Game is a word that gets used a lot in improvisation. A lot. And being a wordy kind of guy, I am always cautious of words that get overused.; they get rough around the edges, lose their function. I like my words precise. Let’s start by defining the four most common uses of ‘game’ in improvisation. I am sure there are others, but this is a good start.

  1. Short-form games – familiar to anyone who has ever seen ‘Whose Line is it Anyway’, these are pre-set structures originally created as training tools, but which are great to watch. Maybe each line starts with the last word of the previous line (to work on listening), or you can only say a set number of words (to work on brevity and subtext). They often make the audience feel like they are in on the joke, playfully torturing the player. These games are not always scenic. In fact, there are many categories, including line games (where players stand in a line and step forward to contribute a line or idea), naive games (where a character must guess a particular piece of information) or elimination games (where players are, you guessed it, eliminated one by one). These games are very accessible and can create a solid show even with inexperienced players.
  2. Games slots – a part of the Harold format, game slots sit between the sets of three scenes and often involve the whole company. Games pull together the strands of the piece, break the rhythm of two-person scenes and can give a new angle on what is going on. These can be set games (even short-form games as above), or created in the moment. A memorable recent game saw the players come on one by one and name what Pantone colour they were and the name, then swirl and mix themselves into a painting and describe what we could see.
  3. Game of the scene – a way of playing scenes often associated with UCB in the US and the FA in the UK. ‘Game’ in its simplest form means scenes in which a particular aspect of a character’s behaviour is repeated and escalated. You might choose a trait, say ‘happy’ and connect it with a person, say an astronaut. The game of the scene is to find more and more ways for the astronaut to be happy. ‘I can’t believe I am finally going into space. Wheeee!’, ‘Look at me, mum. I’m eating freeze-dried ice cream!’,. The fun of this is to find the most extreme expression of happiness as an astronaut (‘An alien is coming out of my chest – just like in the movies!’’) and that is often the end of the scene. While it is definitely not the only way to play (some people find it very restrictive), it makes for very funny scenes.
  4. Just Plain Games – a much larger and vaguer category, which can include basically anything you might play in an improv class. Big booty, Zip Zap Zop, 8 things. You know the ones. Improv Encyclopedia has hundreds, of varying quality. There are word games, circle games, failure games, rhyming games, physical games, abundance games, and games where you create games.

But what makes them all games is a restriction of freedom. You don’t just do whatever you like, you follow the rules, whether they are set beforehand or created in the moment. Indeed, you could say that the rules of the game are the game, and by playing by them the game is created. By this way of thinking about it, a game and an exercise are the same thing. A game just sounds more fun.

Outside of improv, of course, the word game is often associated with some form of competition. But they are still restrictions of freedom. By agreeing to play rugby, you only throw the ball backward. In chess, your pawns move one square forwards (unless it is their first move or they are taking an opponent’s piece). In a computer game, the restrictions of freedom are hidden behind the code, but they are still there. For all the fact that we ‘play’ a game, they are governed and defined by a list of things you can’t do. The difference is that board games, computer games, and sports normally have win/loss conditions, or at least indicators of how well you are doing. But by playing the scene of the happy astronaut, you still give up the right to be sad, or confused, at least for now.

To many people, this way of thinking about a game feels like a straitjacket. Stop telling me what I can and can’t do, this is meant to be my fun time! Surely, in improv, you can just do whatever you like? Well, yes, you can. But others might not want to play with you. Because games are a social tool. In playing a game, we are setting expectations with the people we are playing with. Creating a micro-culture, using the rules to find each other and cooperate.

Because the counterintuitive thing is that giving up part of your freedom can feel wonderful. Steeping into a game (games must have a start and an end), we take a short holiday from the terrifying complexity of reality, with its ill-defined rules, infinite players, and unclear criteria for success. We agree to a smaller, organised playing field and a set of people we are playing with. The choices are fewer and oddly, that increases the joy.