Tweetakt is happening in Utrecht at the moment. It’s a youth theatre festival, really pushing the limits of what we think that means. As an example, they’ve provided space for several installations at the festival centre on the Neude. I went over for a quick look today — even though I know most of the creators personally and am familiar with several of the pieces. They’re all free and open to the public, so if you’re in the area, you should go too.
Made by a few principals at the Medialab Utrecht. Push a button and a marble starts rolling down a futuristic looking track. Halfway through it enters a scanner of sorts, and is converted into a virtual counterpart visible on a screen, only to emerge physically after some time again. At the end of the track, you get to keep the marble.
It’s hardly interactive, but does look kind of impressive and of course, marbles are always fun.
A new version what is becoming a classic by the troublemakers at Monobanda. A beamer, a white decor and wiimotes enable you to paint with light. It’s a simple premise, the execution is serviceable but the result is quite magical. The addition of white jackets for people that want to become part of the canvas is a real nice touch.
Made by my friends at Fourcelabs, this is the one that hasn’t the benefit of a spectacular physical shape but is the most fun to play. It’s a competitive platform game playable with eight people at the same time with some clever social and physical touches. Scoring points is rewarded with a big photo of yourself that is shown for a few seconds, and the game wraps around two big screens that are back to back, forcing you to move around and compete with the other players for physical floor space.
It’s nice to see this kind of stuff at a theatre festival. I hope the pieces will do well — despite the fact that not all of them have been placed and presented to the public in the best way — so that we’ll get more of this stuff in the years to come.
I’m on my way to Amsterdam again. Around 10 hours earlier, I was in a train in the opposite direction, coming back from Visible Cities #02. This turned out to be an evening well spent. Some nice examples of AR projects were shown but in particular Ole Bouman of the NAi’s perspective on the changes architecture will go through under the pressure of new technologies was enlightening. He came across as both critical and knowledgeable, passionate about the field with a solid grounding in its history. Inspiring. Finally spending an evening in TrouwAmsterdam — eating a burger and drinking a beer in the space where printing presses used to run — was another plus.
I’m at Layar a lot this week again. Still can’t tell you too much about what’s going on there. But it continues to be both a challenging and fun engagement, so that’s good.
Apart from this, I spent a day brainstorming new game concepts for one of the Netherlands’s big lotteries, with which they’re hoping to reach a younger generation. It’s always a challenge to immerse oneself in a new context that fast, but it went well. Lots of nice ideas came up and the workshop was facilitated in a tight manner. Participating in these things always results in useful insights for when I run my own sessions.
I do feel slightly exhausted from all this, not in the least because what should have been a two hour review of proposals on monday morning with my students turned into a three-and-a-half hour marathon session. They’ve had to submit their graduation project proposals now, so I’ll soon sit down and do a final assessment of them. Then they’re good to go.
“Why should pocket calculators be put on a pedestal, and not Peggle?”
He writes about the need for games to be appreciated and critiqued as design objects. He points out that the creation of any successful game is “at least as complex and coordinated as that of a Jonathan Ive laptop”. He also speculates that reasons for games to be ignored is that they might be seen primarily as media, and that mainstream design critics lack literacy in games, which makes them blind to their design qualities.
“@kaeru re: #2 all meaning regardless of medium or media are derived at the human level.”
“@kaeru maybe this is semantics, but any channel that has an element of communicating a message, IMHO is media. Tag & tic-tac-toe also.”
“@kaeru wait, are you equating games to play to fun? But I’m limiting myself to games. I.e. role playing is play, but not always a game.”
At this point, I got frustrated by Twitter’s lack of support for a discussion of this kind. So I wrote:
“@daveixd Twitter is not the best place for this kind of discussion. I’ll try to get back to your points via my blog as soon as I can.”
And here we are. I’ll wrap up by addressing each of Dave’s points.
Although I guess Dave’s right about all meaning being derived at the human level, what I think makes games different from, say, a book or a film is that the thing itself is a context within which this meaning making takes place. It is, in a sense, a tool for making meaning.
Games can carry a message, and sometimes are consciously employed to do so. One interesting thing about this is on what level the message is carried — is it told through bits of linear media embedded in the game, or does it emerge from a player’s interaction with the game’s rules? However, I don’t think all games are made to convey a message, nor are they all played to receive one. Tic-Tac-Toe may be a very rough simulation of territorial warfare, and you could argue that it tells us something about the futility of such pursuits, but I don’t think it was created for this reason, nor is it commonly played to explore these themes.
I wasn’t equating games to play (those two concepts have a tricky relationship, one can contain the other, and vice-versa) but I do feel that thinking of games as media is a product of the recent video game era. By thinking of games as media, we risk forgetting about what came before video games, and what we can learn from these toys and games, which are sometimes nothing more than a set of socially negotiated rules and improvised attributes (Kick the can, anyone?)
There’s some movement over at the website for my new venture. I mentioned Hubbub before: it is a design studio I am setting up for physical, social games that are played in public places. We hope to address social issues and the like using these games.
I’ve adjusted the temporary site to fit with the brand that’s being developed by my friends at BUROPONY.
There’s a lot going on at the Leapfrog studio, which explains at least in part why things have gone quiet around here. However, I wanted to take the time to alert you to some upcoming events that might be of interest.
An urban game in the Rotterdam city center
On Sunday September 27 around 50 young people will play an urban game I designed for Your World — Rotterdam European Youth Capital 2009.1 It is part of a two-day event called Change Your World, which enables groups of youth to set up a new ‘movement’ with financial support and advice from professionals. You might want to hang around the Rotterdam city center during the day, to witness what is sure to be an interesting spectacle. More info should show up soon enough at the Your World website.
A pervasive game in the Hoograven neighborhood of Utrecht
Around the same time, from September 18 to October 11, you’ll be able to play Koppelkiek in the Hoograven area of Utrecht. This is a game I’ve created for the Dutch Design Double program.2 To play, you take photos of yourself with others in a range of situations and upload them to the game’s website. It’s designed to subtly permeate your daily life. With the help of our players we’re hoping to create a collection of photos that provide a unique look into life in the neighborhood. Do join in if you’re in the area. Also, we’ll have a playtest on September 16. If you’re interested in playing a round or two, drop me a line.3
Data visualizations of silence
I’m wrapping up some data visualization work I’ve done for the artist Sarah van Sonsbeeck.4 Sarah’s work revolves (amongst other things) around the concept of silence. Alper and I took a dataset she generated during a few of her ‘silence walks’ using a GPS tracker and a sound level meter and created a number of static visualizations in Processing. Some of the output can be seen at the exhibition Een Dijk van een Kust. More will probably be on display at another occasion. Also, I’ve learnt some new tricks that I intend to share here soon.
We’re in the process of finishing up the This happened – Utrecht #3 videos. Once they’re all done we’ll add them to the event’s page on the .org site along with the slides. Planning for our fourth event has already started. Mark your calendar for October 26 and subscribe to our newsletter so you won’t miss the registration’s opening.
And finally, I’m slowly but surely giving shape to a new venture which will focus on the use of play in public space to effect social change. Its name is Hubbub. The crazy designers at BUROPONY are developing a sweet brand identity and a first placeholder site is up. Stay tuned for more news on that.
That’s about it for now, thanks for your attention. I promise to provide content with more meat and less self-promotion in upcoming posts.
Karel Millenaar, game designer extraordinaire at FourceLabs and a fellow resident of the Dutch Game Garden, has helped me out on this one. [↩]
I never thought I would make an opera. But now I have.
In a few weeks time the above market square in the town of Monster will be transformed into an arena where fighters duel each other using their pet monsters. If this sounds familiar, it is no coincidence.
Mega Monster Battle Arena is one of 11 operas produced by Dario Fo to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Westland municipality. Dario Fo specialize in creating music theatre in close collaboration with the local community. They asked composer Daniël Hamburger to create the opera for Monster. The brief was to do ‘something’ with the town’s curious name, and to make it a production that would appeal to youth by referencing games culture.1
Daniël in turn approached me, since he had little affinity for games, and wanted the piece to not only be about games, but to be a game itself. So that’s what I helped do. By turning the game design principle of embedded narrative inside-out, we’ve managed to create a structure in which we can both tell a story using a script, and have performers improvise using game rules. Those rules I designed as a proper game. I could give you those rules and you would be able to play it yourself.
So there will be fights, and they’ll not be scripted. You won’t know beforehand who will win, and neither will we. There will also be a story, about a heroine facing off with a bad guy, in the best game and martial arts film tradition. Sieger M.G. was our third man, the piece’s writer. A rapper turned poet with a life-long games addiction, there could be no better fit.
What’s probably most exciting to me is that on top of the improvisational choreography of the duels, a live band will use a rule set of their own, composed by Daniël, that takes the game as it unfolds as its input to improvise. How’s that for adaptive music?2
It might all go horribly wrong, or it might become a wonderful spectacle. If you are like me and would like to find out which it will be, head to Monster for one of the shows. They’re scheduled for:
Thursday 18 June 20:30 (tryout)
Friday 19 June 20:30
Saturday 20 June 20:30
Tickets are 15 Euro and can be bought at the venue. Once the show is over, I’ll post some more detailed stuff about the actual work I did. Stay tuned.
There would be tons of kids from local high schools to work with. They also wanted to use the local firemen choir. Oh, and aerial work platforms too… [↩]
One of the sources of inspiration for Daniël was John Zorn. [↩]
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 [↩]
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.)
If you were asked to improve your own neighbourhood, what would you change? And how would you go about communicating those changes?
Cities are systems, or rather, many systems that interconnect. Like buildings, they can be thought of as having layers, each changing at its own pace. If those layers are loosely coupled, the city — like the building — can adapt.
Recently, new urban layers/systems have started to emerge. They are made up of rapidly proliferating computing power, carried by people and embedded in the environment, used to access vast amounts of data.
At the same time, games have given rise to a new form of literacy — systemic literacy. However, to date, players have mostly inhabited the systems that make up games. They can read them. Writing, on the other hand, is another matter. True systemic literacy means being able to change the systems you inhabit.
True read/write systemic literacy can be used to craft games, yes. But it can also be used to see that many other problems and challenges in daily life are systemic ones.
To be sure, the real-time city will confront its inhabitants with many new problems. It is of the essence that the people shaping these new systems have a deep concern for their fellow humans. But it is also at least as important that people are taught the knowledge and skills — and given the tools — to change stuff about their surroundings as they see fit.
The wonderful thing is, we can shape systems, using the ‘new’ streets as a platform that transfer this knowledge and these skills to people. We can create ‘serious’ urban games that facilitate speculative modelling, so that people can improve their living environment, or at least express what they would change about it, in a playful way.