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

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.


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.


“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. []

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. []

Metagames as viral loops

MtG: My Pride-n-Joys by AuE on Flickr

‘Metagames’Richard Garfield’s presentation for the 2000 Game Developers Conferenceis in today’s links, but I think it deserves a bit more attention than that. Here are some quotes from the document that stood out for me.1

What a metagame is:

“My definition of metagame is broad. It is how a game interfaces with life.”

In other words, metagame design is contextual. It forces you to think about when, where, how and by who your game will be played.

Why metagame design has not been getting as much attention as game design itself:

“…the majority of a game’s metagame is probably unalterable by game designer or publisher.”

So, metagame design is a second order design problem. Designers can only indirectly influence how metagames play out. They facilitate it, but do not direct it.

Garfield divides metagames in four broad categories:

  • What you bring to a game
  • What you take away from a game
  • What happens between games
  • What happens during a game

Where “game” should be understood as a single play session of a game.

Garfield has interesting things to say about all these categories, and I recommend reading the article in full, but I’d like to zoom in on one bit mentioned under “from”:

“It is worth noting that many things listed have a ‘circular’ value to the player.”

Getting something from a game that you can bring with you again to a game makes you care more and more about the game itself. One clear example of how metagames are a helpful concept for making a game more self-sustaining.

Better yet, the ‘stuff’ that players get from a game play session can be shared or passed on to others. In this manner, the metagame becomes a viral loop.2

  1. Richard Garfield is the designer of the CCG Magic: The Gathering. []
  2. Via Matt Webb. []

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.”

Space to play

Tree by Pocketmonsterd on Flickr

The languages you’ve mastered shape your thinking. Nouns, verbs, adjectives…if you think of your day-to-day interactions on the web it’s clear the language you’re using is (very) limited. Does that limit your range of thoughts, and the things you’re able to express? Certainly, I’d say.

A quote from an old Ben Cerveny bio found in the Doors of Perception museum:

‘Cerveny is interested in harnessing the computational power of platforms like Playstation2 to create simulations with basic rule-sets that allow complexities to emerge, forming patterns of behaviour and interaction that people instinctively parse. He believes that this essential human ability to find patterns in complex systems remains untapped by current “click on the smiley face to buy our product” interfaces. “There is a certain algorithmic lightness to a basic ruleset, like that of the game Go,” he argues. “Especially as it replaces a top-down specification for human-computer interactions.”‘

That was in 2001. Game-like interactions have the potential for expanding your thinking. Stamen—where I’m told Cerveny is spending part of his time—is doing this with datasets.

Recently, I’ve been asked by several people to come up with concrete examples for my “playful” shtick. I’m worried that people expect stuff that makes a typical UI more playful. Like a sauce. That’s never been my intention.

The examples I’m considering (which I intend to describe as patterns) are of a more structural kind. When I point to emergent behaviour in games, I’m not kidding—the idea here is to allow for surprising results. Results that you as a designer have not foreseen. Space to play. That’s what sets the typical web interaction apart from something like Digg Labs.

“Play is free movement within a more rigid structure”. There is (almost) no free movement in your typical web app. That’s why I would not call it playful. These apps are designed to fit predefined user scenarios and evaluated based on how well they support them. No surprise they turn out boring in stead of fun.

However: Not every web app has to be playful, because not every web app is trying to teach you something.

In DOET Norman writes on p.124:

“What are not everyday activities? Those with wide and deep structures, the ones that require considerable conscious planning and thought, deliberate trial and error: trying first this approach, then that—backtracking. Unusual tasks include […] intellectual games: bridge, chess, poker, crossword puzzles, and so on.”1

So that’s why I believe much of the foundations of human-centered design are not applicable to playful experiences—the teachings of Norman are aimed at everyday activities. The activities that are not aimed at making you smarter, at giving you new insights.

On the web (and in computing in general) we’ve moved beyond utility. If we keep designing stuff using methods derived from Donald Norman’s2 (and other’s) work, we’ll never get to playful experiences.

  1. Norman has a blind spot for digital games, although he does include a NES as an example in his book. About this he admits he made “a few attempts to master the game” (p.138). []
  2. I’ll be speaking at a conference that has Mr. Norman as keynote speaker. I mean no disrespect. []

What should a casual MMOG feel like?

The prims are always greener by yhancik on Flickr

I’m finding myself in the starting phases of designing a casual MMOG (or virtual world, if you prefer that term). When I say design, I mean determining the structure and behaviour of the world — interaction design, in other words.

It’s an interesting challenge (and a significant change from designing mobile games, to say the least). I can’t think of a class of games that has the potential for more emergent phenomena, both social and economic. This is truly a second order design challenge.

Of course, the same old player needs still hold true, and tools and techniques such as scenarios and storyboards are just as useful here as in any other project. But the need for an iterative, test driven design and development process becomes hugely apparent once you start to think about all the effects you simply cannot design directly.

You might think I’m involved with a WoW– or SL-like endeavour. On the contrary! The aim of the project is to bring some of the unique pleasures of a virtual world to a mass (adult) audience.1 That means making the experience more casual, more short-session.

Our players will still want to feel related and socialise, but on their own terms. They’ll still want to feel autonomous and explore, but in short bursts of activity. They’ll still want to feel competent and achieve, but without having to make too huge an effort…

There’s plenty of movement in the space of casual, short-session MMOG’s. Some have dubbed them PMOGs — Passively Multiplayer Online Games — and focus on making them open systems that interact with daily life. I’m trying to imagine what — as a closed system — a casual MMO should feel like, what its aesthetics (PDF) need to be. What, in other words, would WoW or SL have turned out to be if Miyamoto-san had designed it?

  1. Plus some other more unique goals, that I won’t talk about just yet. []

More than useful — outline of my Interaction 08 talk

Illustration from children's book

A while back I was happy to hear that my submission for Interaction 08 is accepted. This will be the first conference organised by the IxDA. Obviously I’m proud to be part of that. I’ll probably be building my talk a post at a time on this blog, more or less like I did with the one for the Euro IA Summit of this year. If you’re wondering wether it’ll be worth following along, let me outline the argument I made in my submission:

There’s a generation of ‘users’ expecting their digital and physical products to be customizable, personalize-able and re-combinable. These users explore the potential of these 3C products through play. This is why I think it’s worthwhile for interaction designer to get a better understanding of how to design for open-ended play. Obviously, it makes sense to do some shopping around in the theories of our colleagues in game design. Why should designers bother? Playful products have deeply engaged users that can’t stop telling stories about their experiences with them.

The focus of this talk is firmly on designing stories that emerge through play and enabling the retelling of those play experiences.

Like I said, I’ll dive deeper into these topics in the coming period. If you have any views of your own on this — or useful resources that you think I should check out — do let me know.

Update: Today the full conference program was announced and my name is actually on there. The program looks really cool, and I’m really happy to see some talks related to mine in there as well. See you in Savannah!

Play, story and recombination

A bunch of Lego bricks

“Dominant models in IA: space + story” was one of the notes I took while at this year’s Euro IA Summit. I’ll get into space some other time. Concerning story: Basically it strikes me that for a discipline involved with an interactive medium, so often designing is likened to storytelling. I’m not sure this is always the most productive way to approach design, I actually think it is very limiting. If you approach design not as embedding your story in the environment, but as creating an environment wherein users can create their own stories, then I’d say you’re on the right track. An example I tend to use is a game of poker: The design of the game poker was certainly not an act of storytelling, but a play session of poker is experienced as (and can be retold as) a story. Furthermore, the components of the game can be recombined to create different variations of the basic game, each creating different potentials for stories to arise. I’d like to see more designers approach interactive media (digital, physical or whatever) like this: Don’t tell a story to your user, enable them to create their own.1 Realize users will want to recombine your stuff with other stuff you might not know about (the notion of seamful design comes into play here). When you’ve done a proper job, you’ll find them retelling those stories to others, which I would say is the biggest compliment you can get.

1. Or to put this in Marc LeBlanc‘s terms: Don’t embed narrative, let it emerge through play.

Summary of my Playful IAs argument

I thought I’d post a short summary of the argument I made in my Euro IA Summit 2007 talk, for those who weren’t there and/or are too lazy to actually go through the notes in the slides. The presentation is basically broken up into three parts:

  1. Future web environments are becoming so complex, they start to show emergent properties. In this context a lot of traditional IA practice doesn’t make sense anymore. Instead of directly designing an information space, you’re better off designing the rules that underly the generative construction of such spaces. In other words, IA is becoming a second order design problem.
  2. IAs tend to argue for the value of their designs based solely on how well they support users in achieving their end goals. I propose supporting experience goals is just as important. From there I try to make the case that any powerful experience is a playful one, where the user’s fun follows from the feeling that he or she is learning new stuff, is kicking ass, is in flow.
  3. Game design is not black magic (anymore). In recent years a lot has become understood about how games work. They are built up out of game mechanics that each follow a pattern of action, simulation, feedback and modelling. Designing playful IAs means taking care that you encourage discovery, support exploration and provide feedback on mastery.

Get the the slides, and a list of sources for the talk in this earlier post.