design, cities, physical & social interaction, play

Leapfroglog design, cities, physical & social interaction, play

Mashing Up the Real-Time City and Urban Games

Yesterday evening I was at the Club of Amsterdam. They host events centred around preferred futures. I was invited to speak at an evening about the future of games.1 I thought I’d share what I talked about with you here.

I had ten minutes to get my point across. To be honest, I think I failed rather dismally. Some of the ideas I included were still quite fresh and unfinished, and I am afraid this did not work out well. I also relied too heavily on referencing other’s work, presuming people would be familiar with them. A miscalculation on my part.

In any case, thanks to Felix Bopp and Carla Hoekendijk for inviting me. I had a good time and enjoyed the other presenter’s talks. The discussion afterwards too was a lot of things, but dull certainly isn’t among them.

What follows is a write-up of what I more or less said during the presentation, plus references to the sources I used, which will hopefully make things clearer than they were during the evening itself.2


(This is where I did the usual introduction of who I am and what I do. I won’t bore you with it here. In case you are wondering, the title of this talk is slightly tongue-in cheek. I had to come up with it for the abstract before writing the actual talk. Had I been able to choose a title afterwards, it would’ve been something like “Growth” or “A New Biology of Urban Play”…)


This gentleman is Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. He is said to be the first to formulate a coherent theory of evolution. His ideas centred around inheritance of acquired traits. So for instance, a blacksmiths who works hard his whole life will probably get really strong arms. In the Lamarckist view, his offspring will inherit these strong arms from him. Darwinism rules supreme in evolutionary biology, so it is no surprise that this theory is out of favour nowadays. What I find interesting is the fact that outside of the natural domain, Lamarckism is still applicable, most notably in culture. Cultural organisms can pass on traits they acquired in their lifetime to their offspring. Furthermore, there is a codependency between culture and humans. The two have co-evolved. You could say culture is a trick humans use to get around the limits of Darwinism (slow, trial-and-error based incremental improvements) in order to achieve Lamarckism.3


You can think of cities as cultural meta-organisms. They’re a great example of natural-cultural co-evolution. We use cities as huge information storage and retrieval machines. What you see here is a map of the city of Hamburg circa 1800. In his book Emergence, Steven Berlin Johnson compares the shape of this map to that of the human brain, to illustrate this idea of the city being alive, in a sense. Cities are self-organizing cities that emerge from the bottom up. They grow, patterns are created from low-level interactions, things like neighbourhoods.4


Games are this other thing nature has come up with to speed up evolution. I’m not going to go into why I think we play (you could do worse than have a look at The Ambiguity of Play by Brian Sutton-Smith to get a sense of all the different viewpoints on the matter). Let’s just say I think one thing games are good at is conveying viewpoints of the world in a procedural way (a.k.a. ‘procedural rhetoric’ as described in Ian Bogost’s book Persuasive Games). They provide people with a way to explore a system from the inside out. They give rise to ‘systemic literacy’.5 The image is from Animal Crossing: Wild World, a game that, as Bogost argues, tries to point out certain issues that exist with consumerism and private home ownership.


Moving on, I’d like to discuss two trends that I see happening right now. I’ll build on those to formulate my future vision.


So trend number one: the real-time city. In cities around the globe, we are continuously pumping up the amount of sensors, actuators and processors. The behaviour of people is being sensed, processed and fed back to them in an ever tightening feedback loop. This will inevitably change the behaviour of humans as well as the city. So cities are headed to a phase transition, where they’ll move (if not in whole then at least in neighbourhood-sized chunks) to a new level of evolvability. Adam Greenfield calls it network weather. Dan Hill talks about how these new soft infrastructures can help us change the user experience of the city without needing to change the hard stuff. The problem is, though, that the majority of this stuff is next-to invisible, and therefore hard to “read”.6 The image, by the way, is from Stamen Design’s awesome project Cabspotting, which (amongst other things) consists of real-time tracking and visualization of the trajectories of taxis in the Bay Area.


Trend number two. In the past decade or so, there’s a renewed interest in playing in public spaces. Urban games are being used to re-imagine and repurpose the city in new ways (such as the parkour player pictured here). Consciously or subconsciously, urban games designers are flirting with the notions of the Situationist International, most notably the idea of inner space shaping our experience of outer space (psycho-geography) and the use of playful acts to subvert those spaces. Parkour and free running can’t really be called games, but things like SFZero, The Soho Project and Cruel 2 B Kind all fit these ideas in some way.


So I see an opportunity here: To alleviate some of the illegibility of the real-time city’s new soft infrastructures, we can deploy games that tap into them. Thus we employ the capacity of games to provide insight into complex systems. With urban games, this ‘grokking’ can happen in situ.


Through playing these games, people will be better able to “read” the real-time city, and to move towards a more decentralized mindset. The image is from a project by Dan Hill, where the shape of public Wi-Fi in the State Library of Queensland was visualized and overlaid on the building’s floor-plan.


Ultimately though, I would love to enable people to not only “read” but also “write” possible processes for the real-time city. I see many advantages here. Fore one this could lead to situated procedural arguments: people could be enabled to propose alternative ways of interacting with urban space. But even without this, just by making stuff, another way of learning is activated, known as ‘analysis by synthesis’. This was the aim of Mitchel Resnick when he made StarLogo (of which you see a screenshot here). And it works. StarLogo enables children to make sense of complex systems. A real-time urban game design toolkit could to the same, with the added benefit of the games being juxtaposed with the cities they are about.


This juxtaposition might result in dynamics similar to what we find in nature. Processes from these new games might be spontaneously transferred over to the city, and vice versa. The image is of roots with outgrowths on them which are caused by a bacteria called Agrobacterium. This bacteria is well known for its ability to transfer DNA between itself and plants. An example of nature circumventing natural selection.7 A new symbiosis between urban games and the real-time city might lead to similar acceleration of their evolutions.


(I finished a little over time and had time for one question. Adriaan Wormgoor of FourceLabs asked whether I thought games would sooner or later become self-evolving themselves. My answer was “absolutely”. to get to ever higher levels of complexity we’ll be forced to start growing or rearing our games more than assembling them from parts. Games want to be free, you could say, so they are inevitably heading towards ever higher levels of evolvability.)

  1. Iskander Smit has posted a report of the evening over at his blog. []
  2. If you’re interested, the slide deck as a whole is also available on SlideShare. []
  3. I first came across Lamarck, and the idea of nature and culture co-evolving in Kevin Kelly’s book Out of Control. The blacksmith example is his too. []
  4. All this flies in the face of large-scale top-down planning and zoning, as Jane Jacobs makes painfully clear in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. []
  5. Eric Zimmerman talked at length about the need for systemic literacy at Playful 2008. []
  6. For more on this have a look at another blog post by Adam Greenfield titled Reading, writing, texts, literacy, cities. []
  7. As Kevin Kelly writes in Out of Control, evolution with symbiosis included is less like a tree and more like a thicket. []


Hey Kars, You got your point across, don’t worry, at least from my point of view. I like your idea of interpreting Lamarck on a cultural level. Just that move makes it possible to explore all kinds of emergent phenomena (and you mention a few interesting ones) making use of principles of evoloutionary biology and self-organization. I think that is a pretty powerful connection to make; i find myself looking at my urban environment as a natural thing (rather than some result of top-down planning), an ecosystem. Your story puts the focus back where it belongs: nature and natural principles. Learning and playing are the most natural human qualities there are. Wouldn’t mind following up in this discussion some time… Cheers, Mathijs

Posted by Mathijs van Zutphen on 27 April 2009 @ 5pm

Thanks Mathijs. As I mentioned in the write-up, I am indebted to Mr. Kelly for connecting Lamarck to the cultural sphere. The only thing I tried to do is apply it to the current topics of the real-time city and urban gaming, in the hopes of offering some interesting insights. I’m always up for conversation around these themes, just drop me a line.

Posted by Kars on 28 April 2009 @ 11am

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