A Playful Stance — my Game Design London 2008 talk

A while ago I was interviewed by Sam Warnaars. He’s researching people’s conference experiences; he asked me what my most favourite and least favourite conference of the past year was. I wish he’d asked me after my trip to Playful ’08, because it has been by far the best conference experience to date. Why? Because it was like Toby, Richard and the rest of the event’s producers had taken a peek inside my brain and came up with a program encompassing (almost) all my fascinations — games, interaction design, play, sociality, the web, products, physical interfaces, etc. Almost every speaker brought something interesting to the table. The audience was composed of people from many different backgrounds, and all seemed to, well, like each other. The venue was lovely and atmospheric (albeit a bit chilly). They had good tea. Drinks afterwards were tasty and fun, the tapas later on even more so. And the whiskey after that, well let’s just say I was glad to have a late flight the next day. Many thanks to my friends at Pixel-Lab for inviting me, and to Mr. Davies for the referral.

Below is a transcript plus slides of my contribution to the day. The slides are also on SlideShare. I have been told all talks have been recorded and will be published to the event’s Vimeo group.

Perhaps 1874 words is a bit too much for you? In that case, let me give you an executive summary of sorts:

  1. The role of design in rich forms of play, such as skateboarding, is facilitatory. Designers provide tools for people to play with.
  2. It is hard to predict what people will do exactly with your tools. This is OK. In fact it is best to leave room for unexpected uses.
  3. Underspecified, playful tools can be used for learning. People can use them to explore complex concepts on their own terms.

As always, I am interested in receiving constructive criticism, as well as good examples of the things I’ve discussed.

Hello everyone. My name is Kars Alfrink. I am from the Netherlands, from the lovely town of Utrecht, to be exact. Utrecht is so keen on becoming the nation’s capital for game design, that they let Microsoft light up the Dom tower green for the Xbox 360 launch… Anyway, I work freelance, as an interaction designer. I guess the reason I was invited to come here is because I occupy myself mainly with designing for playful experiences. What that means exactly, I am still trying to figure out myself!

Interaction design is a discipline that occupies itself with shaping the dialogue between people and the stuff they use. Sometimes that stuff is a way to communicate with other people. Sometimes not.

When I was studying interaction design, I could not stay away from games. This irritated most of my teachers greatly. I’d always enjoyed playing them of course. But then I also got fascinated by their design, in particular of their interactivity. I found their interactions so much richer than most other things.

However, I was not that interested in games as entertainment, or at least, I wasn’t interested in designing them for this end. And I’m still not very interested in that area. Which is why I say I design for playful experiences. I want to design things that use play to facilitate things such as learning, collaboration and creativity.

So in my work I straddle the line between interaction design and game design. You could draw both fields like this, both being equals.

Although often I draw the picture like this: game design being a specialized sub discipline of interaction design. And I would be on game design’s edge, approaching it from an interaction design perspective.

What I like about play is how it forces me, as a designer, to take a certain stance. In many ways I think designing playful things is very humbling. Designers tend to be control freaks, and interaction designers, myself included, are no exception. This urge to control the experience of use has often annoyed me. I guess this is why I’ve drifted towards the design for play.

Designing for play is like a holding a bird: squeeze too hard, and it dies. Of course, if you hold it too loosely, it will fly away…

So it’s this stance that I’d like to talk about today. Using a few examples, I hope I can paint at least a partial picture of what I think it is about.

Let’s start with skateboarding. Who has seen the documentary film Dogtown and Z-Boys?

I think it’s brilliant. It tells the story of the 1970s Zephyr skateboarding team, who were a big influence on the ultimate shape the “sport” would get. One of my favourite sections of the film is ‘The Birth of Vertical’ — where we see how a chain of seemingly coincidental events lead to a dramatic change in the dominant style of skateboarding. In short, a draught causes lots of private pools to be empty. The Z-Boys decide to try and skate in those pools. Because of the particular shape of the pools — bowl shaped and irregular — they try reaching the edges, and eventually they start jumping out of the pools and back in. “Vertical” is born.

This all sounds very logical to us now, since when we think of skateboarding, we immediately think of verts and half pipes, and aerial acrobatics. But back then, to these kids’ knowledge, what they were doing had never been attempted before.

So I think this is a prime example of what we in game design call the exploration of a possibility space. The Z-Boys were trying to figure out what the limits were of the combination of their equipment, their bodies, and their environment. Why were they doing this? For the sheer enjoyment of it. They weren’t doing it because it had some outside purpose. In fact, in my opinion, they were doing it exactly for the sake of its uselessness. Play is an end in itself. Later on in the film you see how, for some of the Z-Boys, skateboarding looses its charm when competition and money get involved.

(For those of you who are familiar with Roger Caillois’ classification of games — I think skateboarding started out firmly in ilinx territory, which is all about physical thrills, and only later moved towards agôn, which is about competition.)1

Another aspect of this story that I find so fascinating is how the vertical style of skateboarding apparently emerged, without any top-down orchestration. Skateboarding was not “designed”, in the usual sense of the term.

But certain parts of the ecosystem in which “vertical” was “born” were designed, or at least man-made. At that time, skateboards were already commercial products sold in stores — toys, you could say — although they weren’t meant to be used as the Z-Boys did. The pools were designed as well, obviously, although again, not for vertical-style skateboarding. But some of the choices made by the pool makers were, I feel, of much influence on the emergence of vertical skateboarding: round edges, irregular shapes.

What would we call these things? Are they media? I do not think so. The best term I can come up with is “tools”. They were tools used by the Z-Boys to play.

So design was not completely absent in the emergence of vertical skateboarding, but it wasn’t as instrumental as we would like to think it is. However, no-one can deny that skateboarding has become a noteworthy form of play — an industry in its own right. I have not been part of skateboarding as a designer in any way, but it is clear to me that, if I had been, an over-controlling stance would have been inappropriate. Counter-productive even.

I think it is interesting to try and design tools, that can be used for known and unknown forms of play.

Earlier this year, in January’s Edge I read an interview with Yoshinori Ono, who is the producer of Street Fighter IV. Somewhere in it, he describes his game as a “tool for having fun”. I thought that was brilliant.

Ianus Keller, a friend of mine, has designed a tool for designers called Cabinet, which allows you to collect inspirational material and organize it. It acknowledges the serendipitous nature of design. Much of design is actually very playful (if done properly). But I digress.

Ianus says about tools:

“Good tools extend your capabilities. Great tools go beyond that and allow you to create things that neither you nor anyone else has ever thought of.”

I’d say that’s a pretty accurate description of what the skateboards and pools were to the Z-Boys.

So that’s part of my preferred designer’s stance: don’t see yourself as a maker of media, but as a creator of tools. The use of which you can never fully predict. There’s two ways to handle this uncertainty: one — try to eliminate any chance of people messing with it, or two — embrace this uncertainty, and leave open opportunities for new play forms.

Let’s examine this issue using playgrounds as an example.

I would love to design a playground, a proper real-life one, some time. Unfortunately I have no architectural training whatsoever. I do enjoy reading about architecture though, one of my favourite books being A Pattern Language. (Strangely enough, it seems architects aren’t too fond of its author, Christopher Alexander.) The book aims to help regular people design a house, or improve their neighbourhood. The book is structured in so-called patterns — building blocks, you could call them.

One of those building blocks is called ‘Adventure Playground’. When I first skimmed through the book it naturally drew my attention. I wondered what Alexander had to say about designing for play.

The problem statement of Adventure Playground reads:

“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 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.”

A good playground, in other words, does not presume the kinds of play that will happen there. A good playground is a tool that offers enough freedom to children for them to invent new play forms. (This, incidentally, is a very bad playground.)

Habbo Hotel is a good playground. At this year’s GDC I attended a talk by Sulka Haro. In it, he showed many examples of emergent play. Here’s one of them: can you guess what these kids are enacting?

It’s a manège! What I find so wonderful about this is that there’s no explicit support for playing a horse, or building a stable, and yet, the players come up with this idea and find a way to play at it. They negotiate the meaning of the bits and pieces available to them: to be a horse, you need to adjust your avatar so that it has a brown skin colour, pig tails, and brown clothes.

(This, by the way, is what Paul Dourish, an HCI theorist who wrote a book titled Where the Action Is, means when he says that in social computing, meaning is coupled by users, not designers.)

Sulake consciously chose to keep the number of objects and actions in Habbo Hotel limited, or at least generic, so that players were encouraged to create their own forms of play. It’s what in interaction design is known as underspecification.

So when designing tools for play, underspecify!

We’re running out of time so I’ll wrap up by giving you one example of how playful tools can be applied outside of the realm of entertainment.

StarLogo is a computational tool designed by Mitch Resnick — we can also thank him (at least partly) for Lego Mindstorms. Resnick wanted to improve people’s understanding of complex adaptive systems. StarLogo is a simple programming environment in which you program agents who, through their interactions, give rise to larger scale patterns. The tool was used in education. He describes many examples of children building simulations of aspects of reality, and discovering new things about them.

In his book Turtles, Termites and Traffic Jams, he writes:

“Probably the best way to develop better intuitions about decentralized systems is to construct and “play with” such systems.”

He even uses the P word!

At the end of the book, Resnick writes:

“What’s needed are microworld construction kits, so that you can create your own microworlds, focusing on the domain you find most interesting.”

That was in 1994. I think his challenge is still worthy of acceptance, and I think Resnick’s attitude towards play is a wonderful example of the stance I mentioned in the beginning of this talk: he’s created a tool, one that affords people a large enough degree of freedom, so that they can explore concepts and arrive at new insights, without the designer needing to prescribe them.

And all of this through lovely, delicious play.

  1. The article can be found in the excellent The Game Design Reader edited by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. []

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Kars Alfrink

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

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  • Great talk again. I cannot agree more; we need to ‘design’ for exploration. From designing for (specific) use to designing for context.

    Two thoughts pops in mind. What is the ultimate form of this design view? No design? The design is about the use of ‘it’. But what is it. How far can you strip a tool from designed functions to give it the ultimate possibilities for shaping our own experiences?

    And which are the design methods that fits this vision? At This happened we saw the example of non-design with the guys of Things. Is that the ultimate form? I don’t think so; substantial minimal design for maximum use is the hardest thing to do…

    Above all it is cynical and a shame that Lego is overspecifying the bricks nowadays…

  • Kars

    Lego is a wonderful example. During my time in Denmark, I spoke to a designer who was involved with the re-imagination of part of the Lego line. He told me Lego had seen a sharp decline in sales once they started to churn out those overly specific medieval / space / etc. flavours.

    I’m not advocating un- or non-design. I’m simply proposing a different way of evaluating design’s value. One focused more on how adaptive the things we create are to the people working with them, in stead of how great their appeal to people is who haven’t or won’t ever use it.

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  • There’s definitely a lot of room to explore the more freeform/tools-for-playing aspects in gaming, and I think there’s a lot happening in that area right now. It’s pretty exciting. Generally speaking it’d be a good thing for games to loosen up a little more often and give that poor little bird some room to breathe.

    Just out of curiosity, is it really true that LEGO’s sales were adversely affected by overly specific kits/themes? How has LEGO tried to fix that (I haven’t kept up in recent years)? Having grown up playing with LEGO in a very freeform way, it always saddened me to see LEGO go towards more pre-baked stuff and movie license tie-ins that don’t encourage creativity as much.

  • Kars

    “Just out of curiosity, is it really true that LEGO’s sales were adversely affected by overly specific kits/themes?”

    Marek — I don’t know here you heard this nasty rumour. ;-) I’ve heard this from people who have done work with Lego. So it’s not from the horse’s mouth, but close to it. And I agree, all those themed Lego bits never did much for me. The most interesting thing about them was to see people reappropriating them in creations that had nothing to do with the original theme.

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