Chapter IV.

Transformation Games

  Participant playing at  Secret Fiction Lab  - 2017, The Hague, NL

Participant playing at Secret Fiction Lab - 2017, The Hague, NL



Transformation Games is an artistic and political practice that attempts to re-imagine the world around us through playful social experiences. Transformation Games blend techniques of role-playing, rituals, and everyday routines into new, jointly-created experience. Using co-created alternative worlds (either provided by a Facilitator in a workshop or developed together with all participants), Transformation Games establish a society within a society using fiction as a point to distance itself from the everyday. By becoming the fictional characters in a fictional world, one’s everyday responsibilities, hierarchies, and social dynamics are temporarily suspended. This is the great power of play: it provides one the opportunity to safely interact and make decisions outside the mundane way of thinking.
The context of 'play' and the element of a 'role' or 'character' acts as a lens, through which participants can explore different personalities, communities, and realities.
Transformation Games are designed to be safe, yet powerful to undergo, keeping the fact in mind, that the experiences of the fictional and the real often overlap one another. Furthermore, Transformation Games facilitate experiences that are highly accessible (no prior knowledge or skill needed when signing up for an event) and advocate for a constant replayability of each Game - since no two are alike.

Throughout the past three years, I designed and ran several Transformation Games and Imagination Rituals (shorter experiences, with more guiding and limited participant agency). These include Patience (2016)Inside Looking Out (2016)SEE (2017)DIM (2017)COLOR (2017) and Covenant (2017). These experiences range from 20 minutes to several hours, with participant numbers reaching from 1-2 to nearly 100. Furthermore, I co-designed two experiences that are currently works-in-development: Court (2016) with Roel Heremans, and Shadows and Light (2018) with Nina Runa Essendrop, amongst others. 
In 2017, with the help of Estonian artist Marit Mihklepp, I founded Secret Fiction, a nomadic platform exploring Transformation Games through labs, workshops, talks and co-created experiences.
In 2018 I plan to move Secret Fiction from The Hague to Amsterdam, with the help of WOW Amsterdam, where I'm currently staying as Artist-in-Residence.

From all the Transformation Games made, DIM is the one closest to my heart - and the one that encompasses the direction I'd like to go towards for future Games. 


DIM is a Transformation Game for 4-20 participants, and for 5-6 hours.
It takes place in an undefined abstract space where Forms and Shadows meet. Forms and Shadows are abstract personalities that communicate mainly through their own unique body language. These personalities are developed through a guided workshop, where participants embody both Forms and Shadows using exercises in attention, breathing and movement. In the Game, Participants can switch between these two personalities, or make other participants switch. Creating and exploring these personalities as well as the space they meet in is the 'purpose' of the game.
DIM puts a lot of emphasis on subjective worlds and character-creation, resulting in vastly different outcomes every time it is played. 
Most importantly, DIM is a Game that was co-developed with participants of the first Secret Fiction Lab, in February 2017. We ran a two-week intensive session with multiple experiments, exercises, and tryouts until the Game emerged in its current form. To what extent does this effect the potential authorship of such Game is something to be explained in later chapters.

  Participants during the workshop of ' DIM ', a Transformation Game by Áron Birtalan - 2018, London, UK - photo by Jost L. Hansen

Participants during the workshop of 'DIM', a Transformation Game by Áron Birtalan - 2018, London, UK
- photo by Jost L. Hansen

How much Transformation Games are scripted is open to debate. There is always an initial structure, ensuring the participants' safety and a common language to engage in. This is what one would refer to as the rules of the Game; rules that are unalterable a non-negotiable. As with most games, these rules are not there to control (or command) agency but to facilitate agency.

That is why all Transformation Games include an introductory briefing and a workshop before going into the experience of playing. This is a learning process, through which the participants learn how to safely interact with one-another, gain an understanding of the structure of the Game, their possible roles in it, and are provided with the time and tools to tailor the Game to their own liking. Visually, this would be the drawing up of the Magic Circle, with its size and nature determined both by the initial rules and the participants’ calibration. The briefing and the workshop is set up and guided by the Facilitator, usually following a fairly strict script – or manual, for that matter.

  Participant playing at  Secret Fiction Lab  - 2017, The Hague, NL

Participant playing at Secret Fiction Lab - 2017, The Hague, NL

What follows after that is however unscripted: Once participants have all they need to go into the Game, they step into the Circle, and the Facilitator steps back from their role as a guide. This results in social situations, interactions and insights that are open-ended, unrepeatable and unique each time – making every Transformation Game vastly different each time when its run. In this phase of the Game (called Playout), the Facilitators' role is to hold the space for the participants. As a referee in the football match, they are there to oversee if the initial rules of the Game are kept, most importantly the ones regarding safety. Even though nothing bad ever really happens, due to the participants having learned enough agency to calibrate their own experience, the constant presence of a third perspective that is not 100% in the Playout is crucial.


Once being immersed in a Playout, participants are in a Liminal state of being, where the domesticated perception of time and space dissolves. Since the new reality within the Magic Circle still happens in the reality of everyday, more 'mundane' priorities need to be met in order for the Circle to sustain itself throughout the time of the experience. These priorities include making the space of the Game suitable for the participants to be in, attending practical issues and needs that might arise both from within and from outside, as well as to keep all participants at arms length, so they do not fall headfirst into situations that can be potentially harmful to them, or to the others.
Regardless of one's best effort, however, even Facilitators are limited in what they can look out for and what they can not. This is why all participants of a Transformation Game are required to share responsibility for themselves and for everyone else, voice their concerns and regularly check-in with their fellows, if everything is going okay. At the end of the day, no Game is more important than general well-being.

Rare video recording of an untitled Transformation Game, developed during Secret Fiction Lab - The Hague, 2017

Transformation Games don’t aim for a specific outcome and thus there is really no way to lose in them, unlike most games. Their function is to facilitate the Magic Circle and allow experiences to safely emerge from it. Nothing more.

This is why most Transformation Games and after a specific time, regardless of what is going on within the Circle. Once that time has come, I take back the role of the guide and bring the participants out of the Circle. We then go into what is called an after-talk, where through sharing our experiences of the playout we both provide a slow landing back to the everyday and wipe the Magic Circle off.

Since a lot of my Transformation Games are non-verbal, this moment is paramount for the participants to process what just happened. People narrate their experiences through stories and the after-talk is there to facilitate that. One soon discovers that each participant has their own, unique story, with themselves being the main character. Beyond that multiple collective stories emerge, stemming from each encounter that happened throughout the Playout.

In the end, participants end up with a large body of experiences and stories, some of which distill and reveal themselves hours, days, or even months after the Game has passed. Participants of DIM have described their own experience as being out-of-this-world, transformative and ecstatic - often coming to terms with their actions only in posterior. Furthermore, many participants gained insight into the workings of their own everyday reality, through the interactions and sensory experiences found within the Game.