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.

Sum­ma­ry

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

Sources

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.

Thanks

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. []

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Kars Alfrink

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

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