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.

My plans for 2016

Long story short: my plan is to make plans.

Hubbub has gone into hibernation. After more than six years of leading a boutique playful design agency I am returning to freelance life. At least for the short term.

I will use the flexibility afforded by this freeing up of time to take stock of where I have come from and where I am headed. ‘Orientation is the Schwerpunkt,’ as Boyd says. I have definitely cycled back through my meta-OODA-loop and am firmly back in the second O.

To make things more interesting I have exchanged the Netherlands for Singapore. I will be here until August. It is going to be fun to explore the things this city has to offer. I am curious what the technology and design scene is like when seen up close. So I hope to do some work locally.

I will take on short commitments. Let’s say no longer than two to three months. Anything goes really, but I am particularly interested in work related to creativity and learning. I am also keen on getting back into teaching.

So if you are in Singapore, work in technology or design and want to have a cup of coffee. Drop me a line.

Happy 2016!

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.

"Anonymous Scientology 1 by David Shankbone" by David Shankbone - David Shankbone. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Political play is a mode of thinking critically about politics, and of developing an agonistic approach to those politics. This agonism is framed through carnivalesque chaos and humour, through the appropriation of the world for playing. By playing, by carefully negotiating the purpose of playing between pleasure and the political, we engage in a transformative act.

Quote taken from PARTICIPATORY REPUBLICS: PLAY AND THE POLITICAL by Miguel Sicart on the Play Matters book blog.

I love where Miguel is going with his thinking on the relationship between play, politics, appropriation and resistance.

I am interested in this because at Hubbub we have been exploring similar themes through the making of games and things-you-can-play-with.

The big challenges with this remain in the area of instrumentalisation – if you set out to design a thing that encourages this kind of play you often end up with something that is far from playful.

But the opportunities are huge because so much of today’s struggles of individuals against the state relate to legibility and control in some way, and play is the perfect antidote.

For example shortly after reading Miguel’s piece I came across this McKenzie Wark piece on extrastatecraft via Honor Harger. Extrastatecraft shifts the focus from architecture and politics to infrastructure.

Infrastructure is how power deploys itself, and it does so much faster than law or democracy.

You should read the whole thing. What’s fascinating is that Wark briefly discusses strategies and tactics for resisting such statecraft.

So the world might be run not by statecraft but at least in part by extrastatecraft. Easterling: “Avoiding binary dispositions, this field of activity calls for experiments with ongoing forms of leverage, reciprocity, and vigilance to counter the violence immanent in the space of extrastatecraft.” (149) She has some interesting observations on the tactics for this. Some exploit the informational character of third nature, such as gossip, rumor and hoax. She also discusses the possibilities of the gift or of exaggerated compliance (related perhaps to Zizek’s over-identification), and of mimicry and comedy.

“Gossip, rumor and hoax” sound a lot like the carnivalesque reflective-in-action political play Miguel is talking about.

To finish off, here’s a video of the great James C. Scott on the art of not being governed. He talks at length about how peoples have historically fled from statecraft into geographical zones unreachable by power’s infrastructure. And how they deploy their own, state-resistant infrastructure (such as particular kinds of crops) to remain illegible and uncapturable.

I’ve spent a lot of time watching dogs playing and it’s been a source of fascination and happiness for years. So the subject matter felt really natural to me. But as a game designer, I find the dynamics of how dogs play together really interesting. Dogs are expert players. Dog play is made of all these ritualized moments of violence and dominance, but when it’s healthy play, it doesn’t cross the line into real violence. Dogs are really good at regulating their play. Playing and playing well is this really deep instinct for dogs, and I thought it would be interesting to try to pull some of that into a game for humans. Healthy dog play isn’t about defeating a bunch of opponents — it’s about having fun above all, while simulating all these really dark and dangerous real-life situations and working out social relationships.

So the pretentious idea at the heart of Dog Park is to make a game that has all kinds awesome “fighting” in it that’s not about defeating your enemies. It’s about how we work together, by pretending to fight each other, by competing with each other, to create enjoyment for each other. In other words, it’s about trying to turn my players into dogs, for a few minutes at a time.

(via » Kevin Cancienne)

“The really good creative people are always organized, it’s true. The difference is efficiency. If you have an agenda—a schedule—you will be better. In order to have moments of chaos and anarchy and creativity, you have to be very ordered so that when the moment arrives it doesn’t put things out of whack.”

Reminiscent of “play is free movement within a more rigid system” – I always enjoy using professional cooking as source of inspiration for improving design.

(via The Standard – Can the Brains Behind elBulli Take the Chaos Out of Creativity?)

Recess! 3 – Rituals & Habits

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

Dear Alper and Niels,

Where to begin? I guess by thanking Alper for kicking this thing off. And to respond to his comments on Proteus—yes, Alper, you’re being a stick in the mud. Proteus isn’t a replacement for a walk in the woods, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t intended as such. The thing that makes it special for me is the responsive audio, and how navigating the space is also an act of tweaking and tuning the soundscape. The fact that it was used in a live musical performance is no surprise to me, in this regard.

Niels, your exploration of Ni No Kuni’s world sounds like a lot of work. And I wonder, really, why not just sit back and watch a Ghibli film, if you’re that much of a fan. What could a game possibly add? I myself prefer Ghibli-esque exploratory worlds such as Journey. I guess what I’m saying is: leave games to the game makers and films to the film makers. I’m a purist that way.

What to play? I’ve had the pleasure of playing quite a bit of LUFTRAUSERS lately, and it’s shaping up to be a lot of fun. (I guess we’ll need to wait a bit longer for it, now that Vlambeer seems to be finishing Ridiculous Fishing first.) I’ve stopped playing it during work breaks though, I don’t unwind, I get wound up. Each time I’m close to killing my first blimp but then crash and burn I nearly rage-quit the game.

I’ve finished VESPER.5 last week. It took me well over 100 days to do so. Did it turn into a ritual, as Michael Brough intended? I wouldn’t go so far. I would say it got to being a habit. Which, to be honest, is fine. Perhaps becoming a habit is more than enough to aspire to for games. I did however set a recurring to-do in my Things to remind myself to take my daily step. Is that cheating? Or is it a wonderful thing, that a game finds it way into my daily to-do list?

It’s probably not what Alper is looking for. This game won’t help you unwind, you can only do one thing a day. It’s very zen in that regard. You launch the game, watch all your actions up to that point, ponder the next step (trading off between admiring scenery or marching on towards the exit), take your step, and then perhaps spend a few moments considering what you might do the next day. Hit escape, and get back to what you were doing.

It’s also not the fairytale world Niels would like to get lost in. It’s very sparse. There’s a bit of music, low res pixel graphics, hardly any animation. There are still images you “unlock” as you visit certain parts of the game’s world, suggesting a kind of alien landscape. It’s evocative, but in a very different way from Ghibli’s lush works. Perhaps a snow globe is a nice analogy. A thing that sits on your desk or in your windowsill, that you absentmindedly play with occasionally, while taking a break from whatever you are doing. Perhaps it reminds you of a place or time you hold dearly. But it’s not the place itself. It’s a proxy or a totem or whatever the right word is.

I’m well over my intended 250 words. Don’t read on if you’re playing VESPER.5 and hate spoilers. I’ll just leave you here and hand over to Alper again. But if you don’t care, here we go:

The one thing that disappointed me, in a rather unexpected way, is that the game ends abruptly when you get to the end. I thought I’d be rewarded with some nice surprise but I wasn’t. I also thought I’d perhaps done well because I took a lot of detours along the way. But the game did not acknowledge this in any way. What I was left with, was that it was done. I was done. And thinking about it now, that’s a shame. It’s crazy, because the promise of finishing this thing after 100 steps, one step a day, is what got me started, and what propelled be throughout. But now that I’ve gotten into the habit, I don’t think I need that goal anymore.

I’d like a VESPER.5 that just stays with me, like that snow globe. That I can just go through endlessly. A habit, a good one at least, is something that should continue on indefinitely after all.


(Read Niels’ contribution, and Alper’s post before that.)

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. []

Week 168

So, I got back from a one-week holiday on Terschelling last weekend (which was lovely, by the way) and immediately dove into work again. So much to do at the moment, it’s a challenge not to get swamped. Anyway. And it is one of those weeks where I need to look back on my calendar just to remember what has been going on…

Most notably, two interns have started at Hubbub. They are working on games for the second installment of the Learning Lab, an experimental educational program created by River Institute, which will be running at the University of Amsterdam the coming months. Their first assignment is to design a game that will be played by Learning Lab participants (who are called “pioneers”) today and tomorrow at the Natural Networking Festival. It is nice to have these guys on board. This week I regularly sat down with them to review their plans but aside from this they are incredibly self-steering. They’ll be blogging about their exploits on the Hubbub blog soon.

Also, I had a full day of work on Maguro yesterday. We spent the whole day at the client’s office (a large governmental organization which I can’t name at the moment). The morning was taken up by short presentations from the side of us, the design team. We also had the chance to talk to a selection of people from our target audience and get a tour of their work environment. In the afternoon we sat down to brainstorm concepts, and came up with some interesting ones. I enjoyed getting a chance to see this organization from the inside, which due to to the sensitive nature of their work is a little secretive. We decided to use part of the workshop’s program to try out some mechanics that we might be using in the game, without the audience being aware of it. That lead to some interesting results.

This week is bookended by meetings for project Ika. This project is run from the still very new Design for Playful Impact research group at the HKU. On monday I spent some time with the people leading the other projects to get a general sense of the program. Today I’ll be meeting up with the client for the first time.

And in between I’ve been doing more work on PLAY Pilots. I dropped by Zesbaans to check out an early version of their installation for the Netherlands Film Festival, which is called The Stereoscope and is this kind of toy-like VJ-ing tool loaded with fragments from Dutch films from the past 30 years. Awesome, awesome, stuff. It’s already fun to play with, even though the custom-built console is yet to be finished and the game mechanics haven’t been implemented yet.

And finally, in other news: we announced the next This happened – Utrecht, and I uploaded a selection of photos from the Bocce Drift game Hubbub ran a few weeks ago.

Week 164

I am sat at the studio while around me FourceLabs are putting the final touches to their installation for Stekker Fest. I’ll be there tomorrow to hand out buttons to players. It’s the first in a series of three playful additions to three festivals that I am overseeing – first called project Ebi and now commonly known as PLAY Pilots. As such I can’t wait to see the response of players. On the other hand, I am sure it’ll be great.

The next project in the PLAY Pilots series is by Zesbaans for the Netherlands Film Festival. I had a few more meetings about that one as well, mostly about getting some productional stuff sorted. It turns out getting big screens for a long period of time is kind of expensive. Your learn something everyday.

Last week we launched a first version of the PLAY Pilots website, which includes an online game. This week we’ve started rolling out the first improvements. I have been planning some changes and additions to the ruleset. We’ve also started work on pulling in the Wip ‘n’ Kip game data.

Apart from this, I have been doing some preparation for new projects; codenamed Uni, Maguro and Fugu. More on those as things develop.