The Strange Things People Play’ at the Hide&Seek Weekender Conference

Here’s the blog post ver­sion of what I talked about at Playing in Public, the Hide&Seek Weekender Conference. It’s titled The Strange Things People Play, which was an oblique ref­er­ence to this pas­sage from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

I know that astro­logy isn’t a sci­ence,” said Gail. “Of course it isn’t. It’s just an arbit­rary set of rules like chess or ten­nis or—what’s that strange thing you British play?” “Er, cricket? Self-loathing?” “Parliamentary demo­cracy. The rules just kind of got there. They don’t make any kind of sense except in terms of them­selves. But when you start to exer­cise those rules, all sorts of pro­cesses start to hap­pen and you start to find out all sorts of stuff about people. In astro­logy the rules hap­pen to be about stars and plan­ets, but they could be about ducks and drakes for all the dif­fer­ence it would make. It’s just a way of think­ing about a prob­lem which lets the shape of that prob­lem begin to emerge. The more rules, the tinier the rules, the more arbit­rary they are, the bet­ter. It’s like throw­ing a hand­ful of fine graph­ite dust on a piece of paper to see where the hid­den indent­a­tions are. It lets you see the words that were writ­ten on the piece of paper above it that’s now been taken away and hid­den. The graphite’s not import­ant. It’s just the means of reveal­ing their indent­a­tions. So you see, astrology’s noth­ing to do with astro­nomy. It’s just to do with people think­ing about people.

I enjoyed that when read­ing it the first time because it’s such a sharp obser­va­tion of how games func­tion on one level: as a way of zoom­ing on cer­tain aspects of human beha­vior. As a model for how games can con­trib­ute to social change, it isn’t half bad.

But that wasn’t what I really talked about. The con­fer­ence was the cul­min­a­tion of three days of people play­ing all kinds of games at the Southbank Centre. We had the pleas­ure of run­ning Ceremony of Surprise as part of this. The con­fer­ence focused on what’s next for play in pub­lic space. I decided to mash up some of the ideas I had come across recently, about legib­il­ity and the weird­ness of objects for instance, and see where it would take me.

I start out briefly respond­ing to some of the recent debates about how it’s wrong to defend games as an art form on the basis of their use­ful­ness. I then go on to sug­gest it’s import­ant we keep devel­op­ing new pub­lic games, and that weird­ness might be a use­ful cri­terion for find­ing nas­cent forms of pub­lic play.

In defense of usefulness

I keep get­ting drawn into the seem­ing dicho­tomy that exists between applied games, and for lack of a bet­ter word, use­less games: enter­tain­ment games, art games, etc. What fol­lows is yet another attempt to alle­vi­ate my anxi­et­ies about the topic. And in doing so, hope­fully point towards some new aven­ues of explor­a­tion for future pub­lic games.

Recently, in some circles, there have been argu­ments made against the urge to defend games on the basis of their “use­ful­ness”. It is said that other cul­tural forms, such as music and visual art aren’t respec­ted for their use­ful­ness. They’re valid forms of expres­sion and that’s enough. The same should apply to games. I agree.

But then the argu­ment is often con­tin­ued with the sug­ges­tion that by attempt­ing to use games for what I’ll call external pur­poses, the cul­tural form of games is “cheapened”. And that’s the point where I begin to feel uneasy. Understandably so, because my whole prac­tice is based on the premise that we can make games that work towards solv­ing social issues.

Now I totally get that many applied games, or game-like applic­a­tions are in fact noth­ing more than an attempt to util­ize play for other ends. I’m not so cool with this myself. I’d like to think that the games Hubbub makes, and other applied game design­ers that I admire, are respect­ful of the medium. They can be played as games first and also have cer­tain kinds of second order effects that are of value to soci­ety in vari­ous ways. And I think that’s great. And I don’t think that cheapens games.

As an aside, I would like to add that, as someone with a back­ground in design, I am actu­ally puzzled by this idea that the use of a cul­tural form for other ends by defin­i­tion cheapens it. Is a doc­u­ment­ary film with an agenda a cheapen­ing of cinema? Does graphic design, this poster designed by Wim Crouwel for instance, cheapen visual art?

Strange things people play hide and seek weekender conference 2012 007

Another way I’d like to think about this is inspired by Alain de Botton’s won­der­ful book The Architecture of Happiness, in which he con­vin­cingly describes how the esthet­ics of archi­tec­ture, the non-useful stuff, bey­ond provid­ing shel­ter, is what we use to remind ourselves of the val­ues we hold highest. The built envir­on­ment reminds us of how we’d like to lead our lives. What we deem beau­ti­ful is closely related to our vis­ions of happiness.

The same can apply to urban games. Urban games can be remind­ers of the ways we’d like to live. In par­tic­u­lar, the ways in which we’d like to live together. I can ref­er­ence no bet­ter example than the work of Bernie DeKoven, and the New Games move­ment as a whole.

Games should get weird

With that out of the way, let’s turn our atten­tion to pub­lic play. The ques­tion is where game design for pub­lic places might be headed in the future. Or per­haps, where should it be headed? I’ll try to argue that our games will get weird.

I mean weird in a sim­ilar sense to weird fic­tion. You know, the kind of stuff H.P. Lovecraft used to write at the begin­ning of the pre­vi­ous cen­tury. Intellectuals haphaz­ardly stum­bling across hid­den secrets of the cos­mos and going stark rav­ing mad in the pro­cess.1

This, I think is an inter­est­ing model for how we deal with the future. We under­stand new stuff in terms of the old. The new is only made part of soci­ety when it allows itself to be domest­ic­ated in this way. Everything else is kept at bay. If we stumble across these undo­mestic­ated future things without the meta­phors to under­stand them, the exper­i­ence is quite unpleas­ant and we quickly with­draw.2

What’s also inter­est­ing about H.P. Lovecraft’s work is that it pred­ates com­mer­cial genre fic­tion: hor­ror and sci­ence fic­tion and fantasy. It was kind of an undo­mestic­ated, wild form of storytelling. At some point, parts of it were adop­ted by the main­stream, neatly parceled out into genre. In the pro­cess much of its head spin­ning potency was lost, but it gained in use­ful­ness to insti­tu­tions, in this case book sellers.

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In search of new forms of play

I think this notion of the weird can be used by design­ers of pub­lic play as a way to grasp and grope towards inter­est­ing new forms.

For one, I say this because what was once a wild and undo­mestic­ated, avant garde form, the urban per­vas­ive game, has to a large extent been tamed. We’ve more or less figured them out. And also, the spaces we’ve cre­ated them for have figured them out. Our cit­ies have figured them out. The ludi­fic­a­tion of cul­ture can also be seen as a domest­ic­a­tion of play.

This has made our games more use­ful for insti­tu­tions, who prefer their cul­tural forms to be legible. The gambling industry is a won­der­ful and per­haps dis­turb­ing example of play har­nessed by the state. But as machines for under­stand­ing our future cit­ies, they have become less useful.

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The future of our cit­ies is weird. And the meta­phors we have so far used to under­stand our cit­ies do not suf­fice when it comes to these new cit­ies. New mega­cit­ies like Shenzhen and other places in Asia, Africa and Latin America are noth­ing like the Manhattan or the European cit­ies that served as ref­er­ence points for Jane Jacobs and company.

Schizophrenic Shenzhen

Longhua Science & Technology Park is Foxconn’s facil­ity in Shenzhen. It is a cit­adel within a mega­lo­polis of 14 mil­lion inhab­it­ants. The facil­ity has 420.000 employ­ees, most of whom live in com­pany owned dorm­it­or­ies. They travel to the facil­ity on cor­por­ate busses. The streets, build­ings and infra­struc­ture are all com­pany owned.3

David Kousemaker reports from another part of Shenzhen. He describes people recyc­ling old mobile phones and build­ing new ones from the parts they painstak­ingly sal­vage. In a massive mar­ket, small shops each spe­cial­ize in a few tasks. Together, these people assemble weird mutant off­spring of the high tech gad­gets that most of us really only under­stand as shiny boxes you talk into and poke at. The rela­tion­ships these Shenzhen inhab­it­ants as well as the Foxconn employ­ees have with this tech is com­pletely alien to us.

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Life here is noth­ing like in our Western cit­ies. It is char­ac­ter­ized by “a schiz­oid mix of global cap­it­al­ism and hard­line Communism.“4 Jane Jacobs’s Manhattanist meta­phors simply don’t apply anymore.


That’s import­ant because pub­lic games are often a form of meta­phor­ism. That is to say, they invite us to under­stand an essen­tially unknow­able thing, a city, in terms of some­thing else. But when cit­ies have rad­ic­ally changed, then we need new meta­phors to under­stand them.5

Another aside: this why Matt Jones’s post The City Is A Battlesuit For Surviving The Future is so inter­est­ing. Because it pro­poses a new meta­phor. Granted, a rather mil­it­ar­istic one, but non­ethe­less, a new one. It would be an inter­est­ing exer­cise to design games that allow you to explore the city-as-battlesuit metaphor.

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It’s kind of com­plic­ated because the issue isn’t so much with Jacobs’s stance that cit­ies are com­plex, emer­gent forms and as such they thrive when they are densely inter­con­nec­ted. And this whole idea that high-modernist plan­ning tech­niques, attempts to make the city tidier, more legible from the top-down actu­ally make a city less resi­li­ent, more brittle. This idea still holds.

But the fact is, the way cit­ies are com­ing into being, or develop bey­ond the point of Jacobs’s Manhattanist optimal state, is noth­ing like her beloved Greenwich Village, or my homet­own Utrecht, which I so dearly love for its enorm­ous liv­ab­il­ity. Cities thrive on the edge of legib­il­ity. It’s a stand­ing wave. We can’t expect them to stay the way they are.6

So to restate my pre­vi­ous point, the Manhattanist meta­phors we’ve used for our cit­ies do not apply to the new ones. But it’s the new ones we’ll find ourselves liv­ing in, and we’ll find ourselves design­ing for. We need new games for these new cit­ies, that pro­pose new meta­phors. The ques­tion is, how to get to these new forms. And that’s where the weird comes in.

The hunt begins

My invit­a­tion is to start hunt­ing for wild undo­mestic­ated forms of play as inspir­a­tion for new weird games. I’ll give a few examples to kick things off.

When the stu­pefy­ingly large Shard is offi­cially unveiled, pro­fes­sional trouble­maker James Bridle plays a prank. It res­on­ates with us because it gives us a meta­phor for under­stand­ing this weird thing that should not be. It is also heart­en­ing to see one indi­vidual co opt a massive media event with noth­ing more than a simple placard.

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In Jakarta, where the occur­rence of total grid­lock seems immin­ent, urban inter­ven­tion­ists Irwan Ahmett and Tita Salina rally loc­als to jog with them along the poles of the failed mono­rail. It is a humor­ous deflec­tion of what is essen­tially very unset­tling evid­ence of a city strug­gling to stay functional.

Back home in the Netherlands, artist Sarah van Sonsbeeck high­lights the hert­zian spaces sur­round­ing us by mak­ing an object that fre­quently fig­ures in sci­ence fic­tion a real­ity: a faraday bag.

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Cyborg act­iv­ist Steve Mann is assaul­ted by McDonalds employ­ees in Paris because he won’t remove his sous­veil­lane array. Mann high­lights the peer dis­tri­bu­tion in our per­vas­ively sur­veilled soci­ety by instru­ment­ing his indi­vidual capa­cit­ies to do the same thing the state does all the time.

In Venice, Julian Charrière and Julius von Bismarck paint pigeons to make them appear more desir­able, in stead of the fly­ing rats they are usu­ally made out to be. The out­rage on the net high­lights our con­flic­ted rela­tion­ship with these anim­als: is it harm­ful to do this? Does it pre­vent them from evad­ing pred­at­ors or find­ing a mate for instance? Also, is it eth­ical to seek fame at the expense of these anim­als? And I won­der, how long before urban design pro­gresses to include urban lifeforms?

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Hojun Song is build­ing his own satel­lite and work­ing to get it shot into space. By doing this he shows what a private indi­vidual can now achieve with open inform­a­tion and ubi­quit­ous social networks.

Unfold, a design col­lect­ive from Belgium deployed Kiosk at the Milan Furniture Fair. It’s a mobile fab­ric­a­tion facil­ity that scans and prints con­sumer products. Their aim was to con­front product design­ers with the immin­ent demo­crat­iz­a­tion of fab­ric­a­tion tools.

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And finally from my own prac­tice: a game for pigs and humans. We reg­u­larly con­sume these anim­als, but hardly ever meet them in the flesh. This in itself is a res­ult of how we’ve sep­ar­ated rural and urban areas. In this pro­ject we’re try­ing to cre­ate a new recip­rocal under­stand­ing, through play. Might this lead to new pat­terns of behavior?

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In my eyes, these are all play­ful acts. And all of them are wild, undo­mestic­ated, illegible. The play­ers in these cases focus on vari­ous unset­tling things of city life.

They are weak sig­nals per­haps, but sig­nals non­ethe­less. They point to ways in which we can hunt for wild forms of play: start­ing from those mater­i­als, those objects, act­ors of vari­ous kinds and spaces, that unsettle us. And then draw out the unset­tling aspects, frame them, so that we can under­stand them. Perhaps not dir­ectly, but in terms of some­thing else.

The irony is of course that by doing so, by turn­ing wild play into games, we are domest­ic­at­ing it. But then, we can always go out hunt­ing again.

  1. Part of the inspir­a­tion to use Lovecraft as a start­ing point for new dir­ec­tions for design was inspired by Graham Harman’s On the Horror of Phenomenology in Collapse IV. []
  2. This model for futur­ism is heav­ily inspired by Venkatesh Rao’s writ­ing, in par­tic­u­lar Welcome to the Future Nauseous. []
  3. For this pas­sage and the obser­va­tions on the obsol­es­cence of some of Jane Jacobs’s ideas in the face of new cit­ies such as Shenzhen I am indebted to the excel­lent Kosmograd art­icle The Ballet of iPod City. []
  4. From the afore­men­tioned Kosmograd art­icle again. []
  5. For more on met aph­or­ism, read Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, in par­tic­u­lar chapter three. []
  6. For more on this, also see The Death of Manhattanism at Domus. []
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  1. Posted October 8, 2012 at 10:04 | Permalink

    I am going to call you on some nice segues but no true cent­ral concept ;-) I think of games not as being brought in from the wild, but emer­ging as the under­ly­ing struc­ture they always were. The end of the den­ig­ra­tion of games and play is our cul­ture finally exit­ing from a local-solution and clos­ing on a true optimum. There are a lim­ited num­ber of pleas­ure stim­uli hard­wired into humans and they are all strongly linked to sur­vival: eat­ing, repro­du­cing and appar­ently play­ing. How edu­ca­tion has suc­ceeded in elim­in­at­ing the pleas­ure from learn­ing is a hor­ror story for another fireside.

  2. Kars
    Posted October 10, 2012 at 16:43 | Permalink

    Thanks for your thoughts Tim. Perhaps you’re look­ing for a cent­ral concept where you shouldn’t expect one. I am increas­ingly reluct­ant to reduce play to being about this, or about that. The way people per­ceive play is often very much influ­enced by their out­look on life, and their what they expect to gain from fram­ing play in a cer­tain man­ner. (I’ll admit I am as guilty of this as any­one.) In any case, I was try­ing to steer clear of the sub­ject in this talk, and in stead look at how new play forms emerge and are turned into games. Mostly because over the course of the last 5 years I have seen a par­tic­u­lar form of pub­lic play, the urban per­vas­ive game, be more or less embraced by the main­stream, at the expense of much of its potency, at least to me. So this is my attempt to under­stand the dynamic, and per­haps soothe some of the fears I myself had about all play ulti­mately being tamed.

  3. Posted October 11, 2012 at 04:57 | Permalink

    That final list, of course, being a nice Latour Litany of sorts. =) – I’m unsure what to make of the lis­ted things in terms of for­ward­ing unset­tling illegib­il­ity, for it seems that all of them are pretty easy to make sense of, if only from a pro­gress­iv­ist stand­point, no? That’s what I actu­ally like about Steve Mann, as that art­icle by Claire Evans exer­cises: No mat­ter how long you think about what he does, you still feel ambigu­ous, con­flic­ted. Secondly, I’m a bit wary of fall­ing into the all-too-comfy deconstruction/critical theory/modernist art stock trap – preach­ing to the con­ver­ted that we ought to “chal­lenge ways of see­ing.” Put oth­er­wise: Weirding out is a good start­ing point, but I would expect from games and play of all things to go bey­ond just that.

  4. Kars
    Posted October 12, 2012 at 10:13 | Permalink

    The list might be a bit gra­tu­it­ous but I hope it serves a pur­pose. Perhaps some of these examples aren’t as unset­tling to you, but the real point is that I sus­pect for their play­ers, these actions were born from unset­tle­ment, at least to some extent. So the point isn’t that game should be unset­tling – although within lim­its I am all for this of course – but that game makers might dis­cover new forms of play by start­ing from what unsettles them. So you’re right: it’s a start­ing point, not a des­tin­a­tion. Ultimately the des­tin­a­tion – for me at least – is to offer new ways of mak­ing sense of the con­tem­por­ary urban condition.