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The Transformers at dConstruct 2011

Over two weeks have passed since dConstruct 2011 so it’s high time I post my talk.

I felt a bit apprehensive about this one: dConstruct tends to have a pretty heterogeneous audience, so it’s hard to know what kind of talk to shoot for. In addition, I was slightly worried about how people would react to my comments on the UK riots, being an “outsider” myself.

However, I get the sense people appreciated my attempt to connect design (game design in particular) to current issues, which is gratifying. I guess I should’ve just trusted Andy Budd’s judgement when he okayed my abstract. Him and the rest of the folks at Clearleft did an outstanding job putting this on and I am glad to have been part of it.

So below are some of my slides and notes. This isn’t a verbatim account of what I said that day, but rather a kind of hypertext remix. It’s become a bit of a long read, but I do hope it’s worth it. Enjoy, and do get in touch if you have any comments, questions and so on.

Update, October 6, 2011: a video of this talk is now up on vzaar.


I started with an introduction on how I was planning to talk about reuse of old buildings, and how neighborhoods as a whole benefit from this. I had been planning to make this talk a continuation of, and an elaboration on, this earlier post. In addition, I would have included ideas on how new tools are allowing us to shape our surrounding in increasingly dramatic ways. Enrico Dini’s D-Shape is a great example of this.

But then, I said, the recent UK riots made me change plans. I felt it would be a bit too frivolous to sing the praises of gentrification, since at least a few areas that serve as popular examples of the phenomenon (such as London’s Hackney) were hit pretty badly. So instead, I decided to talk about the dark side of gentrification.

Riots in Tottenham


As a start, I described the wonderful, weird place known as Baarle-Nassau in the Netherlands and Baarle-Hertog in Belgium. It’s a town with some of the craziest borders you’ve ever seen. Over twenty Belgian exclaves in Dutch territory make up Baarle-Hertog. An additional number of Dutch exclaves are embedded in those Begian ones again. This complicated mess emerged from a series of medieval treaties, agreements, land-swaps and sales between the Lords of Breda and the Dukes of Brabant. (If you really want to know, head over to Wikipedia.)

The borders of Baarle

The situation on the ground is seriously odd. (So odd, in fact, that it’s a regular subject of light news entertainment.) Borders are marked with special tiles throughout the town. There are buildings right on top of these borders, which means you can enter a home from Dutch territory and leave it into Belgium (and vice-versa). It gets stranger even, with homes that have their entrance on a border leading to two addresses, and stories about mixed-territory restaurants having to ask diners to move from the Dutch to the Belgian part of their establishments when Dutch closing time had passed.

Tiles marking a border in Baarle

Baarle is a bit similar to the cities of Beszél and Ul Qoma, as described in China Miéville’s excellent The City & the City. Like Baarle, they are two cities that take up the same geographic area. But Miéville goes one step further and includes the idea of “crosshatched” areas. That is to say: areas that are considered to be in both cities, but have different names and occupants are thought to be in one place or the other. This is because the residents of the book’s two cities are trained from birth to “unsee” the residents and buildings of the other city. So if an inhabitant of Beszél comes across someone who is in Ul Qoma in a crosshatched square, they are required to ignore each other. If they don’t, it’s considered a gross transgression, and a shadowy organization known as ‘Breach’ steps in to disappear the offending individuals. In practice this rarely happens as residents are thoroughly conditioned to pick up on the subtle differences in behavior of others, as well as the distinctions between the two cities’ architecture.

Miéville’s book is clearly inspired by places like Baarle, but also what happened in the Balkans and Berlin. The Berlin wall serves as a particularly disconcerting example sine the borders were closed overnight, separating people from their jobs and families. An insane situation if you think about it. But what makes The City & the City so disconcerting is that it goes beyond the idea of physical separation leading to social separation. The social separation in Beszél and Ul Qoma happens without physical boundaries and (to a large extent) through mutual choice.

The Berlin wall

And so you would think stuff like this is the purview of weird fiction, the stuff writers like Miéville excel at. But in fact, it’s very close to my experience of life in neighborhoods around the world. As an example I’ll quote from an anecdote shared by James Meek at the London Review of Books blog, which is a description of an incident at Broadway Market in Hackney, London.

“As Ghaith [a friend of the author from Iraq] and I walked down the street a disturbance began. A group of about thirty young black kids were moving together, looking anxious and excited. Some had makeshift weapons in their hands, poles and lengths of broken-off wood. After a moment, between a gap in the shops that looked through to the base of a tower block, we saw the reason for their anxiety – two tiny figures on bikes, dressed in black, hooded and masked. As we watched, one of the figures reached into the pocket of his hoodie and lifted – just enough to show – a hand gun, spreading panic among the larger group.

The trouble subsided as quickly as it began and the participants dispersed before the police arrived. Throughout the episode, a young, casually dressed, thoughtful-looking white couple sat at a table outside a wine bar, watching and sipping white wine. The neck of the bottle leaned, misted with condensation, from the rim of an ice bucket on the table. The couple didn’t look concerned that the gang confrontation or turf battle, whatever it was, would affect them; the feuding kids didn’t seem to see them, either.”

Not alone is this an example of how surreal life in gentrified areas can get, it is also of voluntary self-separation. I think this kind of behavior can give rise to tensions and if driven to extreme forms leads to terrible things such as the UK riots.

Broadway Market


A flash crash of civil society

Now I was shocked and saddened to see the riots happen. Of course, I experienced none of it first-hand but did get a sense of its impact on local communities through some of my London friends on Twitter. As the events unfolded, I felt compelled to dig deeper, to try and understand some of what might have caused the riots. However, the purpose of this talk is not to provide a definitive explanation of the riots. I won’t presume I can. But what I did find has lead to some insights. Insights that, in turn, give rise to some important questions. (If I had to recommend one post on how to view the riots it would be this one.)

For instance, I came across this quote, from a Londoner who was asked wether rioting is the correct way to express your discontent. The person responded:

“You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?”

Which exemplifies the shortcomings of mainstream media of providing certain groups within society with a voice. It can also be read as an attempt by these groups to hack the attention economy of the overlapping media landscape. A kind of gaming of the system.

Of course, civil disobedience isn’t anything new. Rioting is of all times. A favorite example of mine are the Provos, a Dutch counter-cultural movement that made things uncomfortable for the authorities in the mid-sixties. They’re mostly known for their nonviolent “ludic actions”. For instance, they would go out on the streets with blank banners, banners with nothing written on them. And still, they’d get arrested. This way, they highlighted the oppressive regime they were living under, at the time.

Provos with white banners

So although there’s nothing curious about rioting, what is new is the scale at which it can be ‘organized’ on short notice. This, of course, is enabled by the new tools we have at our disposal, things like Twitter, and BBM. (More on the role of social software in the riots in this Ars Technica piece.) In addition, contemporary western society seems to have become significantly more volatile. I’m confident this can be attributed, at least in part, by the incredible amount of positive feedback loops present in our media landscape. Messages get passed around indiscriminately and each referral amplifies the chance of an idea (however harebrained) spreading further.

And so similar to what black box trading algorithms did to the stock market (the May 6th, 2010 flash-crash on Wall Street, an occurrence popularized in design circles by Kevin Slavin) these new tools and the mediascape have done for society, leading my friend and collaborator Alper to label the UK riots a “flash crash of civil society”.

Now I’m not suggesting the tools are the problem. After all, they can be used for good as much as for evil, as exemplified by the #riotcleanup hashtag people rallied around to clean their neighborhoods right after the trouble started. I don’t think we need less use of these tools. In fact I think we need more use of them, but also a different use.

And so the big question that all this leads to for me, is how can we make society more resilient? How can we use these new digital tools to do so?

Testbeds & meeting places

I think what made the riots so unsettling is that they highlighted the fragmented nature of the neighborhoods in which they took place. Looters weren’t just acting unlawfully but also, apparently against what is considered socially reasonable. Who would loot in their own neighborhood? But for all intents and purposes, parts of these neighborhoods were in separate cities, like Beszél and Ul Qoma, or Baarle. This is the result of the rules people choose to live by. The willful self-separation. I wonder what might happen if we make these rules more tangible. What if before the riots took place it was already clear that in terms of the rules people live by, these neighborhoods were in different cities?

Since all of this is about rules, and games are made up of them, I think we can use games to make a difference.

One way games can create change is through a practice Ian Bogost has dubbed ‘procedural rhetoric’. We can make persuasive statements in the shape of simulations or rule-based representations (games, in other words). Bogost calls the cognitive friction players experience when confronted with a subjective simulation of reality, that differs from their perception of the world, ‘simulation fever’. It is by working through this fever that people might adjust their view of things. The fact that games are about rules makes them well-suited for dealing with complex systemic issues, like the social ones I’ve been discussing so far.

For example (and this is taken from an excellent article on procedural rhetoric by Bogost in the book The Ecology of Games) Animal Crossing can be experienced as a critique of consumerist society. You know, you start the game and are immediately in debt to Tom Nook (whom I’ve come to despise, and I’m not the only one). So you need to work to pay off your mortgage but you’re constantly tempted to buy stuff to fill your house with. The game is a pretty accurate depiction of (an aspect of) how many of us lead our lives. What’s nice is, you can also decide to step out of this rat race in the game and just be idle and do nonproductive stuff and experience the bliss of this. So it’s not all bad. That’s what makes it a good procedural critique. You get to play with the rules.

Animal Crossing

In a similar way, we can make games about how we currently live together and about how we could live together all at once.

The popular approach to affecting people’s behavior is to incentivize it with tangible or artificial rewards. This is not intended to be a definitive critique of gamification. Others have done this in a most excellent manner. Suffice to say gamification focuses on rewards, and disregards rules. By offering rewards for reciprocity, it suggests there is no intrinsic value in it. This is a problematic thing to do.

I’d rather see us use games as testbeds for new ideas. A favorite example of mine is Parfyme’s Harbor Laboratory. An art project that took place in Copenhagen in 2008. Parfyme created a playground where people could come in and experiment with alternative uses of the harbor. So this can be thought of as an open-ended game. Within a game like that you can try new things and see what sticks. These things can subsequently be applied outside of the game.

Harbor Laboratory by Parfyme

Social self-separation acts as a filter bubble. I’m no stranger to the comfortable feeling of being surrounded by like-minded individuals. But we need new perspectives too. So I’m proposing we can counteract this filter bubble with games that let you experience alternative views. On the one hand, games can model such new perspectives.

On the other hand, a game can be a place where you run into people with alternative views. Sure, the video game scene can tend towards monoculture, but other kind of games, folk games for instance, are great at bringing people from diverse backgrounds together. For instance, playing chess in the park. But I am now also thinking of my experience playing Johann Sebastian Joust and new games during the DiGRA 2011 conference. Games like this work because they condition social discourse through rules. But they are malleable as well, so they can be adapted by play communities and are thus more accessible than your typical video game.

Chess in the park

Johann Sebastian Joust


So there’s a potential to use games to achieve greater social resilience. But to get there I think we need to adhere to a few principals. Together they form the contours of what I’m aiming for.

First of all, and this has been brilliantly discussed by Tom Armitage in a recent blog post at Kill Screen, such a game shouldn’t be apart from everyday life, but should fit into it. We should be able to make it part of our routine. The mixed-up-with-everyday-life part of pervasive urban games has always been what I find most exciting.

But, and this is a big but, the current form of urban games prevents them from being played at scale. They are typically event-based, limited to specific times and locations and can only handle a small number of people. They tend to be costly to organize, if calculated on a per-player basis.

I mentioned Visible Cities by Holly Gramazio and Kevan Davis (which I discussed before) as a great game about unseeing that is played in public space. It lets you experience the weirdness of this behavior in an exaggerated manner. I think that’s a powerful idea. But as I said, it won’t reach a large number of people due to its form. This is not a critique of the game, I know the designers deliberately chose this form and aren’t as interested in reaching large numbers of players as I am. But still.

Visible Cities

For a game’s rules to spread far and wide they need to be meme-like. I’m thinking of something like BookCrossing. Granted, it’s not a game, but it is a ruleset that spreads easily and as it spreads gives rise to (in this case) a bottom-up global library. Or games that border on social practices like Mafia / Werewolf. Those are also simple enough rulesets, freely available, that have spread like wildfire in certain communities.

Meme-like rules need to require little to no central authority. Games like this need to be self-governing, in the manner of family board games. Similarly, BarCamps are self-spreading rulesets that when put into action are (to a large extent) community-governed.

Of course, for a game like this to spread as described and do all these things it needs to be digital, it needs to live on the network, be discoverable, shareable, etc.

An idea

When I was building this talk an idea emerged of a kind of game that might do the things I am talking about. So I thought it would be worthwhile to put it out there, to see if there’s anything in it.

To explain it, I first need to talk about Nomic. This is a game where a move consists of suggesting a new rule for the game. Players vote on suggested rules and when accepted a new rule immediately becomes part of the game. This way, Nomic is a simplification, an abstraction of legal systems. In particular of their self-amending principal, because the rules governing the introduction of new rules are themselves subject to change. So it’s a ruleset in constant flux.


I sometimes think that nowadays, we’re all engaged in our own private game of Nomic. That is to say, we continuously reconsider the rules we chose to live by (at least some of them) in the hopes of improving our existence. Of course, there’s rules external to ourselves which we are subject to as well. Rules governed by law, the government, cultural conventions. But it seems that the influence of these large institutions has waned and the space they’ve left now has to be taken up by self-selected individual rules. And we’re still kind of figuring out how to live well together in such a situation.

But if code is law, as Lawrence Lessig has argued, then there is an opportunity to take this intangible, massively parallel game of Nomic and codify it, using social software.

Perhaps we can create a game to negotiate these individual rulesets. A game where the tacit rules of individuals and groups are made explicit. The incentive for players to participate is actual power, a stake in the total rulespace. This game might function as a sandbox for new rules, that we’d collectively like to live by outside of the game. And in doing so, it might become a platform for a more resilient mode of coexistence.

I’m not saying this will prevent riots, but it might. It is my hope that with these new shared rulesplaces we might start to reintegrate the fragmented nature of our most vibrant neighborhoods. My intention is not to iron out the seams that make them interesting, but to create new interconnections between the islands that they are now made up of, using the transformative capacities of games.

Update, September 21, 2011: in addition to the quote I lifted from him, Alper Çuğun made significant contributions to this talk, which I neglected to mention at time of publishing.

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  1. Posted September 20, 2011 at 20:24 | Permalink

    Kars – a beautiful argument beautifully made.

    It reminded me of Paul Romer’s “Theory of History, With Applications“, his argument being that human innovation consists of (a) technologies and (b) social rule sets, and that the time has come to shift invention to the latter part, pointing to Hongkong and the Chinese Special Economic Zones as successful examples for such “social rule innovation” sandboxes.

    It also reminded me of the highly underappreciated book “Models and Mirrors” by anthropologist Don Handelman. He distinguishes two types of rituals: those that (re)present/mirror (i.e. show reality as it is or should be), and those that perform/model (i.e. take participants through a transformative experience resulting in a different reality). Ian’s procedural rhetorics are somewhere in-between, though leaning to the mirror events, your idea leans to the modeling events.

    There is one potential point of debate, though: Making the implicit explicit, hard-coding rules that before were open to ambiguity, interpretation and renegotiation on the spot profoundly changes the nature of the interaction thus governed, and not necessarily for the better. (Along those lines, David Weinberger ones spoke in defense of the web’s “tacit governance“.)

  2. alper
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 22:07 | Permalink

    @Sebastian: That list would not be complete without the Berkman Center’s definition of Networked Publics which I most recently heard from danah boyd at I think the last Hyperpublic event:

    Networked publics are publics that are restructured by networked technologies. As such they are simultaneously: 1. the space constructed through networked technologies and 2. the imagined community that emerges as a result of the intersection of people, technology and practice.

    It indeed shows that there has been a lot of thinking around this subject already. It may be time that game designers shine their light on how society’s rules can be retranscribed. That knowledge may be a welcome addition to how society works. I know a lot of people from society’s margins are already —out of necessity— experts at gaming systems however fragmentary their understanding of them.

  3. Kars
    Posted September 21, 2011 at 09:51 | Permalink

    Sebastian, Alper, thanks for the thoughts and resources. I’ve got my work cut out for me, it seems.

    Let me start by saying I am not 100% sure it’s a good idea to transcribe the tacit rules people live by. And I am sensitive to the distinction between mirroring and modeling. You know I am incredibly interested in the creative and transformative potential of games and so I am not very interested in spoon-feeding a worldview baked into a software simulation. The idea I closed the talk with is half-formed, perhaps too much so. But the assumption behind it is that there is a need to play with the social rules we live by. And that by doing so mutual understanding and respect can be increased and suffering like that which we saw with the riots could be prevented or at least reduced.

    When it comes to technological versus social innovation, I guess I am more focused on the latter than a lot of designers, But I wouldn’t separate them completely. After all, ultimately, design is about making, and for this, technology is a material. The social innovation goes hand-in-hand with the tech.

    Doug Wilson tweeted, in response to my use of Joust as an example: “…for me it’s not game as metaphor, but game as performance.” I guess what I like about the game is that it puts technology at play and much of the rule making happens outside of the domain of hardware and software.

    But as Alper points out, with the rise of networked publics, that distinction isn’t as tidy as it used to be. When I play Joust I am not just dealing with the rules enacted by the local play group, but also those that I have gleaned from videos and blog posts and tweets online. The networked performance of those rules, so to speak.