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. []

Play in social and tangible interactions

Now that the IxDA has posted a video of my presentation at Interaction 09 to Vimeo, I thought it would be a good idea to provide a little background to the talk. I had already posted the slides to SlideShare, so a full write-up doesn’t seem necessary. To provide a little context though, I will summarize the thing.


The idea of the talk was to look at a few qualities of embodied interaction, and relate them to games and play, in the hopes of illuminating some design opportunities. Without dwelling on what embodiment really means, suffice to say that there is a school of thought that states that our thinking originates in our bodily experience of the world around us, and our relationships with the people in it. I used the example of an improvised information display I once encountered in the paediatric ward of a local hospital to highlight two qualities of embodied interaction: (1) meaning is socially constructed and (2) cognition is facilitated by tangibility.1


With regards to the first aspect — the social construction of meaning — I find it interesting that in games, you find a distinction between the official rules to a game, and the rules that are arrived at through mutual consent by the players, the latter being how the game is actually played. Using the example of an improvised manège in Habbo, I pointed out that under-specified design tends to encourage the emergence of such interesting uses. What it comes down to, as a designer, is to understand that once people get together to do stuff, and it involves the thing you’ve designed, they will layer new meanings on top of what you came up with, which is largely out of your control.


For the second aspect — cognition being facilitated by tangibility — I talked about how people use the world around them to offload mental computation. For instance, when people get better at playing Tetris, they start backtracking more than when they just started playing. They are essentially using the game’s space to think with. As an aside, I pointed out that in my experience, sketching plays a similar role when designing. As with the social construction of meaning, for epistemic action to be possible, the system in use needs to be adaptable.


To wrap up, I suggested that, when it comes to the design of embodied interactive stuff, we are struggling with the same issues as game designers. We’re both positioning ourselves (in the words of Eric Zimmerman) as meta-creators of meaning; as designers of spaces in which people discover new things about themselves, the world around them and the people in it.


I had several people come up to me afterwards, asking for sources, so I’ll list them here.

  • the significance of the social construction of meaning for interaction design is explained in detail by Paul Dourish in his book Where the Action Is
  • the research by Jean Piaget I quoted is from his book The Moral Judgement of the Child (which I first encountered in Rules of Play, see below)
  • the concept of ideal versus real rules is from the wonderful book Rules of Play by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman (who in turn have taken it from Kenneth Goldstein’s article Strategies in Counting Out)
  • for a wonderful description of how children socially mediate the rules to a game, have a look at the article Beyond the Rules of the Game by Linda Hughes (collected in the Game Design Reader)
  • the Will Wright quote is from an interview in Tracy Fullerton’s book Game Design Workshop, second edition
  • for a discussion of pragmatic versus epistemic action and how it relates to interaction design, refer to the article How Bodies Matter (PDF) by Scott Klemmer, Björn Hartmann and Leila Takayama (which is rightfully recommended by Dan Saffer in his book, Designing Gestural Interfaces)
  • the Tetris research (which I first found in the previously mentioned article) is described in Epistemic Action Increases With Skill (PDF), an article by Paul Maglio and David Kirsh
  • the “play is free movement…” quote is from Rules of Play
  • the picture of the guy skateboarding is a still from the awesome documentary film Dogtown and Z-Boys
  • for a lot of great thinking on “loose fit” design, be sure to check out the book How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand
  • the “meta-creators of meaning” quote is from Eric Zimmerman’s foreword to the aforementioned Game Design Workshop, 2nd ed.


And that’s it. Interaction 09 was a great event, I’m happy to have been a part of it. Most of the talks seem to be online now. So why not check them out? My favourites by far were John Thackara and Robert Fabricant. Thanks to the people of the IxDA for all the effort they put into increasing interaction design’s visibility to the world.

  1. For a detailed discussion of the information display, have a look at this blog post. []

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. []

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.

Continue reading A Playful Stance — my Game Design London 2008 talk

Reboot 10 slides and video

I am breaking radio-silence for a bit to let you know the slides and video for my Reboot 10 presentation are now available online, in case you’re interested. I presented this talk before at The Web and Beyond, but this time I had a lot more time, and I presented in English. I therefore think this might still be of interest to some people.1 As always, I am very interested in receiving constructive criticism Just drop me a line in the comments.

Update: It occurred to me that it might be a good idea to briefly summarize what this is about. This is a presentation in two parts. In the first, I theorize about the emergence of games that have as their goal the conveying of an argument. These games would use the real-time city as their platform. It is these games that I call urban procedural rhetorics. In the second part I give a few examples of what such games might look like, using a series of sketches.

The slides, posted to SlideShare, as usual:

The video, hosted on the Reboot website:

  1. I did post a transcript in English before, in case you prefer reading to listening. []

Playing With Complexity — slides and notes for my NLGD Festival of Games talk

When the NLGD Foundation invited me to speak at their anual Festival of Games I asked them what they would like me to discuss. “Anything you like,” was what they said, essentially. I decided to submit an abstract dealing with data visualization. I had been paying more and more attention to this field, but was unsuccessful in relating it the other themes running through my work, most notably play. So I thought I’d force myself to tackle this issue by promising to speak about it. Often a good strategy, I’ve found. If it worked out this time I leave for you to judge.

In brief, in the presentation I argue two things: one — that the more sophisticated applications of interactive data visualization resemble games and toys in many ways, and two — that game design can contribute to the solutions to several design issues I have detected in the field of data visualization.

Below are the notes for the talk, slightly edited, and with references included. The full deck of slides, which includes credits for all the images used, is up on SlideShare.

Hello everyone, my name is Kars Alfrink. I am a Dutch interaction designer and I work freelance. At the moment I work in Copenhagen, but pretty soon I will be back here in Utrecht, my lovely hometown.

In my work I focus on three areas: mobility, social interactions, and play. Here is an example of my work: These are storyboards that explore possible applications of multitouch technology in a gated community. Using these technologies I tried to compensate for the negative effects a gated community has on the build-up of social capital. I also tried to balance ‘being-in-the-screen’ with ‘being-in-the-world’ — multitouch technologies tend to be very attention-absorbing, but in built environments this is often not desirable.1

I am not going to talk about multitouch though. Today’s topic is data visualization and what opportunities there are for game designers in that field. My talk is roughly divided in three parts. First, I will briefly describe what I think data visualization is. Next, I will look at some applications beyond the very obvious. Third and last, I will discuss some design issues involved with data visualization. For each of these issues, I will show how game design can contribute.

Right, let’s get started.

Continue reading Playing With Complexity — slides and notes for my NLGD Festival of Games talk

  1. For more background on this project please see this older blog post. More examples of my recent work can be found in my portfolio. []

Slides and summary for ‘More Than Useful’

Update: The video and slides are now available on the conference site.

The conference From Business to Buttons 2008 aimed to bring together the worlds of business and interaction design. I was there to share my thoughts on the applicability of game design concepts to interaction design. You’ll find my slides and a summary of my argument below.

I really enjoyed attending this conference. I met a bunch of new and interesting people and got to hang out with some ‘old’ friends. Many thanks to InUse for inviting me.

Diagram summarizing my FBTB 2008 talk

The topic is pretty broad so I decided to narrow things down to a class of product that is other-than-everyday — meaning both wide and deep in scope. Using Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things as a starting point, I wanted to show that these products require a high level of explorability that is remarkably similar to play. After briefly examining the phenomenon of play itself I moved on to show applications of this understanding to two types of product: customizable & personalizable ones, and adaptive ones.

For the former, I discussed how game design frameworks such as MDA can help with sculpting the parameter space, using ‘experience’ as the starting point. I also looked at how games support players in sharing stories and speculated about ways this can be translated to both digital and physical products.

For the latter — adaptive products — I focussed on the ways in which they induce flow and how they can recommend stuff to people. With adaptation, designers need to formulate rules. This can be done using techniques from game design, such as Daniel Cook’s skill chains. Successful rules-based design can only happen in an iterative environment using lots of sketching.

The presentation was framed by a slightly philosophical look at how certain games subliminally activate cognitive processes and could thus be used to allow for new insights. I used Breakout and Portal as examples of this. I am convinced there is an emerging field of playful products that interaction designers should get involved with.

Sources referenced in this presentation:1

As usual, many thanks to all the Flickr photographers who’ve shared their images under a CC license. I’ve linked to the originals from the slides. Any image not linked to is probably mine.

  1. Most of these are offline books or papers, those that aren’t have been hyperlinked to their source. []

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

Continue reading Urban procedural rhetorics — transcript of my TWAB 2008 talk

  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. []

Designing a mobile social gaming experience for Gen-C

Update 21-03-2008: I’ve added some images of slides to allow for some more context when reading the text.

This is a rough transcript of my lecture at GDC Mobile 2008. In short: I first briefly introduce the concept of experience design and systems and then show how this influences my views of mobile casual games. From there I discuss the relation of casual games with the trend Generation C. Wrapping up, I give an overview of some social design frameworks for the web that are equally applicable to mobile social gaming. As a bonus I give some thoughts on mobile game systems mobile metagames. The talk is illustrated throughout with a case study of Playyoo—a mobile games community I helped design.

  • I’ve included a slightly adjusted version of the original slides—several screenshot sequences of Playyoo have been taken out for file size reasons.
  • If you absolutely must have audio, I’m told you will be able to purchase (!) a recording from GDC Radio sometime soon.
  • I’d like to thank everyone who came up to me afterwards for conversation. I appreciate the feedback I got from you.
  • Several aspects of Playyoo that I use as examples (such as the game stream) were already in place before I was contracted. Credits for many design aspects of Playyoo go to David Mantripp, Playyoo’s chief architect.
  • And finally, the views expressed here are in many ways an amalgamation of work by others. Where possible I’ve given credit in the talk and otherwise linked to related resources.

That’s all the notes and disclaimers out of the way, read on for the juice (but be warned, this is pretty long).

Continue reading Designing a mobile social gaming experience for Gen-C

Slides for my Oslo UXnet meetup talk

Last night I presented at the January UXnet meetup in Oslo. When Are invited me to come over I thought I’d be talking to maybe 60 user experience people. 200 showed up—talk about kicking off the year with a bang. I think the crew at Netlife Research may just have written UXnet history. I’m not sure. (Don’t believe me? Check out the RSVPs on the event’s page at

The talk went OK. I had 20 minutes, which is pretty short. I finished on time, but I had to leave out a lot of examples. The original talk on which this was based is a 2 hour lecture I deliver at UX companies. (I did this last year for instance at InUse.)

The lack of examples was the biggest point of criticism I got afterwards. I’ll try to make up for that a bit in a later post, listing some examples of web sites and apps that I would call in some way playful. Stay tuned.

For now, here are the slides (no notes I’m afraid, so it’ll be hard to make any sense of them if you weren’t there). Thanks to Are Halland for inviting me. And greetings to all my friends in Oslo. You’ve got a beautiful UX thing going on there.