New Games for New Cities at FutureEverything

Last week I was in Man­ches­ter for FutureEv­ery­thing. I pre­sented on games and how they can be used to improve city life. Below are my notes and a selec­tion of slides. It’s longish, but hope­fully infor­ma­tive. I’ve tried to con­nect crit­i­cism of gam­i­fi­ca­tion with the virtues of open-ended play, and show how the lat­ter can build skills that are use­ful for good urban liv­ing. Thanks to Greg, Kevin and Drew for hav­ing me and for orga­niz­ing such a won­der­ful con­fer­ence. I enjoyed my stay in Man­ches­ter, the patch­work of indus­trial her­itage and thor­oughly mod­ern archi­tec­ture pro­vided me with some inter­est­ing scenery for walk­ing the city. Any­way, read on for the talk.

Think back to your child­hood. What did you play with? My mom is a preschool teacher. So when­ever I was bored we were given clay, wax crayons or card­board. Later on I got heaps and heaps of LEGOs. And I drew a lot. Lots of play for me and my brother and sis­ter con­sisted of cre­ative play.

My friends how­ever, they had He-Man… and Trans­form­ers and later on M.A.S.K. Remem­ber M.A.S.K.? I was so jeal­ous of them. I always wanted to have those. I some­times went over to play with them. And it was fun, no doubt. But at the end of a play ses­sion like that, we wouldn’t have made much. Per­haps we would have told a few sto­ries. But they tended to be oddly sim­i­lar to the car­toons these toys are based on.

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The cray­olas and the He-Man toys rep­re­sent two very dif­fer­ent types of tools for play. One is about open-ended play, and the other is about pre-scripted play. One is cre­ative, pro­duc­tive or even trans­for­ma­tive. The other is con­sump­tive, con­fir­ma­tive or even pre­scrip­tive. It is my opin­ion that what the world needs right now is for us to play more with the for­mer – the cray­olas – and less with the lat­ter – the image-focused toys. Because the types of skills we develop as we play with the crayola-like toys of today, are the types of skills we can use to address some of the issues we’re faced with in con­tem­po­rary and near-future cities.

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Put dif­fer­ently, one kind of play is about the actions you engage in. The other is focused on the thing. It’s the dif­fer­ence between this adven­ture play­ground, where kids have built their own cas­tle, and the play­ground on the right, where kids are pro­vided with one. You can see the for­mer requires very dif­fer­ent skills from the latter.

Let’s talk a bit more about those skills, shall we? It turns out open-ended imag­i­na­tive play builds a set of skills col­lec­tively known as exec­u­tive func­tion.1 I use the term “skill” loosely here, it’s actu­ally a con­cept “used by psy­chol­o­gists and neu­ro­sci­en­tists to describe a loosely defined col­lec­tion of brain­processes that are respon­si­ble for plan­ning, cog­ni­tive flex­i­bil­ity, abstract think­ing, rule acqui­si­tion, ini­ti­at­ing appro­pri­ate actions and inhibit­ing inap­pro­pri­ate actions, and select­ing rel­e­vant sen­sory infor­ma­tion.”2 An impor­tant part of exec­u­tive func­tion is self-regulation. Self-regulation is what chil­dren develop when at social, imag­i­na­tive, unplanned unsu­per­vised play. Sim­ple things like a game of hide and seek, per­haps with some socially nego­ti­ated rules thrown in.

When no-one is telling you what to do…

So open-ended play builds self-regulatory capac­ity in kids. But that capac­ity car­ries on into adult­hood. It’s this capac­ity you use to over­come obsta­cles, to mas­ter cog­ni­tive and social skills and to man­age your emo­tions. It’s the stuff that kicks in when no-one is telling you what to do. Vital stuff in today’s atom­ized, hyper-individualized world. At least, if you want to live well, and want to live well with others.

The prob­lem is, fewer and fewer of children’s play­time is unsu­per­vised and unplanned. In fact it has been co-opted and com­mer­cial­ized to a large extent. This has been going on for decades. It started with things like this, Mattel’s toy gun called the Thun­der Burp. No longer did you need to build your own gun from twigs or tub­ing and use your imag­i­na­tion to fill in the rest…

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And this co-optation of children’s play by cor­po­rate inter­ests has taken on grotesque forms now, such as in this thing called KidZa­nia

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KidZa­nia is a the­mepark that offers chil­dren an “edu­ca­tional expe­ri­ence”. It’s a child-sized con­sumerist utopia where kids play at hav­ing var­i­ous jobs, such as flip­ping burg­ers or work­ing in a print shop. They earn Kid­Zos which they can deposit at a bank and use to pay for other activ­i­ties or phys­i­cal items. Most of the activ­i­ties are spon­sored by large cor­po­ra­tions – the parks would not be finan­cially fea­si­ble oth­er­wise. So the burg­ers activ­ity for instance, is spon­sored by a cer­tain fast-food chain fea­tur­ing golden arches. And here kids are “play­ing at” fill­ing a coke bottle.

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There are KidZa­nia parks across the world, in Mex­ico, Japan, Indone­sia, Korea, Por­tu­gal and Dubai. There’s a ton more being planned to open. Of course KidZa­nia mar­kets to par­ents, who, dri­ven by the urge to give their child the very best upbring­ing they can afford, can’t resist. As a result, chil­dren are brain­washed to be good con­sumers with cor­po­rate jobs. All in the name of “edu­ca­tion”. I’m not say­ing the par­ents are blame­less, and surely my per­sonal pol­i­tics are shin­ing through here, but I do believe this is a strik­ing exam­ple of how we have come to see play.3

Let’s return to the adven­ture playground

We see play as some­thing that enter­tains. Some­thing you con­sume. In any case, recall the impor­tance of exec­u­tive func­tion, of self-regulation, and how it is trained through open-ended play. Now think about the types of play chil­dren – and adults – are being pro­vided with. What we need is the oppo­site of what we are given. So let’s return to the adven­ture playground.

Now, we have sev­eral gen­er­a­tions who have grown up with less prac­tice at self-regulation. That includes myself and quite a lot of you out there today. At the same time, our world has got­ten more com­plex. Deal­ing with all this com­plex­ity actu­ally demands more self-regulatory capac­ity from us.

When I say com­plex I don’t just mean com­pli­cated. I mean we’re con­tin­u­ously deal­ing with sys­tems made up out of small parts inter­act­ing in var­i­ous ways. In aggre­gate we can­not pre­dict the out­comes of those inter­ac­tions. An exam­ple we can all relate to is the recent global credit cri­sis. It is tempt­ing to think it was the result of the shenani­gans of a few irre­spon­si­ble bankers. But in truth, it was the result of a hugely com­plex system’s fail­ing. Our actions as home own­ers have cer­tainly con­tributed to the ulti­mate cat­a­stro­phe. It’s hard though to see how our indi­vid­ual choices can lead up to such events.

It’s the but­ter­fly effect, a seem­ingly minor event lead­ing to sig­nif­i­cant out­comes. Like Edward Lorenz said: “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tor­nado in Texas?” I think we can all become bet­ter but­ter­flies, with more sense of how our actions con­tribute to the whole. This will not hap­pen through top-down con­trol. It requires self-directed work from all of us.

But with less self-regulatory capac­ity, we’re less able to moti­vate our­selves in the work we do, and the other activ­i­ties life con­fronts us with. And we got here, at least in part, thanks to the co-optation of open-ended play. What I find per­verse is that there are peo­ple who pro­pose to use the same planned, pre-scripted play to increase our ‘engage­ment’ with what­ever is the work at hand. It is now often called gam­i­fi­ca­tion. But it started with rel­a­tively benign stuff like these loy­alty cards. I think, if we go down this route, we’ll be in more trou­ble than we already are. In stead, we should be help­ing peo­ple develop those self-regulatory skills so they them­selves can trans­form what­ever con­text they are faced with.

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I have many issues with gam­i­fi­ca­tion. There have been plenty of solid retorts on many lev­els by lots of peo­ple smarter than me.45 But let me offer two points of my own: one, gam­i­fi­ca­tion forces peo­ple to play. And two: it indis­crim­i­nately slaps reward sys­tems on tasks both shal­low and deep. It risks hol­low­ing out intrin­si­cally reward­ing activities.

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My pal Karel here has a keen sense for this. When I gave him this Akoha card after treat­ing him to cof­fee and hav­ing a nice con­ver­sa­tion, he was far from charmed. In fact he was insulted. This photo was taken shortly before he tore up the card, pre­vent­ing me from cash­ing in my points. In his view, hav­ing a cup of cof­fee with a friend is worth the trou­ble in and of itself. I shouldn’t need a game to go through the trou­ble. And you know what? He’s right.

It’s also the case that whereas true play is always engaged in vol­un­tar­ily, many gam­i­fi­ca­tion designs leave you with no choice. You are con­fronted with a sys­tem you must use for util­i­tar­ian rea­sons, and now you are asked to jump through addi­tional hoops so that you will be more “engaged”. You do not play a gam­i­fied sys­tem, this sys­tem is play­ing you. It starts with sim­ple things like the vir­tual plants on the right of this Ford Fusion Hybrid’s dashboard…

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…and it ends with at least mildly wor­ry­ing things like My Coke Rewards, which incen­tivizes the con­sump­tion of Coca-Cola.

In addi­tion, mak­ing good games is hard. Con­sider the many mediocre games on the mar­ket. Here’s a few of them listed on Meta­critic. Do you really want your bank­ing sys­tem to be gam­i­fied by some well-meaning but bliss­fully igno­rant designer who has been asked to “just add points”?

Gam­i­fi­ca­tion won’t save us

So I’m sure it’s clear at this point that I do not believe gam­i­fi­ca­tion will save us. It adds points and badges to the sys­tems we suf­fer under every­day, with­out actu­ally fun­da­men­tally address­ing their nature. One thing I think we need to do is to take up that gaunt­let. And when it comes to games and the com­plex city life we live nowa­days, I think we should be focus­ing on the peo­ple in the city, in stead of the stuff. Because it is ulti­mately the behav­ior of the peo­ple that shapes the city, all the way to its built form. And games are excel­lent shapers of behavior.

The things that make life worth liv­ing in any city are non-scripted. Some call it city­magic. It is the joy that results from hav­ing such a high con­cen­tra­tion of peo­ple in one place, all going about their busi­ness each with their own hopes and desires. Good cities are those where cit­i­zens feel they have the agency to do this, and where they are not afraid of unfore­seen con­se­quences to their actions. It’s like Jane Jacobs said:

Cities have the capa­bil­ity of pro­vid­ing some­thing for every­body, only because, and only when, they are cre­ated by everybody.”

Now, the net­worked city makes this chal­leng­ing for us. Many if not all aspects of life are now struc­tured by infor­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy and much of that tech­nol­ogy is find­ing its way into the built envi­ron­ment. The trou­ble is, to the ordi­nary cit­i­zen the processes that are influ­enc­ing our lives so strongly are opaque, and often inscrutable. Like this CCTV cam­era, which is designed in such a way that you can­not tell wether it is aimed at you or not…

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One way to address this is to bring bet­ter design to those urban infor­mat­ics. This is a worth­while endeavor and I am glad super smart folks are engaged in it. My propo­si­tion though, is that games can con­tribute to the build­ing of the self-regulatory skills that cit­i­zens need to both bet­ter read and write the con­tem­po­rary city.

Lit­er­acy of the net­worked city

This lit­er­acy of the net­worked city is some­thing that resides in peo­ple, not things. And I think games and play are an excel­lent train­ing ground for this kind of lit­er­acy. I’ll give you an exam­ple in a minute, but before I do, remem­ber that what makes cities mag­i­cal is all those peo­ple you do not know. The serendip­i­tous encoun­ters and the great things they are up to. And that, to live well in the city, it is of the essence to give each other the much needed space to do this. To real­ize, in other words, that strangers are your friends, with­out them actu­ally hav­ing to be your friends.

Recently I par­tic­i­pated in my first all­ey­cat. They’re scavengerhunt-like races orga­nized by bicy­cle couri­ers and cycling enthu­si­asts. You typ­i­cally ride them on one of those fash­ion­able fix­ies. It was a lovely experience.

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Not only is it a great way to serendip­i­tously explore the city, but it’s also a lovely struc­ture for inter­ac­tion with strangers. I wasn’t too famil­iar with the city, so I tagged along with a few other rid­ers who had a nice pace. We roamed the streets like a pack of stray dogs and flu­idly weaved through traffic.

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Some of these guys really have superhero-like skills when it comes to wayfind­ing and read­ing traf­fic. It was men­tally expand­ing to wit­ness. After­wards we had a beer, a chat and then we went our sep­a­rate ways.

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The point is not that these games turn you into instant friends. In stead, the point is that you’re reminded that any fel­low cit­i­zen can be the occa­sional team mem­ber, some­one you hook up with to achieve some­thing, and that’s it. That’s an impor­tant real­iza­tion for any urban­ite to have.

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More inter­ac­tions with strangers: at one point dur­ing the race I rounded a cor­ner and there was a group of chil­dren at a tram stop cheer­ing us as we came past. For a moment I felt like Lance Arm­strong, and I am sure they were play­ing at what they had seen on TV. Smiles all around. So play­ing a game like this builds skills, and real­iza­tions, any urban­ite needs to bet­ter deal with strangers.

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The ques­tion is, what the all­ey­cat of trans­mo­bil­ity looks like. How do we race each other when we’re using our Boris Bikes and our Oys­ter cards to hop from modal­ity to modal­ity? Per­haps it’s Chro­maroma, per­haps it’s some­thing else, but in any case, we need these games and we need our sys­tems to accom­mo­date them.

When the now still ana­logue wayfind­ing sys­tem in the tube is replaced by a piece of urban infor­mat­ics, I want it to still allow for this kind of stuff. Because it’s these lit­tle things that make our cities such won­der­ful places to live in.

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It’s the age-old dilemma of city plan­ners; plan­ning for the unex­pected. Antic­i­pat­ing, for instance, what this free run­ner is doing with these street lights, is next to impos­si­ble. Attempt­ing to plan for it is almost para­dox­i­cal. But it’s vital. Because in addi­tion to build­ing use­ful skills for urban liv­ing, self-initiated play like this, the things peo­ple get up to with­out top­down insti­ga­tion, is what keeps the city vibrant and alive.

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I vis­ited Berlin a while ago, and dur­ing a night of tour­ing the city’s bars and clubs, we came across a pub­lic toi­let that had been con­verted, guerilla style, into a music venue. Seri­ously. In one cor­ner there was a band mak­ing a ton of noise. Here’s a small clip taken that night… There was a guy in the other cor­ner sell­ing beers for next to noth­ing. We were asked to make a small dona­tion for the band. It was won­der­fully grass­roots and strange.

Bring more of life into games

So these games I’m talk­ing about make life more inter­est­ing and build use­ful skills that exer­cise your capac­i­ties as an urban­ite to the fullest of your poten­tial. Life doesn’t need to be made more like a game, we don’t need a game layer. We don’t need to be put through an adult-sized KidZa­nia. In stead, we need to bring more of life into games. And each game we play can be a prayer or a med­i­ta­tion for a bet­ter world.6

Put peo­ple before stuff

My time is almost up so let me make a few final requests. To those of you who shape urban pol­icy and deal with the deploy­ment of urban infor­mat­ics: please put peo­ple first in your work, trust in their capac­ity to do won­der­ful things and enable them to do so. To those in the busi­ness of mak­ing games, put peo­ple first too, and try to see that games can be so much more than mere enter­tain­ment media ready for mind­less consumption.

And to all of you, the play­ers, when you get back from this con­fer­ence, or bet­ter yet when you go out onto the streets of Man­ches­ter tonight: Play a lit­tle. It’s good for you. And it’s good for your city.

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  1. “Old-Fashioned Play Builds Seri­ous Skills”, NPR []
  2. “Exec­u­tive func­tions”, Wikipedia []
  3. “State of Play”, The Morn­ing News []
  4. “Can’t play, won’t play”, Mar­garet Robert­son []
  5. “Exploita­tion­ware”, Ian Bogost []
  6. “Spis­sify Da Gam­ify”, David Calvo []
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