Stay hungry, stay foolish”

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:

Bright young bunch

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.

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


(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.)

  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. []

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. []

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.


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.

  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. []

Playing With Complexity — slides and notes for my NLGD Festival of Games talk

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.

Right, let’s get start­ed.

Con­tin­ue read­ing Play­ing With Com­plex­i­ty — slides and notes for my NLGD Fes­ti­val of Games talk

  1. For more back­ground on this project please see this old­er blog post. More exam­ples of my recent work can be found in my port­fo­lio. []

Slides and summary for ‘More Than Useful’

Update: The video and slides are now avail­able on the con­fer­ence site.

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.

Diagram summarizing my FBTB 2008 talk

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.

Sources ref­er­enced in this pre­sen­ta­tion:1

As usu­al, many thanks to all the Flickr pho­tog­ra­phers who’ve shared their images under a CC license. I’ve linked to the orig­i­nals from the slides. Any image not linked to is prob­a­bly mine.

  1. Most of these are offline books or papers, those that aren’t have been hyper­linked to their source. []

Urban procedural rhetorics — transcript of my TWAB 2008 talk

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.

Update: I have uploaded a video of the pre­sen­ta­tion to Vimeo. Many thanks to Almar van der Krogt for record­ing this.

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

Con­tin­ue read­ing Urban pro­ce­dur­al rhetorics — tran­script of my TWAB 2008 talk

  1. The web­site of Gram­schap con­tains a chronol­o­gy of the Pro­vo move­ment in Dutch. []
  2. For a vivid account of the emer­gence of the ver­ti­cal style of skate­board­ing see the doc­u­men­tary film Dog­town and Z-Boys. []

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. []