Hubbub has gone into hibernation.

Slides and notes for ‘Limits of the Imaginable’ – a lecture on the future of applied game design

Last week I found myself in the gorgeous surroundings of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences (KNAW) to talk about my views on the future of applied game design at an expert meeting organized by the Netherlands Study Centre for Technology Trends (STT). I was one of four speakers, the others being David Shaffer, Jeroen van Mastrigt (HKU) and Jeroen Elfferich (Ex Machina). The lectures focused on various domains: education, society and technology, respectively. My focus was design. Below you’ll find a selection of slides and my notes for the talk.1 If you’re dealing with foresight, design fiction, applied games, architecture or biology, I hope you’ll find it useful or at least thought-provoking.2

Hello, my name is Kars. I am the founder and principal designer at Hubbub, a studio that investigates ways of affecting society and culture using games in public space. Thank you Jacco for inviting me here. So I was asked to talk about design. These kinds of presentations often start with a definition of design. I wont’t do that. Instead I’ll start with an example:

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

This is Roy Neary (played by Richard Dreyfus) in the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. You are all familiar with this film, I assume? What Roy does in the film, building this mound without knowing up front what it is or what it means: designers to this all the time. They engage in thinking through making.

Lyddle End 2050

These are images from the Lyddle End 2050 project, instigated by Russell Davies. He invited people all over the world to imagine the future by modifying model railway stuff. The idea is that making models is a kind of time travel. It’s also interesting to see how it’s kind of a collection of individual imaginings that gel because of the few small constraints. Russell calls this way of working ‘speculative modeling’.


So anyway, design deals with the future all the time. It shares this with science fiction. Where the two overlap, people often talk about design fiction. This is when one uses the techniques of design to create believable potential futures or to suggest alternative presents. One person who is quite active in this field is the science fiction author turned design critic Bruce Sterling. In a recent article, he writes that we are experiencing “a massive cybernetic hemorrhage in ways of knowing the world”. We have so many ways of examining reality, that this has lead to a collapse of our value systems. Old ways of determining what is worthwhile have gone out the window.

He also describes how design and science fiction as a result have become unable to effectively imagine any future. This is the problem I find myself confronted with. But I’m not the only one. Famous sci-fi author and contemporary of Sterling, William Gibson, has stopped writing science fiction. The same goes for Kim Stanley Robinson, whose recent book is on Galileo Galilei. In an interview he says:

“If the world is a science fiction novel then what do you read? What can the literature do for you?” What indeed.

The way to deal with this, as Sterling writes in the aforementioned article, is to map the edges of what we currently find imaginable. To get a sense of the contours of that gap. And subsequently to plug it. The way to plug this hole is through action. Through pragmatism. I think that is the only viable stance. In this time, when we (or at least I) have been kind of totally gobsmacked by current events, “peak everything” as John Thackara likes to call it. The way to move ahead is by doing, by constant self-improvement, through ‘practice’ as German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk calls it. In fact, I think the “gaming mindset” that Jane McGonigal talks about is similar to this stance. So we as game designers might need to become more like our players. Fearlessly venturing into the unknown, thinking through action, constantly self-improving.

But anyway, back to the gap. What might the contours of that gap be? I would like to look at two areas where I feel like I am running up against true unknowns. One is the urbanist, dealing with the cities more and more of us humans find ourselves living in. The other is biological, dealing with the living, the myriad species we share this planet with, all the way down to the smallest ones, like bacteria. And the building blocks of life. At the end, I hope you’ll come to share my vision, which is that we need a new kind of game design, one that is much more relational and environmental, to deal with these unknowns.


So cities. Let’s start by agreeing that humans are becoming an urban species. More and more people find themselves living in cities. Over 50% of the globe’s population. We’ve kind of invented cities to augment our abilities, as these kind of engines of culture. Cities work (or used to work anyway) because it allowed all these different kinds of people, all with their own specialities, to live in close proximity to each other. They enable rapid exchange of ideas. They increase serendipity, which is this driving force behind invention. No wonder designers love busy urban centers.

Cities are becoming the new states, they are leading the way, in stead of the nations they are part of. In developing countries people move into the city in the hopes of finding a better life. Developing cities put a tremendous pressure on the environment, this we all know. Old ways of building cities don’t work anymore at the current scale. Old cities need hacking and fixing. At the same time, they’re our best bet of surviving into the future. Matt Jones wrote a design fiction piece about this with the wonderful title ‘The City Is A Battlesuit For Surviving The Future‘.


But it’s not just about the good old cities in the western world. It gets weirder when you look to the developing world. We really do not know what life is like in those cities, what makes them work. Let alone what game design for those urbanites looks like. Take the city of Shenzhen, for instance. Wholly owned by manufacturer Foxconn. It was dubbed iPod City because it manufactures Apple parts. More than 14 million people live there. Life is governed by “a schizoid mix of global capitalism and hardline communism”.3 Can you imagine these people playing Xbox Knect? I can’t.

But what will they play? And, as applied game designers, what issues can we address? If we want to invent for such a culture, we’d first need to get to know it. I myself have worked on applied urban games in the past for underprivileged areas of Dutch cities. We focused on creating games that increase social cohesion, renew people’s sense of agency in the hopes of rekindling citizenship, but really, those are all issues relevant to Western contemporary cities. If iPod City is the future of cities, I want to know what the social issues are there, and start designing for those.

Science fiction author J.G. Ballard predicted Shenzhen, to an extent. In his novel Super-Cannes he describes an elite worker’s paradise called Eden-Olympia. It’s a closed society where everything is perfectly arranged. The protagonist enters this paradise and discovers an underworld where people engage in heinous acts. The thing is, the residents welcome this underworld, and are even encouraged to engage in it by resident psychiatrists as a stress release. To escape from the boredom and social restraint that governs their everyday life. I don’t know. But maybe applied game design can do for Shenzhen what this underworld does for Eden-Olympia? Offer a release valve?4

Sketch of person on bed dreaming of nothing

When I was preparing this talk I thought I would leave it at that. But this being a talk about design I felt obliged to at least make a small attempt at envisioning what such a game might be. So on the way here, in the train, I did some quick sketches. The first, as you can see, is me trying to figure out what a person in a Shenzhen-like future city might be dreaming of. Again I honestly do not know. The only way to figure out is to go to such cities and explore what life there is like.

A sketch of pickpocket the game

The second was inspired by some quick research I did on social games popular in China. It turns out many of the games on Chinese social networking sites are clones of the ones we know from Facebook and such. Like Farmville. There’s one important difference though: many of these games are much less ‘friendly’ and feature competitive, even nasty elements. In the Chinese equivalent of Farmville, you can steal stuff from other players homes, or leave pests in their yards… So I was thinking back to Ballard’s Eden-Olympian underground, and was wondering if a pervasive game that would catch on in Shenzhen might involve pickpocketing? Anyway.


A playtest at a pig farm

Lets move on from cities to biology. Maybe it’s best to start by telling you about a project I am involved with, which I have codenamed Buta.5 Project Buta is about exploring the potential of games for interaction between humans and domestic pig. You could call it a critical design project, where we are attempting to come up with designs that are feasible on the one hand, and on the other hand embody the many ethical standpoints one finds in the meat industry: those of farmers, consumers, citizens, animal rights activists etc. What happens to people’s perception of pigs if they play with them and discover (like I did) that they are at least as intelligent as your pet dog?

Two exampled of projects by Natalie Jeremijenko

So trans-species interaction. That’s a truly brave new world, something I can only see the contours of. Natalie Jeremijenko is a designer who is very active in this space. She talks about re-scripting the ways we relate to our environment, including the living species we co-inhabit it with.6 Many of her works are very playful. Like this tadpole walker, or this rig that one can use to communicate with fish. Compared to humans, animals are a wholly unexplored terrain of playmates.

E.chromi and Scatalog

Or consider the field of synthetic biology, which looks at biology as a material for design. Every year, at the iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machines) Jamboree, teams of students compete in the creation of new living systems. On of last year’s entries was an e.coli bacteria that can secrete one of seven colors. It was dubbed E.chromi. Designers who were part of this team proposed a thing called Scatalog: cheap, personalized disease monitoring using this new bacteria. You eat the bacteria, they colonize your intestines and color your feces if a disease is detected…

Computational Wood

Can you imagine using living materials as a platform for your game? The mind boggles. OK, one more. This is design fiction, but let’s be honest, if we can get bacteria to make pretty colors, why can’t we make trees grow conductive layers so that they can become a platform for computation? This is Computational Wood, a project by Matt Cottam. Imagine trees that can act as computers. As they grow, they might become more powerful machines. Machines that could be used for play and games.

Sketches for a game of food poisoning

So, again, some sketches. Future games might be created around synthetic substances. Maybe you can play a game of food poisoning. You sneak a game substance into your friend’s food without him noticing. Next day he wakes up with a green tongue. You win.

Sketch of a football match between humans and dogs

I have a sneaking suspicion the only reason we haven’t seen soccer matches between humans and dogs is because the dogs will surely win.

In summary…

A shot from Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Let’s summarize the points I’ve been trying to make. To start, designers deal with the unknowable all the time. They explore the unknowable through making. But myself, and many designers and futurists alike are having issues with getting a clear picture of what lies ahead. It seems as if there are uncharted limits to our current-day imagination. I have tried to show you two domains where I myself have run into these limits, where I have to throw up my hands and say: “I don’t know”. In the hopes that we can start moving beyond those borders. Not by talking, but by making. What’s our Devils Tower?

The first domain is: the future of cities. We are an urban species, and if we want to arm ourselves for future life we’d better learn to live well in cities. But the future city looks nothing like the one we know now. It’s probably something like Shenzhen. What does life look like in there? What kinds of play can we imagine in that space? It’s partly a new technological frontier, partly a social one.

The second is: the realm of the living. Biology is becoming a material for design. This includes game design. Can you imagine a game that runs on bacteria? Or that you play with your backyard fox? Just like we need to learn to live well in cities. We need to learn to live well with the other species inhabiting this planet. Play is a universal, trans-species language. Future applied game design will need to deal with the biological as much as with the technological. The line between both will surely blur.

So those are some of the limits of the imaginable, as I see them. I hope you feel an urge to plug the hole in our imagination of this future as much as I do. And I would suggest we do this through action. The main challenge I see with all this is nicely summed up by a quote from the architect Eliel Saarinen:

“Always design a thing by considering its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”

A frame from the film Powers of Ten

It reminds me of the Ray and Charles Eames film Powers of Ten. In other words, we need to become better at understanding the effects anything we make has on its surrounding context. We might need new tools for this, or new ways of looking at things. It might be that the games we make are a way to see these second-order effects.

The future of applied game design, in other words, is a future where design has become very much a relational, and environmental discipline. But perhaps it already is.

  1. The slides without notes are also up on SlideShare. []
  2. A video of the talk is now up on Vimeo. []
  3. For a fascinating account of Shenzhen, see ‘The ballet of iPod City‘. []
  4. For a view on Ballard’s significance for video game design, have a look at the article ‘Ragdoll Metaphysics: JG Ballard, Boredom, And The Violent Promise Of Videogames‘ by Jim Rossignol. []
  5. I am working on this at the Utrecht School of the Arts’ Design for Playful Impact research program. []
  6. For a good introduction to Jeremijenko’s work, check out this TED talk. []
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  1. Posted November 4, 2010 at 09:15 | Permalink

    Interesting talk and a lot of interesting links.

    Some thoughts on what you said : “[…] having issues with getting a clear picture of what lies ahead […]” or when you’re thinking of possible games for a society like in Shenzen.

    Aren’t you placing the design proces in a certain corner? I like to believe you can use “design” to come up with ideas to shape the future (which inevitably requires one to take a stand), instead of trying to foresee the future (and thus believing it’s the result of anything but your design, but you can be successful by foreseeing it) or trying to manipulate the present (which is the result of different processes(?) and hence perhaps incompatible).

    In other words, I believe design is to be applied to shape the world as you think it should be. Or as Buckminster Fuller put it “Call me trimtab”.

  2. Kars
    Posted November 4, 2010 at 13:33 | Permalink

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment Brecht. I feel I might have failed to properly express my hang-up with speculating about the future. I too believe design to an extent shapes the future. But the tricky thing is that what we think is possible is heavily influenced by the possible futures we are familiar with (from, for instance, science fiction). See for instance this piece (PDF) by Bell and Dourish. So it is useful to examine what our visions of the future are, and what gaps there might be in it. Because those blind spots at least partly shape what we will put into action today. Hope that clarifies things a little.

  3. Posted November 4, 2010 at 14:28 | Permalink

    In the 50s sci-fi promised us nuclear powered flying cars, instead we got the internet. Link’s not working, I’ll look for the file on the interweb,thanks!

  4. Kars
    Posted November 4, 2010 at 21:47 | Permalink

    Exactly. “Where’s my jetpack,” right? The link should work now. Made a little mistake.

  5. Posted July 5, 2011 at 03:38 | Permalink

    Yes I agree that the design is the influence of the future, but we are limited by what we can envision. We are limited by our lack of creative vision – no matter how create we may already be. For example, the ancient author of the Book Of Revelation (in the Christian holy book, The Bible) has to try to describe events and items in the future which he has clearly had a vision of, yet when he describes those things he can only refer to the items which exist in his present world. How can he describe things in the future when he doesn’t have a frame of reference which fits for those items?

    How do you describe an orange – what it looks like, what it tastes like – to an alien from another planet?

    Same concept. Also, a little of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle comes into play. By describing our vision of the future we have already begun to alter our present reality and begun to shape our path towards that future.

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