Annika Olofsdotter Bergström – Levelling the playing field

Annika Olofsdotter_Levelling playing fields_Palestine

In December 2014, a team consisting of artists and marshalled by game education coordinator and industry veteran, Annika Olofsdotter Bergström embarked on a pilgrimage to Palestine as part of a project entitled Levelling playing fields – From a Space for Men’s Activities to a Space Activated by Women.

The project which was funded by the Swedish Institute/Creative force program and the Iris foundation was designed to bolster the empowerment of women in a region renowned for its hugely conservative ideology. Facing long odds is nothing new to Annika who was one of the original co-founders of Super Marit – an initiative that was started over ten years ago with the primary aim of getting more women interested and into the games industry. Here she expands on her role as project lead as well as the need to level the gender playing field.

Could you give a quick rundown of your present role and the Palestine based project?
Levelling playing fields – From a Space for Men’s Activities to a Space Activated by Women is a project founded by me, and the Italian artist duo Giuliana Racco and Matteo Guidi.
The aim of this specific project was to focus on the female stories of Arroub, a refugee camp in West Bank Palestine – and with it create a free space to allow women to activate their restricted spaces and express their interests and will to participation. We wanted to create a dialogue through games about the empowerment of women in refugee camps as well as to activate enjoyment and play among them in order to enhance meaningfulness and alternative narratives.

Before 1948 it was common for women to occupy outdoor space for both work and social activities. However, due to the conditions that developed from the precarious and restricted space of refugee camps, including the lack of privacy, there was a perceived need to close oneself and ones’ body away, bringing about an increased relegation of women solely to the domestic sphere of the shelter-house, with the consequent loss of habit of physically occupying and using one’s body in open common space. For Palestinians common is everything they share like Internet, water, air, language, knowledge, spaces and it must be activated and taken care of collectively to exist. The common is about participation and sharing.

Annika Olofsdotter_Levelling playing fields_Palestine_Stones

In 2009 the Popular Committee of Arroub and a team of fifty men took advantage of the attack on Gaza, “Operation Cast Lead” to collectively claim an unused area of land, levelling a hill to produce a flat playing field as a desire for a public place. The stadium of Arroub and its adjacent park are clearly spaces destined for the leisure and enjoyment. The stadium facing the camp and can be reached within ten minutes of walking and showing the view of the camp, a view which usually is associated and reserved for the settlements.

One woman of the camp, Hanan, was ordered by her doctor to engage in daily exercises for her weight and high blood pressure and this became the start for a movement of women walking to the stadium. The walking movement took a drastic end when young men started to gather in the stadium to harass the women. It was clear that the space in fact was limited to men and that the idea of women actively using the public space was more or less unthinkable, so the women stopped walking to the stadium.

After so many years working on a game idea with Palestinian women, taking many different shapes and which has been bounced between so many people, I finally met Giuliana and Matteo in the refugee camp Dheisheh in November 2012. We started to talk about games and play and realized that we could do something together.
When Giuliana and Matteo lived in Arroub, the strong movement of women walking and talking within the stadium fascinated them so when I met them they convined me that the space would be the perfect place for our project.

When we arrived to Arroub, the Stadium was abandoned, littered and bushes were growing high. We got to work with a group of women to activate the stadium through different playing moments including games they played as girls or games they wanted to explore.
After trying to develop some traditional stone games we all decided to take a step back and revisit what the women were originally accustomed to – walking to the stadium.

We set up a relay with two teams, Inshalla which means “God Willing”, symbolized the attitude some women had to start using the stadium and Yalla (“Let’s go”) for the other group who wanted to re-conquer the stadium.
We assigned the two teams to move in different circle directions in the stadium which created a kind of inverted infinity symbol.

In Palestine, it isn’t common for women to have their bodies freely expressive, especially not running. But in the relay several women started to run in their Palestinian dresses and scarves cause they could not hold back their delight and elation at having so much space to move without being judged. They also expressed their happiness about being together as a group reclaiming the stadium.

Annika Olofsdotter_Levelling playing fields_Stadium run group2

Why the decision to conduct the project in that region?
When I lived in San Francisco, I made a pre-study for a game about Muslim women (which never materialized). The coffee shop, in the same house where I was living with my family, was managed by a man from Palestine. We shared many conversations about his home country and how the Israelis had mowed down his family’s olive fields. It moved me and seeds of an idea began to take root inside of me for five years. In order to get a better understanding of the situation in Palestine with all the restrictions and a network I travelled to Palestine three times for different reasons. Palestine is a very fascinating country with people living under many different conditions, which fascinates me deeper everytime I go there.

The project focuses on applying game design elements in a non tech based basis, is this something you’d love to see applied and practiced in the Nordics?
In Copenhagen they have the w00t festival, which is a cross genre game festival with a lot of physical street games. In Sweden there has been a lot of different projects done on Pervasive games, Reality games and augmented reality games genre. The group Interacting arts combined live action role playing games, reality games and activism for example in the game Scene 3 which took place in tunnels under the streets of Stockholm. When looking at the live action role playing game community which is very strong in the Nordic countries, the community has evolved from medieval games to more abstract ones, testing boundaries of the mind and the psyche.

There are a lot of interesting things going on in the game world but it is often very closed to a certain game community. It would be interesting to see how the street game/ reality game genre could evolve if it takes more of a political stance involving a wider group of player (even people not usually playing), which could for example include urban planning asking questions about power, restrictions, norms and intimacy. In USA, this way of playing and using games as a process for asking question is more elaborated.

Annika Olofsdotter_Levelling playing fields_Stadium run

What’s next with regards to the project?
I have just got a PhD position at Blekinge Institute of Technology and within that frame I will continue to explore this area. I’m interested in the process of activating the body through collective play to carve out spaces for different meanings to subvert normative boundaries. I think we are so fascinated by technology and that typical interaction it creates so we kind of loose our understanding for what an action really is and how the feedback acts. I’m very inspired by game professor Mary Flanagan’s concept of Games as a social technology, which I want to dig deeper into.

Annika is on Twitter

Leave a Reply