Games of the arena

Digital artist Dan Hett says why he’s making computer games about losing his brother in the Manchester Arena bombing

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One of the most powerful and terrifying aspects of any tragedy is that nagging question: what if it were me? For Manchester artist Dan Hett, that nightmare came true on 22 May when his brother Martyn was one of the 22 killed in the Manchester Arena bomb.

Now, having faced this intensely personal loss in the glare of the media spotlight, and been targeted by alt-right agitators for his responses, he’s preparing to explore the entire experience through the medium he knows best: computer games.

Having worked at the BBC’s MediaCity research and development department, Hett was one of the team behind the award-winning CBeebies Story Time app, amongst others. He’s since produced more experimental work for Home, Tate Liverpool and the Manchester Science Festival.

“Choosing a medium I’m at home with seemed like the right path to take. Even before any of this started, I’d always valued videogames and creators that challenged the medium and used it to tell stories that weren’t just throwaway contexts for more shooting and jumping. Now I’m in a position where I feel like doing the same thing will be valuable to me, and hopefully others.”

His aim is to create a series of interactive stories, games and other digital works based on everything that has happened over the last six months. “From quite early on, I tried to write and record my thoughts privately in as much detail as possible,” he recalls.

“I’ll be interrogating some of the very specific small experiences that I went through that I feel are hard to explain or explore in other media. For example, I had a long and calm conversation with a police driver while we were driving at 80mph with blue lights on, while he rushed us to the stadium where the families were gathered. It was a surreal combination of moving at terrifying speed, while holding an astonishingly empathetic conversation about loss and how he works.”

He also faced unwanted intrusion, with three journalists turning up at his place of work and his younger sister being told “Sorry for your loss” by a stranger who knocked on her door even before she knew what had happened.

Later, Hett publicly denounced the right-wing rhetoric that sprung up around the attacks. “Since then I’ve become a vocal anti-extremism campaigner and activist in the making. The response to my actions in this area have been positive from most people, but astonishingly aggressive and abusive from some quarters. This hasn’t put me off one iota.”

There are some who would consider games to be far too frivolous a medium to explore such a painful experience, but don’t expect to see much that resembles Super Mario or Call of Duty. “Some will be quite experimental,” he explains. “For example, the first game is a sprawling text game that unflinchingly documents the experience of the attack. However, future games could look and play like more traditional videogames, or there are parts of this story that I may express in more subtle ways. This is part of the exploratory nature of the project, I suppose. The themes and events are lined up in my head, but how I express those is something that will unfold along the way.”

In order to help bring the games to life, he’s turned to Patreon, the crowd-funding platform that allows people to support creators on an ongoing basis. All the games will be released for free, and supporters get to play a part in the creative process.

“The Patreon income is very small – equivalent to about half a day’s work per month if I was working on someone else’s project – and so this is more about establishing a network of people who are genuinely interested in the project who will offer truthful and constructive feedback.”

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