Playful Design for Workplace Change Management’ at PLAYTrack conference 2017 in Aarhus

Lase defender collab at FUSE

At the end of last year I was invit­ed to speak at the PLAY­Track con­fer­ence in Aarhus about the work­place change man­age­ment games made by Hub­bub. It turned out to be a great oppor­tu­ni­ty to recon­nect with the play research com­mu­ni­ty.

I was very much impressed by the pro­gram assem­bled by the organ­is­ers. Peo­ple came from a wide range of dis­ci­plines and cru­cial­ly, there was ample time to dis­cuss and reflect on the mate­ri­als pre­sent­ed. As I tweet­ed after­wards, this is a thing that most con­fer­ence organ­is­ers get wrong.

I was par­tic­u­lar­ly inspired by the work of Ben­jamin Mardell and Mara Krechevsky at Harvard’s Project ZeroMak­ing Learn­ing Vis­i­ble looks like a great resource for any­one who teach­es. Then there was Reed Stevens from North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty whose project FUSE is one of the most sol­id exam­ples of play­ful learn­ing for STEAM I’ve seen thus far. I was also fas­ci­nat­ed by Cia­ra Laverty’s work at PEDAL on observ­ing par­ent-child play. Miguel Sicart deliv­ered anoth­er great provo­ca­tion on the dark side of play­ful design. And final­ly I was delight­ed to hear about and expe­ri­ence for myself some of Amos Blan­ton’s work at the LEGO Foun­da­tion. I should also call out Ben Fin­cham’s many provoca­tive con­tri­bu­tions from the audi­ence.

The abstract for my talk is below, which cov­ers most of what I talked about. I tried to give peo­ple a good sense of:

  • what the games con­sist­ed of,
  • what we were aim­ing to achieve,
  • how both the fic­tion and the play­er activ­i­ties sup­port­ed these goals,
  • how we made learn­ing out­comes vis­i­ble to our play­ers and clients,
  • and final­ly how we went about design­ing and devel­op­ing these games.

Both projects have sol­id write-ups over at the Hub­bub web­site, so I’ll just point to those here: Code 4 and Rip­ple Effect.

In the final sec­tion of the talk I spent a bit of time reflect­ing on how I would approach projects like this today. After all, it has been sev­en years since we made Code 4, and four years since Rip­ple Effect. That’s ages ago and my per­spec­tive has def­i­nite­ly changes since we made these.

Participatory design

First of all, I would get even more seri­ous about co-design­ing with play­ers at every step. I would recruit rep­re­sen­ta­tives of play­ers and invest them with real influ­ence. In the projects we did, the pri­ma­ry vehi­cle for play­er influ­ence was through playtest­ing. But this is nec­es­sar­i­ly lim­it­ed. I also won’t pre­tend this is at all easy to do in a com­mer­cial con­text.

But, these games are ulti­mate­ly about improv­ing work­er pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. So how do we make it so that work­ers share in the real-world prof­its yield­ed by a suc­cess­ful cul­ture change?

I know of the exis­tence of par­tic­i­pa­to­ry design but from my expe­ri­ence it is not a com­mon approach in the indus­try. Why?

Value sensitive design

On a relat­ed note, I would get more seri­ous about what val­ues are sup­port­ed by the sys­tem, in whose inter­est they are and where they come from. Ear­ly field research and work­shops with audi­ence do sur­face some val­ues but val­ues from cus­tomer rep­re­sen­ta­tives tend to dom­i­nate. Again, the com­mer­cial con­text we work in is a poten­tial chal­lenge.

I know of val­ue sen­si­tive design, but as with par­tic­i­pa­to­ry design, it has yet to catch on in a big way in the indus­try. So again, why is that?


One thing I con­tin­ue to be inter­est­ed in is to reduce the com­plex­i­ty of a game system’s phys­i­cal affor­dances (which includes its code), and to push even more of the sub­stance of the game into those social allowances that make up the non-mate­r­i­al aspects of the game. This allows for spon­ta­neous rene­go­ti­a­tion of the game by the play­ers. This is dis­in­ter­me­di­a­tion as a strat­e­gy. David Kanaga’s take on games as toys remains huge­ly inspi­ra­tional in this regard, as does Bernard De Koven’s book The Well Played Game.

Gamefulness versus playfulness

Code 4 had more focus on sat­is­fy­ing the need for auton­o­my. Rip­ple Effect had more focus on com­pe­tence, or in any case, it had less empha­sis on auton­o­my. There was less room for ‘play’ around the core dig­i­tal game. It seems to me that mas­ter­ing a sub­jec­tive sim­u­la­tion of a sub­ject is not nec­es­sar­i­ly what a work­place game for cul­ture change should be aim­ing for. So, less game­ful design, more play­ful design.


Final­ly, the agency mod­el does not enable us to stick around for the long haul. But work­place games might be bet­ter suit­ed to a set­up where things aren’t thought of as a one-off project but more of an ongo­ing process.

In How Build­ings Learn, Stew­art Brand talks about how archi­tects should revis­it build­ings they’ve designed after they are built to learn about how peo­ple are actu­al­ly using them. He also talks about how good build­ings are build­ings that its inhab­i­tants can adapt to their needs. What does that look like in the con­text of a game for work­place cul­ture change?

Play­ful Design for Work­place Change Man­age­ment

Code 4 (2011, com­mis­sioned by the Tax Admin­is­tra­tion of the Nether­lands) and Rip­ple Effect (2013, com­mis­sioned by Roy­al Dutch Shell) are both games for work­place change man­age­ment designed and devel­oped by Hub­bub, a bou­tique play­ful design agency which oper­at­ed from Utrecht, The Nether­lands and Berlin, Ger­many between 2009 and 2015. These games are exam­ples of how a goal-ori­ent­ed seri­ous game can be used to encour­age play­ful appro­pri­a­tion of work­place infra­struc­ture and social norms, result­ing in an open-end­ed and cre­ative explo­ration of new and inno­v­a­tive ways of work­ing.

Seri­ous game projects are usu­al­ly com­mis­sioned to solve prob­lems. Solv­ing the prob­lem of cul­tur­al change in a straight­for­ward man­ner means view­ing games as a way to per­suade work­ers of a desired future state. They typ­i­cal­ly take videogame form, sim­u­lat­ing the desired new way of work­ing as deter­mined by man­age­ment. To play the game well, play­ers need to mas­ter its sys­tem and by extension—it is assumed—learning hap­pens.

These games can be be enjoy­able expe­ri­ences and an improve­ment on pre­vi­ous forms of work­place learn­ing, but in our view they decrease the pos­si­bil­i­ty space of poten­tial work­place cul­tur­al change. They dimin­ish work­er agency, and they waste the cre­ative and inno­v­a­tive poten­tial of involv­ing them in the inven­tion of an improved work­place cul­ture.

We instead choose to view work­place games as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to increase the space of pos­si­bil­i­ty. We resist the temp­ta­tion to bake the desired new way of work­ing into the game’s phys­i­cal and dig­i­tal affor­dances. Instead, we leave how to play well up to the play­ers. Since these games are team-based and col­lab­o­ra­tive, play­ers need to nego­ti­ate their way of work­ing around the game among them­selves. In addi­tion, because the games are dis­trib­uted in time—running over a num­ber of weeks—and are playable at play­er dis­cre­tion dur­ing the work­day, play­ers are giv­en license to appro­pri­ate work­place infra­struc­ture and sub­vert social norms towards in-game ends.

We tried to make learn­ing tan­gi­ble in var­i­ous ways. Because the games at the core are web appli­ca­tions to which play­ers log on with indi­vid­ual accounts we were able to col­lect data on play­er behav­iour. To guar­an­tee pri­va­cy, employ­ers did not have direct access to game data­bas­es and only received anonymised reports. We took respon­si­bil­i­ty for play­er learn­ing by facil­i­tat­ing coach­ing ses­sions in which they could safe­ly reflect on their game expe­ri­ences. Round­ing out these efforts, we con­duct­ed sur­veys to gain insight into the play­er expe­ri­ence from a more qual­i­ta­tive and sub­jec­tive per­spec­tive.

These games offer a mod­el for a rea­son­ably demo­c­ra­t­ic and eth­i­cal way of doing game-based work­place change man­age­ment. How­ev­er, we would like to see efforts that fur­ther democ­ra­tise their design and development—involving work­ers at every step. We also wor­ry about how games can be used to cre­ate the illu­sion of work­er influ­ence while at the same time soft­ware is deployed through­out the work­place to lim­it their agency.

Our exam­ples may be inspir­ing but because of these devel­op­ments we feel we can’t con­tin­ue this type of work with­out seri­ous­ly recon­sid­er­ing our cur­rent process­es, tech­nol­o­gy stacks and busi­ness practices—and ulti­mate­ly whether we should be mak­ing games at all.

Books I’ve read in 2017

Return­ing to what is some­thing of an annu­al tra­di­tion, these are the books I’ve read in 2017. I set myself the goal of get­ting to 36 and man­aged 38 in the end. They’re list­ed below with some com­men­tary on par­tic­u­lar­ly mem­o­rable or oth­er­wise note­wor­thy reads. To make things a bit more user friend­ly I’ve gone with four broad buck­ets although as you’ll see with­in each the picks range across gen­res and sub­jects.


I always have one piece of fic­tion or nar­ra­tive non-fic­tion going. I have a long-stand­ing ‘project’ of read­ing cult clas­sics. I can’t set­tle on a top pick for the first cat­e­go­ry so it’s going to have to be a tie between Lowry’s alco­hol-drenched tale of lost love in pre-WWII Mex­i­co, and Salter’s unmatched lyri­cal prose treat­ment of a young couple’s liaisons as imag­ined by a lech­er­ous recluse in post-WWII France.

When I feel like some­thing lighter I tend to seek out sci-fi writ­ten from before I was born. (Con­tem­po­rary sci-fi more often than not dis­ap­points me with its lack of imag­i­na­tion, or worse, nos­tal­gia for futures past. I’m look­ing at you, Cline.) My top pick here would be the Stru­gatsky broth­ers, who blew me away with their weird tale of a world for­ev­er changed by the inex­plic­a­ble vis­it by some­thing tru­ly alien.

I’ve also con­tin­ued to seek out works by women, although I’ve been less strict with myself in this depart­ment than pre­vi­ous years. Here I’m ashamed to admit it took me this long to final­ly read any­thing by Woolf because Mrs Dal­loway is every bit as good as they say it is. I rec­om­mend seek­ing out the anno­tat­ed Pen­guin addi­tion for addi­tion­al insights into the many things she ref­er­ences.

I’ve also some­times picked up a new­er book because it popped up on my radar and I was just real­ly excit­ed about read­ing it. Most notably Dolan’s retelling of the Ili­ad in all its glo­ri­ous, sad and gory detail, updat­ed for today’s sen­si­bil­i­ties.

Literary non-fiction

Each time I read a nar­ra­tive treat­ment of his­to­ry or cur­rent affairs I feel like I should be doing more of it. All of these are rec­om­mend­ed but Kapuś­cińs­ki tow­ers over all with his heart-wrench­ing first-per­son account of the Iran­ian rev­o­lu­tion.


A few books on design and tech­nol­o­gy here, although most of my ‘pro­fes­sion­al’ read­ing was con­fined to aca­d­e­m­ic papers this year. I find those to be a more effec­tive way of get­ting a han­dle on a par­tic­u­lar sub­ject. Books pub­lished on my méti­er are noto­ri­ous­ly fluffy. I’ll point out Löw­gren for a tough but reward­ing read on how to do inter­ac­tion design in a non-dog­mat­ic but reflec­tive way.

I got into left­ist pol­i­tics quite heav­i­ly this year and tried to edu­cate myself a bit on con­tem­po­rary anti-cap­i­tal­ist think­ing. Fisher’s book is a most inter­est­ing and also amus­ing diag­no­sis of the cur­rent polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic world sys­tem through a cul­tur­al lens. It’s a shame he’s no longer with us, I won­der what he would have made of recent events.

Game books

I decid­ed to work my way through a bunch of role­play­ing game books all ‘pow­ered by the apoc­a­lypse’ – a fam­i­ly of games which I have been aware of for quite a while but haven’t had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to play myself. I like read­ing these because I find them odd­ly inspi­ra­tional for pro­fes­sion­al pur­pos­es. But I will point to the orig­i­nal Apoc­a­lypse World as the one must-read as Bak­er remains one of the design­ers I am absolute­ly in awe of for the ways in which he man­ages to com­bine sys­tem and fic­tion in tru­ly inven­tive ways.

  • The Per­ilous Wilds, Jason Lutes
  • Urban Shad­ows: Polit­i­cal Urban Fan­ta­sy Pow­ered by the Apoc­a­lypse, Andrew Medeiros
  • Dun­geon World, Sage LaTor­ra
  • Apoc­a­lypse World, D. Vin­cent Bak­er


I don’t usu­al­ly read poet­ry for rea­sons sim­i­lar to how I basi­cal­ly stopped read­ing comics ear­li­er: I can’t seem to find a good way of dis­cov­er­ing worth­while things to read. The col­lec­tion below was a gift, and a delight­ful one.

As always, I wel­come sug­ges­tions for what to read next. I’m shoot­ing for 36 again this year and plan to pro­ceed rough­ly as I’ve been doing lately—just mean­der from book to book with a bias towards works that are non-anglo, at least as old as I am, and prefer­ably weird or inven­tive.

Pre­vi­ous years: 2016, 2015, 2011, 2009.

Prototyping the Useless Butler: Machine Learning for IoT Designers

ThingsCon Amsterdam 2017, photo by
ThingsCon Ams­ter­dam 2017, pho­to by

At ThingsCon Ams­ter­dam 2017, Péter and I ran a sec­ond iter­a­tion of our machine learn­ing work­shop. We improved on our first attempt at TU Delft in a num­ber of ways.

  • We pre­pared exam­ple code for com­mu­ni­cat­ing with Wek­ina­tor from a wifi con­nect­ed Arduino MKR1000 over OSC.
  • We cre­at­ed a pre­de­fined bread­board set­up.
  • We devel­oped three exer­cis­es, one for each type of Wek­ina­tor out­put: regres­sion, clas­si­fi­ca­tion and dynam­ic time warp­ing.

In con­trast to the first ver­sion, we had two hours to run through the whole thing, in stead of a day… So we had to cut some cor­ners, and dou­bled down on walk­ing par­tic­i­pants through a num­ber of exer­cis­es so that they would come out of it with some read­i­ly applic­a­ble skills.

We dubbed the work­shop ‘pro­to­typ­ing the use­less but­ler’, with thanks to Philip van Allen for the sug­ges­tion to frame the exer­cis­es around build­ing some­thing non-pro­duc­tive so that the focus was shift­ed to play and explo­ration.

All of the code, the cir­cuit dia­gram and slides are over on GitHub. But I’ll sum­marise things here.

  1. We spent a very short amount of time intro­duc­ing machine learn­ing. We used Google’s Teach­able Machine as an exam­ple and con­trast­ed reg­u­lar pro­gram­ming with using machine learn­ing algo­rithms to train mod­els. The point was to pro­vide folks with just enough con­cep­tu­al scaf­fold­ing so that the rest of the work­shop would make sense.
  2. We then intro­duced our ‘tool­chain’ which con­sists of Wek­ina­tor, the Arduino MKR1000 mod­ule and the OSC pro­to­col. The aim of this tool­chain is to allow design­ers who work in the IoT space to get a feel for the mate­r­i­al prop­er­ties of machine learn­ing through hands-on tin­ker­ing. We tried to cre­ate a tool­chain with as few mov­ing parts as pos­si­ble, because each addi­tion­al com­po­nent would intro­duce anoth­er point of fail­ure which might require debug­ging. This tool­chain would enable design­ers to either use machine learn­ing to rapid­ly pro­to­type inter­ac­tive behav­iour with min­i­mal or no pro­gram­ming. It can also be used to pro­to­type prod­ucts that expose inter­ac­tive machine learn­ing fea­tures to end users. (For a spec­u­la­tive exam­ple of one such prod­uct, see Bjørn Karmann’s Objec­ti­fi­er.)
  3. Par­tic­i­pants were then asked to set up all the required parts on their own work­sta­tion. A list can be found on the Use­less But­ler GitHub page.
  4. We then pro­ceed­ed to build the cir­cuit. We pro­vid­ed all the com­po­nents and showed a Fritz­ing dia­gram to help peo­ple along. The basic idea of this cir­cuit, the epony­mous use­less but­ler, was to have a suf­fi­cient­ly rich set of inputs and out­puts with which to play, that would suit all three types of Wek­ina­tor out­put. So we set­tled on a pair of pho­tore­sis­tors or LDRs as inputs and an RGB LED as out­put.
  5. With the pre­req­ui­sites installed and the cir­cuit built we were ready to walk through the exam­ples. For regres­sion we mapped the con­tin­u­ous stream of read­ings from the two LDRs to three out­puts, one each for the red, green and blue of the LED. For clas­si­fi­ca­tion we put the state of both LDRs into one of four cat­e­gories, each switch­ing the RGB LED to a spe­cif­ic col­or (cyan, magen­ta, yel­low or white). And final­ly, for dynam­ic time warp­ing, we asked Wek­ina­tor to recog­nise one of three ges­tures and switch the RGB LED to one of three states (red, green or off).

When we reflect­ed on the work­shop after­wards, we agreed we now have a proven con­cept. Par­tic­i­pants were able to get the tool­chain up and run­ning and could play around with iter­a­tive­ly train­ing and eval­u­at­ing their mod­el until it behaved as intend­ed.

How­ev­er, there is still quite a bit of room for improve­ment. On a prac­ti­cal note, quite a bit of time was tak­en up by the build­ing of the cir­cuit, which isn’t the point of the work­shop. One way of deal­ing with this is to bring those to a work­shop pre-built. Doing so would enable us to get to the machine learn­ing quick­er and would open up time and space to also engage with the par­tic­i­pants about the point of it all.

We’re keen on bring­ing this work­shop to more set­tings in future. If we do, I’m sure we’ll find the oppor­tu­ni­ty to improve on things once more and I will report back here.

Many thanks to Iskan­der and the rest of the ThingsCon team for invit­ing us to the con­fer­ence.

ThingsCon Amsterdam 2017, photo by
ThingsCon Ams­ter­dam 2017, pho­to by