Expert Interviews > Nikki Pugh

Nikki PughNikki Pugh is an artist whose main area of enquiry is centred around interactions between people and place, often using tools and strategies from areas such as pervasive games and physical computing to set up frameworks and rulesets for exploration. Through the Creative Partnership programme she has spent three years working in primary schools designing and delivering immersive experiences that draw on elements of gaming to develop confidence with problem-solving and collaboration in staff and pupils alike. She co-founded and ran events through the Birmingham-based games network BARG and has also been commissioned by Hide&Seek and igfest. See

What is it about games that interests you most?

Right now what's most interesting for me about games is the way that they can provide a different sort of a lens through which to view your surroundings. I'm interested in how being tasked to find certain things, or running to evade capture, or simply gathering with others to behave in a conspicuously odd manner in public space, can shift different elements of the city in and out of focus.
I'm also intrigued at how the effects of super-charging the intensity of a place can cause resonances that last beyond the time-frame of the game itself, staying with players (and maybe also the observers?) and often manifesting as a feeling of ownership towards that place.
Games can also provide frameworks for supporting people at the edges of their comfort zones: encouraging them to step beyond and do things they might not otherwise consider doing. This, opportunities for collaboration around creative problem-solving, and the potential for players to take rulesets and run with them are also, I think, very interesting.

What are the most important lessons you have learned about how to engage players in games?

I'm actually using lessons learned from games to engage people in art...
I'm less interested in engaging people in games or art than I am in engaging people with their surroundings.
In terms of the work I've done applying elements of gameplay to educational settings, I think the key approaches have been to make the pupils the experts and remove myself and the other adults from being the knowledge-holders. Also the use of a compelling narrative to re-frame the tasks given as meaningful work (for example having to answer mathematical problems in order to solve clues to find out who The Mysterious Man in the Hat is).

What advice would you give a novice game designer?

Play lots of other games and play-test your own games lots.

Do you think that games have a place in education? If so, how do you think they can most effectively be used? If not, what are your reservations?

I'm not sure about games per se, but I think there's huge scope for more playfulness in education and by playfulness I basically mean not-being-afraid-to-be-wrong-ness.
Most of the Creative Partnerships (1) calls that I responded to were based around the need to change people's responses to problems: moving from “I don't know what the answer is - I can't do it” to “I don't know what the answer is yet – I'm going to try this...”.
In interviews I would sometimes find myself citing my experience of participating in Superstruct (2) as an incentive for working within education. Superstruct was an intensely collaborative and creative month or two where I worked closely with strangers around the world to solve - and dance around - immense and all-too-plausibly real problems within the context of the not too distant future. We dreamed, we protovated (3), we came up with solutions and we watched as some of those solutions were put into action in real life after the 'game' had finished.
If even just a whiff of that could be incorporated into childrens' experience of education and adults' perception of what learning is about, I feel that would be a good thing.

How important do you think that graphical quality, and realism, is in computer games?

Not at all.

How important do you think that graphical quality, and realism, is in immersive, game-like experiences within education?

In my school projects I was never aiming for something realistic; never trying to fool the children into believing something was real. What I wanted was for them to buy into the story we were weaving and to go along with it themselves, recognising that it was a massive game of Let's Pretend and that that meant that anything was possible.


I would often deliberately make props out of materials like cardboard and pitch them as being 'just believable enough'. They may be housing some pretty advanced technology – for example The Anticipator (pictured above), which ran off a combination of light-sensitive sensors, LEDs and a GPS-enabled PDA – but by building the main structure out of cardboard, dowel and a few nuts and bolts and leaving the design fairly minimal with just a hint of machine-ness, it also ran off imagination power and reinforced that this was a fiction to enter into and play with.


Using The Anticipator with a small groups of Year 3 pupils, it would go from “That doesn't really work, does it?” to “my Dad's got one of those, it cost four hundred pounds” within five minutes.

I approach performance in a similar spirit. I'm by no means a professional performer: I'm the quiet one in the corner, but I believe enough in the power of story that I'll stand in front of three classes of expectant 7-year-olds as Agent N and exude enough conviction that they're all sleeper agents that they will fall into role too.
Here I'm a fan of the ARG approach where you're not playing a different character, but an extended version of yourself. This can give enough support (or maybe enough freedom) for the more shy children to become more confident and for others to develop their listening and team-working skills. I also want to demonstrate to the staff that you can do a lot with shonky props and a slightly wobbly delivery – things really don't need to be too polished, this is play and our imaginations will gloss over the cracks.

That said, sometimes it's nice to add a few flourishes and it's also important to have fun with the making process too!

I was always mindful of the saying “the pictures are better on radio”. I tried to leave space for people to fill in the details with their imaginations. This often meant we had not 1, but 30, 60 or 90 parallel stories unfolding simultaneously and we we would do our best to accommodate and encourage that.

Where do you see the future of games?

That's not really a direction I'm looking in – I'm going to leave that to others to speculate on!

What do you think makes a really good game?

Stories; I think a lot of it is about the stories. Not only the ones that drive the game, but also the ones that are generated through participating in it – the ones you are compelled to share afterwards. If it takes me ten minutes to walk across the playground at breaktime because children from different year-groups are desperate to share their ideas and experiences with me, then I know I'm doing something right. If I'm running an event in the city centre and shoppers stop to ask questions, share thoughts, or to take part, then that's also a good sign!

How do you go about designing a game? Where do you get your ideas?

Gosh! How to describe what it's like inside my head?!
There's a bit of a book I came across inside another book. It's a passage from the autobiography of the biologist François Jacob:

Day science employs reasoning that meshes like gears… One admires its majestic arrangement as that of a da Vinci painting or a Bach fugue. One walks about it as in a French formal garden… Night science, on the other hand, wanders blindly. It hesitates, stumbles, falls back, sweats, wakes with a start. Doubting everything… It is a workshop of the possible…where thought proceeds along sensuous paths, tortuous streets, most often blind alleys.

You can read the complete original online.

As with most projects, I think I usually start off in 'Day Science' mode: mapping out the things I want to achieve and the constraints in how I can go about doing this. In schools we're talking learning objectives and whether the city council has blocked all the useful online collaborative tools. With an art project I'm probably working site-specifically, so spending time with the place and thinking through the practical limitations of time, money, weather and manpower.
From there I switch into 'Night Science' mode and keeping pen and paper next to the bed.
On the other hand, sometimes Night Science precedes Day Science...
The Bloop evolved out of the very open brief from Hide&Seek to design a game that responded to the theme of 'international'. Fairly instantly I had the image of epic whale migrations and, with sonar range-finders in the mix of my awareness from somewhere, I knew that it would be possible to construct something to give players the power of navigating by echolocation.
I'm wary of technology-led projects, so I spent a lot of time searching online for the narrative hook onto which to build the game mechanics. This covered all manner of things from enjoying a bit of Old English, through to discovering modern-day scientific conundrums.
The (ongoing) process is documented online at So, although I can't actually say where ideas come from, I can say that a) creativity takes a lot of hard graft, b) blogging/sharing is a very useful tool for sorting out vague ideas and c) play-testing really is hugely important!


(1) A government-funded programme that placed 'creative workers' of all kinds in schools to work on projects alongside staff and pupils. Funding was withdrawn and the programme ceased at the end of the academic year 2010/2011
(2) “Superstruct was a massively multiplayer forecasting game, created by the Institute for the Future, and played by more than 8000 citizen future-forecasters from September - November 2008.”
(3) Protovation: Fearless innovation in rapid, iterative cycles; the ability to lower the costs and increase the speed of failure.

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