Hubbub has gone into hibernation.

Improving media literacy with games

On Friday 23 October I presented at an event on ‘social gaming’. It was organized by Waag Society‘s Creative Learning Lab and and took place in the wonderful Beeld & Geluid centre in Hilversum, which at the same time was host to the first edition of the GameXperience event.

Dutch cube by Eke Miedaner on Flickr

Below is a transcript of the talk (translated from Dutch) along with most of the slides. In short, it is an introduction of the Hubbub ‘philosophy’ and an explanation of how this relates to media literacy. I hope you find it of interest.

Hello, my name is Kars Alfrink. I am the founder of Hubbub, a new design studio. We create physical, social games for public space. We create games that take on meaningful problems, such as social issues.

By physical we mean that our games get you moving. We believe our cognition is deeply connected to the sensory perception of physical reality. We think it is valuable to reconnect people to the places they inhabit.

By social we mean that social dynamics, the way people interact with each other, are a material we work with. By definition, the meaning of games is socially constructed. We consciously design for this.

Change Your World photo by Alper Cugun

One example of our work is an urban game we created for Your World, in which players claimed territory in the centre of Rotterdam. They did this by planting flags on crossroads. Subsequently, they campaigned for their “movement” at these spots.

We think games are interesting because they are complex systems that run on people.1 For us, technology is a means, not a goal. Our medium is human behavior.2 With games we hope to increase the systems literacy of people.

Systems literacy and media wisdom are closely related to each other. The overlapping media landscape is a complex adaptive system. People shouldn’t passively inhabit it, but should be its active shapers.

The Lost logo

Lost is a television show about a group of people who after a plane crash are marooned on a mysterious tropical island. It is famous (or infamous) for its complex story lines as well as for the complex web of media that has emerged around the show.

A diagram by Dan Hill illustrating the complexity of Lost's media space

This is a diagram by Dan Hill that show the events occurring from the release of one Lost episode in the US to the release of that same episode in the UK. Official and unofficial media, blogs, wikis, forums, spoof websites and even a book on Amazon are platforms for Lost‘s sprawling story.3

The ouroboros

An episode of Lost illustrates on a small scale what I mean when I say that the overlapping media landscape has become a complex adaptive system. Although the behavior of the parts might be predictable to some extent, as a whole it certainly isn’t. These systems shape our behavior wether we’re aware of it or not. In turn, we shape these systems, ad infinitum.


Biologists call this process coevolution; when two species are dependent on each other for survival. Certain species of hummingbird for instance have bills that are shaped to fit the flowers they feed from, and pollinate as a result too.

How do we educate people about the coevolutionary process that exists between them and the media they use? How do we make them aware of the fact that they can, in their own small way, change it? We think you can do this by letting them explore the limits and possibilities of complex systems within a safe context. Or to put it simply: by letting them play.

A screenshot of Budget Ball's homepage

Let’s look at a few examples: Budget Ball is a game created by Area/Code, commissioned by the US government. It helps players to understand the effects of growing debt. In this way, one of the fundamental elements of the global credit crisis is made comprehensible.

This shows the unimportance of technology (Budget Ball is a physical sport). It also beautifully illustrates the fact that the actions players perform in a game can be completely unrelated to the message the game is supposed to convey. (There is no thematic relationship between a ball game and the credit crisis, right?)

A screenshot of StarLogo

Mitch Resnick’s StarLogo is a tool with which children can build and simulate complex systems. For example, how traffic jams emerge. It’s kind of like Sim City, but with the hood open.

StarLogo utilizes praxis, experimental learning, or as I like to call it: thinking by doing. We feel that the separation between practical skills and theoretical knowledge is an artificial one. To deal with complex systems, reflection in action is required.

A screenshot of the Smokescreen homepage

Smokescreen is a game by Six to Start for Channel 4. The goal is to teach youth about the importance of online privacy and security. On the world wide web they solve puzzles. Their progress is rewarded with bits of story.

The topic of Smokescreen is a sensitive one. But because this is a game, players can experiment within a safe context and gain insight into the effects their actions may have.

Dalmatian Dog by Richard Gregory

Our brains are excellent pattern matching machines. They adjust to new patterns and when confronted with chaos, they start looking for order. Systems are nothing but patterns that unfold over time.4

Nicholas Roerich's set design for the first act set for The Rite of Spring

To explain, take Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. For its time, this piece was unconventional to say the least. As a result, its initial reception was poor. People hated it. Only later, when their brains had adjusted to the music’s new patterns, was the piece properly valued.

In the same manner I hope that with physical, social games, we can make people more capable of ‘reading’ complex systems, and ‘writing’ them. Thank you.

  1. This is an expression I’ve heard Kevin Slavin of Area/Code use, and I think it is spot on. []
  2. This is an assertion Robert Fabricant of Frog Design made in his presentation at the IxDA‘s Interaction ’09 conference. []
  3. While preparing this talk, I was introduced to this wonderful diagram by Matt Jones through his presentation at Design by Fire ’09. []
  4. The image is by Richard Gregory and is titled Dalmatian Dog. During the preparation of this talk I was introduced to this example and the next one thanks to James Box and Cenydd Bowles’ presentation at Design by Fire ’09. []
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