Books I’ve read in 2016

I’ve read 32 books, which is four short of my goal and also four less than the previous year. It’s still not a bad score though and quality wise the list below contains many gems.

I resolved to read mostly books by women and minority authors. This lead to quite a few surprising experiences which I am certainly grateful for. I think I’ll continue to push myself to seek out such books in the year to come.

There are only a few comics in the list. I sort of fell off the comics bandwagon this year mainly because I just can’t seem to find a good place to discover things to read.

Anyway, here’s the list, with links to my reviews on Goodreads. A * denotes a particular favourite.

Books I’ve read in 2015

On this final day of the year let’s do some more looking back. The last time I posted books read was in 2011. But that doesn’t mean I stopped reading. On the contrary.

Goodreads tells me I read 36 books in 2015, which was the goal I set myself for this year. I will admit not all of these are big reads. Some are short pamphlets and there is also a comic or two thrown in.

I think I am going to stick with this target for next year and I will also stick with reading widely. A few books were read because of a project at Hubbub for which I felt the need to delve more deeply in the subject matter. This is a good way to stretch intellectually. I also started experimenting with asking people who know me personally what novel I should read next which has led to some delightful discoveries. So I will continue to do that too.

Anyway, here they are in order of date read. Particular favourites are marked with a ❤️. I’ve written short reviews for most of these so I’ve provided links to those too.

Books I’ve read in 2009

This is the last list I’ll be posting on stuff from 2009, I promise. After this it’s all about looking forward. I’ve been tracking my reading on aNobii for some time. Here’s a list of the books I’ve found particularly worthwhile, ordered chronologically. My three absolute favorites are marked in bold.

  • Faith in Fakes, Umberto Eco
  • Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut
  • Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein
  • What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami
  • Black Dogs, Ian McEwan
  • Out of Control, Kevin Kelly
  • Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino
  • Game Design Workshop (2nd edition), Tracy Fullerton
  • The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster
  • Fight Club, Chuck Paluhniuk
  • A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
  • The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch
  • Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh
  • Underworld, Don DeLillo
  • Rum Punch, Elmore Leonard
  • Digital Ground, Malcolm McCullough
  • The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler

Common themes: cities, complexity, society & the individual, inner & outer space, design.

I’ve been quite picky with what I read last year and will probably continue to do so this year. Many of these have heaps of dog ears and margin notes and its a wonderful feeling to have them sitting in my studio bookshelf, ready to be picked up and used when required.

Jane Jacobs and London’s Old Street area

I’ve been reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities at a leisurely pace since october or so. (A tempo that seems to suit the book fine. Jacobs makes me want to slow down and see.) I came across this passage during a session with the book this weekend and something about a recent visit to London clicked.

After explaining how large companies do not need to be in cities because they are to a large extent self-sufficient and thus do not have to rely on services outside themselves, Jacobs goes on to say:

“But for small manufacturers, everything is reversed. Typically they must draw on many and varied supplies and skills outside themselves, they must serve a narrow market at the point where a market exists, and they must be sensitive to quick changes in this market. Without cities, they would simply not exist. Dependent on a huge diversity of other city enterprises, they can add further to that diversity. This last is a most important point to remember. City diversity itself permits and stimulates more diversity.

(My emphasis, by the way.)

The day before Playful ’09 I spent some time at BERG, Tinker.it! and Really Interesting Group. Nothing fancy mind you. I mean, they lent me a chair and a bit of table, plus internet. It wasn’t like I actually worked with them (although I’m sure I would enjoy it!) It was a nice experience, but most of all, it was humbling. I was struck by the spareness of the space they were in, the limited facilities at their disposal, the little room they had for all the people present.

Let me just say it was as little or less than what I’ve seen comparable groups in the Netherlands have to make do with.

And this is the thing. Over here, many of the startups I’ve encountered seem to believe they first need more and fancier facilities before they can make it big time. The Silicon Roundabout crew I mentioned earlier make a global splash at a regular basis, despite the limited (that I observed) resources at their disposal.

However, and this is where the quote from Death and Life comes in, perhaps I was looking at it the wrong way. Perhaps the Shoreditch startups are more effective than their Dutch counterparts not just because they do more with less (and because they are, clearly, insanely talented and hard working, “riding the wave of innovation, 24/7”, right guys?) but because they are in London. A city at a different scale than Amsterdam or for that matter the greater Amsterdam area, the Randstad as we call it around these parts. A city with a more diverse ecosystem of services and things, smaller services, more specialised services, ready to be employed by companies like BERG and RIG and Tinker, enhancing their abilities when needed.

The city, in this case, not as a battle suit, but more like a huge drug store stocked with a huge range of pharmaceuticals that augment then this trait, then the other.

What I’ve been up to lately

You might be wondering what’s been going on at the Leapfrog studio lately, since I haven’t really posted anything substantial here in a while. Quite some stuff has happened — and I’ll hopefully get back into posting longer articles soon — but for now, here’s a list of more or less interesting things I have been doing:

This happened – Utrecht

We had our first This happened – Utrecht on November 3. I think we succeeded in creating an event that really looks at the craft of interaction design. I’m happy to say we’re planning to do three events next year — all at Theater Kikker in Utrecht — and we’ve got lots of cool speakers in mind. If you want to make sure you won’t miss them, subscribe to our newsletter (in Dutch).1

Teaching

My students are nearing the end of their project. They’ve been hard at work creating concepts for mobile social games with a musical component; they came up with 20 in total. Now they’re prototyping two of them, and I must say it’s looking good. They’ll have to present the games to the project’s commissioner — a major mobile phone manufacturer — somewhere the beginning of January 2009. I hope to be able to share some of the results here afterwards.

Office space

Since December 1 I am a resident of the Dutch Game Garden’s Business Club. That means I now have a nice office smack in the centre of Utrecht. The building’s home to lots of wonderful games companies, some, like me, operating on the fringes — like FourceLabs and Monobanda. If you’re curious and would like to drop by for a tour, a coffee and some conversation, let me know.

Brainstorm

I was invited do help compose one of the cases for the ‘Grote Amsterdamse Waterbrainwave’. A one-day brainstorm in which 45 students from various institutions were asked to come up with water-related innovations that would make the Netherlands a significant global player once again. It was organised by the Port of Amsterdam, Waternet and Verleden van Nederland2. I also attended the day itself as an outside expert on games and the creative industry in general. Read a report of the event at FD.nl (in Dutch).

Book

Dan Saffer’s book Designing Gestural Interfaces has been published by O’Reilly and is now available. Turn to page 109 and you’ll find a storyboard by yours truly used for illustration purposes. That’s the first time any work of mine is featured in print, so naturally I’m quite proud. I have yet to receive my copy, but got a sneak peek this weekend and I must say it looks promising. If you’re a designer needing to get up to speed with multi-touch, physical computing and such, this should be a good place to start.

That’s about it for now. There’s a lot of exciting stuff in the works, the outcomes of which I will hopefully be able to share with you in 2009.

  1. The creators of This happened in London have been nominated for a best of the year award by the Design Museum, by the way. Well-deserved, I would say! []
  2. A cross-media campaign aimed at increasing awareness of Dutch national history. []

Playing with emergence is like gardening

It’s been a while since I finished reading Steven Berlin Johnson’s Emergence. I picked up the book because ever since I started thinking about what IxDs can learn from game design, the concept of emergence kept popping up.

Johnson’s book is a pleasant read, an easy-going introduction to the subject. I started and finished it over the course of a weekend. There were a few passages I marked as I went a long, and I’d like to quote them here and comment on them. In order, they are about:

  1. Principles that are required for emergence to happen
  2. How learning can be unconscious
  3. Unique skills of game players
  4. Gardening as a metaphor for using (and making) emergent systems

A cheat sheet

Let’s start with the principles.1

“If you’re building a system designed to learn from the ground level, a system where macrointelligence and adaptability derive from local knowledge, there are five fundamental principles you need to follow.”

These principles together form a useful crib sheet for designers working on social software, MMOGs, etc. I’ll summarise each of Johnson’s principles here.

“More is different.”

You need to have a sizeable amount of low-level elements interacting to get patterns emerging. Also, there is a difference between the behaviour you will observe on the microlevel, and on the macrolevel. You need to be aware of both.

“Ignorance is useful.”

The simple elements don’t have to be aware of the higher-level order. In fact, it’s best if they aren’t. Otherwise nasty feedback-loops might come into being.

“Encourage random encounters.”

You need chance happenings for the system to be able to learn and adapt.2

“Look for patterns in the signs.”

Simply put, the basic elements can have a simple vocabulary, but should be able to recognise patterns. So although you might be working with only one signal, things such as frequency and intensity should be used to make a range of meanings.

“Pay attention to your neighbours.”

There must be as much interaction between the components as possible. They should be made constantly aware of each other.

Now with these principles in mind look at systems that successfully leverage collective intelligence. Look at Flickr for instance. They are all present.

Chicken pox

I liked the following passage because it seems to offer a nice metaphor for what I think is the unique kind of learning that happens while playing. In a way, games and toys are like chicken pox.3

“[…] learning is not always contingent on consciousness. […] Most of us have developed immunity to the varicella-zoster virus—also known as chicken pox—based on our exposure to it early in childhood. The immunity is a learning process: the antibodies of our immune system learn to neutralize the antigens of the virus, and they remember those neutralization strategies for the rest of our lives. […] Those antibodies function as a “recognition system,” in Gerald Edelman’s phrase, successfully attacking the virus and storing the information about it, then recalling that information the next time the virus comes across the radar. […] the recognition unfolds purely on a cellular level: we are not aware of the varicella-zoster virus in any sense of the word, […] The body learns without consciousness, and so do cities, because learning is not just about being aware of information; it’s also about storing information and knowing where to find it. […] It’s about altering a system’s behaviour in response to those patterns in ways that make the system more successful at whatever goal it’s pursuing. The system need not be conscious to be capable of that kind of learning.

Emphasis on the last sentence mine, by the way.

Patience

Johnson writes about his impression of children playing video games:4

“[…] they are more tolerant of being out of control, more tolerant of that exploratory phase where the rules don’t all make sense, and where few goals have been clearly defined.”

This attitude is very valuable in today’s increasingly complex world. It should be fostered and leveraged in areas besides gaming too, IMHO. This point was at the core of my Playing With Complexity talk.

Gardening

“Interacting with emergent software is already more like growing a garden than driving a car or reading a book.”5

Yet, we still tend to approach the design of systems like this from a tradition of making tools (cars) or media (books). I not only believe that the use of systems like this is like gardening, but also their creation. Perhaps they lie in each other’s extension, are part of one never-ending cycle? In any case, when designing complex systems, you need to work with it “live”. Plant some seeds, observe, prune, weed, plant some more, etc.

I am going to keep a garden (on my balcony). I’m pretty sure that will teach me more about interaction design than building cars or writing books.

  1. The following quotes are taken from pages 77-79. []
  2. This reminds me of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan, wherein he writes about maximising your chance of having serendipitous encounters. []
  3. Taken from pages 103-104. []
  4. Page 177. []
  5. Page 207. []

Chris Crawford on design suggestions

I have a considerable amount of books with dog-eared pages lying around the office. One such book is The Game Design Reader, which contains a large and varied collection of essays on (yes) game design. This book probably has the largest number of dog-ears. Partly because it is quite thick, but also because it is filled to the brim with good stuff.

One essay is written by Chris Crawford. He is without a doubt one of the best known game designers out there, a real veteran of the industry. He is also a controversial character, often voicing unpopular opinions. I guess you could call him an iconoclast.

This iconoclasm shines through in his essay for TGDR. Crawford shares the story behind the design of Eastern Front (1941) his “first big hit”. Towards the end, he devotes some attention to game tuning, and has this to say about how you as a designer should approach suggestions from others:1

“Your job is to build a great design, not gratify your co-workers.”

According to him, a good designer has thought the system through so thoroughly, that the vast majority of suggestions have already passed through his mind. Therefore, these can all be rejected without much thought. If you are swamped with suggestions you have not thought of before, this is an indication you have not properly done your job.

I can only agree, but I think the real challenge is in rejecting these ideas in a persuasive manner. It is hard to make apparent the fact that you have thought all these things through.

One strategy I am pursuing is to be radically transparent in my process. I try to document every single consideration using quick and dirty sketches, and share all of these. This way, I hope to make apparent the thinking that has gone into the design.

What Chris Crawford makes clear is that design isn’t a popularity contest:2

“This isn’t noble; it’s stupid. Seriously considering every idea that drifts by isn’t a sign of open mindedness; it’s an indicator of indecisiveness. […] Be courteous, but concentrate on doing your job.”

Some time ago, Crawford more or less turned his back on the games industry and focussed his attention on the thorny problem of interactive storytelling. The outcomes of this are finally seeing the light of day in the shape of Storytron; a company that offers a free authoring tool as well as ready-to-play ‘storyworlds’.

I wasn’t too impressed with the interaction design of the authoring tool, but the concept remains intriguing. We’ll see where it goes.

If this has piqued your curiosity; Chris Crawford will be speaking at IDEA 2008 in Chicago, 7–8 October. Reason enough to attend, in my humble opinion.

  1. Page 723 []
  2. Ibid. []

Sketching the experience of toys

A frame from the Sketch-A-Move video

“Play is the highest form of research.”

—Albert Einstein1

That’s what I always say when I’m playing games, too.

I really liked Bill Buxton‘s book Sketching User Experiences. I like it because Buxton defends design as a legitimate profession separate from other disciplines—such as engineering—while at the same time showing that designers (no matter how brilliant) can only succeed in the right ecosystem. I also like the fact that he identifies sketching (in its many forms) as a defining activity of the design profession. The many examples he shows are very inspiring.

One in particular stood out for me, which is the project Sketch-A-Move by Anab Jain and Louise Klinker done in 2004 at the RCA in London. The image above is taken from the video they created to illustrate their concept. It’s about cars auto-magically driving along trajectories that you draw on their roof. You can watch the video over at the book’s companion website. It’s a very good example of visualizing an interactive product in a very compelling way without actually building it. This was all faked, if you want to find out how, buy the book.2

The great thing about the video is not only does it illustrate how the concept works, it also gives you a sense of what the experience of using it would be like. As Buxton writes:3

“You see, toys are not about toys. Toys are about play and the experience of fun that they help foster. And that is what this video really shows. That, and the power of video to go beyond simply documenting a concept to communicating something about experience in a very visceral way.”

Not only does it communicate the fun you would have playing with it, I think this way of sketching actually helped the designers get a sense themselves of wether what they had come up with was fun. You can tell they are actually playing, being surprised by unexpected outcomes, etc.

The role of play in design is discussed by Buxton as well, although he admits he needed to be prompted by a friend of his: Alex Manu, a teacher at OCAD in Toronto writes in an email to Buxton:4

“Without play imagination dies.”

“Challenges to imagination are the keys to creativity. The skill of retrieving imagination resides in the mastery of play. The ecology of play is the ecology of the possible. Possibility incubates creativity.”

Which Buxton rephrases in one of his own personal mantras:5

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

All of which has made me realize that if I’m not having some sort of fun while designing, I’m doing something wrong. It might be worth considering switching from one sketching technique to another. It might help me get a different perspective on the problem, and yield new possible solutions. Buxton’s book is a treasure trove of sketching techniques. There is no excuse for being bored while designing anymore.

  1. Sketching User Experiences p.349 []
  2. No, I’m not getting a commission to say that. []
  3. Ibid. 1, at 325 []
  4. Ibid., at 263 []
  5. Ibid. []

Second order design and play in A Pattern Language

According to Molly, architects hate Christopher Alexander’s guts. Along with a lot of other interaction designers I happen to think his book A Pattern Language is a wonderful resource. It has some interesting things to say about designing for emergence—or second order design—and also contains some patterns related to play. So following the example of Michal Migurski (and many others after him) I’ll blog some dog eared pages.

In the introduction Alexander encourages readers to trace their own path through the book. The idea is to pick a pattern that most closely fits the project you have in mind, and from there move through the book to other ‘smaller’ patterns. It won’t surprise frequent readers of this blog that my eye was immediately caught by the pattern ‘Adventure Playground’ (pattern number 73). Let’s look at the problem statement, on p.368:

“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 on the following two pages (p.369-370), 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.”

In the sections enclosed by these two quotes Alexander briefly explains how vital play is to the development of children. He states that neatly designed playgrounds limit children’s imagination. In the countryside, there is plenty of space for these adventure playgrounds to emerge without intervention, but in cities, they must be created.

I’m reminded of the rich range of playful activities teenagers engage in on Habbo Hotel, despite the lack of explicit support for them. At GDC 2008 Sulka Haro showed one example in particular that has stuck with me: Teens enacted a manege by having some of them dress up in brown outfits (the horses), and other standing next to them (the caretakers).

What would the online equivalent of an adventure playground look like? What are the “kinds of junk” we can provide for play (not only by children but by anyone who cares to play). In the physical world, what happens when connected junk enters the playground? Food for thought.

Adventure playground is a pattern “of that part of the language which defines a town or a community.” (p.3)

What I like the most about A Pattern Language is its almost fractal nature. Small patterns can be implemented by one individual or a group of individuals. These smaller ones flow into ever larger ones, etc. Alexander does not believe large scale patterns can be brought into existence through central planning (p.3):

“We believe that the patterns in this section [the largest scale patterns of towns] can be implemented best by piecemeal processes, where each project built or each planning decision made is sanctioned by the community according as it does or does not help to form certain large-scale patterns. We do not believe that these large patterns, which give so much structure to a town or of a neighborhood, can be created by centralized authority, or by laws, or by master plans. We believe instead that they can emerge gradually and organically, almost of their own accord, if every act of building, large or small, takes on the responsibility for gradually shaping its small corner of the world to make these larger patterns appear there.”

So to build an adventure playground, you’ll need smaller-scale patterns, such as ‘bike paths and racks’ and ‘child caves’. Adventure playground itself is encapsulated by patterns such as ‘connected play’. It is all beautifully interconnected. On page xiii:

“In short, no pattern is an isolated entity. Each pattern can exist in the world, only to the extent that is supported by other patterns: the larger patterns in which it is embedded, the patterns of the same size that surround it, and the smaller patterns which are embedded in it. This is a fundamental view of the world. It says that when you build a thing you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must repair the world around it, and within it, so that the larger world at the one place becomes more coherent, and more whole; and the thing which you make takes its place in the web of nature, as you make it.”

Wonderful. A solid description of second order design and another piece of the Playful IAs puzzle. The only way to know if something “does or does not help to form certain large-scale patterns” is by having a language like Alexander’s. The online equivalent of the largest scale patterns would be encompass more than just single sites, they would describe huge chunks of the internet.

In social software, in playful spaces, the large scale patterns cannot be designed directly, but you must be able to describe them accurately, and know how they connect to smaller scale patterns that you can design and build directly. Finally, you need to be aware of even larger scale patterns, that make up the online ecosystem, and play nicely with them (or if your agenda is to change them, consciously create productive friction).

A great book. I would recommend anyone with a passion for emergent design to buy it. As Adaptive Path say:

“This 1977 book is one of the best pieces of information design we’ve come across. The book’s presentation — the layout of each item of the language, the nodal navigation from item to item, the mix of text and image — is as inspiring as the topic itself.”

Spectra of learnability

They gave us Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things1 to read in interaction design school. I remember reading it and—being young an cocky—finding it all very common sense and “Why do they ask us to read this stuff?” And so on.2

I am rereading it now, in the hopes of sharpening my argument for playful user experiences.

(There are a lot of things I want to blog about actually, such as how Hill and Webb‘s adaptive design reminds me of Salen & Zimmerman‘s transformative play, why Cook rejects MDA while Saffer embraces it and more.)

Anyway, my new copy of DOET has a nice introduction by Norman in which he summarizes a few core concepts form the book. On page xi—writing on conceptual models—he writes:

“[G]ood design is … an act of communication between the designer and the user, … all the communication has to come about by the appearance of the device itself.”

In other words, if you can’t figure “it” out by just looking at it, it’s not well designed. Where “figure it out” basically means understand how to operate “it” successfully. Of course this is an important concept, but I think something’s missing.

In games, it’s not enough just to be able to figure out how to make Mario jump—for instance—you want to learn how to jump well.

It’s about skill and mastery in other words. A “Norman Door” (a door that is difficult to open) can be fixed so that people can open the door easily. But a door has a narrow spectrum of learnability. Or as Koster would probably say: The pattern to “grok” is really simple.

Figure 1: A door’s spectrum of learnability

And anyway, why would you want to become a master at opening doors, right?

But a lot of the things I’m working on (for instance creative tools, but also toy-like environments) have more complex patterns and therefore (wether I like it or not) have a wider spectrum of learnability. And that’s where usability alone is not enough. That’s where in testing, I’d need to make sure people don’t just understand how to do stuff by looking at it. (That’s the start, for sure.) But I also want to be able to tell if people can get better at doing stuff. Because if they get better at it, that’s when they’ll be having fun.

Figure 2: A toy’s spectrum of learnability

  1. Or The Psychology of Everyday Things as it was then titled. []
  2. I still consider myself young, only slightly less cocky. []