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.

Metaphorism

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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4 Comments

  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.