Transmutation @ Raum Schiff Erde


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Slides plus notes for the talk I gave at Raum Schiff Erde in Hamburg on 21 February 2010. It's about how pervasive urban games can be used to increase people's awareness of and catalyze contributions to various kinds of systems (social, phsyical, technological).

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Transmutation @ Raum Schiff Erde

  1. 1. Transmutation – 21 February 2010 These gentlemen are trying to change lead into gold. In a way that’s what we’re trying to do with applied urban games too. Turn mundane activity into something far more richer. Transmutation, in other words. But before we get into that…
  2. 2. These gentlemen are trying to change lead into gold. In a way that’s what we’re trying to do with applied urban games too. Turn mundane activity into something far more richer. Transmutation, in other words. But before we get into that…
  3. 3. what the Hubbub is Let me tell you a bit about what I do because it informs what I am going to talk about and gives you a frame of reference. This is how we look at the world. I founded Hubbub. It is a design studio specialized in physical, social games for public space.
  4. 4. games? Games are vehicles for the enhancement of systems literacy. They are complex systems themselves. Playing them means reading them. Players learn skills with which they can manipulate the systems surrounding them every day. In my view games are not media. They’re not something you put into a computer. You might put a computer into a game, though.
  5. 5. public space? I think public life in contemporary cities is under pressure and that is why we choose to make games in public places. I also think it is worthwhile to reconnect people with the places they inhabit. I want to re-place space.
  6. 6. social? I believe meaning is socially constructed. I want our games to relate to the social lives of people. I use social interactions as a design material.
  7. 7. physical? I think too much of current-day technology still reduces people to an eye and a finger. I want to engage all people’s senses, because I think our cognition is shaped by the bodily experience of the world around us.
  8. 8. design? The core of what I do is design. I use methods that are about getting the right design AND getting the design right. The end point is never clear from the start (in contrast to engineering). I believe in praxis, in thinking through making.
  9. 9. games are useless So with that out of the way, let me tell you that… Games are useless. And play is pointless.
  10. 10. These dogs don’t play because it’s good for them, they play because it’s fun. But what is fun? At the lowest level they’re chemically rewarded by their brains for learning stuff. But the stuff isn’t even useful anymore, since they’re being taken care of! By my mother and sister incidentally. But still they play, and still it’s fun. So ultimately, play is useless.
  11. 11. why make useless things? So why bother making them? Even worse, why pursue a course of “applied game design” as I have been doing, coming from interaction design and starting game design?
  12. 12. emotional survival Because play is such a strong force. Because playing is emotional survival, it takes effort not to play (like eating). And players don’t need games or toys to play. Harnessed with care, play is a transformative force, leading to all sorts of 2nd order effects. That is why it is worth the trouble to me…
  13. 13. ripples When I was planning a social game - called Koppelkiek - for a troubled neighborhood in Utrecht, I was worried about it being temporary and not making a structural difference. Ultimately I still felt it was worthwhile to create an event that creates an effect that ripples out into the future. It turns out residents of the neighborhood were relieved about finally something useless going on, in stead of yet another activity that highlighted the shortcomings of the place.
  14. 14. play in the city What’s the big deal with urban games anyway? Why did I start a company that designs them? Part of it, I think, is about the charm of using public places for things other than consumerism.
  15. 15. So there we are, and that’s an initial answer to your question about how urban games can act as catalyst of positive change in systems. Just by being there, being played amongst the working and the living and the socializing and all the other things, is good for the city. It makes the city a healthier place, a more resilient place.
  16. 16. resistance So it’s about resistance. You can connect it in some ways to the ideas of the situationists. Who used games to alter their experience of the city. What use is a tourist map of a city to a skateboarder, or a free runner? In a film on skateboarding one of the Z-Boys talks about “concrete warfare” they re-imagine the city through use. And to the temporary autonomous zones of countercultural types like those in Christiania. Urban games create temporary zones where alternative rules hold sway. Some have called urban games a form of anti-urbanism, because it’s a-functional…
  17. 17. diversity of use …but I think playing in the city is actually about being a good urbanite and amping up the diversity of uses of the streets. In a way that would certainly be appreciated by people like Jane Jacobs. It’s about allowing for other value systems than economism. (Hamburg artist’s resistance to gentrification of the city center is a good example of this too.)
  18. 18. fun bullies But there’s issues with playing in places where not everyone is feeling incredibly ludic.
  19. 19. mob football Things sometimes gravitate towards ‘mob football’ an early form of football popular in the mid-19th century. It knew very few rules and could get really out of hand. If you were caught in the fray, you had no choice but to “play”.
  20. 20. carnaval Dutch carnaval is like that a little too (with less rioting though). If you’re there, you’d better participate or else. I have a nephew who lived in the south and would flee to the north each year to evade his friends at carnaval. One person’s fun is another’s hell.
  21. 21. piano stairs Or consider the much-lauded Fun Theory piano stairs. Apparently they made people use the stairs more. (65%?) It’s nice if you have all the time in the world and nowhere to go, but a nuisance or even offensive to people short on time and the luxury to play. It’s all about appropriateness. Adam Greenfield commented: “With regard to the piano installation, the only thing I really have to say about it is that sometimes designers should have the tact to leave well enough alone.”
  22. 22. the truman e ect Non-players confronted with an urban game are sometimes treated like this guy. I’ve come to call this the Truman effect. In The Truman Show, he’s unaware of everyone being in on an elaborate hoax, we’re all having fun at his expense.
  23. 23. The Soho Project vs Cruel 2 B Kind Compare The Soho Project to Cruel 2 B Kind… In the former (an otherwise interesting and wonderful game) at one point people made fun of a homeless person as part of an assignment in the game: “This tragic case of this guy lying down -- he's doing very badly at strip poker -- he's already lost both of his shoes and is feeling quite depressed about it.” In contrast, Cruel 2B Kind - a game where you ‘assassinate’ competitors by paying them a compliment - has rules designed to deliver an interesting experience to people outside of the game.
  24. 24. be dramatic This is why, if you create a game like this, it’s good to think about the play as a performance for outsiders. Make it fun to watch at least, and offer easy escapes for outsiders being engaged. In CYW we had players run around with huge flags mainly because it looks interesting.
  25. 25. A game is only a game when you play willingly, it should be free. Some pervasive urban games involve some mechanism of recruiting players on the spot. This is hard and you shouldn’t make it a requirement for players to win, because this makes it work for them and breaks the magic of the game. It also puts non-players on the spot. I’ve never really seen it work. (Indirect recruitment might work though, imagine handing a flyer to a non-player indicating where he can sign up if interested.)
  26. 26. This was something we really struggled with in Koppelkiek, a game involving taking photos of yourself with others. We didn’t really solve it but we did move the mechanic away from asking strangers to getting friends involved. What we could’ve done better was to have the game improve as more people are involved. We could have created an incentive for other players to recruit in downtime.
  27. 27. systemic awareness When it comes to increasing systemic awareness, as a maker of applied games I see roughly two strategies: 1) make the game run on top of a real-world system 2) simulate parts of a real-world system
  28. 28. Smokescreen simulates the web to tell a story and teach skills related to online privacy and security that transfer into the real world. Games need to be separate, they need to be ‘safe environments’. You wouldn’t feel safe playing Smokescreen if it was part of the real world.
  29. 29. World Without Oil asks “what if?” and crowdsources possible solutions to future scenarios. So this is a game that produces useful byproducts, even though the play itself can be completely frivolous.
  30. 30. ludic fallacy But of course you can never simulate the real world entirely, or even a part of it fully. This is what Nicolas Taleb calls the ludic fallacy: to think we can make statements about reality based on models. Maybe so, but skills and attitudes can transfer into the real world, and this is what games can do expertly, so that is what games should focus on, I think.
  31. 31. theme What’s cool about thinking in terms of 2nd order effects is that you can do something that is thematically completely separate from the ‘purpose’ of the game. In CYW we had kids run around with flags and stuff, it was an imaginary, quite abstract board game-like challenge. But the skills required were ones that would transfer into the real world, skills around collaboration and coordination.
  32. 32. Chromaroma Chromaroma - developed by my friends at Mudlark - is an example of a game that piggybacks on a real-world system (the Oyster card). It makes people more aware of this. It’s aimed at teens and meant to promote card use. It’s an example of data-driven play.
  33. 33. Tweenbots For more piggybacking: consider Tweenbots by Kacie Kinzer. It’s a robot traveling in a straight line with a destination on its flag. To get to its goal it needs help from passers-by. There’s some Truman effect here, but with enough of an escape.
  34. 34. The Hidden Park The Hidden Park adds a layer of fun to parks and allows people to make their own games. It’s one of those ‘people need to go outside more’ games. But it’s charming and I like the participatory aspect of it.
  35. 35. Harbour Laboratory And finally, and odd one out. Parfyme’s Harbor Lab in CPH is a simulation of sorts. But it runs on top of physical reality. They created a ‘temporary autonomous zone’ to playfully imagine new uses for the harbor.
  36. 36. it’s not about the nouns, it’s about the verbs A lot of this boils down to the following: When you think about what it is you want people to achieve, it’s tempting to think in terms of reward systems, giving people peanuts when they hit buttons. I’d argue that you should be thinking about coming up with interesting things to do (meaningful choices). Put differently, it’s about giving people tools, and setting goals for them, and making it interesting by introducing inefficiencies.
  37. 37. frequent flyers Take Foursquare as an example. Does it contribute to the social system it is a part of? You could argue so. You can leave tips for people for instance, but there’s no reward system for this. There is a favorite venues thing, and that is indirectly driven by the check-ins reward system. However, checking in takes no skill, it is not a meaningful choice and so as a game it is rather dull, it’s like making Mario jump without any Koopas to evade. It’s like a fruitmachine.
  38. 38. badges Ian Bogost wrote an interesting post about this the other day and he goes into some detail about the really interesting part of Foursquare. The challenging part is getting the badges. Because the rules behind them are opaque and so it is something you can explore and experiment with. They also serve as social status indicators and potentially even serve as service value enhancers. Getting a free beer in the pub you’re mayor of.
  39. 39. verbs So to reiterate: When it comes to making people more aware of urban systems, of having them contribute to them via games… Think in terms of interesting activities first. The improving and the adding to real-world systems should be thought of as second order effects. Also consider skills and attitudes as useful results. Remember games themselves are useless! Mind the thin line between fun and inappropriateness. And if done right…
  40. 40. …you might actually transmute an urban space from mundane lead into playful gold, like this guy - Hennig Brand - thought he did in Hamburg in 1669.
  41. 41. …you might actually transmute an urban space from mundane lead into playful gold, like this guy - Hennig Brand - thought he did in Hamburg in 1669.
  42. 42. thanks! questions? …you might actually transmute an urban space from mundane lead into playful gold, like this guy - Hennig Brand - thought he did in Hamburg in 1669.