Second order design and play in A Pattern Language

According to Molly, architects hate Christopher Alexander’s guts. Along with a lot of other interaction designers I happen to think his book A Pattern Language is a wonderful resource. It has some interesting things to say about designing for emergence—or second order design—and also contains some patterns related to play. So following the example of Michal Migurski (and many others after him) I’ll blog some dog eared pages.

In the introduction Alexander encourages readers to trace their own path through the book. The idea is to pick a pattern that most closely fits the project you have in mind, and from there move through the book to other ‘smaller’ patterns. It won’t surprise frequent readers of this blog that my eye was immediately caught by the pattern ‘Adventure Playground’ (pattern number 73). Let’s look at the problem statement, on p.368:

“A castle, made of carton, rocks and old branches, by a group of children for themselves, is worth a thousand perfectly detailed, exactly finished castles, made for them in a factory.”

And on the following two pages (p.369-370), the proposed solution:

“Set up a playground for the children in each neighborhood. Not a highly finished playground, with asfalt and swings, but a place with raw materials of all kinds—nets, boxes, barrels, trees, ropes, simple tools, frames, grass, and water—where children can create and re-create playgrounds of their own.”

In the sections enclosed by these two quotes Alexander briefly explains how vital play is to the development of children. He states that neatly designed playgrounds limit children’s imagination. In the countryside, there is plenty of space for these adventure playgrounds to emerge without intervention, but in cities, they must be created.

I’m reminded of the rich range of playful activities teenagers engage in on Habbo Hotel, despite the lack of explicit support for them. At GDC 2008 Sulka Haro showed one example in particular that has stuck with me: Teens enacted a manege by having some of them dress up in brown outfits (the horses), and other standing next to them (the caretakers).

What would the online equivalent of an adventure playground look like? What are the “kinds of junk” we can provide for play (not only by children but by anyone who cares to play). In the physical world, what happens when connected junk enters the playground? Food for thought.

Adventure playground is a pattern “of that part of the language which defines a town or a community.” (p.3)

What I like the most about A Pattern Language is its almost fractal nature. Small patterns can be implemented by one individual or a group of individuals. These smaller ones flow into ever larger ones, etc. Alexander does not believe large scale patterns can be brought into existence through central planning (p.3):

“We believe that the patterns in this section [the largest scale patterns of towns] can be implemented best by piecemeal processes, where each project built or each planning decision made is sanctioned by the community according as it does or does not help to form certain large-scale patterns. We do not believe that these large patterns, which give so much structure to a town or of a neighborhood, can be created by centralized authority, or by laws, or by master plans. We believe instead that they can emerge gradually and organically, almost of their own accord, if every act of building, large or small, takes on the responsibility for gradually shaping its small corner of the world to make these larger patterns appear there.”

So to build an adventure playground, you’ll need smaller-scale patterns, such as ‘bike paths and racks’ and ‘child caves’. Adventure playground itself is encapsulated by patterns such as ‘connected play’. It is all beautifully interconnected. On page xiii:

“In short, no pattern is an isolated entity. Each pattern can exist in the world, only to the extent that is supported by other patterns: the larger patterns in which it is embedded, the patterns of the same size that surround it, and the smaller patterns which are embedded in it. This is a fundamental view of the world. It says that when you build a thing you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must repair the world around it, and within it, so that the larger world at the one place becomes more coherent, and more whole; and the thing which you make takes its place in the web of nature, as you make it.”

Wonderful. A solid description of second order design and another piece of the Playful IAs puzzle. The only way to know if something “does or does not help to form certain large-scale patterns” is by having a language like Alexander’s. The online equivalent of the largest scale patterns would be encompass more than just single sites, they would describe huge chunks of the internet.

In social software, in playful spaces, the large scale patterns cannot be designed directly, but you must be able to describe them accurately, and know how they connect to smaller scale patterns that you can design and build directly. Finally, you need to be aware of even larger scale patterns, that make up the online ecosystem, and play nicely with them (or if your agenda is to change them, consciously create productive friction).

A great book. I would recommend anyone with a passion for emergent design to buy it. As Adaptive Path say:

“This 1977 book is one of the best pieces of information design we’ve come across. The book’s presentation — the layout of each item of the language, the nodal navigation from item to item, the mix of text and image — is as inspiring as the topic itself.”

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Kars Alfrink

Kars is an independent interaction and game designer who makes things with technology for play, learning and creativity.

  • I haven’t looked through my copy of Alexander in quite some time, but the child’s play quotes above are wonderful. They remind me of an article on old-fashioned play recently published on “A growing number of psychologists believe that these changes in what children do has also changed kids’ cognitive and emotional development. It turns out that all that time spent playing make-believe actually helped children develop a critical cognitive skill called executive function. ” (

  • Thanks for dropping by to comment Michal. A Pattern Language is one of the few books on architecture that actually makes me feel like building stuff. The NPR article looks interesting, I’ll certainly have a closer look. In a pattern related to Adventure Playground—called Connected Play—Alexander goes so far as to say that if children don’t play sufficiently, they’ll end up with serious mental problems later in life!