What the hubbub is

There’s some movement over at the website for my new venture. I mentioned Hubbub before: it is a design studio I am setting up for physical, social games that are played in public places. We hope to address social issues and the like using these games.


Today's harvest

Also, we’ll be doing something playful and running a workshop at the upcoming Game in the City conference in Amersfoort.

To stay posted on Hubbub developments, follow us on Twitter or sign up for our newsletter. There’s good old RSS as well, of course.

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. []

Play in social and tangible interactions

Now that the IxDA has posted a video of my presentation at Interaction 09 to Vimeo, I thought it would be a good idea to provide a little background to the talk. I had already posted the slides to SlideShare, so a full write-up doesn’t seem necessary. To provide a little context though, I will summarize the thing.


The idea of the talk was to look at a few qualities of embodied interaction, and relate them to games and play, in the hopes of illuminating some design opportunities. Without dwelling on what embodiment really means, suffice to say that there is a school of thought that states that our thinking originates in our bodily experience of the world around us, and our relationships with the people in it. I used the example of an improvised information display I once encountered in the paediatric ward of a local hospital to highlight two qualities of embodied interaction: (1) meaning is socially constructed and (2) cognition is facilitated by tangibility.1


With regards to the first aspect — the social construction of meaning — I find it interesting that in games, you find a distinction between the official rules to a game, and the rules that are arrived at through mutual consent by the players, the latter being how the game is actually played. Using the example of an improvised manège in Habbo, I pointed out that under-specified design tends to encourage the emergence of such interesting uses. What it comes down to, as a designer, is to understand that once people get together to do stuff, and it involves the thing you’ve designed, they will layer new meanings on top of what you came up with, which is largely out of your control.


For the second aspect — cognition being facilitated by tangibility — I talked about how people use the world around them to offload mental computation. For instance, when people get better at playing Tetris, they start backtracking more than when they just started playing. They are essentially using the game’s space to think with. As an aside, I pointed out that in my experience, sketching plays a similar role when designing. As with the social construction of meaning, for epistemic action to be possible, the system in use needs to be adaptable.


To wrap up, I suggested that, when it comes to the design of embodied interactive stuff, we are struggling with the same issues as game designers. We’re both positioning ourselves (in the words of Eric Zimmerman) as meta-creators of meaning; as designers of spaces in which people discover new things about themselves, the world around them and the people in it.


I had several people come up to me afterwards, asking for sources, so I’ll list them here.

  • the significance of the social construction of meaning for interaction design is explained in detail by Paul Dourish in his book Where the Action Is
  • the research by Jean Piaget I quoted is from his book The Moral Judgement of the Child (which I first encountered in Rules of Play, see below)
  • the concept of ideal versus real rules is from the wonderful book Rules of Play by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman (who in turn have taken it from Kenneth Goldstein’s article Strategies in Counting Out)
  • for a wonderful description of how children socially mediate the rules to a game, have a look at the article Beyond the Rules of the Game by Linda Hughes (collected in the Game Design Reader)
  • the Will Wright quote is from an interview in Tracy Fullerton’s book Game Design Workshop, second edition
  • for a discussion of pragmatic versus epistemic action and how it relates to interaction design, refer to the article How Bodies Matter (PDF) by Scott Klemmer, Björn Hartmann and Leila Takayama (which is rightfully recommended by Dan Saffer in his book, Designing Gestural Interfaces)
  • the Tetris research (which I first found in the previously mentioned article) is described in Epistemic Action Increases With Skill (PDF), an article by Paul Maglio and David Kirsh
  • the “play is free movement…” quote is from Rules of Play
  • the picture of the guy skateboarding is a still from the awesome documentary film Dogtown and Z-Boys
  • for a lot of great thinking on “loose fit” design, be sure to check out the book How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand
  • the “meta-creators of meaning” quote is from Eric Zimmerman’s foreword to the aforementioned Game Design Workshop, 2nd ed.


And that’s it. Interaction 09 was a great event, I’m happy to have been a part of it. Most of the talks seem to be online now. So why not check them out? My favourites by far were John Thackara and Robert Fabricant. Thanks to the people of the IxDA for all the effort they put into increasing interaction design’s visibility to the world.

  1. For a detailed discussion of the information display, have a look at this blog post. []

Teaching design for mobile social play

Last week, the group project I am coaching at the Utrecht School of the Arts kicked off. The project is part of the school’s master of arts program. The group consists of ten students with very different backgrounds, ranging from game design & development to audio design, as well as arts management, media studies, and more. Their assignment is to come up with a number of concepts for games that incorporate mobile phones, social interactions, audio and the web. Nokia Research Center has commissioned the project, and Jussi Holopainen, game design researcher and co-author of Patterns in Game Design, is the client. In the project brief there is a strong emphasis on sketching and prototyping, and disciplined documentation of the design process. The students are working full time on the project and it will run for around 4 months.

I am very happy with the opportunity to coach this group. It’s a new challenge for me as a teacher – moving away from teaching theory and into the area of facilitation. I am also looking forward to seeing what the students will come up with, of course, as the domain they are working in overlaps hugely with my interests. So far, working with Jussi has proven to be very inspirational, so I am getting something out of it as a designer too.

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. []

Embodied interaction and improvised information displays

Recently a good friend of mine became a dad. It made me feel really old, but it also lead to an encounter with an improvised information display, which I’d like to tell you about, because it illustrates some of the things I have learnt from reading Paul Dourish’s Where the Action Is.

My friend’s son was born a bit too early, so we went to see him (the son) at the neonatology ward of the local hospital. It was there that I saw this whiteboard with stickers, writing and the familiar magnets on it:

Tracing of a photo of an improvised information display in a hospital neonatology ward consisting of a whiteboard, magnets, stickers and writing

(I decided to trace the photo I took of it and replace the names with fictional ones.)

Now, at first I only noticed parts of what was there. I saw the patient names on the left-hand side, and recognised the name of my friend’s son. I also noticed that on the right-hand side, the names of all the nurses on duty were there. I did not think much more of it.

Before leaving, my friend walked up to the whiteboard and said something along the lines of “yes, this is correct,” and touched one of the green magnets that was in the middle of the board as if to confirm this. It was then that my curiosity was piqued, and I asked my friend to explain what the board meant.

It turns out it was a wonderful thing, something I’ll call an improvised information display, for lack of a better word. What I had not seen the first time around, but were pointed out by my friend:

  1. There is a time axis along the top of the board. By placing a green magnet at the height of a child’s name somewhere along this axis, parents can let the staff know when they intend to visit. This is important for many reasons. One being that it helps the nurses time the moment a child will be fed so that the parents can be present. So in the example, the parents of ‘Faramond’ will be visiting around 21:00 hours.
  2. There are different colour magnets behind the children’s names, and behind the nurses’ names. This shows which nurse is responsible for which child. For instance, ‘Charlotte’ is in charge of ‘Once’s’ care.

Dourish’s book has influenced the way I look at things like this. It has made me more aware of their unique value. Whereas before I would think that something like this could be done better by a proper designer, with digital means, I now think the grasp-able aspect of such a display is vital. I also now believe that the prominent role of users in shaping the display is vital. Dourish writes:1

“What embodied interaction adds to existing representational practice is the understanding that representations are also themselves artefacts. Not only do they allow users to “reach through” and act upon the entity being represented, but they can also themselves be acted upon—picked up, examined, manipulated and rearranged.”

Parents and nurses reach through the display I saw in the neonatology ward to act upon the information about visiting times and responsibility of care. But they also act on the components of the display itself to manipulate the meaning they have.

In fact, this is how the display was constructed in the first place! The role of the designer in this display was limited to the components themselves. Designers were responsible for the affordances of the whiteboard, the magnets, the erasable markers and stickers, which enabled users to produce the information display they needed. In the words of Dourish:2

“Principle: Users, not designers, create and communicate meaning.”

“Principle: Users, not designers, manage coupling.”

It is the nurses and the parents and the social practice they together constitute that gives rise to the meaning of the display. What the board means is obvious to them, because they have ‘work’ that needs to be done together. It was not obvious to me, because I am not part of that group. It was not a designer that decided what the meaning of the different colours of the magnets were. It was a group of users who coupled meaning to the components they had available to them.

It might be a radical example, but I think this does demonstrate what people can do if the right components are made available to them, and they are allowed to make their own meaning with them. I think it is important for designers to realise this, and allow for this kind of manipulation of the products and services they shape. Clearly, Dourish’s notion of embodied interaction is a key to designing for adaptation and hacking. When it comes to this, today’s whiteboards, magnets and markers seem to do a better job than many of our current digital technologies.

  1. Page 169 []
  2. Page 170 []

Designing a mobile social gaming experience for Gen-C

Update 21-03-2008: I’ve added some images of slides to allow for some more context when reading the text.

This is a rough transcript of my lecture at GDC Mobile 2008. In short: I first briefly introduce the concept of experience design and systems and then show how this influences my views of mobile casual games. From there I discuss the relation of casual games with the trend Generation C. Wrapping up, I give an overview of some social design frameworks for the web that are equally applicable to mobile social gaming. As a bonus I give some thoughts on mobile game systems mobile metagames. The talk is illustrated throughout with a case study of Playyoo—a mobile games community I helped design.

  • I’ve included a slightly adjusted version of the original slides—several screenshot sequences of Playyoo have been taken out for file size reasons.
  • If you absolutely must have audio, I’m told you will be able to purchase (!) a recording from GDC Radio sometime soon.
  • I’d like to thank everyone who came up to me afterwards for conversation. I appreciate the feedback I got from you.
  • Several aspects of Playyoo that I use as examples (such as the game stream) were already in place before I was contracted. Credits for many design aspects of Playyoo go to David Mantripp, Playyoo’s chief architect.
  • And finally, the views expressed here are in many ways an amalgamation of work by others. Where possible I’ve given credit in the talk and otherwise linked to related resources.

That’s all the notes and disclaimers out of the way, read on for the juice (but be warned, this is pretty long).

Continue reading Designing a mobile social gaming experience for Gen-C

Storyboarding multi-touch interactions

I think it was around half a year ago that I wrote “UX designers should get into everyware”. Back then I did not expect to be part of a ubicomp project anytime soon. But here I am now, writing about work I did in the area of multi-touch interfaces.


The people at InUse (Sweden’s premier interaction design consultancy firm) asked me to assist them with visualising potential uses of multi-touch technology in the context of a gated community. That’s right—an actual real-world physical real-estate development project. How cool is that?

InUse storyboard 1

This residential community is aimed at well-to-do seniors. As with most gated communities, it offers them convenience, security and prestige. You might shudder at the thought of living in one of these places (I know I have my reservations) but there’s not much use in judging people wanting to do so. Planned amenities include sports facilities, fine dining, onsite medical care, a cinema and on and on…

Social capital

One of the known issues with these ‘communities’ is that there’s not much evidence of social capital being higher there than in any regular neighbourhood. In fact some have argued that the global trend of gated communities is detrimental to the build-up of social capital in their surroundings. They throw up physical barriers that prevent free interaction of people. These are some of the things I tried to address: To see if we could support the emergence of community inside the residency using social tools while at the same counteracting physical barriers to the outside world with “virtual inroads” that allow for free interaction between residents and people in the periphery.

Being in the world

Another concern I tried to address is the different ways multi-touch interfaces can play a role in the lives of people. Recently Matt Jones addressed this in a post on the iPhone and Nokia’s upcoming multi-touch phones. In a community like the one I was designing for, the worst thing I could do is make every instance of multi-touch technology an attention-grabbing presence demanding full immersion from its user. In many cases ‘my’ users would be better served with them behaving in an unobtrusive way, allowing almost unconscious use. In other words: I tried to balance being in the world with being in the screen—applying each paradigm based on how appropriate it was given the user’s context. (After all, sometimes people want or even need to be immersed.)


InUse had already prepared several personas representative of the future residents of the community. We went through those together and examined each for scenarios that would make good candidates for storyboarding. We wanted to come up with a range of scenarios that not only showed how these personas could be supported with multi-touch interfaces, but also illustrate the different spaces the interactions could take place in (private, semiprivate and public) and the scales at which the technology can operate (from small key-like tokens to full wall-screens).

InUse storyboard 2

I drafted each scenario as a textual outline and sketched the potential storyboards on thumbnail size. We went over those in a second workshop and refined them—making adjustments to better cover the concerns outlined above as well as improving clarity. We wanted to end up with a set of storyboards that could be used in a presentation for the client (the real-estate development firm) so we needed to balance user goals with business objectives. To that end we thought about and included examples of API-like integration of the platform with service providers in the periphery of the community. We also tried to create self-service experiences that would feel like being waited on by a personal butler.


I ended up drawing three scenarios of around 9 panels each, digitising and cleaning them up on my Mac. Each scenario introduces a persona, the physical context of the interaction and the persona’s motivation that drives him to engage with the technology. The interactions visualised are a mix of gestures and engagements with multi-touch screens of different sizes. Usually the persona is supported in some way by a social dimension—fostering serendipity and emergence of real relations.

InUse storyboard 3

All in all I have to say I am pretty pleased with the result of this short but sweet engagement. Collaboration with the people of InUse was smooth (as was expected, since we are very much the same kind of animal) and there will be follow-up workshops with the client. It remains to be seen how much of this multi-touch stuff will find its way into the final gated community. That as always will depend on what makes business sense.

In any case it was a great opportunity for me to immerse myself fully in the interrelated topics of multi-touch, gesture, urbanism and sociality. And finally, it gave me the perfect excuse to sit down and do lots and lots of drawings.

Playyoo goes beta

Today Playyoo went beta. Playyoo is a mobile games community I have been involved with as a freelance interaction designer since july of this year. I don’t have time for an elaborate post-mortem, but here are some preliminary notes on what Playyoo is and what part I’ve played in its conception.

Playyoo's here

Playyoo brings some cool innovations to the mobile games space. It allows you to snack on free casual mobile games while on the go, using a personalized mobile web page. It stores your high scores and allows you to interact with your friends (and foes) on an accompanying regular web site. Playyoo is a platform for indie mobile game developers. Anyone can publish their Flash Lite game on it. Best of all — even if you’re not a mobile games developer, you can create a game of your own.

It’s that last bit I’ve worked on the most. I took care of the interaction design for an application imaginatively called the Game Creator. It allows you to take well known games (such as Lunar Lander) and give them your own personal twist. Obviously this includes the game’s graphics, but we’ve gone one step further. You can change the way the game works as well.

Screenshot of my lolcats pairs game on Playyoo

So in the example of Lunar Lander you can make the spaceship look like whatever you want. But you can also change the gravity, controlling the speed with which your ship drops to the surface. Best of all, you can create your own planet surface, as easy as drawing a line on paper. This is why Lunar Lander in the Playyoo Game Creator is called Line Lander. (See? Another imaginative title!)

At the moment there are six games in the Game Creator: Tic-Tac-Toe, Pairs, Revenge, Snake, Ping-Pong, and the aforementioned Line Lander. There’s long list of other games I’d like to put in there. I’m sure there will be more to come.

Since today’s launch, people have already started creating crazy stuff with it. There’s a maze-like snake game, for instance. And a game where you need to land a spider crab on the head of some person called Rebecca… I decided to chip in with a pairs game full of lolcats (an idea I’ve had since doing the very first wireframe.) Anyway, the mind boggles to think of what people might come up with next! That’s the cool part about creating a tool for creative expression.

Screenshot of a Line Lander game in progress in the Playyoo Game Creator

So although making a game is very different from playing one, I hope I managed to make it fun nonetheless. My ambition was to create a toy-like application that makes ‘creating’ a game a fun and engaging way to kill a few minutes — much like Mii creation on the Nintendo Wii, or playing with Spore‘s editors (although we still haven’t had the chance to actually play with latter, yet.) And who knows, perhaps it’ll inspire a few people to start developing games of their own. That would probably be the ultimate compliment.

In any case, I’d love to hear your comments, both positive and negative. And if you have a Flash Lite compatible phone, be sure to sign up with Playyoo. There is no other place offering you an endless stream of snack sized casual games on your phone. Once you’ve had a taste of that, I’m sure you’ll wonder how you ever got by without it.