A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of doing an open lecture at CIID; the Copenhagen Institute for Interaction Design. Below you’ll find a selection of the slides I used, plus a rough transcript of what I said.1
Not included is arguably the most fun part of the afternoon, which was a playtest of an audience game I’ve been designing. I’ll devote a separate post to that once I get the video footage of the session sorted.
Many thanks to Alie Rose for making this happen and to all who attended and participated. I thoroughly enjoyed it and hope you did too.
About a game
I figured it’s easiest to start with an example. Here’s a video of a game we did last year for the European youth year which took place in Rotterdam.
So how it worked was these kids were all starting movements. They competed for territory by planting flags. They could then campaign for their movement at these places. They were scored based on the number of followers they got. And the winner got cash and coaching to make their movement a reality.
The game was designed to have them experience the value of collaboration first hand. It was also used as visual indicator of what was going on in the city during that year. And it transformed an area of Rotterdam, which is usually almost exclusively used for shopping, into a political arena, sucking in pedestrians and redefining the relationship between young people and adults.
Hyperlocal game design
So I’d like to talk to you today about what I find some of the most exciting stuff to work on at the moment, which is this idea of hyperlocal game design.
“In the end, the design of technology […] must let us actively practice at something, however humble. Taking part in locale is one such activity.”
—Malcolm McCullough, Digital Ground
That kind of departs from the above quote from Malcolm McCullough’s book Digital Ground, where he argues that technology, urban computing if you will, should facilitate people’s participation in place-making.
Because, to some extent, many urban spaces have become just that, space, without any history, layering, local-ness to them. They could be anywhere. And so McCullough argues for designers to be sensitive to place and deploy technology in a way that is appropriate to it.
And I think that to a large extent what has been going on with games in cities, often at least, is that they don’t really relate to the specifics of the location2 and I think that is a shame. Because I think games can be tools to ‘re-place space’, if you will.
So maybe, another example of a game we did will help to clarify the point I’m trying to make. We did a game called Koppelkiek in a troubled neighborhood of my hometown Utrecht, called Hoograven. It was commissioned by a design event which looked at the function design can have for society.
We were kind of inspired by this idea of Jane Jacobs about the charms of city life being the many interactions with strangers. Which kind of runs against much of the contemporary thinking about integration issues, which basically says we should al become BFFs, so to speak.
So we came up with a game that would gently encourage casual interactions in the neighborhood through a very light-weight ruleset that would run pervasively over a period of three weeks. The basic idea was: you take photos of yourself with others in various situations for points.
You would upload these photos to a website for points and get bonus points for completing collections. We set up shop in the neighborhood, assisting players and exhibiting all the photos in the windows of a shop that was about to be demolished. (Part of the area was being redeveloped during.) In doing so we hoped to create a physical feedback loop, and to increase the chances of people encountering the game spontaneously.
And we came up with assignments that were place specific, although there were also many generic ones. Here’s a collection of photos for the front door assignment, for instance.
In any case what was interesting was that people were relieved about something happening in their neighborhood that wasn’t about the problems there. But in stead was just something different from the stuff that was usually going on (which wasn’t much).
So I think of this game as a way to kind of amp up the diversity of uses of the streets. Again, inspired by Jane Jacobs and her thoughts about the emergent, complex order of city life. I think there’s a real role for urban games there. And it is one that is at the core of why I started Hubbub. I don’t want to see streets be used just for shopping and commuting. There’s more to life than just this.
It’s also, for me, interesting to think about how you can use games to achieve local effects. Not by forcing them onto people by submitting them to arbitrary rules and telling them it’s a game. That’s bad design. There can be a loose coupling between a game and its second order effects. As I discussed before with Change Your World, which is mostly about skills and attitudes.
But another aspect of a game like Change Your World, and many other event-based games, is an effect similar to what is common practice in the world of culture jamming, which is this idea of the temporary autonomous zone. We’re in Copenhagen, Christiania is a wonderful – albeit permanent – example of this. But carnivals and block parties all to some extent fit in this category.
This effect comes about through a mutual agreement on rules. Actions and interactions in the city get new meanings. When speaking of this dynamic, game designers use the term magic circle. In a similar manner, Frank Lantz of Area/Code has said “games are stylized systems of social interaction.”
Take boxing for example. Within the artificial reality of the boxing ring, punching someone in the face gets you points. Doing the same outside of the magic circle of boxing, on the street, would likely get you jailed. I can’t put it more bluntly than this.
And there’s this really interesting dynamic between passersby not in the know and game players. It is part of the fun. In the excellent Playmakers documentary you see a geocacher who really enjoys doing something out of the ordinary that no-one notices. This reminds me of the hobo code and warchalking. It is a very effective pattern.
Whereas other players, like those engaged in a game of capture the flag (or The Soho Project, from which this image is taken) enjoy the fact that people are startled by their odd behavior. This is play as performance and when artfully done can make a game in a spectacle that is as enjoyable to watch as it is to play.
There’s many aspects to game design. When you ad place specificity to the mix it becomes even more challenging than it already is. You need to immerse yourself in the environment. We set up a temporary studio in a vacant shop when we were doing Koppelkiek. We sought out community leaders to have them be ambassadors for our game. We ran playtest in situ. Etc.
And we walked the area many times to get a sense for its formal properties. To get a sense of the systems and the processes that were already there. This we did before we even started designing the game. We’ve been very inspired by the vocabulary developed by Kevin Lynch for this. It provides you with a much more fine-grained view of how a city is experienced, at least visually, in terms of wayfinding. It has you look at cities at a higher resolution.
But of course, with computing becoming such a huge influence on city life. Lynch’s stuff isn’t enough. The challenge, as Adam Greenfield has rightly pointed out, is that a lot of the computational layers of the city are opaque. We need new tools to map those.
And just as a side note, when it comes to a literacy of urban computing, I think there’s real opportunities for the application of urban games there. We can make games that make people more aware, of aware in a different way of the technologies embedded in the urban fabric. As for instance Chromaroma does, by using the London Oyster card as its input, and visualizes your trips as you score points by traveling.
And finally, to bring this back to architecture and city planning, what I find very exciting is that urban games pose real challenges to those disciplines in the sense that they demand them to kind of plan for the unexpected.3 Or at least allow for enough space, looseness for play to happen.
Which is commonly known as adaptive design; allowing people to re-appropriate their devices, environments, etc. And you know what? Game designers could really offer some help there, because like cities, their rulesets need to allow for play, they can’t be too tight (no choice, you’re railroaded), or too loose (confusion, no meaningful choices). So I guess, ultimately, the effect I hope we can achieve with these kinds of games is enhancing the autonomy of the urbanite.