Tonight I attended a performance of World Factory at the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich. Or I participated in a running of it because this is not a show but a participatory experience. It is a moderated game of Fighting Fantasy set in the real world to explore the dynamics of running a clothing manufacturer in China. Wrapped around this are some presentations of oral histories of workers in the twentieth century clothing factories of England and China.
When we entered the theatre the stage was covered with 16 tables with four office chairs and a desk light at each. The tables were up against plywood boundaries that created a corridor that linked them all. At the back of the stage and above the unused banks of seating hung two cinema-sized screens facing each other. For this run about 45 people occupied the 64 spaces; we were a table of just two. Many of the attendees looked bewildered at first but a screech attracted our attention as an AV presentation started on the big screens. Four uniformed actors entered as catwalk models before starting to deliver quotes from free market advocates from the twentieth century. This sequed into reminiscences by workers from factories in Bradford and Hong Kong. Then, while the simple rules of the game were explained, the actors began to open the boundary walls to access shelving from which they withdrew red boxes and distributed one to each table. The rules explained that we had a file of cards representing individual workers, bank notes representing capital to the value of 100,000 groats, and sundry other components that would be used later. We were given a card with text on one side and one or two bar coded options on the other. Our first decision was whether to reduce already low wages or sack workers to manage the rising costs of operation. There was no other information. It felt a bit like some of the early fan versions of Fighting Fantasy: 'You come to two doors: Choose the red door and go to page 217; Choose the blue door and go to page 183.' Having made our choice we used a scanner on the appropriate barcode and handed the card to the actor who was running our game and three others. Sometimes we had to wait for the dealer's (or the 'GM' in rpg language) attention; sometimes the game's automated infrastructure enforced a wait; sometimes we handed over money or worker cards. The dealer would then draw the appropriate numbered card from the ordered deck arrayed on the shelves and hand this across with cash, workers, or real items of clothing that we had to hang on a rack nearby. The whole process was managed by an electronic system that instructed the dealers through a simple video interface and ensured that all games ran at the pace of the slowest team. There was a lot of downtime but there were also frequent variations in the play such as an interruption to choose a new name for the factory (which had no effect on the game) or to decide how much bonus to pay the workers (which appeared to have no effect on the game beyond removing cash from it). The individual cards felt rich and personalised; when a worker was named we received a photograph of that worker, which we chose to file with the matching worker card. The stories around the decision points felt authentic but we had no significant data upon which to make decisions and there was no reason to be strategic when the dealers occasionally thieved money or made unexplained apparently random additional payments.
After a little over an hour the simulation ended abruptly and the dealers packed everything away as we waited the next event. This was a few more oral histories before the actors ran behind a curtain and made small talk as voices off while they changed into costumes using the clothes from the racks that we had filled. Statistics from this performance wrre then recited. Interestingly, it was not simply who had made the most money or the most clothes; other figures included levels of factory improvements, working conditions, and raw material consumption. Finally each actor presented a short husting speech promoting a possible strategy for the clothing industry. The audience then voted by giving game cash to the actor whose stance they supported. If the counting accuracy of our nearest actor was any guide, the outcome was unreliable but as with the whole event, it was not the details that counted but the thoughts behind them.
The show was thought-provoking and, with better time management, it could be consistently interesting but it will never make a very good game.