Urban procedural rhetorics — transcript of my TWAB 2008 talk

This is a transcript of my presentation at The Web and Beyond 2008: Mobility in Amsterdam on 22 May. Since the majority of paying attendees were local I presented in Dutch. However, English appears to be the lingua franca of the internet, so here I offer a translation. I have uploaded the slides to SlideShare and hope to be able to share a video recording of the whole thing soon.

Update: I have uploaded a video of the presentation to Vimeo. Many thanks to Almar van der Krogt for recording this.

In 1966 a number of members of Provo took to the streets of Amsterdam carrying blank banners. Provo was a nonviolent anarchist movement. They primarily occupied themselves with provoking the authorities in a “ludic” manner. Nothing was written on their banners because the mayor of Amsterdam had banned the slogans “freedom of speech”, “democracy” and “right to demonstrate”. Regardless, the members were arrested by police, showing that the authorities did not respect their right to demonstrate.1

Good afternoon everyone, my name is Kars Alfrink, I’m a freelance interaction designer. Today I’d like to talk about play in public space. I believe that with the arrival of ubiquitous computing in the city new forms of play will be made possible. The technologies we shape will be used for play wether we want to or not. As William Gibson writes in Burning Chrome:

“…the street finds its own uses for things”

For example: Skateboarding as we now know it — with its emphasis on aerial acrobatics — started in empty pools like this one. That was done without permission, of course…

Only later half-pipes, ramps, verts (which by the way is derived from ‘vertical’) and skateparks arrived — areas where skateboarding is tolerated. Skateboarding would not be what it is today without those first few empty pools.2

Flash mobs are spontaneous mass gathering often coordinated through mobile phones. People congregate to play zombie or have a pillow-fight. The fun of flash mobs lies primarily in the reactions of unwitting bystanders, the friction that arises from this confrontation. Without mobile phones there would be no flash mobs.3

I see play as something more than ‘just’ entertainment, something that is not only for kids. Play to me is a phenomenon that permeates culture and is omnipresent. Brian Sutton-Smith — who catalogued the various theories on play in his book The Ambiguity of Play — once said:

“The opposite of play is not work. It’s depression.”

In other words, without play the desire to live rapidly disappears. Play lies at the foundation of creativity, personal development, innovation, and so on. It is a generative process. A useful definition of play is the one put forward by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman in Rules of Play:

“Play is free movement within a more rigid structure.”

On the one hand, play exists thanks to the limitations imposed by the structure within which it takes place, on the other hand it works against the same structure, trying to change it. Play is the exploration of a ‘possibility space’, the search for boundaries and testing of possibilities. The friction that arises from all this is a source of pleasure.

Free running is about getting from point A to point B in the city, in straight a line, and overcoming all the obstacles you meet in as interesting a manner as possible. Free runners strive to achieve harmony between themselves and the built environment.

In the case of free running the structure in which play takes place is solely determined by the city and the bodies of the players themselves. But objects carried or encountered by people have a role in urban play too. Take for instance the mobile phones of the flash mobs mentioned earlier.

LED throwies is an invention of Graffiti Research Lab. They consist of a LED, a coin battery and a small magnet. You throw them at a metal surface to have them stick there. They are a form of nondestructive graffiti. The recipe for a LED throwies is ‘open source’ — anyone can make them.

Sharing a recipe for play is a powerful concept. Street artist Poster Child published instructions for the creation of blocks from the game Super Mario Bros. to his website. There he also collects photos sent to him by people who created their own blocks and put them in the streets. The project is a commentary on the ever increasing amount of advertising in public space.

Play changes once computation gets involved. Compare board games to digital games — software offers game designers the possibility to include significantly more calculations in their games.

This is what famous game designer Chris Crawford calls ‘process intensity’. According to him a game is better when the ‘crunch per bit ratio’ is higher. He sees ‘data intensity’ — simply transporting data back and forth — as inferior to process intensity — performing calculations on the same data:4

“Processing data is the very essence of what a computer does. […] Using the computer in a data-intensive mode wastes its greatest strength.”

Games (be they analog or digital) can always be typified as systems, as dynamic models. Players explore those models. Discovering the model that is the basis for a game is a source of pleasure. Some games have a very simple model: Tic-Tac-Toe is a model of territorial conflict, albeit a simple one. This is why you get bored of this game so quickly: the possibility space is very small. Sim City consists of a complex network of models from architecture and urban planning.

Games can convey arguments, just like other media. The important distinction between the way a television show or film can present an argument and the way a game does the same lies in the aforementioned process intensity. Games, particularly digital ones, can offer a dynamic model of an argument that is explored by the player. This is what Ian Bogost calls ‘procedural rhetoric’:5

“Procedural rhetoric […] arguments are made not through the construction of words or images, but through the authorship of rules of behavior, the construction of dynamic models.”

September 12 is a newsgame that comments on the events around 9/11. As player you fire rockets at terrorists moving in the streets of a Middle Eastern village. The innocent casualties that result from each shot lead to more civilians joining the terrorist ranks. This is a simple example of a procedural rhetoric.

I expect that play in public space will become more process intensive with the arrival of computation embedded in the built environment. I think future urban play will compare to its current shape as Halo 3 compares to Monopoly. The procedural rhetoric of games will take place in the built environment too. People will present arguments in the form of dynamic models that use the city as their platform.

At this point, you might be wondering how. I have a few ideas, but first, one more anecdote:

A year after Provo’s blank banner stunt, in the United Kingdom, Christopher Southall wondered how the authorities would react to an invasion of flying saucers. So, together with a few friends, he built seven UFOs. Each saucer made a unique beeping sound that was turned on or off using a mercury switch. They dropped the UFOs at equal distances on a straight line cutting through the southwest of England. Alien life could not be left out so they filled the saucers with a boiled mixture of flour and water.

The reactions of the authorities were — besides very amusing to read about years later — uncoordinated and in some cases even irresponsible. Some UFOs were moved, or worse — blown up, without knowing for sure what they were exactly.6

The British UFO hoaxers and Provo have a lot in common — both used play in public space to provoke a reaction. Provo made the absurdity of their situation apparent. Southall and his gang used play to ask “What if?” and made a possible future tangible.

Because I do not want to limit this presentation to talk alone there now follows a small design exercise. These are sketches for possible urban procedural rhetorics. I’m not sure if these are all good ideas, but that’s something we can talk about afterwards. With pleasure actually. I do hope these sketches illustrate the principles I have talked about so far.

Let’s suppose I’m worried about the ever increasing amount of surveillance cameras present in the city. I am not convinced they provide more safety, I have read crime simply moves to other areas. In that case, is all this control really necessary? And is all the data that is gathered in good hands with the authorities? I am annoyed by the fact that most people do not share this concern. How can I make people more aware of these cameras and make them question their usefulness too?

Turns out I’m not the only one with this concern. On the website Spot the Cam you can see where in the centre of Amsterdam cameras have been placed. I now know for instance that people who parked their car in the Bijenkorf this morning have probably been filmed.7 Check it out.

That’s a start I guess, but there must be more that can be done. Using a GPS-enabled camera-phone I can take photos of all the cameras I run into…

…I can upload them…

…and in this manner (with a little help of others) I can make a map of all the cameras in the Netherlands.

On the same phone I can run something similar to Nokia Sports Tracker, to record all my movements…

…this way, when I get home I can see where I was filmed.

Heaps of data are fun and all, but useless if I cannot act on them. It should be a small step to alert me to the presence of cameras while walking down the street…

…similar to how TomTom alerts you to the presence of speed cameras while driving. I can then choose to take a different route…

…or to don my disguise.

So far so good, but it’s not very playful yet. All the data I collect can be made more understandable using visualizations. A map view of this data would be nice too.

I could share the data with friends. A score can be linked to the amount of times I was filmed and so we turn it into a contest: Who can stay out of sight of the cameras and whose life is most like that of Truman Burbank?

But if I wanted to make it into a real game, I’d need to introduce some kind of conflict. A bit of fiction often helps in those cases.

Alternate reality games use the ‘real’ world as a platform for their fictional reality. In Zona Incerta (a Brazilian ARG) for example, Arkhos Biotech (the game’s baddie) ask people to help them buy the Amazon rainforest through a YouTube video-clip. There was quite a bit of confusion amongst Brazilian politicians about the reality of the clip. Zona Incerta aimed only to entertain, but it could have been used just as well to raise awareness about the Amazon.

In my game cameras could be the tools of a totalitarian regime, and it would be up to the players to overthrow it. I would send them on all kinds of missions, where they would need to stay out of the sight of the cameras. (The camera alert service mentioned earlier would not be admitted to the game.)

Players of this game would experience first hand what it would be like to live in a 1984-like world. But they — and I — would also discover how easy it really is to stay out of sight of cameras.

The data we collectively generate as players could be shared anonymously in the shape of a nice visualization. It would provide insight into the usefulness (or uselessness) of camera surveillance. This way, non-players can be spectators and learn something too.

If I want to make the unsuspecting public in the streets more aware of cameras I can take a different approach, using Graffiti Research Lab’s LED throwies as an example. Components for physical computing are becoming increasingly cheap and accessible. Also, marketers have already made clever use of Bluetooth in ‘proximity marketing’.

I could design a throwie that can be attached to cameras…

…the throwie would detect mobile phones of passersby en send them a message.

The messages could contain text, images, sounds, it would be up to the makers of the throwies themselves. But hopefully they’ll keep it creative. This way, each camera would get a voice and a little bit of personality.

The instructions for the throwie (including a shopping list of parts) would be published online.

And finally, if the cameras transition into Bruce Sterling’s Spimes (objects that start and end life as data, that can be tracked in space and time), then we won’t have to bother with all that geocoding with camera-phones and messing about with throwies. We would be able to directly play games with the cameras. Provided we get some kind of access to the data that flows through them…8

I believe technology is not neutral. I also believe that the specific technologies that we’re discussing today have the potential for far-reaching control. Although I have great faith in the hackers and makers of this world, I do not think things need to be made harder for them than they already are. You can all (partly) influence the future shape of mobile technologies. I have one simple request: Please make sure there remains space to play.

Or, as Bill Buxton would say:9

“These things are far too important to take seriously.”

Thank you!

For image credits please refer to the slides over at SlideShare. I am very grateful to all the people sharing their images on Flickr under CC licenses. If and image is not credited it is created by myself. These include all the sketches that make up the majority of the second half of the presentation.

  1. The website of Gramschap contains a chronology of the Provo movement in Dutch. []
  2. For a vivid account of the emergence of the vertical style of skateboarding see the documentary film Dogtown and Z-Boys. []
  3. Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs is a wonderful book that described new social interactions made possible by mobile communication technologies. []
  4. Crawford wrote one of the first books on game design, this quote is taken from a 1987 essay from his hand. []
  5. Bogost has written a book on the concept of procedural rhetoric called Persuasive Games. The quote is taken from an essay available online entitled The Rhetoric of Video Games. []
  6. For a full account of the big British UFO hoax of 1967 refer to the article by John Keeling in Fortean Times #228. John was kind enough to permit me to use images from the article during the presentation, but I can’t share them online. []
  7. The Bijenkorf is a Dutch department store chain. []
  8. For a full description of Spimes I can recommend Sterling’s book Shaping Things. []
  9. This quote is taken from Buxton’s excellent book Sketching User Experiences and originally refers to his approach to design. []

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Kars Alfrink

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