What I’m doing at the Festival of Games

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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:

  • Adri­an Hon of Six to Start is com­ing over to Utrecht for a keynote titled “Why sto­ries in games suck”. Adri­an was one of the peo­ple behind the ambi­tious and influ­en­tial ARG Per­plex City. For a taste of what this ses­sion might be like, check out Dan Hon’s1 talk “Every­thing you know about ARGs is WRONG”.

  • 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.

  • Update: Before the open playtest ses­sion, I’ll be host­ing a lunch ses­sion open to all peo­ple work­ing in the area of social and tan­gi­ble play. It’s on the pro­gram as “ARG lunch” but don’t let that fool you. If you make urban games, per­va­sive games, or any type of game that’s not lim­it­ed to what hap­pens on the screen, you’re wel­come to join us. We’ll be look­ing at how we can join forces in cer­tain strate­gic areas, but the ses­sion is also just about get­ting to know each oth­er.

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!

  1. Dan is Adrian’s broth­er and busi­ness part­ner []

Play in social and tangible interactions

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.

Sum­ma­ry

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

Sources

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)
  • the Will Wright quote is from an inter­view in Tra­cy Fullerton’s book Game Design Work­shop, sec­ond edi­tion
  • 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 Tetris research (which I first found in the pre­vi­ous­ly men­tioned arti­cle) is described in Epis­temic Action Increas­es With Skill (PDF), an arti­cle by Paul Maglio and David Kirsh
  • 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.

Thanks

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.

  1. For a detailed dis­cus­sion of the infor­ma­tion dis­play, have a look at this blog post. []

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

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(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”…)

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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(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. []

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. []

A Playful Stance — my Game Design London 2008 talk

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.

Below is a tran­script plus slides of my con­tri­bu­tion to the day. The slides are also on SlideShare. I have been told all talks have been record­ed and will be pub­lished to the event’s Vimeo group.

Per­haps 1874 words is a bit too much for you? In that case, let me give you an exec­u­tive sum­ma­ry of sorts:

  1. The role of design in rich forms of play, such as skate­board­ing, is facil­i­ta­to­ry. Design­ers pro­vide tools for peo­ple to play with.
  2. It is hard to pre­dict what peo­ple will do exact­ly with your tools. This is OK. In fact it is best to leave room for unex­pect­ed uses.
  3. Under­spec­i­fied, play­ful tools can be used for learn­ing. Peo­ple can use them to explore com­plex con­cepts on their own terms.

As always, I am inter­est­ed in receiv­ing con­struc­tive crit­i­cism, as well as good exam­ples of the things I’ve dis­cussed.

Con­tin­ue read­ing A Play­ful Stance — my Game Design Lon­don 2008 talk

How a student game became a Wii and DS title

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.

Screenshot of De Blob, created by Ronimo Games, published by THQ

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. Update: go read what Ianus has to say about Phi­line of Super­nana.

  1. THQ is a large pub­lish­er of games, such as Saints Row and Age of Empires. []
  2. The game was rede­vel­oped by an out­side stu­dio. []

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.

Reboot 10 slides and video

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.

Update: It occurred to me that it might be a good idea to briefly sum­ma­rize what this is about. This is a pre­sen­ta­tion in two parts. In the first, I the­o­rize about the emer­gence of games that have as their goal the con­vey­ing of an argu­ment. These games would use the real-time city as their plat­form. It is these games that I call urban pro­ce­dur­al rhetorics. In the sec­ond part I give a few exam­ples of what such games might look like, using a series of sketch­es.

The slides, posted to SlideShare, as usual:

The video, hosted on the Reboot website:

  1. I did post a tran­script in Eng­lish before, in case you pre­fer read­ing to lis­ten­ing. []

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. []