Hubbub has gone into hibernation.

Public Game Installations & Player Engagement

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking at Dutch E-Culture Days in Helsinki. An event organized by Virtueel Platform, it took place at the World Design Capital Pavilion and lasted two days. On the first, several Dutch transmedia projects were presented. My favorite was filmmaker Floris Kaayk’s Human Birdwings project, an elaborate media hoax about the dream of human flight. The second day was all about cities and social technologies. Alper discussed his work at Hack the Government – app contests and the promises and pitfalls of open data – and Michiel talked about recent workshops done by The Mobile City in Amsterdam and Moscow aimed at improving the sense of ownership of public space.

I was asked to talk about PLAY Pilots, a project that is now two years old – which feels like ages ago. The organizers asked me to use it as a lens for talking about how to design for audience engagement. It was nice to get an opportunity to reflect on this work now that I have some more distance from it. I think it all holds up pretty well. Certainly, the choices we made did not all work out for the best, although others did. In any case, I thought it would be good to write up what I talked about, for the benefit of other game installation makers, and the people who commission them. (If you prefer watching the actual talk, a video is available.)

Having introduced Hubbub as well as the project – read the project writeup for a general introduction – I went through each live game. I talked about how each plays and also, how it was connected to the website. The aim was to show that the game creators used very different approaches to inviting people to play, social play dynamics and what I’ve come to call records of play.

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The PLAY Pilots live games

Invitation to Play

How do players approach a game installation? Or to put the question differently: How does a game installation approach players? These are two sides of the same coin.

Wip ’n’ Kip was shaped as a carnival attraction. The creators were there to actively sell the game to the audience and encourage them to step up and play. During play sessions they would encourage players and spur on the crowd. This game installation grabbed players by the throat. A highly effective approach, given the festive atmosphere at the event – left field electronic music festival Stekkerfest – made feasible by its short duration.

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MC Karel encouraging a Wip ‘n’ Kip player

In contrast, De Stereoscoop had to run for a decidedly longer period of time – more than a week. It was set up at the Netherlands Film Festival pavilion and was accessible to all passersby. The installation had an idle mode – similar to arcade video games. It would at times run a short video that explained the machine’s workings. Other than that, it would just randomly play clips. This, coupled with the legible physical interface – turn tables that actually spun – it tempted people to give it a go.

Finally, Bandjesland ran for two days but at an indoor music festival – the wonderful Le Guess Who?. Its out-of-the-way location in the venue forced the creators to come up with yet another approach. They wouldn’t be able to stand next to the game and ask people to play, or have it subtly present itself to passersby. In stead, they made finding the game part of the fun by scattering clues pointing towards it throughout the venue, piquing curiosity.

So game duration and physical placement are factors that affect how a game installation can invite people to play. In addition, how a game approaches potential players is one element that can be used to give it a certain character – from enthusiastic and inviting to restrained and mysterious.

Social Play

When it comes to engagement – once players have started playing – I find it is useful to think about what type of social play a game installation engenders. Let’s look at each PLAY Pilots live game again to see how they’ve done this.

Wip ’n’ Kip was all about spectacle. To play meant engaging in this intensely physical act while at the same time looking slightly ridiculous. Players were put on a stage. Races, which saw three players competing, thankfully did not last long. Meanwhile the audience laughed, encouraged contestants and applauded winners.

De Stereoscoop allowed for one or two people to play at the same time. The result of their actions – the scratched and mixed clips from films – was easily seen by audience from further off. In a sense, players were VJ-ing. The rewards – more about those in the next section – incentivized exploration: Players were encouraged to keep looking for interesting juxtapositions. This was a much more laid-back and contemplative experience.

And finally, Bandjesland’s experience was very communal and chaotic. Players could just drop in whenever they felt like it. Each night consisted of essentially an hours-long play session, with contributions from numerous people. You could just stand around the installation for a while, watch other people play and whenever you felt like it join in.

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Collaborative play in Bandjesland

So social play is about thinking in terms of the communal experience. The relationship between those playing and those watching the players – the audience. Each of the PLAY Pilots game installations resulted in a kind of performance, but very different ones.

Records of Play

The last thing I discussed dealt with what happens after play. In terms of engagement, it is interesting to think about how people’s relationship with a game installation can be prolonged once it is no longer physically present. In PLAY Pilots we developed a website in parallel with the live games. Each game was connected to the website in a different way.

Players of Wip ’n’ Kip received a ticket with a unique code after their race. They could use this to claim their race time on our website, as well as see a slow motion video of a portion of the race, recorded with a high speed video camera. The idea here was that to have participated in this game installation was something players would enjoy bragging about online. So we gave them some bits they could easily link to and go “look what I did”.

De Stereoscoop looked for interesting combinations made by players and printed out tickets, once again with unique codes. These allowed players to claim badges – a combination of two love scenes would yield the ‘Romantic’ badge for instance. They could also see what films they had used to get this badge, in case players were curious about the film and hadn’t recognized it. So this was much more a case of enabling players to keep a record of their play actions, with decidedly less personal data being captured.

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Claiming Stereoscoop badges on the website

The creators of Bandjesland took a different approach. Handing out codes for each contribution made no sense in the jovial, drop-in-whenever-you-like atmosphere of the game. There were no clear end points to individual play sessions. Furthermore, Bandjesland was much more about the collective outcome. So the music produced by all the players was recorded, as well as the sounds in the room. These were mixed and put on SoundCloud as big live recordings. The samples individual players recorded to contribute to the continuing composition were also all stored, timestamped and put online. Players could look up their samples, download them and also see where in the live recording the samples appeared.

So when it comes to records of play, you should think about whose contribution you’re saving – a group result or an individual result. It’s also worth thinking about in what way a player will be able to recover their records. Nowadays, codes of various kinds are still the easiest mechanism for unambiguous retrieval. Perhaps at some point, RFIDs will replace these. But in many cases, it is just as easy for a player to find their stuff in a list based on some easily remembered metadata. And so, often you can spare yourself the hassle of generating and distributing these codes which also prevents them from breaking up the play experience. Also and finally, think of your records of play as social objects, things players might like to share with friends, and enable them to do so. At the very least, make these records easily linkable.

Something I have not gone into here but that might also be a concern for you, is that in some cases players might not want their play actions to be stored. Privacy concerns like these should be taken into account on a case by case basis. In our case, these game installations were all part of public events, so there is a shared expectation that whatever one does is public and might be shared.

And to Conclude

So those are my thoughts on designing for audience engagement when making game installations. In a way a lot of this is about thinking beyond the act of play itself and zooming out to think about how people enter into a game, what role the audience has and what happens once players leave. The “next larger context”, so to speak. Something that ultimately is always a good thing to do in design, no matter what you’re making.

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Happy PLAY Pilots players

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