Zoom In On Help Desk


With its focus on characters interacting, Help Desk games are perhaps the rubric most conducive to Zoom.

As such, I found myself hewing much more closely to my typical Help Desk curriculum this class.

The biggest hurdle came in navigating Pivots and Split Screens. Appearing on a Zoom screen it’s certainly not easy to “tag out” another player. But as you’ll see, the class had fun figuring that out.

We warmed up with “Story Stealing.” I’m not going to show those videos as people shared personal stories in the first round, but suffice to say it worked beautifully and I’d recommend you try it. In the debrief, players certainly recognized all the key lessons:

  • Remember specifically – Remembering a few specific details will be more powerful than remembering everything generally.
  • Remember reactions – Our emotional reactions are improv gold; focus on those when setting other player’s stories to memory.
  • See what’s not purposefully being shown – Recreating what our fellow players initially did subconsciously is great fun.  How do they stand?  How do they move?  What do they sound like?

In doing this exercise yourself, remember this is about MIRRORING, not mocking one another. It’s about making each other look good by remembering their story.

And should it feel overwhelming, remember that Memory is a muscle. It can be hard to remember, but the more you train yourself they better you’ll be (If you’re a list keeper, try to not depend on a list for a while). We can only leverage what we remember; the more we remember the more we can leverage.

Having flexed the Memory Muscle, we visited the Help Desk. (Yes, the video below is purposefully black for a while.)

Not a bad first outing.

This game rubric can be especially helpful in making scenes that had been bogged down in transaction, negotiation and/or conflict look good. We’re often told in improv to avoid transaction scenes. The characters often don’t know each other and are less likely to react boldly to one another. The nature of the transaction also often means the improvisers are negotiating the scene.

Now all that means that characters that insist on reacting emotionally to one another and focus less on negotiating the details than blowing them out can absolutely produce a “good” transaction scene.

But the reason I call this the Help Desk scene is because if you ever find yourself watching a “boring” transaction scene from the wings, don’t just ignore it; use the power of pattern to make that scene GREAT.

If you were paying attention to that initial interaction (and you should have been focused outward on them, not in your own head) then all you need to do to SET a Help Desk game is go out and seek to follow the sequence of the initial interaction, keeping some aspects of the interaction the same while heightening others. Then leave so another player can Cement the pattern of the interaction by keeping the same what you kept the same and heightening the progression of what you changed.

Check out this wonderful example at a Flower Shop –

Notice the fun here (and in Story Stealing) at honoring an interaction’s beginnings and ends. In this typical Tag-Outs can benefit from Help Desk’s power.

Typically in executing a Tag-Out, a third player will interject themselves into the middle of an interaction, seeking to heighten the funniest part of that interaction. And while there’s nothing “wrong” with that per se, it robs the pattern of it’s full power.

Through the Help Desk rubric we learn:

  • Start at the beginning; remember the end – Once we know we’re heightening the interaction, we might want to start subsequent interactions on the funniest part of the first interaction.  But starting at the beginning (heightening or repeating the first line of the initiating interaction) will build power heading into the funniest part.  And while over-excited improvisers will often cut off the end of interactions as they rush to start the next, remember that repeating/heightening the final line of an interaction will set up the progression’s edit.
  • Don’t rush the pacing – Lines that came out naturally the first time can be hurried once they’re known. The cadence of the dialogue is part of the pattern. Stick the dialogue’s natural rhythm – it’s part of the pattern and you’ll be rewarded in laughs if you try to match your fellow players’ delivery as well as their words.
  • Don’t rush the pattern – After they “get it” players like to rush moves to get to the funny part.  But use, don’t ignore the pacing of patterns.  The build up to the “funny part” is part of the funny part.
  • Don’t skimp on the emotion – Player Two might have been simply overwhelmed during the Offer dialogue, but Player Three and Four heighten the emotion of being overwhelmed characters. Emotions connect players and audience, and heightened emotions will ensure an earned edit even should all else fail.
  • Don’t ignore what you perceive as “bad” moves – You can make anything look good through repetition. By employing the mechanics of a Help Desk game, you can make a boring scene exciting, you can make an unfunny move hilarious, you can make an uninspired character the star of the show. Remember: The first time is random? The second time is purposeful. The third time is expected.

But how do we interject a third player when seeking to leverage Help Desk mechanics in a scene that’s not a traditional transaction?

Here’s where we get into Pivots and Split Screens.

In a Pivot, one player from the initial interaction stays to interact with a third player. In a Split Screen, two totally new players heighten the initial interaction with their own interaction.

So how do we know when to do which? And how do we know when someone’s tried to do either?

Let’s look at a Pivot first –

Now let’s look at a Split Screen –

So “how do we know when to do which?” If there’s one player who’s consistently reacting to another player’s contribution, well that might be a sign of a Pivot opportunity. If the two initiating players are in agreement on their feelings about a shared catalyst and/or there’s an opportunity to bring the interaction into another world, well you have a Split Screen opportunity on your hands.

And “how do we know when someone’s tried to do either?” Well, if a third player comes on with a heightened catalyst that you as an initiating player feel you should react to, stay and react to it; that’ll make that scene a Pivot. If that third player comes on and starts their dialogue with a heightened version of the very first line said, establishing a new scenario/world for that interaction to exist in, assume that you as an initiating player are no longer needed, and leave stage/Zoom.

In fact, our default setting should be to leave. You can always come back. It’s not always as easy to justify why you stayed.

If you do remain on stage, Wherever You’re Taken, Trust In You. If like Julia in the third beat of the Split Screen video above it’s not immediately clear what the joining player is trying to get you to react to – it doesn’t matter – react as you have been reacting. Whatever the joining player brings, they are expecting you to be the same character from before. So continue reacting emotionally – with MORE emotion ideally – even if you haven’t figured out the new context yet.

While One Person and To The Ether games are more focused on establishing a shared path forward in the early moments of a game, Help Desk (and Hey Everybody to follow) emphasize how whatever happens we can make it look good through repetition. If those first two rubric games are focused on how to start “right,” than the second two rubric games help us realize that any path gets us where want to go, because we can walk that path again and again to assure the audience that the path we’re on is actually our destination.

And if you want to continue this virtual journey through my first Virtual Patterns & Games class, here are the other links:


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