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Hack days as ludic practice

It was at DiGRA that I first heard Eric Zimmerman talk about the idea of this being a ludic age. We’re in the period that follows the information age, which we’ve more or less left behind. In the ludic age, says Zimmerman, “information itself is put at play”.1

What does that mean? It can’t just be that it means we’ll get more games, and more kinds of games. That can be part of it, but there must be more to it.

I think hackatons are part of this idea of information put at play. A short while ago, I attended what was probably the most ambitious open data hack day of the Netherlands thus far.2 Code Camping Amsterdam was host to almost 200 designers, technologists and civil servants who spent a day building useful or otherwise interesting hacks with newly opened up government data.3

Together with Chris Eidhof, I messed with a neat collection of old colonial maps. We made an attempt at unorthodox, playful displays of the maps, highlighting their visual richness. But we were thwarted by some less-than-optimal metadata. We did finish a prototype though, which shows a treemap of all the maps per half century.4

The opening screen of the app, showing a treemap

The opening screen of the app, showing a treemap

Although we did not manage to pull off a gorgeous Bloom-like data toy, or a playful tool for understanding like the ones Bret Victor has been writing about, I still feel us hacking away at maps is an example of activity in the ludic age.

For starters, we spent a Saturday, for fun, attempting to make something that presents a government data resource in an interesting way to the general public. That is not an information age activity, we weren’t doing this for profit, we weren’t even doing it as part of some kind of civil action, we were doing it for the fun of it.

Our means of arriving at the app were playful. We weren’t working according to some industry-standard methodology. We were flying by the seat of our pants. I would never work like that in a regular Hubbub project.5

Chris Eidhof and myself at Code Camping Amsterdam

Chris Eidhof and myself at Code Camping Amsterdam. Photo by Jean-Pierre Jans.

Finally, this was a collaboration, but between two people who had never made anything together before. For something like that to work, for Chris and myself to work well together, I think we had to arrive at something very much akin to Bernie DeKoven‘s well-played game. We were hacking together because we both wanted to. We were playing (hacking) hard, taking it very seriously, while at the same time aware of the not-seriousness of it all. We could fail, it would be OK. And we were mindful of each other’s agendas. Of what each of us wanted out of the game (that hack day).

So on many levels, even if the product ultimately isn’t incredibly playful, just a humble iPad app (with some very pretty maps) our means of arriving at it were a fine example of ludic practice in the post-digital age.

  1. Here’s a video of Eric’s talk at DiGRA and this is a profile video about some of the same ideas. []
  2. It was organised by Hack de Overheid (“Hack the Government”) of which Hubbub CTO Alper is a board member. []
  3. If you read Dutch, this is a neat article about the event published in Parool. []
  4. Chris wrote a post about his experience too. And here’s a post in Dutch about the app at the Open Cultuur Data blog. []
  5. There are moments in a design process where you more or less do, of course, that’s part of invention, but there’s equal parts structure, normally. []
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