Playing the game: culturecapital, that is, the custom-made trading card game about the performing arts industry in Alberta

culturecapital. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

Two brainy Vancouver-based performance artists with an appetite for games have custom-made one for us — an original collectible trading card game about the performing arts industry in Alberta.

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Welcome to culturecapital, by the team of Milton Lim and Patrick Blenkarn. The Vancouver-based pair have assembled interviews with local artists, four years’ worth of public funding data, and reflections on their own touring experience in order to create a game specific to this place. And culturecapital, introduced to artists in Vancouver in prototype form, is getting its first full-bodied public premiere — a four-day round-robin tournament followed by a grand finale — at the 2020 Chinook Series. The winner takes home 500 bucks cash. 

Which real Alberta companies will get an upward boost, or get buffeted by setbacks? Which strategies work in the current climate and which don’t? Which projects get public funding and get to be made, and which don’t? Touring, co-productions, risky ventures that pay off, or don’t … all are up for grabs in culturecapital. Your ticket to the action is a 72-card $21 deck. 

There are four kinds of cards that the players (who sit at tables made of flat-screen TVs, how cool is that?) use, in order: Companies, Grants, Projects, and Strategies. When you play a Company, it allows you to roll for Grants, which allow you to play Projects — and then Strategies to up the values of your Projects (and compete with your opponents’ Projects) to win over Communities. The player who ends up with the most Communities, wins.

Every aspect of the arts industry is covered, from idea to production. Hey, there’s even a “Critics Are Raving” Project card, with a “participatory, edgy” bonus. Apparently, it’s “Alberta’s wildest art-revue-turned-earth-shaking-dance-party”  — for which I’m listed as a host. BYOB. Another is 7h27min, “a mass choreographed spectacle of Albertans trying to get all their daily errands done while there’s still daylight.” Its designation is “participatory, trauma.”

culturecapital. Photo suppied

Check out a guide to play at culturecapital.card/chinook2020

The Chinook Series extended the invitation to Lim and Blenkarn at last year’s edition. Lim was in the cast of Hong Kong Exile’s multi-media dance show Room 2048 (“a dream machine for the Cantonese diaspora”), which has just finished a run at the High Performance Rodeo in Calgary. He was at the Banff Centre’s Cultural Leadership Program program last week, and made time for a joint call, with with Blenkarn in Vancouver, to chat about the why’s and how’s of their brainchild.  Edmonton is first to enjoy the full-bodied public experience; Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary follow, with their own editions of culturecapital. 

Research, reams of it, go into the game. The appeal was not the formidable mountain of data in itself. “We’re not statisticians; we don’t get off on spread sheets,” says Blenkarn amiably. “But looking at grant recipients and file reports has been enlightening…. Hard numbers are one thing, but the second part of research is talking to people.”

What should be on the game cards? Lim and Blenkarn consult locally, and there are dramatic regional differences. Albertans, for example, really wanted to note the role of casinos in funding the arts” and “the relationship between the political landscape and the arts community.” In Edmonton and Calgary, though, responses to questions about oil booms and busts were “wildly different,” they report.   

Artists have lots to say behind the scenes but tend to be ultra-cautious in public. Some of the most revealing and candid conversations about the industry happen in the bar after the show. The game, says Blenkarn, “is a way to keep those conversations going.”

“We take real things happening in the arts and try to translate them into the mechanics of a game,” says Blenkarn. “We look at funding bodies, and the way certain kinds of work or companies become more prioritized and increase in value … and how that affects what projects get to be made.. We’re looking to add cards to allow us to respond, say, to the Edmonton Arts Council’s latest strategy,” or #MeToo, or the push for diversity in casting.   

Why go to all the arduous labour of creating a game instead of fashioning, say, a satirical production? “A lot of our generation grew up with Pokemon cards,” says Lim. “Trading cards and ‘playground bartering’ are a way to create tangible value from something abstract…. We just got very tired of panel discussions as the main mode of discourse for the arts.” 

“We were trying to think of other ways we could have these very potent and important discussion…. there’s a long tradition in our respective theatre training (in devised performance) of using games to generate content onstage. Not theatre games. More ‘how do you win this situation that’s onstage?’.”

Games, as he points out, “have long been a symbol of the competition and the rat-race of modern economic life. … We’re taking back games, and using that form to to reflect on the arts ecosystem.” In a culture where the grants pool seems to be fixed, and the number of applicants jockeying for them increases, you’re kidding yourself if you think the industry isn’t fiercely competitive. “The game is already being played,” as Lim says.

Is culturecapital a satire? Lim and Blenkarn consider. “It’s a way to look at things that are problematic in our ecosystem and also the things we should celebrate….” says the former. The latter admits, laughing, that “there is something very funny about players arguing why White People The Musical should get funding…. We’re endlessly amused!” 

Games are largely untapped in onstage performance, they think. Major festivals haven’t exactly jumped, en masse, on including them. Yet, as improv companies know, “there’s something inherently theatrical about role-playing games.” Another Lim/Blenkarn project, in progress, is a video game, asses.masses, about revolutions, for an audience to play onstage, in front of an audience.    

You’re not an artist or an arts manager? It’s not an obstacle to playing culturecapital. “Anyone can enjoy the game,” assures Blenkarn. “Monopoly isn’t not just for hyper-capitalists and real estate moguls. Risk is not just for army generals.”

Have a peek at 12thnight’s survey of the Chinook Series lineup HERE.


Chinook Series 2020


Created by: Milton Lim and Patrick Blenkarn

Where: round-robin tournament through Wednesday in ATB Financial Arts Barns lobby board room; championship final in the Westbury Theatre. Full schedule at

Running: through Wednesday, with final match Thursday.

Tickets: ($21 deck of culturecapital cards),


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