Drexel to Bring 'War of The Worlds' Interactive Art Experience to Philadelphia With Support From William Penn Foundation

crowd looking up

With support from a William Penn Foundation grant, a group of Drexel professors are planning an interactive experience for Philadelphians based on H.G. Wells's classic alien invasion story "War of The Worlds."

“The War of the Worlds,” H.G. Wells’s classic work of science fiction literature has inspired the creation of feature films, radio dramas, comic books, music and even the rockets that put a man on the moon. Now the seminal tale of alien invasion is the vision guiding the development of a citywide interactive game and performance project in Philadelphia.  

Drexel University’s Frank Lee, PhD, the founder of Drexel’s Entrepreneurial Game Studio who is known for bringing grand visions to reality, most recently on the Cira Centre office building, and Adrienne Mackey, director of Swim Pony Performing Arts, and an adjunct professor in Drexel’s Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, are planning the spectacle, called “War of the Worlds: Philadelphia,” with support from the William Penn Foundation.

The project mixes game play with site-specific live performances around a narrative that the city must prepare for an impending alien attack. Over the course of several months, Philadelphians will have to work together to decipher clues and perform tasks that will protect areas of the city that are deemed vulnerable to alien attack.

Participants will interact with the game online and in-person, requiring players at home and on the streets to solve puzzles, perform, and interact with elements of the game that will be visible throughout the city. In doing so, the players will unite around a shared experience while exploring and connecting with new regions of the city.

War of the Worlds cover

“This interactive art event will bring cultural experiences beyond traditional venues and reach new and more diverse audiences through the use of gaming and technology,” said Shawn McCaney, Director of Creative Communities and National Initiatives at the William Penn Foundation. “As the behaviors and demographics of audiences change, War of the Worlds will provide an opportunity for people to interact with art in new ways, connect them with live performances throughout the city, and help activate a wide range of public and community spaces across Philadelphia.”

The grant will support planning and prototyping, including a proof-of-concept performance in the fall of 2016, and will culminate in a pilot version of “War of the Words” to be performed in mid-2017. The large-scale project will be undertaken with assistance from Jichen Zhu, PhD, an assistant professor in Westphal College, and Arianna Gass, program manager of the Entrepreneurial Game Studio. In addition to the  creation of a proof-of-concept game and the pilot version, the project will include preparation of online documentation and recruitment of community partners and sites.

“This is a collective-building experience that connects people in different regions of the city through narrative and game play,” Lee said. “No one puzzle can be solved and no site can be saved without the cooperation of other players online and around the city. We see this as a fun way to bring theater and games to a younger, more diverse audience of Philadelphians.”

Just as Wells’s first-person narrative gave readers a front seat to the invasion, and Orson Welles’s 1938 radio rendition sent listeners into a frenzy, Lee and Mackey’s interpretation is meant to elicit a visceral reaction that mobilizes a broad group of participants. It merges play and theater on a massive scale representing a unique theatrical experiment in which game players become performers and have the opportunity to change the outcome of the game.

“This is an exciting chance to engage people in a big, collaborative, storytelling setting—people who might not have been reached through traditional cultural channels,” Mackey said. “As an artist, my goal is always to remind audiences of the power of live artistic expression. A project like this tells a story that connects us as humans and takes us some place beyond our everyday lives.”