A cross-cultural collaboration produces a neat new game for simulating running arts events and facilities.
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Picture this. You have been given the dream appointment of managing a state-of-the-art interdisciplinary arts centre designed to advance creativity into the future.

Now comes the hard part of finding how to make the right decisions to reflect global and local events in your programming taking into account a host of mission statement principles, social values and community standards.
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Any misstep can lead to negative results ranging from declining attendance to inadequate financing, staffing challenges, global reactions and more. If only there was a way to game what the outcomes of different decisions could be with a digital simulator.

Now thanks to a multinational project coming out of the Embassy of France to Canada, and France’s Réseau des indépendants de la musique (RIM) and Union Fédérale d’Intervention des Structures Culturelles (UFISC), in partnership with the Alliance Française of Vancouver, Art of Festivals and Vancouver’s Centre for Digital Media, such a platform exists. Available in both official languages, The Future Arts Centre — Serious Game aims to hone key skills for success in the challenging field of operating arts and cultural events and spaces.

Vancouver-based French cultural attaché Alexandre Col led the development of the game that is licensed under Creative Commons for universal use. The concept dates back a decade or so to a discussion Col and a colleague had about the need for different ways to work on arts and cultural projects — from new festivals to venues — that would permit multiple outcome simulations taking into account decisions made in areas of five spheres of action: Strategy and policy, artistic programming, governance, people including staff and the public, and the physical space and equipment.

An additional two general categories were added to consider other challenges that could come in the future that were more random, such as unforeseen crisis and energy.

“That discussion was about how to embrace all the complexity of the cultural field, from jobs and locations to all of the issues and perspectives challenging those involved,” said Col. “We wanted something that was as inclusive as could be using the concept of a serious game — not exactly a thing you play, but also not strictly a training tool — which we thought was the right direction to go. The first prototype, Fait Acompli, was developed last year and was related to aspects of managing a theoretical music festival.”

Happy with the results of that trial tool, a more ambitious concept was proposed. Experts from both France and Canada were consulted to draft up a lengthy and complicated list of criteria that could, or should, be incorporated into the final offering. Bringing in issues of corporate social responsibility and respect for UNESCO’s declaration of cultural rights to play a central role in the simulation was obvious. Adding in an option of “the world shuts down due to the COVID pandemic” was not.

“We have indicators on the screen which reflect the consequence of actions, say deciding to take a high- or low-tech approach to operations,” said Col. “Most would immediately assume high-tech would be the best, but say something like the war in Ukraine comes along and energy costs soar and suddenly your indicators are all way off your initial estimates. The idea is to play through multiple times to really exercise your options and come up with best-case scenarios.”

Jason Elliott, the Centre for Digital Media supervising teacher on the project, says coming up with the final working model was a fantastic challenge for his students. He had previously worked on the music festival prototype project.

“Both games are based upon managerial principles, so we were trying to make a tool for people involved in the field, but also stimulating to use like a game,” said Elliott. “The team did a lot of its own research with all kinds of people in the arts and cultural sector to focus in on what major organizational problems does a forward-facing, future arts centre have in determining which artist to book, which topic to exhibit and so forth. It was a 13-week project from start to finish to do all the preliminary work right down to a design experience to go through.”

Not only did the students manage to come up with a finished product that can be taken through multiple rounds of gameplay for the entire experience, Elliott estimates a minimum of 40 minutes’ time to run a complete session, which he considers a fantastic result in the time frame imposed on his students. Even demoing the product randomly took at least 10 minutes to run through.

“You aren’t going to ‘win’ this game, but the core experience should give you a solid sense of running an arts centre and the challenges involved, and be engaging throughout,” he said. “Honestly, it wasn’t so at the beginning because it felt more like filling out a Google survey. The biggest difference between the two was that the first iteration was a single-day music fest with a lot of immediate decisions with instant rewards, such as dealing with reuniting a lost child with its parents, which is far harder to build into a long-term quarter-by-quarter or annual concept.”

In truth, both Col and Elliott admit that the game isn’t one you “win.” Any decision that you make will produce different results that can be seen as positives or negatives to the future of your gallery or venue. As long as the doors remain open, you win.

Hopefully, someone involving The Future Arts Centre — Serious Game might not make the kind of choices in the real world that result in the clear loss of the doors closing for good.

sderdeyn@postmedia.com

twitter.com/stuartderdeyn

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