I graduated from the Utrecht School of the Arts in 2002. Now, less than seven years later, I am mentoring a group of five students who will be doing the same come September this year. I took a photo of them today, here it is:
From left to right, here’s who they are and what they’re up to:
Christiaan is tech lead on Hollandia, an action adventure game inspired by Dutch folklore. His research looks at ways to close the gap between creatives and technologists in small teams, using agile techniques.
Kjell is designing a series of experimental games using voice as their only input. He’s researching what game mechanics work best with voice control.
Maxine is game designer on the aforementioned Hollandia game. Her research looks at the translation of the play experience of physical toys to digital games. (In of Hollandia, you’ll be using a Wiimote to control the spinning top used by the heroine.)
Paul is building a physics-based platform puzzle game for two players. His research looks at the design of meaningful collaborative play.
Eva is making a space simulation game with realistic physics and complex controls. She’s researching what kinds of fun are elicited by such games.
Practically speaking, mentoring these guys means that I see them once a week for a 15-minute session. In this we discuss the past week’s progress and their plans for the next. They’ve set their own briefs, and are expected to be highly self-reliant. My task consists of making sure they stay on track and their work is relevant, both from an educational and a professional perspective. It’s challenging work, but a lot of fun. It forces me to make explicit the stuff I’ve picked up professionally. It’s also a lot about developing a sense for where each student individually can improve and encouraging them to challenge themselves in those areas.
I’m looking forward to seeing what they’ll deliver come September, when it’s their turn to graduate, and go out to conquer the world.
Yesterday evening I was at the Club of Amsterdam. They host events centred around preferred futures. I was invited to speak at an evening about the future of games.1 I thought I’d share what I talked about with you here.
I had ten minutes to get my point across. To be honest, I think I failed rather dismally. Some of the ideas I included were still quite fresh and unfinished, and I am afraid this did not work out well. I also relied too heavily on referencing other’s work, presuming people would be familiar with them. A miscalculation on my part.
In any case, thanks to Felix Bopp and Carla Hoekendijk for inviting me. I had a good time and enjoyed the other presenter’s talks. The discussion afterwards too was a lot of things, but dull certainly isn’t among them.
What follows is a write-up of what I more or less said during the presentation, plus references to the sources I used, which will hopefully make things clearer than they were during the evening itself.2
(This is where I did the usual introduction of who I am and what I do. I won’t bore you with it here. In case you are wondering, the title of this talk is slightly tongue-in cheek. I had to come up with it for the abstract before writing the actual talk. Had I been able to choose a title afterwards, it would’ve been something like “Growth” or “A New Biology of Urban Play”…)
This gentleman is Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. He is said to be the first to formulate a coherent theory of evolution. His ideas centred around inheritance of acquired traits. So for instance, a blacksmiths who works hard his whole life will probably get really strong arms. In the Lamarckist view, his offspring will inherit these strong arms from him. Darwinism rules supreme in evolutionary biology, so it is no surprise that this theory is out of favour nowadays. What I find interesting is the fact that outside of the natural domain, Lamarckism is still applicable, most notably in culture. Cultural organisms can pass on traits they acquired in their lifetime to their offspring. Furthermore, there is a codependency between culture and humans. The two have co-evolved. You could say culture is a trick humans use to get around the limits of Darwinism (slow, trial-and-error based incremental improvements) in order to achieve Lamarckism.3
You can think of cities as cultural meta-organisms. They’re a great example of natural-cultural co-evolution. We use cities as huge information storage and retrieval machines. What you see here is a map of the city of Hamburg circa 1800. In his book Emergence, Steven Berlin Johnson compares the shape of this map to that of the human brain, to illustrate this idea of the city being alive, in a sense. Cities are self-organizing cities that emerge from the bottom up. They grow, patterns are created from low-level interactions, things like neighbourhoods.4
Games are this other thing nature has come up with to speed up evolution. I’m not going to go into why I think we play (you could do worse than have a look at The Ambiguity of Play by Brian Sutton-Smith to get a sense of all the different viewpoints on the matter). Let’s just say I think one thing games are good at is conveying viewpoints of the world in a procedural way (a.k.a. ‘procedural rhetoric’ as described in Ian Bogost’s book Persuasive Games). They provide people with a way to explore a system from the inside out. They give rise to ‘systemic literacy’.5 The image is from Animal Crossing: Wild World, a game that, as Bogost argues, tries to point out certain issues that exist with consumerism and private home ownership.
Moving on, I’d like to discuss two trends that I see happening right now. I’ll build on those to formulate my future vision.
So trend number one: the real-time city. In cities around the globe, we are continuously pumping up the amount of sensors, actuators and processors. The behaviour of people is being sensed, processed and fed back to them in an ever tightening feedback loop. This will inevitably change the behaviour of humans as well as the city. So cities are headed to a phase transition, where they’ll move (if not in whole then at least in neighbourhood-sized chunks) to a new level of evolvability. Adam Greenfield calls it network weather. Dan Hill talks about how these new soft infrastructures can help us change the user experience of the city without needing to change the hard stuff. The problem is, though, that the majority of this stuff is next-to invisible, and therefore hard to “read”.6 The image, by the way, is from Stamen Design’s awesome project Cabspotting, which (amongst other things) consists of real-time tracking and visualization of the trajectories of taxis in the Bay Area.
Trend number two. In the past decade or so, there’s a renewed interest in playing in public spaces. Urban games are being used to re-imagine and repurpose the city in new ways (such as the parkour player pictured here). Consciously or subconsciously, urban games designers are flirting with the notions of the Situationist International, most notably the idea of inner space shaping our experience of outer space (psycho-geography) and the use of playful acts to subvert those spaces. Parkour and free running can’t really be called games, but things like SFZero, The Soho Project and Cruel 2 B Kind all fit these ideas in some way.
So I see an opportunity here: To alleviate some of the illegibility of the real-time city’s new soft infrastructures, we can deploy games that tap into them. Thus we employ the capacity of games to provide insight into complex systems. With urban games, this ‘grokking’ can happen in situ.
Through playing these games, people will be better able to “read” the real-time city, and to move towards a more decentralized mindset. The image is from a project by Dan Hill, where the shape of public Wi-Fi in the State Library of Queensland was visualized and overlaid on the building’s floor-plan.
Ultimately though, I would love to enable people to not only “read” but also “write” possible processes for the real-time city. I see many advantages here. Fore one this could lead to situated procedural arguments: people could be enabled to propose alternative ways of interacting with urban space. But even without this, just by making stuff, another way of learning is activated, known as ‘analysis by synthesis’. This was the aim of Mitchel Resnick when he made StarLogo (of which you see a screenshot here). And it works. StarLogo enables children to make sense of complex systems. A real-time urban game design toolkit could to the same, with the added benefit of the games being juxtaposed with the cities they are about.
This juxtaposition might result in dynamics similar to what we find in nature. Processes from these new games might be spontaneously transferred over to the city, and vice versa. The image is of roots with outgrowths on them which are caused by a bacteria called Agrobacterium. This bacteria is well known for its ability to transfer DNA between itself and plants. An example of nature circumventing natural selection.7 A new symbiosis between urban games and the real-time city might lead to similar acceleration of their evolutions.
(I finished a little over time and had time for one question. Adriaan Wormgoor of FourceLabs asked whether I thought games would sooner or later become self-evolving themselves. My answer was “absolutely”. to get to ever higher levels of complexity we’ll be forced to start growing or rearing our games more than assembling them from parts. Games want to be free, you could say, so they are inevitably heading towards ever higher levels of evolvability.)
A while ago I was interviewed by Sam Warnaars. He’s researching people’s conference experiences; he asked me what my most favourite and least favourite conference of the past year was. I wish he’d asked me after my trip to Playful ’08, because it has been by far the best conference experience to date. Why? Because it was like Toby, Richard and the rest of the event’s producers had taken a peek inside my brain and came up with a program encompassing (almost) all my fascinations — games, interaction design, play, sociality, the web, products, physical interfaces, etc. Almost every speaker brought something interesting to the table. The audience was composed of people from many different backgrounds, and all seemed to, well, like each other. The venue was lovely and atmospheric (albeit a bit chilly). They had good tea. Drinks afterwards were tasty and fun, the tapas later on even more so. And the whiskey after that, well let’s just say I was glad to have a late flight the next day. Many thanks to my friends at Pixel-Lab for inviting me, and to Mr. Davies for the referral.
It’s time to start revealing the speakers for This happened – Utrecht #1. First up is Fabian Akker, co-founder of the independent studio Ronimo Games. The studio was funded with money Fabian and his colleagues earned by selling the concept behind one of their games to THQ.1 The game is called De Blob, and the new version is now available on the Nintendo Wii and DS.2 As part of a 3rd year assignment at the Utrecht School of the Arts’ Game Design and Development course, De Blob was created for the municipality of Utrecht. The aim was to allow people to explore the city’s future station area, which is under heavy reconstruction. You could therefore call De Blob a serious game — a game that is not only fun but also useful. It is not often that a serious game makes the transition to a title aimed purely at entertainment. It is more often the case that an entertainment concept gets injected with some ‘serious’ content, with usually disappointing results. At This happened – Utrecht #1 Fabian, who was the original game’s lead designer, will share the story of how it came to be.
I announced This happened – Utrecht #1 last week. The event takes place on Monday 3 October at 20:30. Registration will open next Monday (20 October) — space is limited so mark your calendars!
Curious about the rest of the line-up? Tomorrow, Ianus will announce our second speaker.
I am breaking radio-silence for a bit to let you know the slides and video for my Reboot 10 presentation are now available online, in case you’re interested. I presented this talk before at The Web and Beyond, but this time I had a lot more time, and I presented in English. I therefore think this might still be of interest to some people.1 As always, I am very interested in receiving constructive criticism Just drop me a line in the comments.
It’s been a while since I finished reading Steven Berlin Johnson’s Emergence. I picked up the book because ever since I started thinking about what IxDs can learn from game design, the concept of emergence kept popping up.
Johnson’s book is a pleasant read, an easy-going introduction to the subject. I started and finished it over the course of a weekend. There were a few passages I marked as I went a long, and I’d like to quote them here and comment on them. In order, they are about:
Principles that are required for emergence to happen
How learning can be unconscious
Unique skills of game players
Gardening as a metaphor for using (and making) emergent systems
“If you’re building a system designed to learn from the ground level, a system where macrointelligence and adaptability derive from local knowledge, there are five fundamental principles you need to follow.”
These principles together form a useful crib sheet for designers working on social software, MMOGs, etc. I’ll summarise each of Johnson’s principles here.
“More is different.”
You need to have a sizeable amount of low-level elements interacting to get patterns emerging. Also, there is a difference between the behaviour you will observe on the microlevel, and on the macrolevel. You need to be aware of both.
“Ignorance is useful.”
The simple elements don’t have to be aware of the higher-level order. In fact, it’s best if they aren’t. Otherwise nasty feedback-loops might come into being.
“Encourage random encounters.”
You need chance happenings for the system to be able to learn and adapt.2
“Look for patterns in the signs.”
Simply put, the basic elements can have a simple vocabulary, but should be able to recognise patterns. So although you might be working with only one signal, things such as frequency and intensity should be used to make a range of meanings.
“Pay attention to your neighbours.”
There must be as much interaction between the components as possible. They should be made constantly aware of each other.
Now with these principles in mind look at systems that successfully leverage collective intelligence. Look at Flickr for instance. They are all present.
I liked the following passage because it seems to offer a nice metaphor for what I think is the unique kind of learning that happens while playing. In a way, games and toys are like chicken pox.3
“[…] learning is not always contingent on consciousness. […] Most of us have developed immunity to the varicella-zoster virus—also known as chicken pox—based on our exposure to it early in childhood. The immunity is a learning process: the antibodies of our immune system learn to neutralize the antigens of the virus, and they remember those neutralization strategies for the rest of our lives. […] Those antibodies function as a “recognition system,” in Gerald Edelman’s phrase, successfully attacking the virus and storing the information about it, then recalling that information the next time the virus comes across the radar. […] the recognition unfolds purely on a cellular level: we are not aware of the varicella-zoster virus in any sense of the word, […] The body learns without consciousness, and so do cities, because learning is not just about being aware of information; it’s also about storing information and knowing where to find it. […] It’s about altering a system’s behaviour in response to those patterns in ways that make the system more successful at whatever goal it’s pursuing. The system need not be conscious to be capable of that kind of learning.”
Emphasis on the last sentence mine, by the way.
Johnson writes about his impression of children playing video games:4
“[…] they are more tolerant of being out of control, more tolerant of that exploratory phase where the rules don’t all make sense, and where few goals have been clearly defined.”
This attitude is very valuable in today’s increasingly complex world. It should be fostered and leveraged in areas besides gaming too, IMHO. This point was at the core of my Playing With Complexity talk.
“Interacting with emergent software is already more like growing a garden than driving a car or reading a book.”5
Yet, we still tend to approach the design of systems like this from a tradition of making tools (cars) or media (books). I not only believe that the use of systems like this is like gardening, but also their creation. Perhaps they lie in each other’s extension, are part of one never-ending cycle? In any case, when designing complex systems, you need to work with it “live”. Plant some seeds, observe, prune, weed, plant some more, etc.
I am going to keep a garden (on my balcony). I’m pretty sure that will teach me more about interaction design than building cars or writing books.
The following quotes are taken from pages 77–79. [↩]
This reminds me of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan, wherein he writes about maximising your chance of having serendipitous encounters. [↩]
When the NLGD Foundation invited me to speak at their anual Festival of Games I asked them what they would like me to discuss. “Anything you like,” was what they said, essentially. I decided to submit an abstract dealing with data visualization. I had been paying more and more attention to this field, but was unsuccessful in relating it the other themes running through my work, most notably play. So I thought I’d force myself to tackle this issue by promising to speak about it. Often a good strategy, I’ve found. If it worked out this time I leave for you to judge.
In brief, in the presentation I argue two things: one — that the more sophisticated applications of interactive data visualization resemble games and toys in many ways, and two — that game design can contribute to the solutions to several design issues I have detected in the field of data visualization.
Below are the notes for the talk, slightly edited, and with references included. The full deck of slides, which includes credits for all the images used, is up on SlideShare.
Hello everyone, my name is Kars Alfrink. I am a Dutch interaction designer and I work freelance. At the moment I work in Copenhagen, but pretty soon I will be back here in Utrecht, my lovely hometown.
In my work I focus on three areas: mobility, social interactions, and play. Here is an example of my work: These are storyboards that explore possible applications of multitouch technology in a gated community. Using these technologies I tried to compensate for the negative effects a gated community has on the build-up of social capital. I also tried to balance ‘being-in-the-screen’ with ‘being-in-the-world’ — multitouch technologies tend to be very attention-absorbing, but in built environments this is often not desirable.1
I am not going to talk about multitouch though. Today’s topic is data visualization and what opportunities there are for game designers in that field. My talk is roughly divided in three parts. First, I will briefly describe what I think data visualization is. Next, I will look at some applications beyond the very obvious. Third and last, I will discuss some design issues involved with data visualization. For each of these issues, I will show how game design can contribute.
The conference From Business to Buttons 2008 aimed to bring together the worlds of business and interaction design. I was there to share my thoughts on the applicability of game design concepts to interaction design. You’ll find my slides and a summary of my argument below.
I really enjoyed attending this conference. I met a bunch of new and interesting people and got to hang out with some ‘old’ friends. Many thanks to InUse for inviting me.
The topic is pretty broad so I decided to narrow things down to a class of product that is other-than-everyday — meaning both wide and deep in scope. Using Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things as a starting point, I wanted to show that these products require a high level of explorability that is remarkably similar to play. After briefly examining the phenomenon of play itself I moved on to show applications of this understanding to two types of product: customizable & personalizable ones, and adaptive ones.
For the former, I discussed how game design frameworks such as MDA can help with sculpting the parameter space, using ‘experience’ as the starting point. I also looked at how games support players in sharing stories and speculated about ways this can be translated to both digital and physical products.
For the latter — adaptive products — I focussed on the ways in which they induce flow and how they can recommend stuff to people. With adaptation, designers need to formulate rules. This can be done using techniques from game design, such as Daniel Cook’s skill chains. Successful rules-based design can only happen in an iterative environment using lots of sketching.
The presentation was framed by a slightly philosophical look at how certain games subliminally activate cognitive processes and could thus be used to allow for new insights. I used Breakout and Portal as examples of this. I am convinced there is an emerging field of playful products that interaction designers should get involved with.
This is a transcript of my presentation at The Web and Beyond 2008: Mobility in Amsterdam on 22 May. Since the majority of paying attendees were local I presented in Dutch. However, English appears to be the lingua franca of the internet, so here I offer a translation. I have uploaded the slides to SlideShare and hope to be able to share a video recording of the whole thing soon.
In 1966 a number of members of Provo took to the streets of Amsterdam carrying blank banners. Provo was a nonviolent anarchist movement. They primarily occupied themselves with provoking the authorities in a “ludic” manner. Nothing was written on their banners because the mayor of Amsterdam had banned the slogans “freedom of speech”, “democracy” and “right to demonstrate”. Regardless, the members were arrested by police, showing that the authorities did not respect their right to demonstrate.1
Good afternoon everyone, my name is Kars Alfrink, I’m a freelance interaction designer. Today I’d like to talk about play in public space. I believe that with the arrival of ubiquitous computing in the city new forms of play will be made possible. The technologies we shape will be used for play wether we want to or not. As William Gibson writes in Burning Chrome:
“…the street finds its own uses for things”
For example: Skateboarding as we now know it — with its emphasis on aerial acrobatics — started in empty pools like this one. That was done without permission, of course…
Only later half-pipes, ramps, verts (which by the way is derived from ‘vertical’) and skateparks arrived — areas where skateboarding is tolerated. Skateboarding would not be what it is today without those first few empty pools.2
(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.
Apparently, “explorable” isn’t a proper English word, but if it’s good enough for Mr. Norman it’s good enough for me. [↩]