I am wearing a blue polo-neck shirt and a charity shop brown cord skirt and I am Fiona, a spotlight shining in my eyes, sitting on an uncomfortable chair in the Science Museum in London, being interrogated. Maybe three or four hundred people have interrogated me so far today, and I have answered the same series of adversarial questions with the same series of answers and the same series of hand gestures, pleading my innocence.
Then one woman with brown hair and a serious face sits down in front of me, her face level with mine or even a little below it, to ask her questions without interrogation. I can see her eyes. She is concerned and gentle. Around her, one by one, the other adults who have come to discover this world sit down too, like five-year-olds at the feet of a schoolteacher, and I lean down and tell them Fiona’s story, but this time with relief.
My dad has come to visit me. He is in London for a few hours for a meeting that has him dressed smartly, suit and tie, but he looks smaller than I remember him. He has cancer. That word circles in the air but we do not speak it. I show him the wall where the next day’s newspaper is beginning to take shape, the room where we have morning conferences, the newsdesk. Someone asks if he is lost and I say no.
We are sitting in the cafeteria and talking about surgery and my phone vibrates on the table between us. I can read enough of the email to know that I need to open it. I open it and I am going to Australia. My dad looks at my face and asks me who died. I tell him I have been asked to go to Australia. It is the first time his smile reaches his eyes.
We take a break from the planning, the packing, the preparations. More people than I can count turn up to wish me happy birthday and to wish us both safe travels. Friends from five cities come. I cannot spend time with everyone I need to see. We empty out the 20-kilo bag of boiled sweets left over from last year’s games onto the varnished table in the upstairs room at the pub at the end of our road. We talk endlessly. I know I am going to miss these people, the family I have chosen. I have no idea how much.
It is ten hours since our plane landed. It is thirty-five since it took off. It is fifty since I last slept. I am standing in an underground room with twenty other people who have had much more sleep than Grant and I. I am at a university with a cup of tea in my hand looking at a grid map of London made from rope and nametags on the floor, working out which bits need water before they burn. Later I will make a paper sculpture before a new friend drives us to a new home and we eat kebabs and fall asleep on the sofa.
I am standing in Sydney botanic gardens in front of a tree full of rainbow birds that I never in my life thought I would see in the wild, and I am weeping.
It is dark. The new ninth-floor flat has windows on two sides and outside the city is tall and filled with wonder. We turn off our lights and stand with music playing, his arms around me, looking at the bright windows in the tall buildings and the lights glittering on the far side of the harbour. I fall asleep still staring out of the window and dream I am on a ship.
On the way to work I listen to Run Boy Run. All day it rings in my ears. We are in the morning papers roundup, despite not being a paper. Kath is on TV and I know before I see it because the graph spikes. People welcome us. By teatime I have more messages than I can respond to, than I can even read. The numbers tick up and up.
On the way home 15 hours later I listen to no music and hold a chocolate echidna in my hot hands. Grant meets me in the park and I give it to him to eat.
One week after the election. Last week we went out in 30-degree heat to a local school, where instead of dusty booths and queues there was a fair and saxophonists and bouncy castles and four different options of sausages in buns. The campaign is over. I am taking a day off, or I would be, but we have a story. I sit in the corner of our too-springy sofa while Grant plays a console game and I push buttons and pull levers and post messages and watch as a 4,500-word essay published on a Saturday morning becomes our most read story thus far, and I am proud.
I am on a stage talking about Detritus and class and gender, and no one heckles me. All weekend no one tells me I should not be there. My games count as games. My journalist’s background does not exclude me from any conversations, nor does my live game design work, nor do my many other backgrounds. I am a whole person who does and is many different things and none of those things must be excluded for me to participate, here. I eat sushi with people I only know from the internet and play games projected onto the floors and walls. It feels like coming home. And people play Detritus and tell me it moves them, and I am proud.
The work days begin to blur together, starting early and finishing late, too many exciting moments and too much to do, all of the time. It becomes routine. At times – between fires that blot out the sun and the screeching of the enormous bats – I almost forget we are on the other side of the world.
Then for a brief week the routine stops. Our closest friend visits, impossibly, and we take him to visit our Sydney: sunshine, the gardens, the beaches, the roof. We wake up each day with a new plan. Walking Darling Harbour, dumplings in Chinatown, kebabs in Manly, the ferry; a day doing nothing but sitting in, playing games, like old times when we used to live together. When he leaves I am broken, as though we have just left home a second time.
There is rainforest. There is birdsong and the beach and my parents visit. My dad is walking well. We swim and eat and watch the great blue butterflies lazily flap along the gully. There are turtles.
Everyone in this smoky room is intensely serious. We are all holding cardboard swords and axes, held aloft, pointed at one another: a battlefield. As the music begins and the Valkyries ride – plastic helmets, blonde wigs, cardboard hobby horses – we battle heroically in slow motion. I dodge a blade, twirl low, bring my axe up to strike as my opponent leaps sideways out of the way. I am tapped on one shoulder, called to die, and I die in the most epic fashion I can muster at the hands of a giggling 12-year-old boy, gurgling on the smoke-covered floor in a small room in St Kilda.
There is no turkey. It rains too much to go to the beach. We play Netrunner for hours, eat smoked salmon sandwiches, visit new friends, talk endlessly in the rain. Three days later, in short sleeves and flip flops, we walk from a friend’s house to the bus stop. The pub opposite is festooned with ridiculous Christmas lights. One looks like a car on fire. It takes us five minutes to work out it is Santa, in traditional summer gear, handing out gifts from the back of a truck.
When we heard that the Science Museum had put out a call for people interested in running live games about zombies, it seemed like a bit of a dream come true. We’ve been staging zombie games for years, and there’s little more exciting than the prospect of running around the actual Science Museum evading zombies and generally having a good time of things.
What we ended up running, though, was quite different to most of what we’ve done in the past. The Trial became a game with a very simple voting mechanic but an awful lot of deep narrative to explore. It became a peculiar kind of sociological experiment, an exploration of the ethics and morality that go along with having a zombie virus that can be cured.
The frame of the game was fairly simple. Through text display, film and actors, we set up a story: a world where the WK-23 virus had infected significant numbers of people, causing them to exhibit zombie-like behaviour. Set in the later stages of the outbreak, as the virus was being brought under control, the Trial was ostensibly staged by the Community Jury Initiative, which brought two people accused of unpleasant acts in front of the public, and asked them to pass judgement. Fiona, a cured ex-zombie, was accused of killing a man while suffering from WK-23; Clare was accused of killing a zombie, who might one day have been cured had he survived.
At the exhibit, we had stacks of cards with statements printed on them – a total of 13 statements, deliberately stark and without nuance. Fiona is guilty of murder. Clare should be released without charge. Zombies should be killed. Every entrant into the exhibit received two of these cards, and was then asked to watch a short film showing the attack in which Clare kills a zombie, and Fiona is one of a group of zombies who kill her boyfriend. Inside the exhibit were witness statements, posters, factual information about consciousness, the mind and the law, and two actors playing Fiona and Clare (I was Fiona). At the end, we placed two ballot boxes, one marked “agree” and the other “disagree”, into which people placed their statement cards once they’d made up their minds. We counted the verdicts a couple of times each session, to keep the scoreboard online up to date.
From my vantage point as Fiona, the experience was fascinating. About a third of the visitors seemed to make their minds up fairly quickly, only perusing the information briefly, and not speaking to the actors at all. Many people read almost all the information we set out, and a few spent a very long time questioning us, poring over posters, and arguing over exactly what we thought about what we had done. One man spent more than half an hour questioning the two of us individually.
The group dynamics of the game worked best when we were fairly busy – which was a good thing, given that we had about 1,500 visitors in total between Wednesday late and the two weekend days. People are braver in groups; we often found people walking around in silence until someone got up the courage to ask an actor a question; as soon as one person engaged with us, a crowd formed and we would be fielding questions from all directions. I’m indebted to our excellent crew, who both encouraged people to get involved with us, and encouraged them to discuss their thoughts with each other.
The fact we were seated on chairs while the visitors were standing genuinely affected the way people spoke to us, and the power they felt they had to question and to interrogate. Only once in the whole weekend did someone crouch down to get on the same level as me – but that ended up with me as Fiona explaining events to a group of ten or fifteen adults, sitting cross-legged on the floor around me.
The strength of emotion involved genuinely surprised me, as did the level of disagreement. Groups had heated arguments about which of us was guilty, if either. Some people flung insults at me as they walked past; others patted my shoulder and told me it was all going to be fine. Couples argued. Friends disagreed. One girl spent ten minutes trying to get me to agree that zombies were basically just like bears. A father encouraged his two sons to ask very serious questions, very carefully, before they decided together how to vote. And even though we deliberately put out no pens, a few people felt strongly enough about the ambiguity of the scenario that they found their own and wrote on the cards we gave them, so they could make their own responses.
I was very proud of the event. I owe a big thank you to Chris Farnell, who wrote an enormous amount of material for the game, Alina Sandu, who made it look gorgeous, Ellen Clegg, who played Clare and became increasingly Daily Mail as the weekend progressed, Grant Howitt, who was front of house and wrote background and script, and George Seed and Matt Barnes, who crewed the event and gave me the most appropriate and necessary coffee of my life thus far.
We got people talking – we made something serious, something big and difficult, and in the middle of a massively fun and light-hearted event we asked people to think about a complex, tricky issue. They responded wonderfully well, with nuanced thinking, complicated questioning, role-play, interest, and intelligence. And in the end, it transpired – terrifyingly – 67% of people who were asked said they’d kill another human being, if that human was a zombie at the time. I think that’s valuable to know.