One of the most important gifts I have given to myself is the “My Reality Test”. It is a reflection method for checking whether something corresponds to my reality. By “reality” I mean checking whether our shared “socially-constructed realities” corresponds to my own lived and unlived realities. It is a question I ask myself when considering creative processes, and interactions with people:
“Does this fit/vibe/cohere/embody/resonate/match with my reality,
or the reality I want?”
The very act of asking this question recognises that I have my own reality, that it can be and is different to others, that it is as important as others’ realities, that I have a choice around my engagement with other people’s realities, and that I can nurture new realities. After living without some of these premises for years, this is a very different way of approaching life. Why?
There are apparent “truths” around us. For example apparent “truths” of society: only men and women should marry, oh and men and women should marry. And “truths” of creative practice: the only way to make money is to appeal the lowest common denominator, oh and making money is an end in itself. If you have not internalised some of these apparent “truths” of society, then you may at times have fallen into a muted existence. That is: there is talking going on in your head about what you see and feel, but it isn’t heard…and it isn’t spoken. There is a discontinuity between your inner world and outer world, and that is not always expressed.
The “My Reality Test” is a way to make observing discontinuity or continuity important, and to do so by regularly contrasting your outer reality with inner reality.
It is so easy to think that what is outside of us, out there in the world, has a higher status than what is inside. Films, TV shows, games, books, news, social media, they’re all saying X is important. I therefore must make it important to me. Indeed, we go further, and often think what is outside of us is not just more important but also is disconnected from the subjective, from the personal. Our creative processes, our documentation practices, our pipelines, our strategies, our techniques, they become “best practices” for all even though they worked well for some. And the reason they worked well is not necessarily because they are better. They worked because it worked with people that shared their way of seeing the world. Was it checked with people who have very different ways of seeing? Indeed, beneath the apparent pervasiveness of many appealing works and approaches is a false audience—a part of the audience that feels the need to be compliant in taking on a reality they do not share. That is the lie of the status quo mass market.
So it is important we remind ourselves that our creative works and our processes are not disconnected from the human mind, from the personal, from the Self. Realities are not concrete. They are changeable. And realities are not molasses. They are not irrecoverably sticky. I can recognise someone else’s reality without having to take it on. The “My Reality Test” questions “commonsense” and standards, and opens the door for creating alternatives.
An example will help ground this proposition further. I applied this to the narrative technique of the “inciting incident”, and in particular how it is often encouraged to be a moment in which an external force provokes a change in a protagonist’s world. Through the popularity of Christopher Vogler’s tweaking of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, there is also the accompanying idea that a call comes to a hero and then “he” refuses it.
Now, when I checked whether this matches with my reality the answer was “no!”. Firstly, if I was called to train in the ways of the force and help save some people, I would not be worried about leaving my suburb. For fuck’s sake. What kind of nitwit turns down that? Oh, a protagonist that needs to grow? Yep, well I still need to grow even when I answer such calls.
And how about that inciting incident? Sure, there are times when external events have changed my life. My mum’s sudden death is a good one. A good example, and a good death. But for the majority of my life, major life changes have been self-driven. I have often searched for a new way of seeing the world without being shocked into it.
I researched this approach to change and found that yes, there are plenty of studies into how people transform like this. But it was only until I contrasted the belief around the technique against my own reality that I saw the disconnect and discovered a structure that rings true. For most of my life I have executed according to the rules in order to see if they really do work. But it isn’t until we check these rules with ourselves that we see if they work for us.
Since that inciting incident discovery, I have been working on developing a “first-person transformation journey” (I did a recent short podcast about this with Simon Staffans). This is a structure I use in the creation of my projects, and as an analysis tool when assessing effective projects. It is also, the way I change as a person. Technique, documentation, processes are not distinct from the personal.
Now that is an example of a “My Reality Test” not vibing with my current reality. What about the second part of my question, the reality I would like to have?
Here is an example I am investigating at the moment: I want to design a way to address unwanted and unintended contributions by players in my improvisation storytelling game DIYSPY. I have not observed such contributions in the playtests so far. But I am aware that it can happen. So i want to be proactive.
There are preventative and restorative design approaches I can take to do this. On the preventative side, the game is designed to be prosocial, with cooperation as a key factor, backed up with an emphasis on a collective entertaining experience (a party game) above all else. In other words, unlike some party games, the design does not encourage or give a reason be nasty to each other, even in jest.
But, the game is also drawing on improvisation. This means going with what is in your mind in that moment. Improvisation moves you away from self-consciousness to revealing your thoughts.
Now, all of us have unconscious bias operating and wonky scripts from our past. Just the other day, I was doing an improv session with a stranger and said a response that doesn’t fit with how I consciously think/or prefer to think. We were doing a “3 Lines” scene, where one person offers a line and action, the next comes back with a response that takes those and adds a bit more (“Yes, and…”), and then we resolve it with another element. The offer that was given to me was “Mum, why are you wearing my jeans?” in an upset manner. (I was wearing jeans, and I was older than all the improvisors.) My response was the line “Because I think they look better on me!”. What a terrible thing to say! I don’t like that thinking. I thought that as a teenager I’m sure, and that thought does come to mind at times. But I recognise it as a wonky way of viewing the world and work to excise it.
So it is kind of true in the sense it has been a thought. There was nothing personal about that line though. It is a line echoed everywhere: women compete, and women compete with their appearances. I was saying a script that I had internalised and not fully excised. It wasn’t me. So it isn’t really the reason why I would wear someone else’s jeans. An authentic response would be “I still haven’t washed all my jeans and these are great!” Indeed, in Viola Spolin’s pivotal book on improvisation first published in 1963, Spolin gives a definition of the Self:
“[The Self] [r]efers to the natural part of ourselves; free of crippling mores, prejudices, rote information, and static frames of reference; that part of us capable of direct contact with the environment; that which is our own nature; the part of ourselves that functions free of the need for approval/disapproval; cutting through make-up, costume, rags, mannerisms, character, junk jewelry, etc., that make up the covering (survival clothes) of self; self must be found before one can play; playing helps find self […]” (391)
However, if I suppressed my initial thought then I would be self-censoring, which in turn thwarts the free-flowing mindset needed for improvisation and play. This is also the justification you hear from comedians who tell sexist, homophobic, transphobic, racist, and ableist jokes. That self-censorship ruins comedy. There is truth to this claim. The problem is that truth isn’t accompanied with another truth…
What is the initial truth? Self-censorship does inhibit comedy. It inhibits improvisation. It can inhibit creativity in general. How? While there has been research into this phenomenon before (and many artists know this anyway), recent neuroscience can give us an insight into what might be happening. In 2003, Dr Arne Dietrich proposed the notion of “transient hypofrontality”. What the words of the theory mean is that there is a temporary (transient) reduction (hypo) of activity in front part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex (frontality). Then, in words of Dietrich, the implication of this reduced activity is “the temporary downregulation of hyper-analytical and metacognitive processes which – oftentimes needlessly – limit the solutions space in a creative endeavor”.
In tests that have been run with comedians, jazz improvisors, and rap artists, the results have supported this notion. In particular, the studies have found it is the “Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex” (DLPFC) that is the culprit, or the one that is less or inactive during the generation of jokes, jazz improvisation, and freestyle rapping. It is this area in which self-monitoring happens, and impulse control. It is the area where self-doubt happens. Whereas an improvisational state is not directed by the self, it is not driven by volition, it does not direct the search. Instead it allows more unusual or spontaneous combinations and responses.
So it would seem that self-censorship is the province of DLPFC, that part of the brain we don’t want involved when we produce novel creations. Does this mean comedians that make sexist jokes are deactivating their prefrontal cortex? Not necessarily. I have not found research as yet on the parts of the brain activated by sexist, etc thinking, and its relationship to improvisation. (Let me know if you have any related research to offer!) I see exclusionary thinking as being a construction, not endemic to the human condition. Therefore I know there is another truth that comes after the realisation that self-inhibition thwarts a creative state of mind. A truth that unfortunately too many choose to stop at. The next truth is that there is way to be creative and not produce work that is soaked in unconscious (or conscious!) bias. Plenty of artists throughout time have managed to do that. This is my reality.
Firstly, a note that studies have also shown that amateur improvisors do engage in a top-down search for ideas, driven by their own volition, rather than allowing anything to emerge. The latter is characteristic of experienced improvisors, who know it doesn’t work to attempt to match or make work or make funny a moment. So our comedians with terrible minds may just be searching what is in the front of their mind. How do we deal with the unconscious bias though?
Interestingly, there are two approaches in improvisation: “don’t think” or “third thought”. The “don’t think” approach is presumably to help activate “transient hypofrontality” and letting anything out. While the “third thought” (championed by Del Close) approach is not about censorship, but about allowing silences and moments to pass so you move beyond the first thought.
“He wanted players to take their time, to break the joke-based rhythm of comedy. He wanted players to wait for the third thought, rather than simply respond to the first. For Close, the first thought would be a knee-jerk reaction, whereas the third thought would bring more truth, depth, honesty, and ultimately, humor to the scene.” (The Comedy Improv Handbook, 2015, p. 21)
You’re open to more thoughts, and the thoughts unfolding you, rather than you filtering them. This is an important distinction. With preventative design, one way to facilitate this is to remove time-limited play. At first I included time-limited play to make sure people were not slipping into self-awareness and self-doubt. By imposing a time constraint I was encouraging them to react in the moment. But what about responding in the moment? How many games are just facilitating reactive play? I will run playtests without the time constraint and see what happens. (Note, this needs to be done with other design constraints as well, it doesn’t work on its own.)
So this is another preventative design method, along with the others I already have in place such as prosocial design, cooperation, collaborative play, no-conflict scenarios, and so on.
But there are some limits to what I can achieve with a short game. If players coming in have never questioned their own thoughts, then they may blurt out the yuckiest stuff. And as I mentioned earlier, all of us have husks of scripts still playing, that may splurge out. How to to deal with the unwanted and unintended ideas? I’m interested in facilitating improvisation from our best selves…which to me means your authentic self.
This is where restorative design approaches come in. An example is a tool in the role-playing game scene called the “X-Card” by John Stavropoulos:
“The X-Card is an optional tool (created by John Stavropoulos) that allows anyone in your game (including you) to edit out any content anyone is uncomfortable with as you play. Since most RPGs are improvisational and we won’t know what will happen till it happens, it’s possible the game will go in a direction people don’t want. An X-Card is a simple tool to fix problems as they arise.”
There is also the helpful “Lines and Veils” approach by Ron Edwards (a good write-up here), where you establish for instance what lines we all agree to not cross in the game. But this is more preventative design and does not work as well for the improvisation context where inauthentic unconscious thoughts could be shared.
How you choose to deal with the X-Card when it is invoked is up to the players. But it usually can either go into the direction of a discussion, or just a deleting or removal of the previous contribution. And then the game continues. It isn’t just used for problematic thoughts too. It can be invoked for any quick live editing, if everyone agrees.
This is where the “My Reality Test” gives me two paths to take. The X-Card approach of doing a quick removal corresponds with my own experience in dealing with abusers and bullies. Depending on the scenario, I block, do “no contact,” withdraw, and have at times wished these kinds of people never existed in the world. While the “deleting” of the contribution in a game is not the same, there is a overlap in the sanity and safety they provide. This is often an essential action.
But then there is the other question I ask myself: is it the reality I want? And the answer is no. I have been researching the different techniques people use to repress and attack others who live a reality that is different to the supposed agreed status quo. One of those tactics is “nihilation”, as described by social scientists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann:
“Nihilation, in its turn, uses a similar machinery to liquidate conceptually everything outside the same universe. This procedure may also be described as a kind of negative legitimation. Legitimation maintains the reality of the socially constructed universe; nihilation denies the reality of whatever phenomena or interpretations of phenomena do not fit into that universe. This may be done in two ways. First, deviant phenomena may be given a negative ontological status, with or without a therapeutic intent. […] The conceptual operation here is rather simple. The threat to the social definitions of reality is neutralized by assigned an inferior ontological status, and thereby a not-to-be-taken-seriously cognitive status, to all definitions existing outside the symbolic universe.” (The Social Construction of Reality, 132, original emphasis)
In other words, to engage in nihilism is to deny the reality of another and regard them as having a radically inferior status. For instance, the idea that homosexuals, or women, (insert X, Y, Z), people are sub-human.
The reverse can also be invoked: people who attack gay people are also sub-human. Though the power dynamics are certainly not the same, the consequences are not the same, and at times this view is needed. I personally have needed to not regard my attackers as equal human beings because it was that thought led to me being physically and emotionally abused. I interpreted their actions not as malicious but as foibles, as flaws of character to be worked out (and that is how they often frame it too), rather than intentional. For a period I needed to see them as sub-human to disengage from the abusive loop. I understand now that the problem wasn’t that I was seeing them as equal, the problem was that I was seeing myself as lesser.
We are all at different stages, with different ways of seeing at different times. I am thinking therefore, that I want to be able to offer methods that work for different points of need. And the future need I’m talking about is one in which I personally don’t invoke a denial or deletion of another reality either.
How can this work though? There is actually another improv technique that helps here. It is, interestingly, the notion of reality negotiation. That is, in improvisation the initial offer someone makes (a line of dialogue and an action) is a “base reality”. The principle of “agreement” is that you don’t block that reality and instead go with it and build on it. As Charna Halpern, Del Close, and Kim “Howard” Johnson explain:
“Each new initiation furthers the last one, and the scene progresses. The acceptance of each other’s ideas brings the players together, and engenders a ‘group mind’. Denying the reality that is created on stage ends the progression of the scene, and destroys any chance of achieving a group consciousness. [NP] Denials are taboo in improvisation.” (Truth in Comedy, 1994, 48)
But just because you need to accept the reality exists, it does not mean you have to take it on. You can what they call “negotiate”. Below (see video) is an example from an improvised show. In the scene, one of the improvisors places one of the other improvisers (a woman) over a man, to pretend to be a organ donation. The woman did not deny the reality by saying “no that didn’t happen”. Instead, she came up with a justification that fits in that world “and the organ is rejected by the body”. Which gives her the chance to move back from her position. The other improvisors then go with this addition to the reality and throughout the rest of the show include lots of organ rejections. It becomes a game in itself.
Once again, this is used by experienced improvisors. But I am thinking of ways to include this in the standard system to normalise it, or at least make it an aspiration of play. With this approach, people’s different realities co-exist…and I am designing in a way to resonates with who I am and want to be.