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. []

Zona Incerta and using ARGs for activism

(Fol­low­ing some recent over­ly long posts, here’s an attempt to stay under 500 words.)

For a while now, I have been lurk­ing on the mail­ing list of the Alter­nate Real­i­ty Games IGDA SIG. ARGs are games that use the real world as their plat­form. They usu­al­ly revolve around a mys­tery to be unrav­eled. I find ARGs inter­est­ing for the way they clash with the game design notion of the mag­ic cir­cle. The mag­ic cir­cle can be defined as the time and space with­in which a game is played. With tra­di­tion­al games, play­ers are aware of the mag­ic cir­cle and enter it will­ing­ly. Not so with ARGs, as the fol­low­ing exam­ple I found on the list shows:1

The pro­duc­ers of Zona Incer­ta, a Brazil­ian ARG, pub­lished a video on YouTube. In it the ‘senior mar­ket­ing direc­tor’ of Ark­hos Biotech­nol­o­gy asks view­ers to help them buy the Ama­zon rain­for­est and reminds them “the Ama­zon belongs to no coun­try, it belongs to the world”:

The video was mis­tak­en by many as real–including two sen­a­tors and one gov­er­nor. On the list, André Sir­ange­lo, the game’s writer, says:

It wasn’t long until some jour­nal­ists con­nect­ed the dots and found out the com­pa­ny didn’t exist. That’s when it real­ly explod­ed — after all, there are lots of com­pa­nies that actu­al­ly do want to buy the rain­for­est, but it’s not every day a pow­er­ful sen­a­tor makes a speech about one that doesn’t real­ly exist.”

Because the game was spon­sored, they had to come out and offer a pub­lic apol­o­gy. Some peo­ple took it in a good way, oth­ers were less amused:

They want­ed to sue and maybe even arrest us for mak­ing a video that was against the nation’s sov­er­eign­ty and all that. It was all BS though, because there wasn’t real­ly a crime. We nev­er pub­lished fake news, we just put the video on YouTube and some peo­ple tought it was real. Not our fault! :)”

Clear­ly, the ambigu­ous nature of ARGs is key to what makes them fun. Know­ing that peo­ple might mis­take things for real is thrilling to ARG devel­op­ers. Play­ers are chal­lenged to rec­og­nize the con­tent that is part of an ARG—rewarding them with the feel­ing that they are part of a secret soci­ety.

So far, the genre remains a niche.2 But what if ARGs take off in a big way? What if the medi­as­cape is flood­ed by ARG con­tent?

Will we, sim­i­lar to what is now being pro­posed for ubi­comp, need rec­og­niz­able iconog­ra­phy that tells peo­ple: “warn­ing, alter­nate real­i­ty con­tent”?

Proposed icon for objects that have invisible qualities by the Touch research project

I won­der what would make a good image. Per­haps the March Hare?

Illustration of the March Hare by John Tenniel

Zona Incer­ta’s aim was to enter­tain. Despite this, they raised aware­ness for the Amazon’s plight. Would the for­mat of ARGs be use­ful to peo­ple with anoth­er agen­da? What if activists start using them to make the future they want to avert—or desire to bring about—tangible to the pub­lic?

Image cred­its: Icon by Touch research project, March Hare by John Ten­niel tak­en from Wik­i­Fur.

Updat­ed with a YouTube embed that val­i­dates.

  1. For more about ARGs and the mag­ic cir­cle also see my Reboot 9.0 pre­sen­ta­tion Mobile Social Play. []
  2. Here are sta­tis­tics of some promi­nent past ARGs. []

Tools for having fun

ZoneTag Photo Friday 11:40 am 4/18/08 Copenhagen, Hovedstaden

One of the nicer things about GDC was the huge stack of free mag­a­zines I took home with me. Among those was an issue of Edge, the glossy games mag­a­zine designed to look good on a cof­fee table next to the likes of Vogue (or what­ev­er). I was briefly sub­scribed to Edge, but end­ed up not renew­ing because I could read reviews online and the arti­cles weren’t all that good.

The jan­u­ary 2008 issue I brought home did have some nice bits in it—in par­tic­u­lar an inter­view with Yoshi­nori Ono, the pro­duc­er of Street Fight­er IV. This lat­est incar­na­tion of the game aims to go back to what made Street Fight­er II great. What I liked about the inter­view was Ono’s clear ded­i­ca­tion to play­ers, not force feed­ing them what the design­ers think would be cool. Some­thing often lack­ing in game design.

“First of all, the most impor­tant thing about SFIV is ‘fair rules’, and by that I mean fair and clear rules that can be under­stood by every­one very eas­i­ly.” A les­son learned from the birth of mod­ern videogam­ing: ‘Avoid miss­ing ball for high score’.”

This of course is a ref­er­ence to PONG. Allan Alcorn (the design­er of the arcade coin oper­at­ed ver­sion of PONG) famous­ly refused to include instruc­tions with the game because he believed if a game need­ed writ­ten instruc­tions, it was crap.

Lat­er on in the same arti­cle, Ono says:

[…] what the game is — a tool for hav­ing fun. A tool to give the play­ers a vir­tu­al fight­ing stage — an imag­i­nary are­na, if you like.”

(Empha­sis mine.) I like the fact that he sees the game as some­thing to be used, as opposed to some­thing to be con­sumed. Admit­ted­ly, it is eas­i­er to think of a fight­ing game this way than for instance an adven­ture game—which has much more embed­ded narrative—but in any case I think it is a more pro­duc­tive view.

While we’re on the top­ic of mag­a­zines. A while back I read an enjoy­able lit­tle piece in my favorite free mag­a­zine Vice about the alleged clash between ‘hard­core’ and ‘casu­al’ gamers:

Casu­al games are tak­ing off like nev­er before, with half of today’s games being lit­tle fun quizzes or about play­ing ten­nis or golf by wav­ing your arms around. The Hard­core crowd are shit­ting them­selves that there might not be a Halo 4 if girls and old peo­ple car­ry on buy­ing sim­ple games where everyone’s a win­ner and all you have to do is wave a mag­ic wand around and press a but­ton every few times.”

Only half seri­ous, to be sure, but could it be at least part­ly true? I wouldn’t mind it to be so. I appre­ci­ate the rise of the casu­al game main­ly for the way it brings focus back to play­er cen­tred game design. Sim­i­lar to Yoshi­nori Ono’s atti­tude in redesign­ing Street Fight­er.

Notes on play, exploration, challenge and learning

(My read­ing notes are pil­ing up so here’s an attempt to clear out at least a few of them.)

Part of the play expe­ri­ence of many dig­i­tal games is fig­ur­ing out how the damn thing works in the first place. In Rules of Play on page 210:

[…] as the play­er plays with FLUID, inter­ac­tion and obser­va­tion reveals the under­ly­ing prin­ci­ples of the sys­tem. In this case the hid­den infor­ma­tion grad­u­al­ly revealed through play is the rules of the sim­u­la­tion itself. Part of the play of FLUID is the dis­cov­ery of the game rules as infor­ma­tion.”

(Sad­ly, I could not find a link to the game men­tioned.)

I did not give Don­ald Nor­man all the cred­it he was due in my ear­li­er post. He doesn’t have a blind spot for games. Quite the con­trary. For instance, he explains how to make sys­tems eas­i­er to learn and points to games in the process. On page 183 of The Design of Every­day Things:

One impor­tant method of mak­ing sys­tems eas­i­er to learn and to use is to make them explorable, to encour­age the user to exper­i­ment and learn the pos­si­bil­i­ties through active explo­ration.”

The way to do this is through direct manip­u­la­tion, writes Nor­man. He also reminds us that it’s not nec­es­sary to make any sys­tem explorable.1 But (on page 184):

[…] if the job is crit­i­cal, nov­el, or ill-spec­i­fied, or if you do not yet know exact­ly what is to be done, then you need direct, first-per­son inter­ac­tion.”

So much writ­ten after DOET seems to have added lit­tle to the con­ver­sa­tion. I’m sur­prised how use­ful this clas­sic still is.

I’m remind­ed of a sec­tion of Matt Jones’s Inter­ac­tion 08 talk—which I watched yes­ter­day. He went through a num­ber of infor­ma­tion visu­al­i­sa­tions and said he’d like to add more stuff like that into Dopplr, to allow peo­ple to play with their data. He even com­pared this act of play to Will Wright’s con­cept of pos­si­bil­i­ty space.2 He also briefly men­tioned that eas­i­ly acces­si­ble tools for cre­at­ing infor­ma­tion visu­al­i­sa­tions might become a valu­able tool for design­ers work­ing with com­plex sets of data.

Nor­man actu­al­ly points to games for inspi­ra­tion, by the way. On page 184 just before the pre­vi­ous quote:

Some com­put­er sys­tems offer direct manip­u­la­tion, first-per­son inter­ac­tions, good exam­ples being the dri­ving, fly­ing, and sports games that are com­mon­place in arcades and on home machines. In these games, the feel­ing of direct con­trol over the actions is an essen­tial part of the task.”

And so on.

One of the most use­ful parts of Dan Saffer’s book on inter­ac­tion design is where he explains the dif­fer­ences between cus­tomi­sa­tion, per­son­al­i­sa­tion, adap­ta­tion and hack­ing. He notes that an adap­tive sys­tem can be designed to induce flow—balancing chal­lenge with the skill of the user. In games, there is some­thing called dynam­ic dif­fi­cul­ty adjust­ment (DDA) which has very sim­i­lar aims.

Salen and Zim­mer­man have their doubts about DDA though. In Rules of Play on page 223 they write:

Play­ing a game becomes less like learn­ing an expres­sive lan­guage and more like being the sole audi­ence mem­ber for a par­tic­i­pa­to­ry, impro­vi­sa­tion­al per­for­mance, where the per­form­ers adjust their actions to how you inter­act with them. Are you then play­ing the game, or is it play­ing you?”

Per­haps, but it all depends on what DDA actu­al­ly adjusts. The tech­nique might be objec­tion­able in a game (where a large part of the point is over­com­ing chal­lenge) but in oth­er sys­tems many of these objec­tions do not apply.

With a suc­cess­ful adap­tive design, the prod­uct fits the user’s life and envi­ron­ment as though it were cus­tom made.”

(Design­ing for Inter­ac­tion, page 162.)

Adap­tive sys­tems explic­it­ly antic­i­pate trans­for­ma­tive play. They allow them­selves to be changed through a person’s inter­ac­tions with it.3

A char­ac­ter­is­tic of good inter­ac­tion design is play­ful­ness, writes Mr. Saf­fer in his book on page 67:

Through seri­ous play, we seek out new prod­ucts, ser­vices and fea­tures and then try them to see how they work. How many times have you pushed a but­ton just to see what it did?”

The fun­ny thing is, the con­di­tions for play accord­ing to Saf­fer are very sim­i­lar to some of the basic guide­lines Nor­man offers: Make users feel com­fort­able, reduce the chance for errors and if errors do occur, make sure the con­se­quences are small—by allow­ing users to undo, for instance.

Mr. Nor­man writes that in games “design­ers delib­er­ate­ly flout the laws of under­stand­abil­i­ty and usabil­i­ty” (p.205). Although even in games: “[the] rules [of usabil­i­ty] must be applied intel­li­gent­ly, for ease of use or dif­fi­cul­ty of use” (p.208).

By now, it should be clear mak­ing inter­ac­tions play­ful is very dif­fer­ent from mak­ing them game-like.

  1. Appar­ent­ly, “explorable” isn’t a prop­er Eng­lish word, but if it’s good enough for Mr. Nor­man it’s good enough for me. []
  2. I blogged about pos­si­bil­i­ty space before here. []
  3. Yes, I know I blogged about adap­tive design before. Also about flow and adap­ta­tion, it seems. []

Metagames as viral loops

MtG: My Pride-n-Joys by AuE on Flickr

Metagames’Richard Garfield’s pre­sen­ta­tion for the 2000 Game Devel­op­ers Con­fer­enceis in today’s links, but I think it deserves a bit more atten­tion than that. Here are some quotes from the doc­u­ment that stood out for me.1

What a metagame is:

My def­i­n­i­tion of metagame is broad. It is how a game inter­faces with life.”

In oth­er words, metagame design is con­tex­tu­al. It forces you to think about when, where, how and by who your game will be played.

Why metagame design has not been get­ting as much atten­tion as game design itself:

…the major­i­ty of a game’s metagame is prob­a­bly unal­ter­able by game design­er or pub­lish­er.”

So, metagame design is a sec­ond order design prob­lem. Design­ers can only indi­rect­ly influ­ence how metagames play out. They facil­i­tate it, but do not direct it.

Garfield divides metagames in four broad cat­e­gories:

  • What you bring to a game
  • What you take away from a game
  • What hap­pens between games
  • What hap­pens dur­ing a game

Where “game” should be under­stood as a sin­gle play ses­sion of a game.

Garfield has inter­est­ing things to say about all these cat­e­gories, and I rec­om­mend read­ing the arti­cle in full, but I’d like to zoom in on one bit men­tioned under “from”:

It is worth not­ing that many things list­ed have a ‘cir­cu­lar’ val­ue to the play­er.”

Get­ting some­thing from a game that you can bring with you again to a game makes you care more and more about the game itself. One clear exam­ple of how metagames are a help­ful con­cept for mak­ing a game more self-sus­tain­ing.

Bet­ter yet, the ‘stuff’ that play­ers get from a game play ses­sion can be shared or passed on to oth­ers. In this man­ner, the metagame becomes a viral loop.2

  1. Richard Garfield is the design­er of the CCG Mag­ic: The Gath­er­ing. []
  2. Via Matt Webb. []

Designing a mobile social gaming experience for Gen-C

Update 21-03-2008: I’ve added some images of slides to allow for some more con­text when read­ing the text.

This is a rough tran­script of my lec­ture at GDC Mobile 2008. In short: I first briefly intro­duce the con­cept of expe­ri­ence design and sys­tems and then show how this influ­ences my views of mobile casu­al games. From there I dis­cuss the rela­tion of casu­al games with the trend Gen­er­a­tion C. Wrap­ping up, I give an overview of some social design frame­works for the web that are equal­ly applic­a­ble to mobile social gam­ing. As a bonus I give some thoughts on mobile game sys­tems mobile metagames. The talk is illus­trat­ed through­out with a case study of Playy­oo—a mobile games com­mu­ni­ty I helped design.

  • I’ve includ­ed a slight­ly adjust­ed ver­sion of the orig­i­nal slides—several screen­shot sequences of Playy­oo have been tak­en out for file size rea­sons.
  • If you absolute­ly must have audio, I’m told you will be able to pur­chase (!) a record­ing from GDC Radio some­time soon.
  • I’d like to thank every­one who came up to me after­wards for con­ver­sa­tion. I appre­ci­ate the feed­back I got from you.
  • Sev­er­al aspects of Playy­oo that I use as exam­ples (such as the game stream) were already in place before I was con­tract­ed. Cred­its for many design aspects of Playy­oo go to David Mantripp, Playyoo’s chief archi­tect.
  • And final­ly, the views expressed here are in many ways an amal­ga­ma­tion of work by oth­ers. Where pos­si­ble I’ve giv­en cred­it in the talk and oth­er­wise linked to relat­ed resources.

That’s all the notes and dis­claimers out of the way, read on for the juice (but be warned, this is pret­ty long).

Con­tin­ue read­ing Design­ing a mobile social gam­ing expe­ri­ence for Gen-C

Space to play

Tree by Pocketmonsterd on Flickr

The lan­guages you’ve mas­tered shape your think­ing. Nouns, verbs, adjectives…if you think of your day-to-day inter­ac­tions on the web it’s clear the lan­guage you’re using is (very) lim­it­ed. Does that lim­it your range of thoughts, and the things you’re able to express? Cer­tain­ly, I’d say.

A quote from an old Ben Cer­ve­ny bio found in the Doors of Per­cep­tion muse­um:

Cer­ve­ny is inter­est­ed in har­ness­ing the com­pu­ta­tion­al pow­er of plat­forms like Playstation2 to cre­ate sim­u­la­tions with basic rule-sets that allow com­plex­i­ties to emerge, form­ing pat­terns of behav­iour and inter­ac­tion that peo­ple instinc­tive­ly parse. He believes that this essen­tial human abil­i­ty to find pat­terns in com­plex sys­tems remains untapped by cur­rent “click on the smi­ley face to buy our prod­uct” inter­faces. “There is a cer­tain algo­rith­mic light­ness to a basic rule­set, like that of the game Go,” he argues. “Espe­cial­ly as it replaces a top-down spec­i­fi­ca­tion for human-com­put­er inter­ac­tions.“ ‘

That was in 2001. Game-like inter­ac­tions have the poten­tial for expand­ing your think­ing. Sta­men—where I’m told Cer­ve­ny is spend­ing part of his time—is doing this with datasets.

Recent­ly, I’ve been asked by sev­er­al peo­ple to come up with con­crete exam­ples for my “play­ful” shtick. I’m wor­ried that peo­ple expect stuff that makes a typ­i­cal UI more play­ful. Like a sauce. That’s nev­er been my inten­tion.

The exam­ples I’m con­sid­er­ing (which I intend to describe as pat­terns) are of a more struc­tur­al kind. When I point to emer­gent behav­iour in games, I’m not kidding—the idea here is to allow for sur­pris­ing results. Results that you as a design­er have not fore­seen. Space to play. That’s what sets the typ­i­cal web inter­ac­tion apart from some­thing like Digg Labs.

Play is free move­ment with­in a more rigid struc­ture”. There is (almost) no free move­ment in your typ­i­cal web app. That’s why I would not call it play­ful. These apps are designed to fit pre­de­fined user sce­nar­ios and eval­u­at­ed based on how well they sup­port them. No sur­prise they turn out bor­ing in stead of fun.

How­ev­er: Not every web app has to be play­ful, because not every web app is try­ing to teach you some­thing.

In DOET Nor­man writes on p.124:

What are not every­day activ­i­ties? Those with wide and deep struc­tures, the ones that require con­sid­er­able con­scious plan­ning and thought, delib­er­ate tri­al and error: try­ing first this approach, then that—backtracking. Unusu­al tasks include […] intel­lec­tu­al games: bridge, chess, pok­er, cross­word puz­zles, and so on.“1

So that’s why I believe much of the foun­da­tions of human-cen­tered design are not applic­a­ble to play­ful experiences—the teach­ings of Nor­man are aimed at every­day activ­i­ties. The activ­i­ties that are not aimed at mak­ing you smarter, at giv­ing you new insights.

On the web (and in com­put­ing in gen­er­al) we’ve moved beyond util­i­ty. If we keep design­ing stuff using meth­ods derived from Don­ald Norman’s2 (and other’s) work, we’ll nev­er get to play­ful expe­ri­ences.

  1. Nor­man has a blind spot for dig­i­tal games, although he does include a NES as an exam­ple in his book. About this he admits he made “a few attempts to mas­ter the game” (p.138). []
  2. I’ll be speak­ing at a con­fer­ence that has Mr. Nor­man as keynote speak­er. I mean no dis­re­spect. []

Adaptive design and transformative play

2006APR201648 by bootload on Flickr

Allow­ing peo­ple to change parts of your prod­uct is play­ful. It has also always ‘just’ seemed like a good thing to do to me. You see this with with peo­ple who become pas­sion­ate about a thing they use often: They want to take it apart, see how it works, put it back togeth­er again, maybe add some stuff, replace some­thing else… I’ve always liked the idea of pas­sion­ate peo­ple want­i­ng to change some­thing about a thing I designed. And it’s always been a dis­ap­point­ment when I’d find out that they did not, or worse—wanted to but weren’t able to.

Appar­ent­ly this is what peo­ple call adap­tive design. But if you Google that, you won’t find much. In fact, there’s remark­ably lit­tle writ­ten about it. I was put on the term’s trail by Matt Webb and from there found my way to Dan Hill’s site. There’s a lot on the top­ic there, but if I can rec­om­mend one piece it’s the inter­view he did for Dan Saffer’s book on inter­ac­tion design. Read it. It’s full of won­der­ful ideas artic­u­lat­ed 100 times bet­ter than I’ll ever be able to.

So why is adap­tive design con­ducive to the play­ful­ness of a user expe­ri­ence? I’m not sure. One aspect of it might be the fact that as a design­er you explic­it­ly relin­quish some con­trol over the final expe­ri­ence peo­ple have with your…stuff.1 As Matt Webb not­ed in an end-of-the-year post, in stead of say­ing to peo­ple: “Here’s some­thing I made. Go on—play with it.” You say: “Here’s some­thing I made—let’s play with it togeth­er.”

This makes a lot of sense if you don’t think of the thing under design as some­thing that’ll be con­sumed but some­thing that will be used to cre­ate. It sounds easy but again is sur­pris­ing­ly hard. It’s like we have been infect­ed with this hard-to-kill idea that makes us think we can only con­sume where­as we are actu­al­ly all very much cre­ative beings.2 I think that’s what Gen­er­a­tion C is real­ly about.

A side­track: In dig­i­tal games, for a long time devel­op­ments have been towards games as media that can be con­sumed. The real changes in dig­i­tal games are: One—there’s a renewed inter­est in games as activ­i­ties (par­tic­u­lar­ly in the form of casu­al games). And two—there’s an increase in games that allow them­selves to be changed in mean­ing­ful ways. These devel­op­ments make the term “replay val­ue” seem ready for extinc­tion. How can you even call some­thing that isn’t inter­est­ing to replay a game?3

In Rules of Play, Salen and Zim­mer­man describe the phe­nom­e­non of trans­for­ma­tive play—where the “free move­ment with­in a more rigid struc­ture” changes the men­tioned struc­ture itself (be it intend­ed or not). They hold it as one of the most pow­er­ful forms of play. Think of a sim­ple house rule you made up the last time you played a game with some friends. The fact that on the web the rules that make up the struc­tures we designed are cod­i­fied in soft­ware should not be an excuse to dis­al­low peo­ple to change them.

That’s true lit­er­a­cy: When you can both read and write in a medi­um (as Alan Kay would have it). I’d like to enable peo­ple to do that. It might be hope­less­ly naive, but I don’t care—it’s a very inter­est­ing chal­lenge.

  1. That’s a com­fort­able idea to all of the—cough—web 2.0 savvy folk out there. But it cer­tain­ly still is an uncom­fort­able thought to many. And I think it’d sur­prise you to find out how many peo­ple who claim to be “hip to the game” will still refuse to let go. []
  2. Note I’m not say­ing we can all be design­ers, but I do think peo­ple can all cre­ate mean­ing­ful things for them­selves and oth­ers. []
  3. Yes, I am a ludol­o­gist. So shoot me. []

Slides for my Oslo UXnet meetup talk

Last night I pre­sent­ed at the Jan­u­ary UXnet meet­up in Oslo. When Are invit­ed me to come over I thought I’d be talk­ing to maybe 60 user expe­ri­ence peo­ple. 200 showed up—talk about kick­ing off the year with a bang. I think the crew at Netlife Research may just have writ­ten UXnet his­to­ry. I’m not sure. (Don’t believe me? Check out the RSVPs on the event’s page at Meetup.com)

The talk went OK. I had 20 min­utes, which is pret­ty short. I fin­ished on time, but I had to leave out a lot of exam­ples. The orig­i­nal talk on which this was based is a 2 hour lec­ture I deliv­er at UX com­pa­nies. (I did this last year for instance at InUse.)

The lack of exam­ples was the biggest point of crit­i­cism I got after­wards. I’ll try to make up for that a bit in a lat­er post, list­ing some exam­ples of web sites and apps that I would call in some way play­ful. Stay tuned.

For now, here are the slides (no notes I’m afraid, so it’ll be hard to make any sense of them if you weren’t there). Thanks to Are Hal­land for invit­ing me. And greet­ings to all my friends in Oslo. You’ve got a beau­ti­ful UX thing going on there.

I was interviewed for the Playyoo blog

I was interviewed by Playyoo the other day

Most of you will prob­a­bly know I’m involved1 with this new mobile game com­mu­ni­ty called Playy­oo. I haven’t blogged about it here explic­it­ly because most of my con­tri­bu­tions so far are still being devel­oped and will hope­ful­ly hit the inter­net around Decem­ber. I have an excuse to talk about it now though, because recent­ly I was inter­viewed by the peo­ple of Playy­oo for their blog. Read about my thoughts on the role of social­i­ty in (mobile) gam­ing and how that will work in Playyoo’s meta-game, as well as what I think about casu­al games and the unique game design oppor­tu­ni­ties for mobile.

A quote from the inter­view:

What does the term ‘casu­al game’ mean to you?

‘Casu­al,’ to me, says some­thing about the lev­el of atten­tion and engage­ment that a play­er has (or is required to have) with the game. For me as a design­er, casu­al games pro­vide inter­est­ing chal­lenges. It might seem sim­ple to cre­ate these casu­al games, but they’re actu­al­ly quite tricky to pull off, or pull off well, that is. From a game design per­spec­tive, I think it’s more chal­leng­ing to pull off a high qual­i­ty causal game than yet anoth­er first-per­son shoot­er game.

Read the rest of the inter­view over at the Playy­oo blog.2

  1. They’ve hired me to do game and inter­ac­tion design. I have been work­ing on mobile games, a game cre­ation tool, and a web-based meta-game. []
  2. Thanks to Alper Çuǧun for the pho­to that’s in the post. []