After the completion of our May run in 2017, we realized the incredible wealth of data we had at our disposal. While we designed the structure of The End with the goal of creating the most engaged player experience possible, a side benefit of using applications, intake surveys, and text messaging as core components of the game was that we had generated a robust archive of knowledge about players’ emotional state throughout the month of play, reflective quotes about their experience, metrics on the piece’s psychological impact, demographical basics about their lives, insights about their messaging styles, and responses to various cards throughout gameplay. And thanks to a generous R&D grant from the Knight Foundation, we’re excited to share our extensive analysis of this informational bounty.
Quantitative Data Review & Analysis
Over two years, I worked with two data analysts – Anton Strezhnev and Greg Sieber – to mine our player logs for patterns across the entire cohort and to figure out how to measure player engagement in the game’s overall themes and within individual cards. The full report of all our findings can be downloaded HERE. A summative overview visualization of all the data and visualizations of the findings was created by Sieber and can be downloaded HERE or seen in the infographics below.
Qualitative Information & Snapshots of Gameplay
In addition to our quantitative analysis, we have – of course – the written message content of the game itself as well as language players shared with us in their applications, intake surveys, exit surveys and 6 month check in. Beyond the numbers, players articulated with beautiful clarity the ways that playing made deep impact on their lives. A representative sample of comments we received after the game’s completion include:
Participating in The End seeped into my daily life, making me more present and mindful in every interaction I was having. I aim to keep this practice alive even though the game has ended.
The End is an invaluable experiential lesson in presence. It’s so easy to be weighed down by the details of life. The End reframes the experience of these details from duty to opportunity. I am forever changed by playing The End, and I hope it can continue to lift and empower journeyers to the beyond.
And my personal favorite:
The End should be required for all humans.
Players demonstrated in their words that they clearly connected with the game’s content, that they took in our philosophical mission and made it their own. They often specifically remarked about how the game created a perspective shift on daily life and encouraged them to create space for reflection on core values:
As antidote to a culture devoted to the denial of death, The End, gently, joyfully, and subtly makes you realize that accepting the fact and presence of death is the key to living a fuller, more engaged life.
The End was a glorious, joyous, unexpected, and complicated piece that has changed my life. I’ve learned an entirely new mindset with which to face life and I am forever grateful.
In our 6 month follow up, players continued to note the long-lasting resonance of participation with representative comments like:
This was among the most extraordinary gifts I’ve ever received.
It changed my life, and continues to do so.
And while the stats above about number of pictures sent from players tells one kind of story, seeing the actual content of their insights brings home the human reality of these extraordinary players:
Similarly, looking back through the conversations themselves there are nearly infinite quotes one could pull to show the ways that people created real beauty and meaning in the examination of their every day lives:
Passing away is so… passive. Like it just happens to happen to you. But dying feels more active. Like you can choose to embrace it. I feel like I’m honoring people’s lives and choices when I say they’ve died.
Closure is word for people outside of the situation to feel more comfortable. Americans want to button up grief. And they want it done quickly.
That is what I want to be remembered for. The gift of power through compassion. Compassion asks you to wake up. It requires access to both your loving heart and your ability to penetrate through your own masks, or the masks of another.
Just wondering when I’m going to ‘use’ all the things that are useful to me? Like what do I have to do to squander my own petulance and vague entitlement.
We always face the choice of living in our heads or fully embracing who and what is around us.
If the people in my life remember me as ‘there’ and putting in the elbow grease, I’ll think that’s pretty good.
And while the numbers tell us that the game made players happier, the joy and connection across their varied experiences at our final party is obviously evident in the images we captured of that day.
It seems clear that the game meant a lot to those who took part. We couldn’t have summed it up any better than through the words of this player on the final day:
It’s been a weird ride that’s for sure but a really good one, for what it’s worth.
Evaluative Takeaways and Next Steps
So what do we make of all this info? Well, for one thing, the team here at Swim Pony HQ feels pretty confident that we can call The End a success as a model for an emerging inter-disciplinary art form, as an intervention to create more facility in talking about the difficult subject of mortality and as a contemplative cultural experience that had deep personal impact on its audiences.
Players committed to the end in substantive and sustained ways. The simple fact of so many participants sticking with the project for four full weeks speaks volumes in itself. These texting metrics don’t even reflect the length of response and, trust me, many of those “single” texts were miniature novels. When looking back at these conversations across the wealth of individual variation, it seems that five key values emerge from the experience of play:
It is powerful to feel oneself witnessed through a creative journey.
Paying attention to our personal stories consciously through the help of a curious outsider helps us see ourselves and the world around us better. It reminds us to be both actors AND authors of our lives.
Knowing life is ephemeral reminds us to risk pursuing what we truly value, even in the face of failure.
This was something SO many players articulated throughout the game, this idea that getting in touch with their deaths helped them open up to the present, that remembering we do not have forever makes us more responsible for to time we do have.
We become more resilient the more we confront our fears.
Players talked about many aspects of the game as a kind of emotional weightlifting: perhaps not fun in the moment, but useful in the larger scheme of life to become more resilient and prepared. In fact, a player hating a card in the moment often later turned out to be one of the quests that they ended up expressing the most appreciation for later in the game.
We are absolutely capable of confronting the uncertain and unknown.
A mantra we undertook early on in running the game was, “The Player is Fine.” We said this to remind ourselves that the point of the game was to give people time to dig down into the dirt. That mean that if they were capable of sit with their own discomfort, we could be too, without trying to manage or resolve it.
Every person, no matter how “ordinary” they seem, holds a life whose story is worth telling.
As a theater maker this was perhaps the most creatively exciting discovery, that players could really take the reins in finding insight and meaning from their experiences, in connecting patterns and mining for deep artistic beauty. Making a piece that centralized the audience’s subjective perspective drove home how important is for artists to make space to tell all the kinds of stories that are possible, and that in a world where a very few hold a very great amount of our conscious attention, celebrating no one life as more important or sacred is a radical act of resistance to the dominant narratives that surround us
From here we take these lessons and go back into development to pull them out even stronger. Our aim is to bring The End back to Philly soon with a larger player pool, one that is even more diversely representative of Philadelphia. That new version of the game will focus on:
- More player-to-player interaction
- More help in giving players tools to bring The End into conversation with their support networks
- More “real world” experiences and concrete encouragements in the game’s final week
- An expanded performance team, perhaps even made up of some of those players that complete the last run
- More ways for players to visualize their journey and those of other players in live time, through web content, public writing and communication through our user interface
- Designed “alumni” events to help keep players connected past the game’s official end
And now, amazingly, you’ve reached the end, as well.
For more specifics of the data presented here or general information about the game, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.