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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