Week 173

At the studio, coffee brewing in the french press, El Guincho on the stereo. Last week I felt overwhelmed, this week I just feel allergic. Literally. I have a head full of antihistamines, hope they kick in soon.

One thing I decided to do about the overwhelming bit is block out more time in my calendar for work. Not saying how much, but I already had some time blocked for a while now, and I have doubled that. It just won’t do to have hardly any time to do actual design. I guess I’ll just need to to talk to fewer people. If you do not push back, it is easy to lose all your time to meet-ups. People are reckless in the ease with which they impose on other’s time. Myself included.1

We played a card game last night at the studio. An insight I’ve had after reviewing the past period with my interns. To become better designers, we need to make a lot of games, this is true.2 But it also helps to play games, many games, of any kind. So we’ll set apart an hour or so each week and we’ll play a game that someone brings in. I kicked it off with Dominion, which is interesting for the way it has built upon trading-card-game deck-building mechanics, like Magic the Gathering. In stead of it being something that happens before a game it takes place in parallel to the game.

What else is of note? Ah yes. I attended Design by Fire 2010 on Wednesday. It is still the best conference on interaction design in the Netherlands. And I really appreciate the fact that the organizers continue to take risks with who they put on stage. Too often do I feel like being part or at least spectator of some clique at events, with all speakers knowing each other and coming from more or less the same “school of thought”. Not so with Design by Fire. Highlights included David McCandless, Andrei Herasimchuk, m’colleague Ianus and of course Bill Buxton.

The latter also reminded me of some useful frames of thought for next Tuesday, when I will need to spend around half an hour talking about the future of games, from a design perspective, at an invitation-only think-tank like session organized by STT.3 The organizers asked me to set an ambition time frame, but as you may know I have a very hard time imagining any future beyond say, the next year or two. (And sometimes I also have trouble being hopeful about it.) But as Mr. Buxton points out, ideas need a gestation period of around 20 years before they are ready for primetime, so I am planning to look back some ten years, see what occupied the games world back then, and use that as a jumping off point for whatever I’ll be talking about. Let’s get started on that now.

  1. Mule Design had an interesting post on this. Part of the problem is people, but part also software, according to them. Imagine a calendar you subtract time from in stead of add to. []
  2. Tom wrote a wonderful post on games literacy. []
  3. The Netherlands Study Centre for Technology Trends. []

This pervasive games workshop I ran at this conference

A few things I got people to do at this year’s NLGD Festival of Games:

Paper sword fight

Fight each other with paper swords…

Hunting for a frisbee with lunch-boxes on their heads

…and run around with lunch-boxes on their heads.1

This was all part of a workshop I ran, titled ‘Playful Tinkering’. The mysterious Mink ette — who amongst many things is a designer at Six to Start — and I got people to rapidly prototype pervasive games that were be played at the conference venue the day after. The best game won a magnificent trophy shaped like a spring rider.

Some exercises we did during the workshop:

  • Play a name game Mink ette had made up shortly before the workshop in no time at all. This is good for several things: physical warm-up, breaking the ice, demonstrate the kinds of games the session is about.
  • Walk around the room and write down imaginary game titles as well as names of games you used to play as a child. Good for emptying heads and warming up mentally.
  • Walk around again, pick a post-it that intrigues you. Then guess what the game is about, and have others to fill in the blanks where need. Then play the game. This is mostly just for fun. (Nothing wrong with that.)
  • Analyse the games, break them up into their basic parts. Change one of those parts and play the game again. See what effect the change has. This is to get a sense of what games design is about, and how changing a rule impacts the player experience.

Participants brainstorming game ideas

Participants brainstorming game ideas

People then formed groups and worked on an original game. We pushed them to rapidly generate a first ruleset that could be playtested with the other groups. After this they did another design sprint, and playtested again outside the room, “in the wild”. All of this in less than four hours. Whew!

The games that were made:

  • A game that involved hunting for people that matched the descriptions on post-its that were hidden around the venue. You first needed to find a post-it, then find the person that matched the description on it and finally take a photo of them for points. This game was so quick to play it already ran at the party, hours after the workshop finished.
  • ‘Crowd Control’ — compete with other players to get the largest percentage of a group of people to do what you are doing (like nodding your head). This game won the trophy, in part because of the ferocious player recruitment style the runners employed during the playtest.
  • A sailing game, where you tried to maneuver an imaginary boat from one end of a space to the other. Your movement was constrained by the “wind”, which was a function of the amount of people on either side of your boat. It featured an ingenuous measuring mechanic which used an improvised rope made from a torn up conference tote bag.
  • The lunchbox thing was improvised during the lunch before the playtest. A student also brought in a game he was working on for his graduation to playtest.

We set up the playtest itself as follows:

The room was open to anyone passing by. Each game got their own station where they could recruit players, explain the rules, keep score, etc. Mink ette and I handed each player a red, blue and yellow tiddlywink. They could use this to vote on their favorite game in three separate categories, by handing the runners a tiddlywink. People could play more than once, and vote as often as they liked. We also kept track of how much players each game got. We handed out prizes to winners in the different categories (a lucky dip box loaded with piñata fillers). The most played game got the grand prize — the spring rider trophy I created with help from my sister and fabricated at the local fablab.2

The spring rider trophy and tiddlywinks all set for the playtest

Spring rider trophy and tiddlywinks ready for some playtesting action

It was a pleasure to have the elusive Mink ette over for the ride. I loved the way she explained what pervasive games were all about — being able to play anytime, anywhere with anything. I was also impressed with the way she managed to get people to do strange things without thinking twice.

We had a very dedicated group of participants, most of whom stuck around for the whole session and returned again for the playtest the next day. I’m very grateful for their enthusiasm. The whole experience was very rewarding, I’m keen on doing this more often at events and applying what I learnt to the workshops I run as part of my own games design practice.

Happy, happy winners!

Happy winners of the spring rider trophy flanked by Mink ette and yours truly

  1. Mayhem initiated by Evert and Marinka. []
  2. I still need to write up the process of the trophy’s creation. []

What I’m doing at the Festival of Games


I’ve helped out with the program of this year’s NLGD Festival of Games. If you’re into gaming’s fringe phenomena, then this edition is not to be missed. The conference’s theme is “play global, global play” and will celebrate the impact of gaming beyond the screen. I curated several sessions focused on urban games and alternate reality games, some of which I will be present at myself. Here they are in no particular order:

  • Adrian Hon of Six to Start is coming over to Utrecht for a keynote titled “Why stories in games suck”. Adrian was one of the people behind the ambitious and influential ARG Perplex City. For a taste of what this session might be like, check out Dan Hon’s1 talk “Everything you know about ARGs is WRONG”.

  • During a parallel session, Evert Hoogendoorn will look at performance in games. Evert heads up the Design for Virtual Theater and Games program at the Utrecht School of the Arts. Knowing Evert, this session won’t be just about performance…

  • I’ll be moderating a session consisting of three case studies. You’ll get an exclusive look behind the scenes of the practice of three seasoned designers of urban games and ARGs. The presentations will be short but sweet, each followed by ample time for Q&A. The people I’ve asked to present are the aforementioned Adrian Hon, Nathalie Brähler of Cultural Oil and Ronald Lenz of 7scenes.

  • The elusive Minkette and myself will run a three-hour workshop, where you’ll get a crash course in designing simple but fun street games. We’re hoping to make this session very accessible, but also very much hands-on, physical and active. Minkette has been involved with Punchdrunk, Hide & Seek and The Soho Project; what better facilitator can you wish for?

  • The games developed during the workshop will be available for playtesting during a separate open session. You’ll get to play fun little games, and will be asked to vote on your favourite. The winner will receive an awesome prize.

  • Update: Before the open playtest session, I’ll be hosting a lunch session open to all people working in the area of social and tangible play. It’s on the program as “ARG lunch” but don’t let that fool you. If you make urban games, pervasive games, or any type of game that’s not limited to what happens on the screen, you’re welcome to join us. We’ll be looking at how we can join forces in certain strategic areas, but the session is also just about getting to know each other.

And there you have it. I’m quite happy with the way the program has shaped up, and I am excited to see how the sessions turn out (though I’m sure they’ll be great). If this has wet your appetite, why not head over to the NLGD Festival of Games website and get yourself a ticket right now? I hope to see you there!

  1. Dan is Adrian’s brother and business partner []

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. []

Goodbye DK, Hello NL

A photo of the Oude Gracht in Utrecht, the Netherlands taken by Josef F. Stuefer

And that was it. After exactly one year in Copenhagen I am back in Utrecht. I enjoyed my time in Denmark tremendously, it has proven to be a great place to start my new life as a freelance designer. Now I will continue my practice over here. Different city, same international outlook.

The final period in Copenhagen consisted mainly of me speaking at a lot of conferences. First there was The Web and Beyond, then came From Business to Buttons, NLGD Festival of Games and finally Reboot — I could not have wished for a better going-away party.

There is not much time to catch my breath, however. I have client projects happening throughout July and of course there is also plenty of unpacking and merging of the old and new life to be done. I hope to publish the NLGD and Reboot stuff shortly, but it might take me a while.

Now that I am back in the Netherlands, I can also move forward with some small plans I’ve had for some time: one being a local design event and the other a ‘different’ kind of office space. I am also still looking for a creative technologist to partner up with on potential future projects. If any of this piques your interest, do drop me a line.

Photo credits: Josef F. Stuefer.

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. []

Moving, speaking

It’s final days for me. In Copenhagen, that is. July 1 I will exchange this lovely city for my home town of Utrecht, the Netherlands. The plan is to continue work as a freelance interaction designer. So if you’re interested, but physical distance has been putting you off so far, get in touch.

Between now and then, most of my time will be spent at conferences. Here’s the rundown:

  • First up is From Business to Buttons, June 12-13 in Malmö, Sweden. My talk is titled More Than Useful. I will attempt to show that for a certain class of products, playfulness is a vital characteristic. The idea is to introduce the IxD crowd to some game design concepts.
  • The week after that I will be at the Festival of Games, June 18-20 in Utrecht, Netherlands. My presentation is titled Playing With Complexity. I will introduce the game design audience to some interaction design thinking and suggest data visualization might be an interesting area to team up on.
  • Last but not least is good old Reboot, 26-27 June in Copenhagen. I have submitted a proposal titled Playful Activism in the Real-Time City, which I hope will be selected to be on the program.1

If you will be at any of these conferences, do drop me a line or say hello at the event itself.

  1. If you’d like to see it too, don’t hesitate to vote it up. []

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. []

Blank banners — see me speak at TWAB 2008

Provo protesting with blank banner

In 1966 Provo took to the streets of Amsterdam with blank protest banners.1 The use of rousing slogans had been outlawed by the city’s mayor. The ‘protesters’ were arrested. Provo achieved their goal of making the authorities look silly by playing at protesting.

They took existing rules and decided to play within them, to see how far they could push the limits of those rules. They were not allowed to use actual slogans, so they decided to use unwritten banners. They made use of the ambiguous nature of play: They were protesting, but at the same time not protesting. There were no forbidden slogans on their banners, but at the same time, the slogans were ever so present through their absence.

The police were not willing to take on Provo’s ludic attitude. They refused to step into their magic circle and play at opposing them. In stead they broke the rules, arrested them for real, and by doing so, lost—at least in the public’s eye.

This example—and hopefully a few others—I will discuss at The Web and Beyond 2008: Mobility. In 20 minutes or so, I hope to inspire designers to think about what the near future’s blank banners could be. My session is titled ‘Mobile components for playful cultural resistance’ (an unwieldy title in desperate need of improvement) and will probably be in Dutch.

The conference is organised by Chi Nederland and will take place May 22 in the beautiful Beurs van Berlage in Amsterdam. Keynote speakers include Ben Cerveny, Jyri Engeström and Adam Greenfield. It looks like this will be a very special conference indeed.

Image source: Gramschap.

  1. Provo was a Dutch counterculture movement in the mid-1960s that focused on provoking violent responses from authorities using non-violent bait. Read more about them at Wikipedia. []