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Occupy the future at Playful 2011

After making the many different creative industries out there take games seriously (and subsequently sort of regretting the consequences) Playful was back this year and decided to look towards the future. Ever since I presented there in 2008 this has probably been my favorite event of the year. So I returned after a much-regretted hiatus to attend Playful 2011 – the shape of things to come.

Longing for a Death Star

Conference director Toby Barnes kicked off the day bemoaning the fact that there was still no Death Star floating somewhere in space. He longed for a return of ambitious future thinking as opposed to the more mundane, close-to-home, near future foresight that seems to be in vogue. The “where’s my jetpack” argument, basically. But Toby qualified this further by adding he was longing for more folk wanting to make “a dent in the universe” because, as was implied, that is what these times call for.

Escaping the prison of imagination

He was later scolded by Marcus Brown, being accused of living in the “middle aged future” a neat term he coined to describe the fact that current innovations are shaped by the ideas imprinted on our collective unconscious by science fiction of the 70s and 80s, best exemplified by the uncanny resemblance of Siri to HAL-9000.

What I found most fascinating about Brown’s talk, but sadly had to be rushed due to time constraints, were three far-future worlds he sketched and subsequently challenged the audience to imagine living in. “The Billion Dollar Show”, for instance, is a world post peak-oil, where we have to make do without any fossil fuels. It’s not a distopia, but something akin to a real-life FarmVille.

Science fiction, as Al Robertson pointed out earlier in the day, has constructive playfulness at its core. What I think Marcus Brown was attempting to do was get us thinking beyond what we know, and force our minds into the unknown, and to get playfully creative with the possibilities. To break out of the future scenarios we know from the sci-fi that have aged and – let’s face it – haven’t aged well.

Making things that dent

However, there is something in Toby Barnes’s call for “making a dent”, but I think it needs to be coupled with Marcus Brown’s demand to break out of the “prison for kids with too much imagination”. And in fact, during the day, some of the talks I enjoyed the most were great examples of constructive playfulness attempting to make a dent – however small – in culture.

Brendan Dawes sung the praises of devices such as the MakerBot, and emphasized the need for each of us to have a “shed” in which to experiment and tinker (even if the thing you call a hacker space is actually just the back room). The fact that this can lead to interesting new products is exemplified by Popa, “a big red button for your iPhone camera”. Which arguably would not be possible without the futurey technologies at our disposal today, such as desktop fabrication.

Both Chris O’Shea and Toca Boca called for more open-ended play in iPhone games for kids – something which I think can be directly traced to Playful’s evangelism over the past years. Chris shared work-in-progress on a digital race car toy, which included experiments with physical iPhone cases that kids could build themselves. Toca Boca impressed us with a large number of digital toys for imaginative play produced in under a year, with my personal favorite being Toca Hair Salon. Who doesn’t want to groom a lion?

Finally, Matthew Ward amazed me with Green=Boom, an installation allowing you to experience the thrill of disarming a bomb, something we’ve seen a zillion times in action movies but have probably never done ourselves. The bomb in this case is a balloon which is popped if you cut the wrong wire. It’s amazing to see how our bodies respond to a seemingly harmless setup like this with high levels of distress. Apparently decades of seeing others go through the ordeal on the silver screen has conditioned us in a big way.

To summarize, what I took away from Playful is that making things is still the best way to complain, wether it’s consumer electronics’s shift to touchscreens, the competitive nature of entertainment software for kids, or the consumption of violent imagery in mainstream media, the future we find ourselves living in today enables individuals to make real, tangible interventions with very little time and means required. Consumer culture has become a playground for makers.

Update, October 24, 2011: added section headers and a few more links.

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