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.”

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Kars Alfrink

Kars is a designer, researcher and educator focused on emerging technologies, social progress and the built environment.

2 thoughts on “Second order design and play in A Pattern Language”

  1. I haven’t looked through my copy of Alexan­der in quite some time, but the child’s play quotes above are won­der­ful. They remind me of an arti­cle on old-fash­ioned play recent­ly pub­lished on NPR.org: “A grow­ing num­ber of psy­chol­o­gists believe that these changes in what chil­dren do has also changed kids’ cog­ni­tive and emo­tion­al devel­op­ment. It turns out that all that time spent play­ing make-believe actu­al­ly helped chil­dren devel­op a crit­i­cal cog­ni­tive skill called exec­u­tive func­tion. ” (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=19212514&sc=emaf)

  2. Thanks for drop­ping by to com­ment Michal. A Pat­tern Lan­guage is one of the few books on archi­tec­ture that actu­al­ly makes me feel like build­ing stuff. The NPR arti­cle looks inter­est­ing, I’ll cer­tain­ly have a clos­er look. In a pat­tern relat­ed to Adven­ture Playground—called Con­nect­ed Play—Alexander goes so far as to say that if chil­dren don’t play suf­fi­cient­ly, they’ll end up with seri­ous men­tal prob­lems lat­er in life!

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