Mashing up the real-time city and urban games

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.)

  1. Iskan­der Smit has post­ed a report of the evening over at his blog. []
  2. If you’re inter­est­ed, the slide deck as a whole is also avail­able on SlideShare. []
  3. I first came across Lamar­ck, and the idea of nature and cul­ture co-evolv­ing in Kevin Kelly’s book Out of Con­trol. The black­smith exam­ple is his too. []
  4. All this flies in the face of large-scale top-down plan­ning and zon­ing, as Jane Jacobs makes painful­ly clear in her book The Death and Life of Great Amer­i­can Cities. []
  5. Eric Zim­mer­man talked at length about the need for sys­temic lit­er­a­cy at Play­ful 2008. []
  6. For more on this have a look at anoth­er blog post by Adam Green­field titled Read­ing, writ­ing, texts, lit­er­a­cy, cities. []
  7. As Kevin Kel­ly writes in Out of Con­trol, evo­lu­tion with sym­bio­sis includ­ed is less like a tree and more like a thick­et. []

Where social software should go next — Habitat’s lessons

MMOGs have not pro­gressed since 1990. Nei­ther has social software.

Well maybe a lit­tle, but not much. At least that’s what I’m lead to believe after read­ing anoth­er won­der­ful essay in The Game Design Read­er—a book I like to dip into once in a while to read what­ev­er catch­es my fancy.

In The Lessons of Lucas­film’s Habi­tat1 Messrs Farmer and Morn­ingstar share their expe­ri­ences build­ing pos­si­bly one of the first graph­i­cal MMOGs ever. The game’s front-end ran on a Com­modore 64 and looked some­thing like this:

Screenshot of Lucasfilm's Habitat

It’s strik­ing how many of the lessons summed up by the authors have not been (ful­ly) tak­en to heart by MMOG design­ers. Bitch­ing aside, their arti­cle offers as much use­ful advice to game design­ers as to design­ers of any piece of social soft­ware. Since this post has grown unex­pect­ed­ly long (again). I’ll sum them up here:

  • The imple­men­ta­tion plat­form is rel­a­tive­ly unim­por­tant.” — on loose­ly cou­pling a world’s con­cep­tu­al mod­el and its representation
  • Detailed cen­tral plan­ning is impos­si­ble; don’t even try.” — on relin­quish­ing con­trol as design­ers, co-design and evo­lu­tion­ary systems
  • Work with­in the sys­tem.” — on facil­i­tat­ing world cre­ation by play­ers and mod­er­a­tion from with­in the world

Let’s look at each in more detail:

Loosely coupled

The imple­men­ta­tion plat­form is rel­a­tive­ly unimportant.”

Mean­ing that how you describe the world and how you present it can or should be loose­ly cou­pled. The advan­tage of this is that with one world mod­el you can serve clients with a wide range of (graph­i­cal) capa­bil­i­ties and scale into the future with­out hav­ing to change mod­el. Their exam­ple is of a tree, which can be ren­dered to one user as a string of text: “There is a tree here.” And to anoth­er user as a rich high res­o­lu­tion 3D ani­mat­ed image accom­pa­nied by sound.

And these two users might be look­ing at the same tree in the same place in the same world and talk­ing to each oth­er as they do so.”

When I read this I instant­ly thought of Raph Koster’s Meta­place and won­dered if the essay I was read­ing served as some sort of design guide­line for it. What I under­stood from Raph’s GDC 2008 pre­sen­ta­tion2 was that they are try­ing to achieve exact­ly this, by apply­ing the archi­tec­tur­al mod­el of the inter­net to the design of MMOGs.

Look­ing at social soft­ware in gen­er­al, how many exam­ples can you give of the cur­rent wave of social web apps that apply this prin­ci­ple? I’m remind­ed of Tom Coates’s Native to a Web of Data pre­sen­ta­tion—in which he argues that a ser­vice’s data should ide­al­ly be acces­si­ble through any num­ber of chan­nels.3

Sim­i­lar­ly, web 2.0 poster child Dopplr is designed to be “a beau­ti­ful part of the web”, “a fea­ture of a larg­er ser­vice, called the inter­net”.4 And they want to be every­where, adding a lit­tle bit of val­ue where it is most need­ed. Per­haps not exact­ly the same thing as what Farmer and Morn­ingstar are allud­ing to, but based on sim­i­lar principles.

As an aside, in MMOG land, there is one oth­er major con­cern with this:

Mak­ing the sys­tem ful­ly dis­trib­uted […] requires solv­ing a num­ber of dif­fi­cult prob­lems. The most sig­nif­i­cant of these is the pre­ven­tion of cheating.”

Cheat­ing might be of less con­cern to social soft­ware than to games (although there are excep­tions, take Digg for exam­ple). For those inter­est­ed in more about this, Raph Koster recent­ly post­ed an elab­o­rate exam­i­na­tion of hack­ing and cheat­ing in MMOGs.

Control, co-design, evolution

Cheat­ing aside, there is more use­ful (albeit famil­iar) advice for social soft­ware design­ers in the piece. For instance on the need to hand over (part of) the con­trol over the sys­tem’s design to its users:

Again and again we found that activ­i­ties based on often uncon­scious assump­tions about play­er behav­iour had com­plete­ly unex­pect­ed out­comes (when they were not sim­ply out­right failures). ”

They go on to say that they found it was more pro­duc­tive to work with the community:

We could influ­ence things, we could set up inter­est­ing sit­u­a­tions, we could pro­vide oppor­tu­ni­ties for things to hap­pen, but we could not dic­tate the out­come. Social engi­neer­ing is, at best, an inex­act sci­ence […] we shift­ed into a style of oper­a­tions in which we let the play­ers them­selves dri­ve the direc­tion of the design.”

Again, famil­iar advice per­haps, but they describe in some detail how they actu­al­ly went about this, which makes for enlight­en­ing read­ing. That this prac­tice of co-design goes against ‘com­mon’ soft­ware devel­op­ment prac­tices is not left unad­dressed either:

[…] the chal­lenge posed by large sys­tems are prompt­ing some researchers to ques­tion the cen­tral­ized, plan­ning dom­i­nat­ed atti­tude that we have crit­i­cized here, and to pro­pose alter­na­tive approach­es based on evo­lu­tion­ary and mar­ket prin­ci­ples. These prin­ci­ples appear applic­a­ble to com­plex sys­tems of all types […]”

(Empha­sis mine.) I am intrigued by this evo­lu­tion­ary mod­el of web devel­op­ment. In the abstract for Move­ment, Matt Webb writes:

the Web in 2008 has some entire­ly new qual­i­ties: more than ever it’s an ecol­o­gy of sep­a­rate but high­ly inter­con­nect­ed ser­vices. Its fierce­ly com­pet­i­tive, rapid devel­op­ment means dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing inno­va­tions are quick­ly copied and spread. Atten­tion from users is scarce. The fittest web­sites sur­vive.

(Again, empha­sis mine.) I think the chal­lenge that now lies before us is to not only as design­ers prac­tice co-design with our users, but to go one step fur­ther, and encode rules for autonomous evo­lu­tion into our sys­tems. These are the adap­tive sys­tems I’ve been blog­ging about recent­ly. An impor­tant note is that sys­tems can adapt to indi­vid­ual users, but also—in the case of social software—to aggre­gate behav­iour of user groups.5

This can be extend­ed to a world’s gov­er­nance. Here is one of the ideas I find most excit­ing in the con­text of social soft­ware, one I have seen very few exam­ples of so far. 

[…] our view is that a vir­tu­al world need not be set up with a “default” gov­ern­ment, but can instead evolve as needed.”

I can­not think of one MMOG that is designed to allow for a mod­el of gov­er­nance to emerge from play­er inter­ac­tions. The best exam­ple I can think of from the world of social soft­ware is this arti­cle by Tom Coates at the Bar­be­lith wiki. Bar­be­lith is a some­what ‘old school’ online com­mu­ni­ty com­prised of mes­sage boards (remem­ber those?). In the piece (titled TriPo­lit­i­ca) he writes:

Imag­ine a mes­sage board with three clear iden­ti­ties, colour-schemes and names. Each has a gener­ic set of basic ini­tial forums on a clear­ly defined range of sub­jects (say — Pol­i­tics / Sci­ence / Enter­tain­ment). Each forum starts with a cer­tain struc­ture — one Monar­chic, one Par­lia­men­tary Democ­ra­cy and one Dis­trib­uted Anar­chy. All the rules that it takes to run each com­mu­ni­ty have been suf­fi­cient­ly abstract­ed so that they can be turned on or off at will BY the com­mu­ni­ty con­cerned. More­over, the rules are self-reflex­ive — ie. the com­mu­ni­ty can also cre­ate struc­tures to gov­ern how those rules are changed. This would oper­ate by a bill-like struc­ture where an indi­vid­ual can pro­pose a new rule or a change to an exist­ing rule that then may or may not require one or more forms of rat­i­fi­ca­tion. There would be the abil­i­ty to cre­ate a rule gov­ern­ing who could pro­pose a new bill, how often and what areas it might be able to change or influence.”

He goes on to give exam­ples of how this would work—what user types you’d need and what actions would need to be avail­able to those users. I’m pret­ty sure this was nev­er imple­ment­ed at Bar­be­lith (which, by the way, is a fun com­mu­ni­ty to browse through if you’re into counter cul­tur­al geek­ery). Actu­al­ly, I’m pret­ty sure I know of no online space that has a sys­tem like this in place. Any inter­ac­tion design­ers out there who are will­ing to take up the gauntlet?

Creativity, moderation

Work with­in the system.”

This is the final les­son offered in the essay I’d like to look at, one that is mul­ti­fac­eted. On the one hand, Messrs Farmer and Morn­ingstar pro­pose that world build­ing should be part of the sys­tem itself (and there­fore acces­si­ble to reg­u­lar players):

One of the goals of a next gen­er­a­tion Habi­tat-like sys­tem ought to be to per­mit far greater cre­ative involve­ment by the par­tic­i­pants with­out requir­ing them to ascend to full-fledged guru-hood to do so.”

And, fur­ther on:

This requires find­ing ways to rep­re­sent design and cre­ation of regions and objects as part of the under­ly­ing fantasy.”

I do not think a MMOG has achieved this in any mean­ing­ful sense so far. Sec­ond Life may offer world cre­ation tools to users, but they are far from acces­si­ble, and cer­tain­ly not part of the “under­ly­ing fan­ta­sy”. In web based social soft­ware, sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief is of less con­cern. It can be argued that Flickr for instance suc­cess­ful­ly offers world cre­ation at an acces­si­ble lev­el. Each Flickr user con­tributes to the pho­to­graph­ic tapes­try that is the Flickr ‘pho­to­verse’. Wikipedia, too offers rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple tools for con­tri­bu­tion, albeit text based. In the gam­ing sphere, there are exam­ples such as SFZe­ro, a Col­lab­o­ra­tive Pro­duc­tion Game, in which play­ers add tasks for oth­ers to com­plete, essen­tial­ly col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly cre­at­ing the game with the designers.

Like I said, the les­son “work with­in the sys­tem” applies to more than one aspect. The oth­er being mod­er­a­tion. The authors share an amus­ing anec­dote about play­ers exploit­ing a loop hole intro­duced by new char­ac­ters and objects (the play­ers gained access to an unusu­al­ly pow­er­ful weapon). The anec­dote shows that it is always bet­ter to mod­er­ate dis­putes with­in the shared fan­ta­sy of the world, in stead of mak­ing use of exter­nal mea­sures that break the play­er’s sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief. Play­ers will con­sid­er the lat­ter cheat­ing on the part of administrators:

Oper­at­ing with­in the par­tic­i­pants’ world mod­el pro­duced a very sat­is­fac­to­ry result. On the oth­er hand, what seemed like the expe­di­ent course, which involved vio­lat­ing this mod­el, pro­voked upset and dismay.”

Design­ers should play with users, not against them. This applies to social soft­ware on the web equal­ly. It is this atti­tude that sets Flickr apart from many oth­er online com­mu­ni­ties. Flickr’s design­ers under­stand the prin­ci­ple of “oper­at­ing with­in the par­tic­i­pants’ world mod­el”. For exam­ple, look at how they han­dled con­fu­sion and irri­ta­tion around the last Talk Like A Pirate Day gag.6


In sum­ma­ry, dear read­er, if you got this far, I would love to see exam­ples of social soft­ware that:

  • Are acces­si­ble in a num­ber of ‘rep­re­sen­ta­tions’
  • Are co-designed with users, or bet­ter yet, apply evo­lu­tion­ary prin­ci­ples to its design
  • Allow users to devel­op their own mod­el of governance
  • Allow users to eas­i­ly add to the sys­tem, in an inte­grat­ed way
  • Are mod­er­at­ed from with­in the system

If you—like me—can’t think of any, per­haps it’s time to build some?

Image cred­its: © 1986 LucasArts Enter­tain­ment Com­pa­ny.

  1. The essay can be read online over here. []
  2. More about my GDC 2008 expe­ri­ences. []
  3. This prin­ci­ple is now being applied to the extreme in Yahoo!‘s Fire Eagle. []
  4. The for­mer quote I first encoun­tered in Matt Jones’s pre­sen­ta­tion Rule­Space, the lat­ter is from this BBC arti­cle on Reboot 9.0. []
  5. For more on aggre­gat­ing user behav­iour in social soft­ware also see Greater than the sum of its parts by Tom Coates (yes him again). []
  6. Tom Armitage has some good thoughts on the Talk Like A Pirate Day deba­cle. []