Buildings and Brains at the Nijmegen Design Platform (NOP)

It’s been a few weeks since I pre­sent­ed at the Nijmegen Design Plat­form (NOP), but I thought it would still be use­ful to post a sum­ma­ry of what I talked about here.

Update: it took me a while, but the slides that accom­pa­nied this talk are now up at SlideShare.

A lit­tle con­text: The NOP run fre­quent events for design­ers in the region. These design­ers most­ly work in more tra­di­tion­al domains such as graph­ic, fash­ion and indus­tri­al design. NOP asked Jeroen van Mas­trigt — a friend and occa­sion­al col­league of mine — to talk about games at one of their events. Jeroen in turn asked me to play Robin to his Bat­man, I would fol­low up his epic romp through game design the­o­ry with a brief look at per­va­sive games. This of course was an offer I could not refuse. The event was held at a love­ly loca­tion (the huge art-house cin­e­ma LUX) and was attend­ed by a healthy-sized crowd. Kudos to the NOP for orga­niz­ing it and many thanks to them (and Jeroen) for invit­ing me.

So, what I tried to do in the talk was to first give a sense of what per­va­sive games are, what char­ac­ter­izes them. I drew from the Hide & Seek web­site for the list of char­ac­ter­is­tics and used The Soho Project as a run­ning exam­ple through­out this part. I also tied the char­ac­ter­is­tics to some the­o­ry I found inter­est­ing:

  • Mix­ing dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy with real world play — I empha­sized that ulti­mate­ly, tech­nol­o­gy is but a means to an end. At Inter­ac­tion ‘09 Robert Fab­ri­cant said the medi­um of inter­ac­tion design is human behav­ior. I think the same holds true for the design of per­va­sive games.
  • Social inter­ac­tionRaph Koster once said sin­gle play­er games are a his­tor­i­cal aber­ra­tion. It is clear much of the fun in per­va­sive games is social. In a way I think they bridge the gap between the “old” board games and con­tem­po­rary video games.
  • Using the city as a play­ground — Here I could not resist bring­ing in Jane Jacob’s notions of the city as an enti­ty that is organ­ised from the bot­tom up and Kevin Lynch’s work on the men­tal maps we cre­ate of cities as we move through them. Cities play a vital role in facil­i­tat­ing the play of per­va­sive games. At best they are the main pro­tag­o­nist of them.
  • Trans­form­ing pub­lic spaces into the­atri­cal stage­sets — This is relat­ed to the pre­vi­ous one, but here I made a side­step into the embod­ied nature of play­er inter­ac­tions in per­va­sive games and how embod­i­ment facil­i­tates read­ing at a dis­tance of such actions. In a sense, the social fun of embod­ied play is due to its per­for­ma­tive qual­i­ty.

After this, I tried to show why design­ers out­side the domain of games should care about per­va­sive games. This I did by talk­ing about ways they can be used for pur­pos­es oth­er than ‘mere’ enter­tain­ment. These were:

  • Enlarg­ing per­ceived real­i­ty; you can cre­ate games that play with the way we cus­tom­ar­i­ly per­ceive real­i­ty. This was inspired by the talk Kevin Slavin of Area/Code deliv­ered at MIND08. Exam­ples I used were Cross­roads and The Com­fort of Strangers.
  • Chang­ing human behav­ior for the bet­ter; think of the Toy­ota Prius dashboard’s effect on people’s dri­ving behav­ior. Exam­ples of games that use feed­back loops to steer us towards desir­able goals are Cryp­to­Zoo and FourSquare.
  • Crowd­sourc­ing solu­tions; games can sim­u­late pos­si­ble futures and chal­lenge play­ers to respond to their prob­lems. Here I used Jane McGo­ni­gal’s ideas around col­lec­tive intel­li­gence gam­ing. The exam­ple game I talked about was World With­out Oil.
  • Con­vey­ing argu­ments pro­ce­du­ral­ly; Ian Bogost’s con­cept of pro­ce­dur­al rhetoric isn’t spe­cif­ic to per­va­sive games, but I think the way they get mixed up with every­day life make them par­tic­u­lar­ly effec­tive chan­nels for com­mu­ni­cat­ing ideas. I used The Go Game, Cru­el 2B Kind and Join the Line1 as exam­ples.

By talk­ing about these things I hoped to pro­vide a link to the audience’s own design prac­tice. They may not deal with games, but they sure­ly deal with com­mu­ni­cat­ing ideas and chang­ing people’s behav­ior. Come to think of it though, I was doing a very old media style pre­sen­ta­tion in attempt to achieve the same… Oh well.

  1. Join the Line is a game stu­dents con­cep­tu­al­ized dur­ing a work­shop I ran. []

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. []