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.