‘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?

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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.