Buildings and Brains at the Nijmegen Design Platform (NOP)

It’s been a few weeks since I presented at the Nijmegen Design Platform (NOP), but I thought it would still be useful to post a summary of what I talked about here.

Update: it took me a while, but the slides that accompanied this talk are now up at SlideShare.

A little context: The NOP run frequent events for designers in the region. These designers mostly work in more traditional domains such as graphic, fashion and industrial design. NOP asked Jeroen van Mastrigt — a friend and occasional colleague of mine — to talk about games at one of their events. Jeroen in turn asked me to play Robin to his Batman, I would follow up his epic romp through game design theory with a brief look at pervasive games. This of course was an offer I could not refuse. The event was held at a lovely location (the huge art-house cinema LUX) and was attended by a healthy-sized crowd. Kudos to the NOP for organizing it and many thanks to them (and Jeroen) for inviting me.

So, what I tried to do in the talk was to first give a sense of what pervasive games are, what characterizes them. I drew from the Hide & Seek website for the list of characteristics and used The Soho Project as a running example throughout this part. I also tied the characteristics to some theory I found interesting:

  • Mixing digital technology with real world play — I emphasized that ultimately, technology is but a means to an end. At Interaction ‘09 Robert Fabricant said the medium of interaction design is human behavior. I think the same holds true for the design of pervasive games.
  • Social interactionRaph Koster once said single player games are a historical aberration. It is clear much of the fun in pervasive games is social. In a way I think they bridge the gap between the “old” board games and contemporary video games.
  • Using the city as a playground — Here I could not resist bringing in Jane Jacob’s notions of the city as an entity that is organised from the bottom up and Kevin Lynch’s work on the mental maps we create of cities as we move through them. Cities play a vital role in facilitating the play of pervasive games. At best they are the main protagonist of them.
  • Transforming public spaces into theatrical stagesets — This is related to the previous one, but here I made a sidestep into the embodied nature of player interactions in pervasive games and how embodiment facilitates reading at a distance of such actions. In a sense, the social fun of embodied play is due to its performative quality.

After this, I tried to show why designers outside the domain of games should care about pervasive games. This I did by talking about ways they can be used for purposes other than ‘mere’ entertainment. These were:

  • Enlarging perceived reality; you can create games that play with the way we customarily perceive reality. This was inspired by the talk Kevin Slavin of Area/Code delivered at MIND08. Examples I used were Crossroads and The Comfort of Strangers.
  • Changing human behavior for the better; think of the Toyota Prius dashboard’s effect on people’s driving behavior. Examples of games that use feedback loops to steer us towards desirable goals are CryptoZoo and FourSquare.
  • Crowdsourcing solutions; games can simulate possible futures and challenge players to respond to their problems. Here I used Jane McGonigal’s ideas around collective intelligence gaming. The example game I talked about was World Without Oil.
  • Conveying arguments procedurally; Ian Bogost‘s concept of procedural rhetoric isn’t specific to pervasive games, but I think the way they get mixed up with everyday life make them particularly effective channels for communicating ideas. I used The Go Game, Cruel 2B Kind and Join the Line1 as examples.

By talking about these things I hoped to provide a link to the audience’s own design practice. They may not deal with games, but they surely deal with communicating ideas and changing people’s behavior. Come to think of it though, I was doing a very old media style presentation in attempt to achieve the same… Oh well.

  1. Join the Line is a game students conceptualized during a workshop I ran. []

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Kars Alfrink

Kars is a designer active in the area of play, society and technology. Currently, he is principal at Hubbub, a playful design consultancy and a studio for playful products. He lives and works in Utrecht, the Netherlands.

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