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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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