Playful Design for Smart Cities

Earlier this week I escaped the miserable weather and food of the Netherlands to spend a couple of days in Barcelona, where I attended the ‘Playful Design for Smart Cities’ workshop at RMIT Europe.

I helped Jussi Holopainen run a workshop in which participants from industry, government and academia together defined projects aimed at further exploring this idea of playful design within the context of smart cities, without falling into the trap of solutionism.

Before the workshop I presented a summary of my chapter in The Gameful World, along with some of my current thinking on it. There were also great talks by Judith Ackermann, Florian ‘Floyd’ Müller, and Gilly Karjevsky and Sebastian Quack.

Below are the slides for my talk and links to all the articles, books and examples I explicitly and implicitly referenced throughout.

Generating UI design variations

AI design tool for UI design alternatives

I am still thinking about AI and design. How is the design process of AI products different? How is the user experience of AI products different? Can design tools be improved with AI?

When it comes to improving design tools with AI my starting point is game design and development. What follows is a quick sketch of one idea, just to get it out of my system.

‘Mixed-initiative’ tools for procedural generation (such as Tanagra) allow designers to create high-level structures which a machine uses to produce full-fledged game content (such as levels). It happens in a real-time. There is a continuous back-and-forth between designer and machine.

Software user interfaces, on mobile in particular, are increasingly frequently assembled from ready-made components according to more or less well-described rules taken from design languages such as Material Design. These design languages are currently primarily described for human consumption. But it should be a small step to make a design language machine-readable.

So I see an opportunity here where a designer might assemble a UI like they do now, and a machine can do several things. For example it can test for adherence to design language rules, suggest corrections or even auto-correct as the designer works.

More interestingly, a machine might take one UI mockup, and provide the designer with several more possible variations. To do this it could use different layouts, or alternative components that serve a same or similar purpose to the ones used.

In high pressure work environments where time is scarce, corners are often cut in the divergence phase of design. Machines could augment designers so that generating many design alternatives becomes less laborious both mentally and physically. Ideally, machines would surprise and even inspire us. And the final say would still be ours.

Sources for my Creative Mornings Utrecht talk on education, games, and play

I was standing on the shoulders of giants for this one. Here’s a (probably incomplete) list of sources I referenced throughout the talk.

All of these are highly recommended.

Update: the slides are now up on Speaker Deck.

Recess! 8 – Cardboard Inspiration

Recess! is a correspondence series with personal ruminations on games.

Dear Alper and Niels,

This morning I read the news that Jason Rohrer has won the final game design challenge at GDC. A Game For Someone is amazing—a boardgame buried in the Nevada desert, intended to be played in a few thousand years by those who finally find it after working down a humongous list of GPS coordinates. The game has never been played, it’s been designed using genetic algorithms. It’s made from incredibly durable materials.

I find it ironic that a boardgame wins a game design contest at an event whose attendants also drool over technofetishistic nonsense such as Oculus Rift.

And I love boardgames. I love playing big tactical shouty competitive ones at my house with friends on Saturday evenings. Or small, slow meditative strategic ones with my fiance on Sunday afternoons. I love their physicality, the shared nature of playing.

I also love them for the inspiration they offer me. Their inner workings are exposed. They’re a bit like the engines in those old cars I see some of neighbours work on every weekend, just for fun. It’s so easy to pick out mechanics, study them and see how they may be of use to my own projects.

I recently sat down to revisit the game Cuba, because our own work on KAIGARA involved an engine building mechanic and Cuba does this really well. KAIGARA doesn’t involve any cardboard, but that doesn’t mean we can’t draw inspiration from it. On the contrary. It’s like James Wallis recently said in an interview at BoardGameGeek:

“My games collection isn’t a library, it’s a toolkit.”


Week 176

As I was starting to write this a discussion broke out on dramaturgy and game design. So I got sidetracked debating similarities and differences between disciplines and most importantly what they have to offer to each other. The room was filled with interaction designers, game designers and folk with a theatre background.1 So that was interesting.

More mixing of disciplines: on tuesday I spent a day working on Buta with Irene van Peer, a product designer with a tremendous amount of experience in the healthcare domain. We sat down and managed to push the work forward through lots of sketching and making. Next up is more work with pigs and farmers on site.

The rest of this week was taken up by work for PLAY Pilots (Monobanda’s Bandjesland for Le Guess Who? is turning out great), the Pampus project at the HKU, and a few meetings for new projects on the horizon.

I have been paying attention to my calory intake the past few weeks. It turned out this was far too low. Now that I am eating much more I find myself being able to cope with less sleep, more stress and just generally feeling much better. Which also makes for more pleasure taken from my work. Who’d have thought food could be such an upper?

  1. Wieger and Sylvan, interns at Hubbub, study Design for Virtual Theatre and Games at the HKU. []

A quick look at Tweetakt’s playful installations

Tweetakt is happening in Utrecht at the moment. It’s a youth theatre festival, really pushing the limits of what we think that means. As an example, they’ve provided space for several installations at the festival centre on the Neude. I went over for a quick look today – even though I know most of the creators personally and am familiar with several of the pieces. They’re all free and open to the public, so if you’re in the area, you should go too.


Medialab Utrecht's Knikkerbaan at Tweetakt

Made by a few principals at the Medialab Utrecht. Push a button and a marble starts rolling down a futuristic looking track. Halfway through it enters a scanner of sorts, and is converted into a virtual counterpart visible on a screen, only to emerge physically after some time again. At the end of the track, you get to keep the marble.

It’s hardly interactive, but does look kind of impressive and of course, marbles are always fun.


Monobanda's Kleurkamer at Tweetakt

A new version what is becoming a classic by the troublemakers at Monobanda. A beamer, a white decor and wiimotes enable you to paint with light. It’s a simple premise, the execution is serviceable but the result is quite magical. The addition of white jackets for people that want to become part of the canvas is a real nice touch.


Fourcelabs's Blockblazers at Tweetakt

Made by my friends at Fourcelabs, this is the one that hasn’t the benefit of a spectacular physical shape but is the most fun to play. It’s a competitive platform game playable with eight people at the same time with some clever social and physical touches. Scoring points is rewarded with a big photo of yourself that is shown for a few seconds, and the game wraps around two big screens that are back to back, forcing you to move around and compete with the other players for physical floor space.

It’s nice to see this kind of stuff at a theatre festival. I hope the pieces will do well – despite the fact that not all of them have been placed and presented to the public in the best way – so that we’ll get more of this stuff in the years to come.

Work now so you can play later

There’s a lot going on at the Leapfrog studio, which explains at least in part why things have gone quiet around here. However, I wanted to take the time to alert you to some upcoming events that might be of interest.

An urban game in the Rotterdam city center

On Sunday September 27 around 50 young people will play an urban game I designed for Your World — Rotterdam European Youth Capital 2009.1 It is part of a two-day event called Change Your World, which enables groups of youth to set up a new ‘movement’ with financial support and advice from professionals. You might want to hang around the Rotterdam city center during the day, to witness what is sure to be an interesting spectacle. More info should show up soon enough at the Your World website.

A pervasive game in the Hoograven neighborhood of Utrecht

Around the same time, from September 18 to October 11, you’ll be able to play Koppelkiek in the Hoograven area of Utrecht. This is a game I’ve created for the Dutch Design Double program.2 To play, you take photos of yourself with others in a range of situations and upload them to the game’s website. It’s designed to subtly permeate your daily life. With the help of our players we’re hoping to create a collection of photos that provide a unique look into life in the neighborhood. Do join in if you’re in the area. Also, we’ll have a playtest on September 16. If you’re interested in playing a round or two, drop me a line.3

Data visualizations of silence

I’m wrapping up some data visualization work I’ve done for the artist Sarah van Sonsbeeck.4 Sarah’s work revolves (amongst other things) around the concept of silence. Alper and I took a dataset she generated during a few of her ‘silence walks’ using a GPS tracker and a sound level meter and created a number of static visualizations in Processing. Some of the output can be seen at the exhibition Een Dijk van een Kust. More will probably be on display at another occasion. Also, I’ve learnt some new tricks that I intend to share here soon.

What else, what else…

  • I’m still meaning to write something up about the work that went into Mega Monster Battle Arena™ but it will have to wait. I attended two of the three shows and enjoyed both throughly. There’s some photos up at the opera’s website.
  • We’re in the process of finishing up the This happened – Utrecht #3 videos. Once they’re all done we’ll add them to the event’s page on the .org site along with the slides. Planning for our fourth event has already started. Mark your calendar for October 26 and subscribe to our newsletter so you won’t miss the registration’s opening.
  • And finally, I’m slowly but surely giving shape to a new venture which will focus on the use of play in public space to effect social change. Its name is Hubbub. The crazy designers at BUROPONY are developing a sweet brand identity and a first placeholder site is up. Stay tuned for more news on that.

That’s about it for now, thanks for your attention. I promise to provide content with more meat and less self-promotion in upcoming posts.

  1. Karel Millenaar, game designer extraordinaire at FourceLabs and a fellow resident of the Dutch Game Garden, has helped me out on this one. []
  2. I’ve asked Tijmen Schep of PineppleJazz, and the new Utrecht medialab to be my partner on this one. []
  3. Around the same time a lot of other interesting stuff related to design and society will be going on, such as the third edition of Utrecht Manifest, the biennial for social design. []
  4. I was turned on to this gig by the ubiquitous Alper Çuğun. []

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. []

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. []

“Stay hungry, stay foolish”

I graduated from the Utrecht School of the Arts in 2002. Now, less than seven years later, I am mentoring a group of five students who will be doing the same come September this year. I took a photo of them today, here it is:

Bright young bunch

From left to right, here’s who they are and what they’re up to:

  • Christiaan is tech lead on Hollandia, an action adventure game inspired by Dutch folklore. His research looks at ways to close the gap between creatives and technologists in small teams, using agile techniques.
  • Kjell is designing a series of experimental games using voice as their only input. He’s researching what game mechanics work best with voice control.
  • Maxine is game designer on the aforementioned Hollandia game. Her research looks at the translation of the play experience of physical toys to digital games. (In of Hollandia, you’ll be using a Wiimote to control the spinning top used by the heroine.)
  • Paul is building a physics-based platform puzzle game for two players. His research looks at the design of meaningful collaborative play.
  • Eva is making a space simulation game with realistic physics and complex controls. She’s researching what kinds of fun are elicited by such games.

Practically speaking, mentoring these guys means that I see them once a week for a 15-minute session. In this we discuss the past week’s progress and their plans for the next. They’ve set their own briefs, and are expected to be highly self-reliant. My task consists of making sure they stay on track and their work is relevant, both from an educational and a professional perspective. It’s challenging work, but a lot of fun. It forces me to make explicit the stuff I’ve picked up professionally. It’s also a lot about developing a sense for where each student individually can improve and encouraging them to challenge themselves in those areas.

I’m looking forward to seeing what they’ll deliver come September, when it’s their turn to graduate, and go out to conquer the world.