5 things I’m thinking about

You have Alper to blame for this. Alice start­ed it, many fol­lowed (some well worth read­ing) and now the meme has crossed the pond it seems. I know, we’re a bit slow in NL. So, what am I think­ing about?

My upcom­ing hol­i­day, which will be the first break in over a year. I am plan­ning to com­plete­ly unplug, which I am both dread­ing and look­ing for­ward to. It seems the longer I am self-employed, the hard­er it gets to just leave work behind for an extend­ed peri­od of time. It seems crazy to be wor­ried about the con­ti­nu­ity of my busi­ness when I’m only away for a week on a freak­ing Wad­den island.

Today marks the last day of final exams at the HKU and I am lead to won­der about the future of design edu­ca­tion as it hap­pens there and at oth­er sim­i­lar insti­tutes around the world. It often seems too closed off from the out­side world, too insu­lar. I am look­ing for­ward to tan­gling with this sub­ject mat­ter more in an upcom­ing project with Riv­er Insti­tute.

Choos­ing has nev­er come easy to me. In the past I have found it painful to choose between dis­ci­plines, skills to devel­op, projects to work on. And at some point I sort of decid­ed to stop forc­ing choic­es and find ways to have them all mesh. I think that final­ly I am get­ting to a spot where I am com­fort­able in not choos­ing. So now I won­der why that is, what the val­ue of refus­ing to choose is and what that means for cre­ative dis­ci­plines.

I am essen­tial­ly pes­simistic about the future of this world. I have a very hard time con­ceiv­ing of any future, in fact. Recent­ly I found myself in a work­shop aimed at mak­ing plans for an event in 2015 and I was total­ly lost. Hav­ing learnt this about myself the next ques­tion is how to act — I don’t wan’t to “play dead” as Bruce Ster­ling would say — so what’s the alter­na­tive?

Since it is at the core of my busi­ness I am think­ing a lot about domains where games could go next. I am think­ing a lot about cit­i­zen engage­ment, par­tic­u­lar­ly when it comes to pub­lic pol­i­cy, but I am most­ly stumped about mak­ing inroads into that area local­ly.

There you have it.

Stay hungry, stay foolish”

I grad­u­at­ed from the Utrecht School of the Arts in 2002. Now, less than sev­en years lat­er, I am men­tor­ing a group of five stu­dents who will be doing the same come Sep­tem­ber this year. I took a pho­to of them today, here it is:

Bright young bunch

From left to right, here’s who they are and what they’re up to:

  • Chris­ti­aan is tech lead on Hol­lan­dia, an action adven­ture game inspired by Dutch folk­lore. His research looks at ways to close the gap between cre­atives and tech­nol­o­gists in small teams, using agile tech­niques.
  • Kjell is design­ing a series of exper­i­men­tal games using voice as their only input. He’s research­ing what game mechan­ics work best with voice con­trol.
  • Max­ine is game design­er on the afore­men­tioned Hol­lan­dia game. Her research looks at the trans­la­tion of the play expe­ri­ence of phys­i­cal toys to dig­i­tal games. (In of Hol­lan­dia, you’ll be using a Wiimote to con­trol the spin­ning top used by the hero­ine.)
  • Paul is build­ing a physics-based plat­form puz­zle game for two play­ers. His research looks at the design of mean­ing­ful col­lab­o­ra­tive play.
  • Eva is mak­ing a space sim­u­la­tion game with real­is­tic physics and com­plex con­trols. She’s research­ing what kinds of fun are elicit­ed by such games.

Prac­ti­cal­ly speak­ing, men­tor­ing these guys means that I see them once a week for a 15-minute ses­sion. In this we dis­cuss the past week’s progress and their plans for the next. They’ve set their own briefs, and are expect­ed to be high­ly self-reliant. My task con­sists of mak­ing sure they stay on track and their work is rel­e­vant, both from an edu­ca­tion­al and a pro­fes­sion­al per­spec­tive. It’s chal­leng­ing work, but a lot of fun. It forces me to make explic­it the stuff I’ve picked up pro­fes­sion­al­ly. It’s also a lot about devel­op­ing a sense for where each stu­dent indi­vid­u­al­ly can improve and encour­ag­ing them to chal­lenge them­selves in those areas.

I’m look­ing for­ward to see­ing what they’ll deliv­er come Sep­tem­ber, when it’s their turn to grad­u­ate, and go out to con­quer the world.

The theory and practice of urban game design

A few weeks ago NLGD asked me to help out with an urban games ‘sem­i­nar’ that they had com­mis­sioned in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Dutch Game Gar­den. A group of around 50 stu­dents from two game design cours­es at the Utrecht School of the Arts1 were asked to design a game for the upcom­ing Fes­ti­val of Games in Utrecht. The work­shop last­ed a week. My involve­ment con­sist­ed of a short lec­ture, fol­lowed by sev­er­al design exer­cis­es designed to help the stu­dents get start­ed on Mon­day. On Fri­day, I was part of the jury that deter­mined which game will be played at the fes­ti­val.

Lec­ture

In the lec­ture I briefly intro­duced some thinkers in urban­ism that I find of inter­est to urban game design­ers. I talked about Jane Jacobs’ view of the city as a liv­ing organ­ism that is grown from the bot­tom up. I also men­tioned Kevin Lynch’s work around wayfind­ing and the ele­ments that make up people’s men­tal maps of cities. I touched upon the need to have a good grasp of social inter­ac­tion pat­terns2. Final­ly, I advised the stu­dents to be fru­gal when it comes to the inclu­sion of tech­nol­o­gy in the stu­dents’ game designs. A good ques­tion to always ask your­self is: can I have as much fun with­out this gad­get?

I wrapped up the lec­ture by look­ing at 5 games, some well-known, oth­ers less so: Big Urban Game, Con­Qwest, Pac-Man­hat­tan, The Soho Project and The Com­fort of Strangers. There are many more good exam­ples, of course, but each of these helped in high­light­ing a spe­cif­ic aspect of urban games design.

Work­shop

Next, I ran a work­shop of around 3 hours with the stu­dents, con­sist­ing of two exer­cis­es (plus one they could com­plete after­wards in their own time). The first one is the most inter­est­ing to dis­cuss here. It’s a game-like elic­i­ta­tion tech­nique called VNA3, which derives its name from the card types in the deck it is made up of: verbs, nouns and adjec­tives.

Students doing a VNA exercise

The way it works is that you take turns draw­ing a card from the deck and make up a one-sen­tence idea involv­ing the term. The first per­son to go draws a verb, the sec­ond per­son a noun and the third an adjec­tive. Each per­son builds on the idea of his or her pre­cur­sor. The con­cept that results from the three-card sequence is writ­ten down, and the next per­son draws a verb card again.4 The exer­cise resem­bles cadavre exquis, the biggest dif­fer­ence being that here, the terms are pre­de­ter­mined.

VNA is a great ice-break­er. The stu­dents were divid­ed into teams of five and, because a side-goal of the sem­i­nar was to encour­age col­lab­o­ra­tion between stu­dents from the dif­fer­ent cours­es, they often did not know each oth­er. Thanks to this exer­cise they became acquaint­ed, but with­in a cre­ative con­text. The exer­cise also priv­i­leges vol­ume of ideas over their qual­i­ty, which is per­fect in the ear­ly stages of con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion. Last but not least, it is a lot of fun; many stu­dents asked where they could get the deck of cards.

Jury­ing

On Fri­day, I (togeth­er with the oth­er jury mem­bers) was treat­ed to ten pre­sen­ta­tions by the stu­dents. Each had pre­pared a video con­tain­ing footage of pro­to­typ­ing and play-test­ing ses­sions, as well as an ele­va­tor pitch. A lot of them were quite good, espe­cial­ly con­sid­er­ing the fact that many stu­dents had not cre­at­ed an urban game before, or hadn’t even played one. But one game real­ly stood out for me. It employed a sim­ple mechan­ic: mak­ing chains of peo­ple by hold­ing hands. A chain was start­ed by play­ers, but required the help of passers-by to com­plete. Watch­ing the videos of chains being com­plet­ed evoked a strong pos­i­tive emo­tion­al response, not only with myself, but also my fel­low jurors. What’s more impor­tant though, is that the game clear­ly engen­dered hap­pi­ness in its par­tic­i­pants, includ­ing the peo­ple who joined in as it was being played.

An urban game being played

In one video sequence, we see a near-com­plet­ed chain of peo­ple in a mall, shout­ing requests at peo­ple to join in. A lone man has been observ­ing the spec­ta­cle from a dis­tance for some time. Sud­den­ly, he steps for­ward, and joins hands with the oth­ers. The chain is com­plet­ed. A huge cheer emerges from the group, hands are raised in the air and applause fol­lows, the man join­ing in. Then he walks off towards the cam­era, grin­ning, two thumbs up. I could not help but grin back.5

Happy urban game participant

  1. Game Design and Devel­op­ment and Design for Vir­tu­al The­atre and Games []
  2. point­ing to this resource, that was dis­cussed at length on the IGDA ARG SIG []
  3. devel­oped by Annakaisa Kul­ti­ma []
  4. An inter­est­ing aside is that the deck was orig­i­nal­ly designed to be used for the cre­ation of casu­al mobile games. The words were cho­sen accord­ing­ly. Despite this, or per­haps because of this, they are quite suit­able to the design of urban games. []
  5. To clar­i­fy, this was not the game that got select­ed for the Fes­ti­val of Games. There were some issues with the game as a whole. It was short-list­ed though. Anoth­er excel­lent game, involv­ing mechan­ics inspired by pho­to safari, was the win­ner. []

Teaching design for mobile social play

Last week, the group project I am coach­ing at the Utrecht School of the Arts kicked off. The project is part of the school’s mas­ter of arts pro­gram. The group con­sists of ten stu­dents with very dif­fer­ent back­grounds, rang­ing from game design & devel­op­ment to audio design, as well as arts man­age­ment, media stud­ies, and more. Their assign­ment is to come up with a num­ber of con­cepts for games that incor­po­rate mobile phones, social inter­ac­tions, audio and the web. Nokia Research Cen­ter has com­mis­sioned the project, and Jus­si Holopainen, game design researcher and co-author of Pat­terns in Game Design, is the client. In the project brief there is a strong empha­sis on sketch­ing and pro­to­typ­ing, and dis­ci­plined doc­u­men­ta­tion of the design process. The stu­dents are work­ing full time on the project and it will run for around 4 months.

I am very hap­py with the oppor­tu­ni­ty to coach this group. It’s a new chal­lenge for me as a teacher — mov­ing away from teach­ing the­o­ry and into the area of facil­i­ta­tion. I am also look­ing for­ward to see­ing what the stu­dents will come up with, of course, as the domain they are work­ing in over­laps huge­ly with my inter­ests. So far, work­ing with Jus­si has proven to be very inspi­ra­tional, so I am get­ting some­thing out of it as a design­er too.

Three cool projects out of the Art, Media and Technology faculty

So a week ago I vis­it­ed a project mar­ket at the Art, Media and Tech­nol­o­gy fac­ul­ty in Hil­ver­sum which is part of the Utrecht School of Arts and offers BA and MA cours­es in Inter­ac­tion Design, Game Design & Devel­op­ment and many oth­ers.

The range of projects on show was broad and won­der­ful­ly pre­sent­ed. It proves the school is still able to inte­grate arts and crafts with com­mer­cial and soci­etal rel­e­vant think­ing. All projects (over 40 in total) were by mas­ter of arts stu­dents and com­mis­sioned by real world clients. I’d like to point out three projects I par­tic­u­lar­ly enjoyed:

Koe

A tan­gi­ble inter­face that mod­els a cow’s insides and allows vet­eri­nary stu­dents to train at much ear­li­er stage than they do now. The cow mod­el has real­is­tic organs made of sil­i­con (echoes of Real­doll here) and is hooked up to a large dis­play show­ing a 3D visu­al­iza­tion of the student’s actions inside the cow. Crazy, slight­ly gross but very well done.

Haas

A nar­ra­tive, lit­er­ary game called ‘Haas’ (Dutch for hare) that allows the play­er to intu­itive­ly draw the lev­el around the main char­ac­ter. The game’s engine remind­ed me a bit of Chris Craw­ford’s work in that it tracks all kinds of dra­mat­ic pos­si­bil­i­ties in the game and eval­u­ates which is the most appro­pri­ate at any time based on avail­able char­ac­ters, props, etc. Cute and pret­ty.

Entertaible

A game devel­oped for Philips’ Enter­taible which is a large flat pan­el mul­ti-touch dis­play that can track game pieces’ loca­tion, shape and ori­en­ta­tion and has RFID capa­bil­i­ties as well. The game devel­oped has the play­ers explore a haunt­ed man­sion (stun­ning­ly visu­al­ized by the stu­dents in a style that is rem­i­nis­cent of Pixar) and play a num­ber of inven­tive mini-games. Very pro­fes­sion­al­ly done.

For a taste of the project mar­ket you can check out this pho­to album (from which the pho­tos in this post are tak­en) as well as this video clip by Dutch news­pa­per AD.

Full dis­clo­sure: I cur­rent­ly teach a course in game design for mobile devices and ear­li­er stud­ied inter­ac­tion and game design between 1998 and 2002 at the same school.

Where are the good European IxD schools?

Dan Saf­fer of Adap­tive Path wrote an intro­duc­to­ry piece for bud­ding inter­ac­tion design­ers. Five years ago, Robert Reimann of Coop­er did the same. Both are nice overviews for novices and espe­cial­ly the parts on a designer’s tem­pera­ment are enter­tain­ing to read.

Saf­fer fails to men­tion any good IxD schools out­side of the US and UK. Which is a shame for all of us Euro­pean design­ers. Reimann men­tioned Ivrea’s now defunct IxD insti­tute.

I’d like to start by point­ing to my coura­geous lit­tle country’s Utrecht School of Arts, which has been teach­ing IxD for 15 years now (!) and today offers both BA and MA pro­grams. They’ve recent­ly branched off into game design, which has been quite suc­cess­ful.

Full dis­clo­sure: I was a stu­dent at the same school from 1998 – 2001 (BA IxD, MA Game Design) and am now teach­ing a course in mobile game design.

Any oth­er good IxD schools in Europe that you know of?

Update: dis­cus­sions on Saffer’s post on the IxDA’s mal­ing list here and here; overview of IxD edu­ca­tion (most­ly in the US) here.