at this point I'm thinking we clarify to the audience that we're talking about two things here. One is the TEDxAsburyPark presentation on May 18, and also about a performance that Jessica has ... what's the title of the performance, Jessica, again?
Jessica Creane: It's called Chaos Theory.
Magda Nassar: The Chaos Theory performance. It played in New York a couple of days ago and probably there is another showing, I don't know the schedule, but people can go to your website and probably find the next or maybe you can share it with the audience now. The next performance, where and when?
Jessica Creane: We don't have a date set yet, but yes we will coming back to New York shortly.
Magda Nassar: Oh, great. So, at this point I'm wondering are there books, references, or an author you would recommend to our listeners if they want some additional perspective on chaos and your work? Now you are a chaos expert.
Jessica Creane: Let's see, I think the book that is super accessible and a really wonderful read about chaos theory, is James Gleick's book called Chaos. That made chaos theory really manageable and exciting to be researching. That was my jumping off point for a lot of the research for the piece. I reference it pretty frequently. That and Jurassic Park, of course.
Magda Nassar: Jurassic Park. I am planning to watch Jurassic Park this weekend. I have to tell you that.
Jessica Creane: Excellent. I hope that you don't have recurring nightmares for the rest of your life. That is all I can hope for anyone who watches Jurassic Park. I have to say that part of the piece does come from a personal childhood trauma.
Magda Nassar: I can see that. Many, many years ago when Jurassic Park was first out and my kids were probably ... very young, probably five to ten. I can't remember exactly. But I thought it was such a scary movie. I really didn't think it’s appropriate for kids, because they would be so scared.
Jessica Creane: Definitely not.
Magda Nassar: Although at the time it was promoted as a children’s movie. It is not.
Jessica Creane: No. My parents used to take my brother and I to “not kids” movies, pretty frequently, but even this one they said that I couldn't go and apparently five years old me found that to be unacceptable and complained greatly that if my older brother could go, so could I. So, they caved, because they loved me, and they took me to the movie theater and then I just ended up sobbing hysterically -
Magda Nassar: Oh, no.
Jessica Creane: - and had nightmares for ... up to today. I still have recurring nightmares about velociraptors.
Magda Nassar: Oh, my gosh. But you made me want to watch the movie this weekend. So, I'm going to watch it again.
Jessica Creane: Okay.
Magda Nassar: So, if the audience, if members of the audience want to get more engaged with either yourself or your ideas, how might they do that? Is there a social media or website you can tell them to go to?
Jessica Creane: Yes. My website is my name jessicacreane.com and there is a form to get in touch with me there. I absolutely want to be in touch with people. I also have a game company called Ikantkoan, i-k-a-n-t-k-o-a-n.com, that will be sort of straight to my game work. I make a lot of games about philosophy and morality and connecting strangers and just creating situations that allow people to connect deeply in the world that is sort of unexpected and strange. So, they can get in touch with me in either of those ways too. I'm a professor, so I teach game design and theater and I give talks and lectures and lead game design courses. So, all of those things are things to get in touch with me about, or just excellent life stories. I like humans. I like being in touch with excellent humans no matter what they do.
Magda Nassar: So, in conclusion I would like you to just think a little bit and tell us, what's the idea that's worth spreading. In TEDx we're all about ideas. If I may ask you to conclude by what's the idea that's worth spreading in your May 18 presentation?
Jessica Creane: I think the idea that I think is really worth spreading is the idea that we can embrace uncertainty through play. That being playful in the face of uncertainty is an option to us and that we don't have to be afraid of the unknown, but we can really treat it like a game and say something unknown is coming for us and it's going to be exciting, and we have everything that we need to meet this challenge as long as we meet it with a playful attitude.
Magda Nassar: Anything else you would like to share with the audience that I haven't covered, or you would like to bring up?
Jessica Creane: Nothing comes to mind.
Magda Nassar: Okay.
Jessica Creane: Excellent question.
Magda Nassar: Oh, it's been really, really interesting for me to learn about your work, and to meet you. I would like to conclude by saying thank you so much for being with us today. We really appreciate it and... looking forward for your presentation.
Magda Nassar: You've been listening to Expert Open Radio. Remember to get your ticket for the largest, highest rated TEDx conference on the East Coast. Again, TEDxAsburyPark is on Saturday, May 18 and you'll have the opportunity to hear Jessica's presentation on “Gamifying Chaos: Embracing Uncertainly Through Play”. Thank you very much.