Yesterday evening I was at the Club of Amsterdam. They host events centred around preferred futures. I was invited to speak at an evening about the future of games.1 I thought I’d share what I talked about with you here.
I had ten minutes to get my point across. To be honest, I think I failed rather dismally. Some of the ideas I included were still quite fresh and unfinished, and I am afraid this did not work out well. I also relied too heavily on referencing other’s work, presuming people would be familiar with them. A miscalculation on my part.
In any case, thanks to Felix Bopp and Carla Hoekendijk for inviting me. I had a good time and enjoyed the other presenter’s talks. The discussion afterwards too was a lot of things, but dull certainly isn’t among them.
What follows is a write-up of what I more or less said during the presentation, plus references to the sources I used, which will hopefully make things clearer than they were during the evening itself.2
(This is where I did the usual introduction of who I am and what I do. I won’t bore you with it here. In case you are wondering, the title of this talk is slightly tongue-in cheek. I had to come up with it for the abstract before writing the actual talk. Had I been able to choose a title afterwards, it would’ve been something like “Growth” or “A New Biology of Urban Play”…)
This gentleman is Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. He is said to be the first to formulate a coherent theory of evolution. His ideas centred around inheritance of acquired traits. So for instance, a blacksmiths who works hard his whole life will probably get really strong arms. In the Lamarckist view, his offspring will inherit these strong arms from him. Darwinism rules supreme in evolutionary biology, so it is no surprise that this theory is out of favour nowadays. What I find interesting is the fact that outside of the natural domain, Lamarckism is still applicable, most notably in culture. Cultural organisms can pass on traits they acquired in their lifetime to their offspring. Furthermore, there is a codependency between culture and humans. The two have co-evolved. You could say culture is a trick humans use to get around the limits of Darwinism (slow, trial-and-error based incremental improvements) in order to achieve Lamarckism.3
You can think of cities as cultural meta-organisms. They’re a great example of natural-cultural co-evolution. We use cities as huge information storage and retrieval machines. What you see here is a map of the city of Hamburg circa 1800. In his book Emergence, Steven Berlin Johnson compares the shape of this map to that of the human brain, to illustrate this idea of the city being alive, in a sense. Cities are self-organizing cities that emerge from the bottom up. They grow, patterns are created from low-level interactions, things like neighbourhoods.4
Games are this other thing nature has come up with to speed up evolution. I’m not going to go into why I think we play (you could do worse than have a look at The Ambiguity of Play by Brian Sutton-Smith to get a sense of all the different viewpoints on the matter). Let’s just say I think one thing games are good at is conveying viewpoints of the world in a procedural way (a.k.a. ‘procedural rhetoric’ as described in Ian Bogost’s book Persuasive Games). They provide people with a way to explore a system from the inside out. They give rise to ‘systemic literacy’.5 The image is from Animal Crossing: Wild World, a game that, as Bogost argues, tries to point out certain issues that exist with consumerism and private home ownership.
Moving on, I’d like to discuss two trends that I see happening right now. I’ll build on those to formulate my future vision.
So trend number one: the real-time city. In cities around the globe, we are continuously pumping up the amount of sensors, actuators and processors. The behaviour of people is being sensed, processed and fed back to them in an ever tightening feedback loop. This will inevitably change the behaviour of humans as well as the city. So cities are headed to a phase transition, where they’ll move (if not in whole then at least in neighbourhood-sized chunks) to a new level of evolvability. Adam Greenfield calls it network weather. Dan Hill talks about how these new soft infrastructures can help us change the user experience of the city without needing to change the hard stuff. The problem is, though, that the majority of this stuff is next-to invisible, and therefore hard to “read”.6 The image, by the way, is from Stamen Design’s awesome project Cabspotting, which (amongst other things) consists of real-time tracking and visualization of the trajectories of taxis in the Bay Area.
Trend number two. In the past decade or so, there’s a renewed interest in playing in public spaces. Urban games are being used to re-imagine and repurpose the city in new ways (such as the parkour player pictured here). Consciously or subconsciously, urban games designers are flirting with the notions of the Situationist International, most notably the idea of inner space shaping our experience of outer space (psycho-geography) and the use of playful acts to subvert those spaces. Parkour and free running can’t really be called games, but things like SFZero, The Soho Project and Cruel 2 B Kind all fit these ideas in some way.
So I see an opportunity here: To alleviate some of the illegibility of the real-time city’s new soft infrastructures, we can deploy games that tap into them. Thus we employ the capacity of games to provide insight into complex systems. With urban games, this ‘grokking’ can happen in situ.
Through playing these games, people will be better able to “read” the real-time city, and to move towards a more decentralized mindset. The image is from a project by Dan Hill, where the shape of public Wi-Fi in the State Library of Queensland was visualized and overlaid on the building’s floor-plan.
Ultimately though, I would love to enable people to not only “read” but also “write” possible processes for the real-time city. I see many advantages here. Fore one this could lead to situated procedural arguments: people could be enabled to propose alternative ways of interacting with urban space. But even without this, just by making stuff, another way of learning is activated, known as ‘analysis by synthesis’. This was the aim of Mitchel Resnick when he made StarLogo (of which you see a screenshot here). And it works. StarLogo enables children to make sense of complex systems. A real-time urban game design toolkit could to the same, with the added benefit of the games being juxtaposed with the cities they are about.
This juxtaposition might result in dynamics similar to what we find in nature. Processes from these new games might be spontaneously transferred over to the city, and vice versa. The image is of roots with outgrowths on them which are caused by a bacteria called Agrobacterium. This bacteria is well known for its ability to transfer DNA between itself and plants. An example of nature circumventing natural selection.7 A new symbiosis between urban games and the real-time city might lead to similar acceleration of their evolutions.
(I finished a little over time and had time for one question. Adriaan Wormgoor of FourceLabs asked whether I thought games would sooner or later become self-evolving themselves. My answer was “absolutely”. to get to ever higher levels of complexity we’ll be forced to start growing or rearing our games more than assembling them from parts. Games want to be free, you could say, so they are inevitably heading towards ever higher levels of evolvability.)
I am breaking radio-silence for a bit to let you know the slides and video for my Reboot 10 presentation are now available online, in case you’re interested. I presented this talk before at The Web and Beyond, but this time I had a lot more time, and I presented in English. I therefore think this might still be of interest to some people.1 As always, I am very interested in receiving constructive criticism Just drop me a line in the comments.
This is a transcript of my presentation at The Web and Beyond 2008: Mobility in Amsterdam on 22 May. Since the majority of paying attendees were local I presented in Dutch. However, English appears to be the lingua franca of the internet, so here I offer a translation. I have uploaded the slides to SlideShare and hope to be able to share a video recording of the whole thing soon.
In 1966 a number of members of Provo took to the streets of Amsterdam carrying blank banners. Provo was a nonviolent anarchist movement. They primarily occupied themselves with provoking the authorities in a “ludic” manner. Nothing was written on their banners because the mayor of Amsterdam had banned the slogans “freedom of speech”, “democracy” and “right to demonstrate”. Regardless, the members were arrested by police, showing that the authorities did not respect their right to demonstrate.1
Good afternoon everyone, my name is Kars Alfrink, I’m a freelance interaction designer. Today I’d like to talk about play in public space. I believe that with the arrival of ubiquitous computing in the city new forms of play will be made possible. The technologies we shape will be used for play wether we want to or not. As William Gibson writes in Burning Chrome:
“…the street finds its own uses for things”
For example: Skateboarding as we now know it — with its emphasis on aerial acrobatics — started in empty pools like this one. That was done without permission, of course…
Only later half-pipes, ramps, verts (which by the way is derived from ‘vertical’) and skateparks arrived — areas where skateboarding is tolerated. Skateboarding would not be what it is today without those first few empty pools.2
I’ve been researching street art and related topics lately, and have come across a range of interesting things people have placed in public spaces. I thought it would be fun (and perhaps enlightening) to collect them here. Each entry follows a similar format, listing what was left, by whom and with what intent, what it was made of, and what the reactions were.
Clearly, ‘playing’ in public spaces is not without risk. Reactions can vary widely and are dependent on such a huge range of things that you can essentially not predict what will happen. If you want to leave things with the aim of changing the public’s attitude, you’d best embrace this unpredictability, make use of it, and not be naive about it.
World famous street artist Banksy has created many interventions in public space. A recent one in London being a mural showing a girl raising a flag bearing the logo of Tesco’s while two children look on, hands on their harts. The piece is filmed for an hour and the result shows a huge amount of people stopping and looking at it. (Which is interesting in the context of to the next example.)
As an experiment, critically acclaimed contemporary painter Luc Tuymans paints a mural on the walls of a busy pedestrian street in Antwerp. Hardly anyone (less than 10%) pays the work any attention, as this video shows. What does this say about people, what does it say about contemporary art?
LED displays showing a Mooninite, a character from the Aqua Teen Hunger Force animated show are attached to metal surfaces throughout 10 major cities in the USA. They are part of a guerilla marketing campaign to promote an upcoming ATHF film. After being up for a few weeks, Boston police are alerted to their presence and mistaken for possible bombs, launching a full-on scare. The artists responsible for putting them up (Peter Berdovsky, 27, and Sean Stevens, 28) are arrested but later released.
Street artist Poster Child publishes instructions for the creation of blocks faced with question marks taken from the game Super Mario Bros. online. Inside the blocks are the traditional power-ups from the game. His intention is to comment on the onslaught of advertising in public space. Many create the blocks and put them up in various public places, some as a statement, other for fun. One group of young women is arrested for doing the same, but are ultimately not charged.
The RAE Rag Committee plants six small-sized saucers at equal distances on a straight line in the south of England. The saucers are made from fiberglass resin, contain electronics to make them bleep when tilted at certain angles and are filled with a mixture of flour and water boiled at high temperature to represent alien life. The resulting reaction is comparable to the War of the Worlds scare of 1938. The intention of the hoaxers: to raise funds for charity. They were not persecuted, although some authorities were less than amused.
Description based on an article by John Keeling in Fortean Times #228 from which the image is taken as well.
Can you think of any other weird things placed in public spaces? Do let me know.