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.

Hel­lo every­one. My name is Kars Alfrink. I am from the Nether­lands, from the love­ly town of Utrecht, to be exact. Utrecht is so keen on becom­ing the nation’s cap­i­tal for game design, that they let Microsoft light up the Dom tow­er green for the Xbox 360 launch… Any­way, I work free­lance, as an inter­ac­tion design­er. I guess the rea­son I was invit­ed to come here is because I occu­py myself main­ly with design­ing for play­ful expe­ri­ences. What that means exact­ly, I am still try­ing to fig­ure out myself!

Inter­ac­tion design is a dis­ci­pline that occu­pies itself with shap­ing the dia­logue between peo­ple and the stuff they use. Some­times that stuff is a way to com­mu­ni­cate with oth­er peo­ple. Some­times not.

When I was study­ing inter­ac­tion design, I could not stay away from games. This irri­tat­ed most of my teach­ers great­ly. I’d always enjoyed play­ing them of course. But then I also got fas­ci­nat­ed by their design, in par­tic­u­lar of their inter­ac­tiv­i­ty. I found their inter­ac­tions so much rich­er than most oth­er things.

How­ev­er, I was not that inter­est­ed in games as enter­tain­ment, or at least, I wasn’t inter­est­ed in design­ing them for this end. And I’m still not very inter­est­ed in that area. Which is why I say I design for play­ful expe­ri­ences. I want to design things that use play to facil­i­tate things such as learn­ing, col­lab­o­ra­tion and cre­ativ­i­ty.

So in my work I strad­dle the line between inter­ac­tion design and game design. You could draw both fields like this, both being equals.

Although often I draw the pic­ture like this: game design being a spe­cial­ized sub dis­ci­pline of inter­ac­tion design. And I would be on game design’s edge, approach­ing it from an inter­ac­tion design per­spec­tive.

What I like about play is how it forces me, as a design­er, to take a cer­tain stance. In many ways I think design­ing play­ful things is very hum­bling. Design­ers tend to be con­trol freaks, and inter­ac­tion design­ers, myself includ­ed, are no excep­tion. This urge to con­trol the expe­ri­ence of use has often annoyed me. I guess this is why I’ve drift­ed towards the design for play.

Design­ing for play is like a hold­ing a bird: squeeze too hard, and it dies. Of course, if you hold it too loose­ly, it will fly away…

So it’s this stance that I’d like to talk about today. Using a few exam­ples, I hope I can paint at least a par­tial pic­ture of what I think it is about.

Let’s start with skate­board­ing. Who has seen the doc­u­men­tary film Dog­town and Z-Boys?

I think it’s bril­liant. It tells the sto­ry of the 1970s Zephyr skate­board­ing team, who were a big influ­ence on the ulti­mate shape the “sport” would get. One of my favourite sec­tions of the film is ‘The Birth of Ver­ti­cal’ — where we see how a chain of seem­ing­ly coin­ci­den­tal events lead to a dra­mat­ic change in the dom­i­nant style of skate­board­ing. In short, a draught caus­es lots of pri­vate pools to be emp­ty. The Z-Boys decide to try and skate in those pools. Because of the par­tic­u­lar shape of the pools — bowl shaped and irreg­u­lar — they try reach­ing the edges, and even­tu­al­ly they start jump­ing out of the pools and back in. “Ver­ti­cal” is born.

This all sounds very log­i­cal to us now, since when we think of skate­board­ing, we imme­di­ate­ly think of verts and half pipes, and aer­i­al acro­bat­ics. But back then, to these kids’ knowl­edge, what they were doing had nev­er been attempt­ed before.

So I think this is a prime exam­ple of what we in game design call the explo­ration of a pos­si­bil­i­ty space. The Z-Boys were try­ing to fig­ure out what the lim­its were of the com­bi­na­tion of their equip­ment, their bod­ies, and their envi­ron­ment. Why were they doing this? For the sheer enjoy­ment of it. They weren’t doing it because it had some out­side pur­pose. In fact, in my opin­ion, they were doing it exact­ly for the sake of its use­less­ness. Play is an end in itself. Lat­er on in the film you see how, for some of the Z-Boys, skate­board­ing loos­es its charm when com­pe­ti­tion and mon­ey get involved.

(For those of you who are famil­iar with Roger Cail­lois’ clas­si­fi­ca­tion of games — I think skate­board­ing start­ed out firm­ly in ilinx ter­ri­to­ry, which is all about phys­i­cal thrills, and only lat­er moved towards agôn, which is about com­pe­ti­tion.)1

Anoth­er aspect of this sto­ry that I find so fas­ci­nat­ing is how the ver­ti­cal style of skate­board­ing appar­ent­ly emerged, with­out any top-down orches­tra­tion. Skate­board­ing was not “designed”, in the usu­al sense of the term.

But cer­tain parts of the ecosys­tem in which “ver­ti­cal” was “born” were designed, or at least man-made. At that time, skate­boards were already com­mer­cial prod­ucts sold in stores — toys, you could say — although they weren’t meant to be used as the Z-Boys did. The pools were designed as well, obvi­ous­ly, although again, not for ver­ti­cal-style skate­board­ing. But some of the choic­es made by the pool mak­ers were, I feel, of much influ­ence on the emer­gence of ver­ti­cal skate­board­ing: round edges, irreg­u­lar shapes.

What would we call these things? Are they media? I do not think so. The best term I can come up with is “tools”. They were tools used by the Z-Boys to play.

So design was not com­plete­ly absent in the emer­gence of ver­ti­cal skate­board­ing, but it wasn’t as instru­men­tal as we would like to think it is. How­ev­er, no-one can deny that skate­board­ing has become a note­wor­thy form of play — an indus­try in its own right. I have not been part of skate­board­ing as a design­er in any way, but it is clear to me that, if I had been, an over-con­trol­ling stance would have been inap­pro­pri­ate. Counter-pro­duc­tive even.

I think it is inter­est­ing to try and design tools, that can be used for known and unknown forms of play.

Ear­li­er this year, in January’s Edge I read an inter­view with Yoshi­nori Ono, who is the pro­duc­er of Street Fight­er IV. Some­where in it, he describes his game as a “tool for hav­ing fun”. I thought that was bril­liant.

Ianus Keller, a friend of mine, has designed a tool for design­ers called Cab­i­net, which allows you to col­lect inspi­ra­tional mate­r­i­al and orga­nize it. It acknowl­edges the serendip­i­tous nature of design. Much of design is actu­al­ly very play­ful (if done prop­er­ly). But I digress.

Ianus says about tools:

Good tools extend your capa­bil­i­ties. Great tools go beyond that and allow you to cre­ate things that nei­ther you nor any­one else has ever thought of.”

I’d say that’s a pret­ty accu­rate descrip­tion of what the skate­boards and pools were to the Z-Boys.

So that’s part of my pre­ferred designer’s stance: don’t see your­self as a mak­er of media, but as a cre­ator of tools. The use of which you can nev­er ful­ly pre­dict. There’s two ways to han­dle this uncer­tain­ty: one — try to elim­i­nate any chance of peo­ple mess­ing with it, or two — embrace this uncer­tain­ty, and leave open oppor­tu­ni­ties for new play forms.

Let’s exam­ine this issue using play­grounds as an exam­ple.

I would love to design a play­ground, a prop­er real-life one, some time. Unfor­tu­nate­ly I have no archi­tec­tur­al train­ing what­so­ev­er. I do enjoy read­ing about archi­tec­ture though, one of my favourite books being A Pat­tern Lan­guage. (Strange­ly enough, it seems archi­tects aren’t too fond of its author, Christo­pher Alexan­der.) The book aims to help reg­u­lar peo­ple design a house, or improve their neigh­bour­hood. The book is struc­tured in so-called pat­terns — build­ing blocks, you could call them.

One of those build­ing blocks is called ‘Adven­ture Play­ground’. When I first skimmed through the book it nat­u­ral­ly drew my atten­tion. I won­dered what Alexan­der had to say about design­ing for play.

The prob­lem state­ment of Adven­ture Play­ground reads:

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 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.”

A good play­ground, in oth­er words, does not pre­sume the kinds of play that will hap­pen there. A good play­ground is a tool that offers enough free­dom to chil­dren for them to invent new play forms. (This, inci­den­tal­ly, is a very bad play­ground.)

Hab­bo Hotel is a good play­ground. At this year’s GDC I attend­ed a talk by Sul­ka Haro. In it, he showed many exam­ples of emer­gent play. Here’s one of them: can you guess what these kids are enact­ing?

It’s a manège! What I find so won­der­ful about this is that there’s no explic­it sup­port for play­ing a horse, or build­ing a sta­ble, and yet, the play­ers come up with this idea and find a way to play at it. They nego­ti­ate the mean­ing of the bits and pieces avail­able to them: to be a horse, you need to adjust your avatar so that it has a brown skin colour, pig tails, and brown clothes.

(This, by the way, is what Paul Dour­ish, an HCI the­o­rist who wrote a book titled Where the Action Is, means when he says that in social com­put­ing, mean­ing is cou­pled by users, not design­ers.)

Sulake con­scious­ly chose to keep the num­ber of objects and actions in Hab­bo Hotel lim­it­ed, or at least gener­ic, so that play­ers were encour­aged to cre­ate their own forms of play. It’s what in inter­ac­tion design is known as under­spec­i­fi­ca­tion.

So when design­ing tools for play, under­spec­i­fy!

We’re run­ning out of time so I’ll wrap up by giv­ing you one exam­ple of how play­ful tools can be applied out­side of the realm of enter­tain­ment.

Star­L­ogo is a com­pu­ta­tion­al tool designed by Mitch Resnick — we can also thank him (at least part­ly) for Lego Mind­storms. Resnick want­ed to improve people’s under­stand­ing of com­plex adap­tive sys­tems. Star­L­ogo is a sim­ple pro­gram­ming envi­ron­ment in which you pro­gram agents who, through their inter­ac­tions, give rise to larg­er scale pat­terns. The tool was used in edu­ca­tion. He describes many exam­ples of chil­dren build­ing sim­u­la­tions of aspects of real­i­ty, and dis­cov­er­ing new things about them.

In his book Tur­tles, Ter­mites and Traf­fic Jams, he writes:

Prob­a­bly the best way to devel­op bet­ter intu­itions about decen­tral­ized sys­tems is to con­struct and “play with” such sys­tems.”

He even uses the P word!

At the end of the book, Resnick writes:

What’s need­ed are microworld con­struc­tion kits, so that you can cre­ate your own microworlds, focus­ing on the domain you find most inter­est­ing.”

That was in 1994. I think his chal­lenge is still wor­thy of accep­tance, and I think Resnick’s atti­tude towards play is a won­der­ful exam­ple of the stance I men­tioned in the begin­ning of this talk: he’s cre­at­ed a tool, one that affords peo­ple a large enough degree of free­dom, so that they can explore con­cepts and arrive at new insights, with­out the design­er need­ing to pre­scribe them.

And all of this through love­ly, deli­cious play.

  1. The arti­cle can be found in the excel­lent The Game Design Read­er edit­ed by Katie Salen and Eric Zim­mer­man. []

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Kars Alfrink

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

10 thoughts on “A Playful Stance — my Game Design London 2008 talk”

  1. Great talk again. I can­not agree more; we need to ‘design’ for explo­ration. From design­ing for (spe­cif­ic) use to design­ing for con­text.

    Two thoughts pops in mind. What is the ulti­mate form of this design view? No design? The design is about the use of ‘it’. But what is it. How far can you strip a tool from designed func­tions to give it the ulti­mate pos­si­bil­i­ties for shap­ing our own expe­ri­ences?

    And which are the design meth­ods that fits this vision? At This hap­pened we saw the exam­ple of non-design with the guys of Things. Is that the ulti­mate form? I don’t think so; sub­stan­tial min­i­mal design for max­i­mum use is the hard­est thing to do…

    Above all it is cyn­i­cal and a shame that Lego is over­spec­i­fy­ing the bricks nowa­days…

  2. Lego is a won­der­ful exam­ple. Dur­ing my time in Den­mark, I spoke to a design­er who was involved with the re-imag­i­na­tion of part of the Lego line. He told me Lego had seen a sharp decline in sales once they start­ed to churn out those over­ly spe­cif­ic medieval / space / etc. flavours.

    I’m not advo­cat­ing un- or non-design. I’m sim­ply propos­ing a dif­fer­ent way of eval­u­at­ing design’s val­ue. One focused more on how adap­tive the things we cre­ate are to the peo­ple work­ing with them, in stead of how great their appeal to peo­ple is who haven’t or won’t ever use it.

  3. There’s def­i­nite­ly a lot of room to explore the more freefor­m/­tools-for-play­ing aspects in gam­ing, and I think there’s a lot hap­pen­ing in that area right now. It’s pret­ty excit­ing. Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing it’d be a good thing for games to loosen up a lit­tle more often and give that poor lit­tle bird some room to breathe.

    Just out of curios­i­ty, is it real­ly true that LEGO’s sales were adverse­ly affect­ed by over­ly spe­cif­ic kits/themes? How has LEGO tried to fix that (I haven’t kept up in recent years)? Hav­ing grown up play­ing with LEGO in a very freeform way, it always sad­dened me to see LEGO go towards more pre-baked stuff and movie license tie-ins that don’t encour­age cre­ativ­i­ty as much.

  4. Just out of curios­i­ty, is it real­ly true that LEGO’s sales were adverse­ly affect­ed by over­ly spe­cif­ic kits/themes?”

    Marek — I don’t know here you heard this nasty rumour. ;-) I’ve heard this from peo­ple who have done work with Lego. So it’s not from the horse’s mouth, but close to it. And I agree, all those themed Lego bits nev­er did much for me. The most inter­est­ing thing about them was to see peo­ple reap­pro­pri­at­ing them in cre­ations that had noth­ing to do with the orig­i­nal theme.

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