When I plan a trip to a new place I typically follow the same routine. First, I’ll spend time online researching places that I might like to visit – picking out a restaurant, café, book or stationery shop; a gallery, a handful of independent stores and then a place or two where I can discover or learn about the history of the place. Then I’ll buy a city guide, or two, have a look through those and hope that some of the things I’d picked out online are in them. Then I travel, forgetting almost all of the things on my list, and just wander around, a bit aimlessly.
I tend to like to wander when I’m a new place – to let the place seep into me as I walk the streets, see the things, drink the beers and observe. Because I’m British, or introverted, I typically don’t interact much with the people I meet beyond doing my apologetic eyes as I get their native language wrong as I ask for a coffee or beer or anything else I might be buying. I’m also very aware as I do these things, that I’m temporarily passing through, an outsider there to experience the place, the sights – not part of the community there, but a witness to it.
But I had a chat recently with founder of game Been There Together, Slovakia-based artist Nina Mikuskova, that’s made me wonder if I’ve been approaching this all wrong.
Whilst studying conceptional art, Mikuskova spent four years travelling, spending six months at a time in different places. “I was constantly creating my own community as part of an Erasmus programme. The Erasmus placement is very interesting because you have people that never met before, suddenly being the best friends for life – and then after four months somewhere they disappear in the world. I was thinking how people meet and how people create connections and friendships,” she tells me.
“There was a moment where I got stuck at the airport traveling to Glasgow, where I asked ‘are we now for four hours a temporary community, just because we are stuck at the airport and there is no outside world?’” Mikuskova tells me.
“It was very interesting to observe how people slowly started to trust each other and they left their phones charging with strangers. They started to talk and I was having this crazy idea of making a group picture of all these people that are on the plane. And I went to them, asked them, ‘I’m doing this project, do you think that we are a community now?’ And they were like, ‘no, no’.
“I realised after three hours that it had changed and that the people started to talk to each other. They started to feel better in their environment because they spent some time there and I wandered around the people again and asked them, ‘are you up for the group picture now?’ And they said, ‘yes!’ It was very fascinating how that every person in their own time develops this, becomes more aware about the environment and start to create connections and relationships and is not so afraid. And I was interested in trying to find a tool, how to help people to do this faster so they can feel more comfortable in their environments or in the new places and so on.”
That project became a card game and Android and Apple app, Been There Together, which Mikuskova launched in May 2017.
“It was intentionally developed as a mobile game and mobile app because, I realised that’s exactly what’s happening currently, when you’re in the public space and you feel a bit uncomfortable, that’s the thing you do. You just get your phone and hide there,” Nina tells me.
“But then I don’t like things that are made only for smart phones or smart smartphone users. So I created a physical version as well,” she says.
The app and the cards work in the same way and are designed to ‘help you explore your environment through play.’ In the physical card pack there are 24 cards split into four colours – yellow, green, blue and red – with each card representing a different theme – research, interaction, dialogue and collaboration. The idea is that you randomly pull out a card and complete the challenge on it – discovering the place as you interact with, or think about, your surroundings.
“Well it was developed as a single player thing, but the rules are very flexible, in the sense that I’ve experienced people playing it in groups. I’ve experienced people playing it in their family gatherings, and so on. It’s not strict, and I don’t want it to be strict. It’s more designed like that so you can play anytime you want, so you can play alone as well,” says Mikuskova.
Today, Mikuskova is working on the game part-time, after going through a Google for start-ups programme in Warsaw to develop a sustainable business plan and getting funding to redevelop the mobile app.
“The thing that we are doing now is that we are constantly making new versions. We put on a pro forma version of the online shop, where you can buy the cards. My initial idea was that I will just put on the cards online, and people will want to download them and print them themselves, but they actually are even lazy to do that somehow,” she tells me.
Mikuskova has also been making specific versions of the cards for use at events or other institutions.
“Since 2017, we made like 28 or 30 new contents for different situations. Some of them are festivals and events, like conferences. I think it works amazingly because, whether you’re going for a conference, or when your boss sends you for a conference, where you have to speak with people or the conference is boring. It is a good tool to network, and not artificially as you can get the really interesting conversations out of that,” she says.
“We also did a version for schools, that is connected to Slavic educational system, because there is not enough discussion and critical thinking in the schools currently. Basically we’re stuck 30 years ago, and this was given to teachers as a playful tool to discuss, like, what does it mean to be active in a part, like an activist? Or what do you think about your environment? So basically bring the cards in schools, but also give the students a challenge to be more activated and take it in their hands, in the sense of like they can also change things if they want.
“Then we also made a version for hospitals, that went well as well, in the sense that it was developed for making the conversation between kids more playful and more interesting, and not go around this like ‘how is your school? What’s the best subject you have?’ and so on, but to go in a different direction that can actually bring much more interesting opinions or conversations.”
Mikuskova hopes that the number of uses grows as people get in touch to request tailored versions for their needs.
“On our website there is a note about that, that if you wanted a pack of cards made for you, then you can always contact us. That’s what we want to be doing I think the most, because the more the cards are fitting your situation, the more you can feel the the point of it,” she tells me.
Next up for Mikuskova and Been There Together is making city versions of the cards that have specific challenges for the specific place – a tool to add an extra layer of interaction to a visit to a city. Initially these city cards will be a physical set, with the app there to provide additional challenges.
Playing Been There Together:
The game is divided by the level of participation, so that the more you involve other people, the more you’ll successfully fulfil the challenges.
“I don’t want to push someone to talk to people if they really don’t want to,” says Mikuskova. “I understand that people are different and can be in different moods, therefore it gives you the flexibility to choose how much you want to involve others in your game. By going from yellow to red cards, you can build up and train the courage to talk to strangers and feel more confident about it,” she says.
[Box out x 4]
Yellow: Yellow card challenges are only you playing, mostly in your mind to give you an easy starting point, observations and more awareness building questions.
- Imagine – How could this place look like in the year you were born?
- Close your eyes – What is the most intense smell in here? Do you like it?
- Look around – If you had to share a secret with someone, who would that be?
Green: The green cards are for interaction – by your actions you are exploring the environment around you. By doing so you are already able to change the atmosphere of the environment around you.
- Freeze – Observe what is happening around you.
- Find – Something that reminds you of your home
- Change – Is there somebody looking at you? Make them laugh.
Blue: The blue cards are mostly topics or reasons to start a conversation with somebody around you.
- Take action – Speak to the person next to you. Ask about something they own.
- Ask someone – When was the last time you did something for the first time?
- Ask a stranger – What’s their favourite song about?
Red: For the red cards, you need someone that will collaborate someone in the environment with you on the given task – this could be someone you’re already with, or a complete stranger.
- Play – Thumb war.
- Cooperate – Create a new rumour about this place
- Exchange with someone – The best memory of this year