I’ve helped out with the program of this year’s NLGD Festival of Games. If you’re into gaming’s fringe phenomena, then this edition is not to be missed. The conference’s theme is “play global, global play” and will celebrate the impact of gaming beyond the screen. I curated several sessions focused on urban games and alternate reality games, some of which I will be present at myself. Here they are in no particular order:
During a parallel session, Evert Hoogendoorn will look at performance in games. Evert heads up the Design for Virtual Theater and Games program at the Utrecht School of the Arts. Knowing Evert, this session won’t be just about performance…
I’ll be moderating a session consisting of three case studies. You’ll get an exclusive look behind the scenes of the practice of three seasoned designers of urban games and ARGs. The presentations will be short but sweet, each followed by ample time for Q&A. The people I’ve asked to present are the aforementioned Adrian Hon, Nathalie Brähler of Cultural Oil and Ronald Lenz of 7scenes.
The elusive Minkette and myself will run a three-hour workshop, where you’ll get a crash course in designing simple but fun street games. We’re hoping to make this session very accessible, but also very much hands-on, physical and active. Minkette has been involved with Punchdrunk, Hide & Seek and The Soho Project; what better facilitator can you wish for?
The games developed during the workshop will be available for playtesting during a separate open session. You’ll get to play fun little games, and will be asked to vote on your favourite. The winner will receive an awesome prize.
And there you have it. I’m quite happy with the way the program has shaped up, and I am excited to see how the sessions turn out (though I’m sure they’ll be great). If this has wet your appetite, why not head over to the NLGD Festival of Games website and get yourself a ticket right now? I hope to see you there!
Dan is Adrian’s brother and business partner [↩]
Now that the IxDA has posted a video of my presentation at Interaction 09 to Vimeo, I thought it would be a good idea to provide a little background to the talk. I had already posted the slides to SlideShare, so a full write-up doesn’t seem necessary. To provide a little context though, I will summarize the thing.
The idea of the talk was to look at a few qualities of embodied interaction, and relate them to games and play, in the hopes of illuminating some design opportunities. Without dwelling on what embodiment really means, suffice to say that there is a school of thought that states that our thinking originates in our bodily experience of the world around us, and our relationships with the people in it. I used the example of an improvised information display I once encountered in the paediatric ward of a local hospital to highlight two qualities of embodied interaction: (1) meaning is socially constructed and (2) cognition is facilitated by tangibility.1
With regards to the first aspect — the social construction of meaning — I find it interesting that in games, you find a distinction between the official rules to a game, and the rules that are arrived at through mutual consent by the players, the latter being how the game is actually played. Using the example of an improvised manège in Habbo, I pointed out that under-specified design tends to encourage the emergence of such interesting uses. What it comes down to, as a designer, is to understand that once people get together to do stuff, and it involves the thing you’ve designed, they will layer new meanings on top of what you came up with, which is largely out of your control.
For the second aspect — cognition being facilitated by tangibility — I talked about how people use the world around them to offload mental computation. For instance, when people get better at playing Tetris, they start backtracking more than when they just started playing. They are essentially using the game’s space to think with. As an aside, I pointed out that in my experience, sketching plays a similar role when designing. As with the social construction of meaning, for epistemic action to be possible, the system in use needs to be adaptable.
To wrap up, I suggested that, when it comes to the design of embodied interactive stuff, we are struggling with the same issues as game designers. We’re both positioning ourselves (in the words of Eric Zimmerman) as meta-creators of meaning; as designers of spaces in which people discover new things about themselves, the world around them and the people in it.
I had several people come up to me afterwards, asking for sources, so I’ll list them here.
the significance of the social construction of meaning for interaction design is explained in detail by Paul Dourish in his book Where the Action Is
the research by Jean Piaget I quoted is from his book The Moral Judgement of the Child (which I first encountered in Rules of Play, see below)
the concept of ideal versus real rules is from the wonderful book Rules of Play by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman (who in turn have taken it from Kenneth Goldstein’s article Strategies in Counting Out)
for a wonderful description of how children socially mediate the rules to a game, have a look at the article Beyond the Rules of the Game by Linda Hughes (collected in the Game Design Reader)
for a discussion of pragmatic versus epistemic action and how it relates to interaction design, refer to the article How Bodies Matter (PDF) by Scott Klemmer, Björn Hartmann and Leila Takayama (which is rightfully recommended by Dan Saffer in his book, Designing Gestural Interfaces)
the “play is free movement…” quote is from Rules of Play
the picture of the guy skateboarding is a still from the awesome documentary film Dogtown and Z-Boys
for a lot of great thinking on “loose fit” design, be sure to check out the book How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand
the “meta-creators of meaning” quote is from Eric Zimmerman’s foreword to the aforementioned Game Design Workshop, 2nd ed.
And that’s it. Interaction 09 was a great event, I’m happy to have been a part of it. Most of the talks seem to be online now. So why not check them out? My favourites by far were John Thackara and Robert Fabricant. Thanks to the people of the IxDA for all the effort they put into increasing interaction design’s visibility to the world.
For a detailed discussion of the information display, have a look at this blog post. [↩]
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.)
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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. [↩]
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. [↩]
A while ago I was interviewed by Sam Warnaars. He’s researching people’s conference experiences; he asked me what my most favourite and least favourite conference of the past year was. I wish he’d asked me after my trip to Playful ’08, because it has been by far the best conference experience to date. Why? Because it was like Toby, Richard and the rest of the event’s producers had taken a peek inside my brain and came up with a program encompassing (almost) all my fascinations — games, interaction design, play, sociality, the web, products, physical interfaces, etc. Almost every speaker brought something interesting to the table. The audience was composed of people from many different backgrounds, and all seemed to, well, like each other. The venue was lovely and atmospheric (albeit a bit chilly). They had good tea. Drinks afterwards were tasty and fun, the tapas later on even more so. And the whiskey after that, well let’s just say I was glad to have a late flight the next day. Many thanks to my friends at Pixel-Lab for inviting me, and to Mr. Davies for the referral.
It’s time to start revealing the speakers for This happened – Utrecht #1. First up is Fabian Akker, co-founder of the independent studio Ronimo Games. The studio was funded with money Fabian and his colleagues earned by selling the concept behind one of their games to THQ.1 The game is called De Blob, and the new version is now available on the Nintendo Wii and DS.2 As part of a 3rd year assignment at the Utrecht School of the Arts’ Game Design and Development course, De Blob was created for the municipality of Utrecht. The aim was to allow people to explore the city’s future station area, which is under heavy reconstruction. You could therefore call De Blob a serious game — a game that is not only fun but also useful. It is not often that a serious game makes the transition to a title aimed purely at entertainment. It is more often the case that an entertainment concept gets injected with some ‘serious’ content, with usually disappointing results. At This happened – Utrecht #1 Fabian, who was the original game’s lead designer, will share the story of how it came to be.
I announced This happened – Utrecht #1 last week. The event takes place on Monday 3 October at 20:30. Registration will open next Monday (20 October) — space is limited so mark your calendars!
Curious about the rest of the line-up? Tomorrow, Ianus will announce our second speaker.
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.
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.
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:
Principles that are required for emergence to happen
How learning can be unconscious
Unique skills of game players
Gardening as a metaphor for using (and making) emergent systems
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
The following quotes are taken from pages 77–79. [↩]
This reminds me of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan, wherein he writes about maximising your chance of having serendipitous encounters. [↩]
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.