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.

Fiction

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.

Non-fiction

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

Poetry

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.

Books I’ve read in 2016

I’ve read 32 books, which is four short of my goal and also four less than the pre­vi­ous year. It’s still not a bad score though and qual­i­ty wise the list below con­tains many gems.

I resolved to read most­ly books by women and minor­i­ty authors. This lead to quite a few sur­pris­ing expe­ri­ences which I am cer­tain­ly grate­ful for. I think I’ll con­tin­ue to push myself to seek out such books in the year to come.

There are only a few comics in the list. I sort of fell off the comics band­wag­on this year main­ly because I just can’t seem to find a good place to dis­cov­er things to read.

Any­way, here’s the list, with links to my reviews on Goodreads. A * denotes a par­tic­u­lar favourite.

Books I’ve read in 2015

On this final day of the year let’s do some more look­ing back. The last time I post­ed books read was in 2011. But that doesn’t mean I stopped read­ing. On the con­trary.

Goodreads tells me I read 36 books in 2015, which was the goal I set myself for this year. I will admit not all of these are big reads. Some are short pam­phlets and there is also a com­ic or two thrown in.

I think I am going to stick with this tar­get for next year and I will also stick with read­ing wide­ly. A few books were read because of a project at Hub­bub for which I felt the need to delve more deeply in the sub­ject mat­ter. This is a good way to stretch intel­lec­tu­al­ly. I also start­ed exper­i­ment­ing with ask­ing peo­ple who know me per­son­al­ly what nov­el I should read next which has led to some delight­ful dis­cov­er­ies. So I will con­tin­ue to do that too.

Any­way, here they are in order of date read. Par­tic­u­lar favourites are marked with a ❤️. I’ve writ­ten short reviews for most of these so I’ve pro­vid­ed links to those too.

Books I’ve read in 2009

This is the last list I’ll be post­ing on stuff from 2009, I promise. After this it’s all about look­ing for­ward. I’ve been track­ing my read­ing on aNobii for some time. Here’s a list of the books I’ve found par­tic­u­lar­ly worth­while, ordered chrono­log­i­cal­ly. My three absolute favorites are marked in bold.

  • Faith in Fakes, Umber­to Eco
  • Cat’s Cra­dle, Kurt Von­negut
  • Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Hein­lein
  • What I Talk About When I Talk About Run­ning, Haru­ki Muraka­mi
  • Black Dogs, Ian McE­wan
  • Out of Con­trol, Kevin Kel­ly
  • Invis­i­ble Cities, Ita­lo Calvi­no
  • Game Design Work­shop (2nd edi­tion), Tra­cy Fuller­ton
  • The New York Tril­o­gy, Paul Auster
  • Fight Club, Chuck Paluh­niuk
  • A Clock­work Orange, Antho­ny Burgess
  • The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch
  • Trainspot­ting, Irvine Welsh
  • Under­world, Don DeLil­lo
  • Rum Punch, Elmore Leonard
  • Dig­i­tal Ground, Mal­colm McCul­lough
  • The Big Sleep, Ray­mond Chan­dler

Com­mon themes: cities, com­plex­i­ty, soci­ety & the indi­vid­ual, inner & out­er space, design.

I’ve been quite picky with what I read last year and will prob­a­bly con­tin­ue to do so this year. Many of these have heaps of dog ears and mar­gin notes and its a won­der­ful feel­ing to have them sit­ting in my stu­dio book­shelf, ready to be picked up and used when required.

Jane Jacobs and London’s Old Street area

I’ve been read­ing The Death and Life of Great Amer­i­can Cities at a leisure­ly pace since octo­ber or so. (A tem­po that seems to suit the book fine. Jacobs makes me want to slow down and see.) I came across this pas­sage dur­ing a ses­sion with the book this week­end and some­thing about a recent vis­it to Lon­don clicked.

After explain­ing how large com­pa­nies do not need to be in cities because they are to a large extent self-suf­fi­cient and thus do not have to rely on ser­vices out­side them­selves, Jacobs goes on to say:

But for small man­u­fac­tur­ers, every­thing is reversed. Typ­i­cal­ly they must draw on many and var­ied sup­plies and skills out­side them­selves, they must serve a nar­row mar­ket at the point where a mar­ket exists, and they must be sen­si­tive to quick changes in this mar­ket. With­out cities, they would sim­ply not exist. Depen­dent on a huge diver­si­ty of oth­er city enter­pris­es, they can add fur­ther to that diver­si­ty. This last is a most impor­tant point to remem­ber. City diver­si­ty itself per­mits and stim­u­lates more diver­si­ty.

(My empha­sis, by the way.)

The day before Play­ful ’09 I spent some time at BERG, Tinker.it! and Real­ly Inter­est­ing Group. Noth­ing fan­cy mind you. I mean, they lent me a chair and a bit of table, plus inter­net. It wasn’t like I actu­al­ly worked with them (although I’m sure I would enjoy it!) It was a nice expe­ri­ence, but most of all, it was hum­bling. I was struck by the spare­ness of the space they were in, the lim­it­ed facil­i­ties at their dis­pos­al, the lit­tle room they had for all the peo­ple present.

Let me just say it was as lit­tle or less than what I’ve seen com­pa­ra­ble groups in the Nether­lands have to make do with.

And this is the thing. Over here, many of the star­tups I’ve encoun­tered seem to believe they first need more and fanci­er facil­i­ties before they can make it big time. The Sil­i­con Round­about crew I men­tioned ear­li­er make a glob­al splash at a reg­u­lar basis, despite the lim­it­ed (that I observed) resources at their dis­pos­al.

How­ev­er, and this is where the quote from Death and Life comes in, per­haps I was look­ing at it the wrong way. Per­haps the Shored­itch star­tups are more effec­tive than their Dutch coun­ter­parts not just because they do more with less (and because they are, clear­ly, insane­ly tal­ent­ed and hard work­ing, “rid­ing the wave of inno­va­tion, 24/7”, right guys?) but because they are in Lon­don. A city at a dif­fer­ent scale than Ams­ter­dam or for that mat­ter the greater Ams­ter­dam area, the Rand­stad as we call it around these parts. A city with a more diverse ecosys­tem of ser­vices and things, small­er ser­vices, more spe­cialised ser­vices, ready to be employed by com­pa­nies like BERG and RIG and Tin­ker, enhanc­ing their abil­i­ties when need­ed.

The city, in this case, not as a bat­tle suit, but more like a huge drug store stocked with a huge range of phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals that aug­ment then this trait, then the oth­er.

What I’ve been up to lately

You might be won­der­ing what’s been going on at the Leapfrog stu­dio late­ly, since I haven’t real­ly post­ed any­thing sub­stan­tial here in a while. Quite some stuff has hap­pened — and I’ll hope­ful­ly get back into post­ing longer arti­cles soon — but for now, here’s a list of more or less inter­est­ing things I have been doing:

This hap­pened – Utrecht

We had our first This hap­pened – Utrecht on Novem­ber 3. I think we suc­ceed­ed in cre­at­ing an event that real­ly looks at the craft of inter­ac­tion design. I’m hap­py to say we’re plan­ning to do three events next year — all at The­ater Kikker in Utrecht — and we’ve got lots of cool speak­ers in mind. If you want to make sure you won’t miss them, sub­scribe to our newslet­ter (in Dutch).1

Teach­ing

My stu­dents are near­ing the end of their project. They’ve been hard at work cre­at­ing con­cepts for mobile social games with a musi­cal com­po­nent; they came up with 20 in total. Now they’re pro­to­typ­ing two of them, and I must say it’s look­ing good. They’ll have to present the games to the project’s com­mis­sion­er — a major mobile phone man­u­fac­tur­er — some­where the begin­ning of Jan­u­ary 2009. I hope to be able to share some of the results here after­wards.

Office space

Since Decem­ber 1 I am a res­i­dent of the Dutch Game Gar­den’s Busi­ness Club. That means I now have a nice office smack in the cen­tre of Utrecht. The building’s home to lots of won­der­ful games com­pa­nies, some, like me, oper­at­ing on the fringes — like Fource­Labs and Monoban­da. If you’re curi­ous and would like to drop by for a tour, a cof­fee and some con­ver­sa­tion, let me know.

Brain­storm

I was invit­ed do help com­pose one of the cas­es for the ‘Grote Ams­ter­damse Water­brain­wave’. A one-day brain­storm in which 45 stu­dents from var­i­ous insti­tu­tions were asked to come up with water-relat­ed inno­va­tions that would make the Nether­lands a sig­nif­i­cant glob­al play­er once again. It was organ­ised by the Port of Ams­ter­dam, Water­net and Verleden van Ned­er­land2. I also attend­ed the day itself as an out­side expert on games and the cre­ative indus­try in gen­er­al. Read a report of the event at FD.nl (in Dutch).

Book

Dan Saf­fer’s book Design­ing Ges­tur­al Inter­faces has been pub­lished by O’Reilly and is now avail­able. Turn to page 109 and you’ll find a sto­ry­board by yours tru­ly used for illus­tra­tion pur­pos­es. That’s the first time any work of mine is fea­tured in print, so nat­u­ral­ly I’m quite proud. I have yet to receive my copy, but got a sneak peek this week­end and I must say it looks promis­ing. If you’re a design­er need­ing to get up to speed with mul­ti-touch, phys­i­cal com­put­ing and such, this should be a good place to start.

That’s about it for now. There’s a lot of excit­ing stuff in the works, the out­comes of which I will hope­ful­ly be able to share with you in 2009.

  1. The cre­ators of This hap­pened in Lon­don have been nom­i­nat­ed for a best of the year award by the Design Muse­um, by the way. Well-deserved, I would say! []
  2. A cross-media cam­paign aimed at increas­ing aware­ness of Dutch nation­al his­to­ry. []

Playing with emergence is like gardening

It’s been a while since I fin­ished read­ing Steven Berlin John­son’s Emer­gence. I picked up the book because ever since I start­ed think­ing about what IxDs can learn from game design, the con­cept of emer­gence kept pop­ping up.

Johnson’s book is a pleas­ant read, an easy-going intro­duc­tion to the sub­ject. I start­ed and fin­ished it over the course of a week­end. There were a few pas­sages I marked as I went a long, and I’d like to quote them here and com­ment on them. In order, they are about:

  1. Prin­ci­ples that are required for emer­gence to hap­pen
  2. How learn­ing can be uncon­scious
  3. Unique skills of game play­ers
  4. Gar­den­ing as a metaphor for using (and mak­ing) emer­gent sys­tems

A cheat sheet

Let’s start with the prin­ci­ples.1

If you’re build­ing a sys­tem designed to learn from the ground lev­el, a sys­tem where macroin­tel­li­gence and adapt­abil­i­ty derive from local knowl­edge, there are five fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples you need to fol­low.”

These prin­ci­ples togeth­er form a use­ful crib sheet for design­ers work­ing on social soft­ware, MMOGs, etc. I’ll sum­marise each of Johnson’s prin­ci­ples here.

More is dif­fer­ent.”

You need to have a size­able amount of low-lev­el ele­ments inter­act­ing to get pat­terns emerg­ing. Also, there is a dif­fer­ence between the behav­iour you will observe on the microlev­el, and on the macrolev­el. You need to be aware of both.

Igno­rance is use­ful.”

The sim­ple ele­ments don’t have to be aware of the high­er-lev­el order. In fact, it’s best if they aren’t. Oth­er­wise nasty feed­back-loops might come into being.

Encour­age ran­dom encoun­ters.”

You need chance hap­pen­ings for the sys­tem to be able to learn and adapt.2

Look for pat­terns in the signs.”

Sim­ply put, the basic ele­ments can have a sim­ple vocab­u­lary, but should be able to recog­nise pat­terns. So although you might be work­ing with only one sig­nal, things such as fre­quen­cy and inten­si­ty should be used to make a range of mean­ings.

Pay atten­tion to your neigh­bours.”

There must be as much inter­ac­tion between the com­po­nents as pos­si­ble. They should be made con­stant­ly aware of each oth­er.

Now with these prin­ci­ples in mind look at sys­tems that suc­cess­ful­ly lever­age col­lec­tive intel­li­gence. Look at Flickr for instance. They are all present.

Chicken pox

I liked the fol­low­ing pas­sage because it seems to offer a nice metaphor for what I think is the unique kind of learn­ing that hap­pens while play­ing. In a way, games and toys are like chick­en pox.3

[…] learn­ing is not always con­tin­gent on con­scious­ness. […] Most of us have devel­oped immu­ni­ty to the vari­cel­la-zoster virus—also known as chick­en pox—based on our expo­sure to it ear­ly in child­hood. The immu­ni­ty is a learn­ing process: the anti­bod­ies of our immune sys­tem learn to neu­tral­ize the anti­gens of the virus, and they remem­ber those neu­tral­iza­tion strate­gies for the rest of our lives. […] Those anti­bod­ies func­tion as a “recog­ni­tion sys­tem,” in Ger­ald Edelman’s phrase, suc­cess­ful­ly attack­ing the virus and stor­ing the infor­ma­tion about it, then recall­ing that infor­ma­tion the next time the virus comes across the radar. […] the recog­ni­tion unfolds pure­ly on a cel­lu­lar lev­el: we are not aware of the vari­cel­la-zoster virus in any sense of the word, […] The body learns with­out con­scious­ness, and so do cities, because learn­ing is not just about being aware of infor­ma­tion; it’s also about stor­ing infor­ma­tion and know­ing where to find it. […] It’s about alter­ing a system’s behav­iour in response to those pat­terns in ways that make the sys­tem more suc­cess­ful at what­ev­er goal it’s pur­su­ing. The sys­tem need not be con­scious to be capa­ble of that kind of learn­ing.

Empha­sis on the last sen­tence mine, by the way.

Patience

John­son writes about his impres­sion of chil­dren play­ing video games:4

[…] they are more tol­er­ant of being out of con­trol, more tol­er­ant of that explorato­ry phase where the rules don’t all make sense, and where few goals have been clear­ly defined.”

This atti­tude is very valu­able in today’s increas­ing­ly com­plex world. It should be fos­tered and lever­aged in areas besides gam­ing too, IMHO. This point was at the core of my Play­ing With Com­plex­i­ty talk.

Gardening

Inter­act­ing with emer­gent soft­ware is already more like grow­ing a gar­den than dri­ving a car or read­ing a book.”5

Yet, we still tend to approach the design of sys­tems like this from a tra­di­tion of mak­ing tools (cars) or media (books). I not only believe that the use of sys­tems like this is like gar­den­ing, but also their cre­ation. Per­haps they lie in each other’s exten­sion, are part of one nev­er-end­ing cycle? In any case, when design­ing com­plex sys­tems, you need to work with it “live”. Plant some seeds, observe, prune, weed, plant some more, etc.

I am going to keep a gar­den (on my bal­cony). I’m pret­ty sure that will teach me more about inter­ac­tion design than build­ing cars or writ­ing books.

  1. The fol­low­ing quotes are tak­en from pages 77–79. []
  2. This reminds me of Nas­sim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan, where­in he writes about max­imis­ing your chance of hav­ing serendip­i­tous encoun­ters. []
  3. Tak­en from pages 103–104. []
  4. Page 177. []
  5. Page 207. []

Chris Crawford on design suggestions

I have a con­sid­er­able amount of books with dog-eared pages lying around the office. One such book is The Game Design Read­er, which con­tains a large and var­ied col­lec­tion of essays on (yes) game design. This book prob­a­bly has the largest num­ber of dog-ears. Part­ly because it is quite thick, but also because it is filled to the brim with good stuff.

One essay is writ­ten by Chris Craw­ford. He is with­out a doubt one of the best known game design­ers out there, a real vet­er­an of the indus­try. He is also a con­tro­ver­sial char­ac­ter, often voic­ing unpop­u­lar opin­ions. I guess you could call him an icon­o­clast.

This icon­o­clasm shines through in his essay for TGDR. Craw­ford shares the sto­ry behind the design of East­ern Front (1941) his “first big hit”. Towards the end, he devotes some atten­tion to game tun­ing, and has this to say about how you as a design­er should approach sug­ges­tions from oth­ers:1

Your job is to build a great design, not grat­i­fy your co-work­ers.”

Accord­ing to him, a good design­er has thought the sys­tem through so thor­ough­ly, that the vast major­i­ty of sug­ges­tions have already passed through his mind. There­fore, these can all be reject­ed with­out much thought. If you are swamped with sug­ges­tions you have not thought of before, this is an indi­ca­tion you have not prop­er­ly done your job.

I can only agree, but I think the real chal­lenge is in reject­ing these ideas in a per­sua­sive man­ner. It is hard to make appar­ent the fact that you have thought all these things through.

One strat­e­gy I am pur­su­ing is to be rad­i­cal­ly trans­par­ent in my process. I try to doc­u­ment every sin­gle con­sid­er­a­tion using quick and dirty sketch­es, and share all of these. This way, I hope to make appar­ent the think­ing that has gone into the design.

What Chris Craw­ford makes clear is that design isn’t a pop­u­lar­i­ty con­test:2

This isn’t noble; it’s stu­pid. Seri­ous­ly con­sid­er­ing every idea that drifts by isn’t a sign of open mind­ed­ness; it’s an indi­ca­tor of inde­ci­sive­ness. […] Be cour­te­ous, but con­cen­trate on doing your job.”

Some time ago, Craw­ford more or less turned his back on the games indus­try and focussed his atten­tion on the thorny prob­lem of inter­ac­tive sto­ry­telling. The out­comes of this are final­ly see­ing the light of day in the shape of Sto­ry­tron; a com­pa­ny that offers a free author­ing tool as well as ready-to-play ‘sto­ry­worlds’.

I wasn’t too impressed with the inter­ac­tion design of the author­ing tool, but the con­cept remains intrigu­ing. We’ll see where it goes.

If this has piqued your curios­i­ty; Chris Craw­ford will be speak­ing at IDEA 2008 in Chica­go, 7–8 Octo­ber. Rea­son enough to attend, in my hum­ble opin­ion.

  1. Page 723 []
  2. Ibid. []

Sketching the experience of toys

A frame from the Sketch-A-Move video

Play is the high­est form of research.”

—Albert Ein­stein1

That’s what I always say when I’m play­ing games, too.

I real­ly liked Bill Bux­ton’s book Sketch­ing User Expe­ri­ences. I like it because Bux­ton defends design as a legit­i­mate pro­fes­sion sep­a­rate from oth­er disciplines—such as engineering—while at the same time show­ing that design­ers (no mat­ter how bril­liant) can only suc­ceed in the right ecosys­tem. I also like the fact that he iden­ti­fies sketch­ing (in its many forms) as a defin­ing activ­i­ty of the design pro­fes­sion. The many exam­ples he shows are very inspir­ing.

One in par­tic­u­lar stood out for me, which is the project Sketch-A-Move by Anab Jain and Louise Klink­er done in 2004 at the RCA in Lon­don. The image above is tak­en from the video they cre­at­ed to illus­trate their con­cept. It’s about cars auto-mag­i­cal­ly dri­ving along tra­jec­to­ries that you draw on their roof. You can watch the video over at the book’s com­pan­ion web­site. It’s a very good exam­ple of visu­al­iz­ing an inter­ac­tive prod­uct in a very com­pelling way with­out actu­al­ly build­ing it. This was all faked, if you want to find out how, buy the book.2

The great thing about the video is not only does it illus­trate how the con­cept works, it also gives you a sense of what the expe­ri­ence of using it would be like. As Bux­ton writes:3

You see, toys are not about toys. Toys are about play and the expe­ri­ence of fun that they help fos­ter. And that is what this video real­ly shows. That, and the pow­er of video to go beyond sim­ply doc­u­ment­ing a con­cept to com­mu­ni­cat­ing some­thing about expe­ri­ence in a very vis­cer­al way.”

Not only does it com­mu­ni­cate the fun you would have play­ing with it, I think this way of sketch­ing actu­al­ly helped the design­ers get a sense them­selves of wether what they had come up with was fun. You can tell they are actu­al­ly play­ing, being sur­prised by unex­pect­ed out­comes, etc.

The role of play in design is dis­cussed by Bux­ton as well, although he admits he need­ed to be prompt­ed by a friend of his: Alex Manu, a teacher at OCAD in Toron­to writes in an email to Bux­ton:4

With­out play imag­i­na­tion dies.”

Chal­lenges to imag­i­na­tion are the keys to cre­ativ­i­ty. The skill of retriev­ing imag­i­na­tion resides in the mas­tery of play. The ecol­o­gy of play is the ecol­o­gy of the pos­si­ble. Pos­si­bil­i­ty incu­bates cre­ativ­i­ty.”

Which Bux­ton rephras­es in one of his own per­son­al mantras:5

These things are far too impor­tant to take seri­ous­ly.”

All of which has made me real­ize that if I’m not hav­ing some sort of fun while design­ing, I’m doing some­thing wrong. It might be worth con­sid­er­ing switch­ing from one sketch­ing tech­nique to anoth­er. It might help me get a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on the prob­lem, and yield new pos­si­ble solu­tions. Buxton’s book is a trea­sure trove of sketch­ing tech­niques. There is no excuse for being bored while design­ing any­more.

  1. Sketch­ing User Expe­ri­ences p.349 []
  2. No, I’m not get­ting a com­mis­sion to say that. []
  3. Ibid. 1, at 325 []
  4. Ibid., at 263 []
  5. Ibid. []

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.”