Skip to main content

A Psychogeography Of Games #2: Holly Gramazio

Walk And Talk

She is 25 years old. She stands in an airport in dusty cold air pushed through air conditioning units, a suitcase checked in half an hour before. 3 archive-style boxes, twice the size of a large shoebox, will follow.

It’s 1991 and she is 10. A legionnaire’s hat hides her head from the Adelaide sun. Blue and white checked dress, a windcheater with the school logo. She stands on a bench and instructs her playmates that Five Step Find-It is now called Six-Step Seek It, explains the improved rule-set.

In 24 years, in the summer of 2015, this girl will tell me that in England we call windcheaters ‘sweaters’.

She’ll tell me about the fear crossed with anger at the prospect of losing her language - words like bottle-o, Lamington, a notion of what ‘hot weather’ really entails (is your house in danger of being on fire? Then no, it isn’t hot.) She’ll tell me that she misses pelicans, Morton Bay fig trees, proper pies.

September 2006, the airport left behind, Holly travels across London to pick up a set of keys to her first flat in the Northern Hemisphere. She arrives in Battersea, puts her suitcase down.

Freight! A game for packing.
You are moving to a new country
you are moving to a new continent
you are moving to a new hemisphere
you can take with you only one suitcase, and three boxes
One box will be lost in transit, you don’t know which one.

Holly Gramazio is the second of six game designers I will walk with as part of this series on the psychogeography of games. If you enjoy it, please back it on Patreon.

[Photo by Brian Hartley.]

Psychogeography is a big chewy word the Situationists used in 1955 to talk about how the landscape of our lives affects how we feel, think and act. I’m particularly interested in how the geography of our lives affects how we make games - the psychogeography of our games. So, in 2015, I’m going on a series of walks with some of my favourite game designers, in places that affect them.

This article is about Holly, but it’s also about London - about being an incomer to the city. London is where Holly started, and has now been designing games for a decade.

Incomer - a game for London
Say you’re never going to move to London
Talk about how rubbish it is how everyone moves to London
Post smug things on social media every time you get home from London
Accidentally move to London
Feel guilty
Feel horrible
Feel like you know you’ll never last the year
Feel penned in
Feel invisible
Have a moment where everything is frightening and beautiful
Make friends
Find work that you just couldn’t find elsewhere
Spend more than half your income on rent
Meet beautiful, brilliant people.
Get angry at having to wait 8 minutes for a bus.
Realise what you have become.

We start our walk in Battersea Park, a short way from where Holly lived for 6 years when she first moved to London. The plan had been to move there initially, then find somewhere cheaper to go to, but that’s not happened yet. She tells me about a guided tour she gave of the play-history of Battersea Park - the first ever game of football played to FA rules was played there. She tells me about meeting squirrels for the first time, and blackbirds.

“I got to know blackbirds in Battersea, there were blackbirds that came and visited our little patio, one of my housemates would go and give them sultanas and they eventually got so entitled that they would come and literally tap on the window […] like, “Where are our sultanas?”

How to be a Blackbird is a game that features a cameo of Holly’s Battersea flat patio. How to be a Blackbird is a Twine game that weaves Holly’s background in online literature - awareness of the way the hyperlink shapes experience - timing, suspense, the ability to wander - with subtle sound and visual design. In it she describes perfectly that glossy winged entitlement that comes with being an ex-dinosaur with the power of flight in the biggest city in the land. It is also delicately and earnestly about love; love through the eyes of instinct.

Holly designs for both digital and real-world play. I’m interested in the way place and space affects her real-world game design, and how that seeps into the digital work she makes.

We make our way out of the park to Battersea Park station. We wait for the green man to light our crossing. We find a useful train to Waterloo only a minute from departing, Holly says:

“play is […] one of the main ways that humans relate to spaces.”

In 2007 Holly went to the first ever Hide&Seek festival - she experienced a city-wide chasing game called Journey to the End of the Night which fundamentally changed her relationship to the city. A year later she joined Hide&Seek, and set up their Sandpit - an experimental game design community.

Our train traces her commute from her early years at Hide&Seek. The sky breaks through the buildings and suddenly the river shimmers beneath us. It is in these moments the scale of London is both human and overwhelming.

How to be a river.
reflect the sky
remember when you were thinner
remember when you were bigger
when you would swell and shrink and slink over the earth
imagine tripping over curbs, stumbling across pavements.
Joining puddles like dots to draw
silty pictures, before you were herded into
ditches, drawn into this coarse brick corsetry.

You are sky water.
Flicker, in and out of
light scattered the colour of
blue jay, peacock, beetle shells, oil slicks.
You escape the clutches of cameras.

Watch a squashed up human wet her hand on the
cold glass as her train passes over you.
The city split wide

I’m interested in Holly because she made a new home in a way I can’t imagine doing. Her other-ness is part of her relationship to the city around her - as we get off the train at Waterloo she talks to me about how she knows more about the history of London than she does Adelaide – “mostly because I didn’t have this personal history with the place.” Her otherness allows her to see details and idiosyncrasies that locals might not see because they are ‘ordinary’ – to bring them out through game design, to unpick, observe, question.

As we walk along Holly talks about all of the many physical games she’s designed for London’s south bank. She says she designs games by standing somewhere, and looking “and going ‘what’s interesting about this place’ - historically, buildings, structures … what is an emotional or visual moment I want to construct. [I form the game] backwards from that moment.”

[A picture of a tiny game by hide&seek, on the pavement. Photo by Steve Pugh (cc)]

There is a puckishness - a mischievousness about her style of real-world game design, which enriches Holly’s digital games too: the puffed up pride of the blackbird in How To Be… or her blockpushing game Pornography for Beginners — another subversion of space. It takes the tutorial aesthetic of blockpushing games; those ridiculous logics; and applies them to new pornography laws in the UK that say it’s legal to portray e.g. male ejaculate, but not female. The use of the space of the form ‘blockpusher’ exposes the arbitrary policing of desire in UK statute books.

And finally, Holly also tells me that she relates game design to poetry.

“The idea that it’s a way of folding down a thing you have noticed, thought or experienced about the world into as compact and memorable a way as you can, and then putting it into someone else’s head and body for them to unfold.”

Games are played in bodies as well as heads – even the ones for consoles and keyboards.

In 1984, Michel de Certeau said:

“The ordinary practitioners of the city live “down below,” below the thresholds at which visibility begins. […] whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban “text” they write without being able to read it. These practitioners make use of spaces that cannot be seen; their knowledge of them is as blind as that of lovers in each other’s arms. The paths that correspond in this intertwining, unrecognised poems in which each body is an element signed by many others, elude eligibility.” (p.93)

The city is not just a space, it is built with and of our actions and those of other people. We think we know the city. We can follow it on maps and smartphones, but the experience of it is something else.

Holly’s practice is signed by London, and of the act of understanding physical space. She scrawls, folds, re-folds it. The city is not a ruleset, it is an unfolding, it is in play. She sees this.

Read this next