Q&A with Studio Papaver about their collective intelligence game for population shrinkage

Received a newspaper from the future

Anne and Zineb of Studio Papaver got in touch with me towards the end of last year, asking if I would advise them on a project they were starting at the Studio for Unsolicited Architecture. They were working on the problem of population shrinkage, and they were thinking of making a game. Architects making games—as regular readers probably know I have a long-standing fascination for architecture and urban planning, so I could not refuse. Almost half a year later and Anne and Zineb are done, at least with the first stage of the project. The result is called ‘Let’s Shrink!’—a collective intelligence game for residents of regions anticipating shrinkage, which generates possible future solutions through play. I’m so impressed with what Anne and Zineb have done that I asked them a few questions. Below are their answers, which I think will give you a good understanding of what shrinkage is, why Studio Papaver decided to make a game, how they went about this and what the end result is like.

1. Can you tell us a bit about population shrinkage, what it is, how it happens, and so on?

We are quite used to the fact that the number of residents and households are growing. It has been like that for several decades. But since a couple of years, this on-going growth has come to a stop. Instead, the numbers of inhabitants and households are declining. This phenomenon is called ‘population shrinkage’. Shrinkage is present in some border areas in the Netherlands—in Zeeuws Vlaanderen, in the northeast of Groningen and in the south of Limburg—but also in other European countries, like in some parts of Germany, France and Spain.

The fact that less people are living in certain areas isn’t directly a problem. But since all our (economical) systems are based on growth and increasing numbers, a problem arises when shrinkage appears. Therefore, the effects of shrinkage are painful. As a result of shrinkage, houses become vacant or are on sale for many years, the value of real estate declines rapidly, the critical mass for the use of facilities evaporates and areas impoverish. These effects of population shrinkage put pressure on the living conditions of the people in such areas.

Shrinkage, in combination with other demographic developments as the aging of the population is therefore one of the biggest challenges of the European future. Many politicians, chairmen and managers realize and embrace the challenges that population shrinkage is raising. But the people who are actually living in (future) shrinking regions aren’t aware of these.”

2. Why did you decide a game would be a good way to deal with this issue?

We wanted to create a process that makes inhabitants of shrinking regions aware of the situation that they’re in. This process would show them the possibilities that emerge when they accept the ‘shrinking-challenge’ and come into action. In this perspective, the choice for a game is quite evident. A game enables the possibility for people to engage with larger themes and phenomena that don’t seem to harm their daily lives yet. Instead of reading about shrinkage, players experience all the actions in the first person. And by using a game, players are challenged to use their creativity.

We specifically chose for an alternate reality game (ARG), because this game type puts an extra layer on top of reality. The game isn’t only being played in the ‘virtual world’, but also in the real, physical world. The game ‘Leve de Krimp!’ (‘Let’s shrink!’) enables players to experience their daily lives in a future where nobody anticipated on the shrinkage of the population. So: play it before you live it!”

21-3-2013 Eindpresentatie Studio for unsolicited architecture design & e-culture

3. How did you design the game, what did your process look like?

We designed our game with help from Kars. As urban designers we are quite familiar with processes that challenge inhabitants to cooperate in (spatial) developments. But we’ve never used a game before as a guide for these type of processes. We designed the game from a positive perspective, to break through the negative connotations that often surround depopulation. Players are shown a ‘common future’ in 2039 where nobody anticipated on shrinkage and we offer them the possibility to change the daily lives of four characters in 2039, by doing actions in 2013. It’s a kind of ‘back to the future’- scenario: changing the future by acting in the present.

Our process wasn’t totally fluid, but doing a small pilot really helped us out. This pilot showed immediately which game-elements were working properly, which elements were ‘catchy’ and which aspects needed further attention. Also, the pilot turned out to provide us with good arguments in conversations about the further development of the game with possible partners.”

4. What did you learn from the pilot you ran?

We ran the small scale pilot in the Achterhoek, a region in the east of Holland, which needs to anticipate on the depopulation it will be facing.

The pilot was played by three inhabitants during a week and a half. The players have imagined themselves living in the year 2039. The process and the results are surprising and promising. We learned that the game actually created the awareness on the effects of shrinkage, which can be a very abstract theme. We also learned that these people got extremely motivated to create ideas and solutions. One of the players has been captivated by the assignment he got within the game – looking for a new (civic) economy within an aged and depopulated society — so much that he decided to continue the research he started on 3D printing in the Achterhoek for the next 5 years.

Though the pilot was played with half fabricated elements of the game, it showed us which elements are working very well and which need to be developed more or differently. During the pilot we discovered that the characters in the year 2039 should be given a very prominent position in the storytelling. Which we did after the pilot.

We also learned it is very important to have a sense of collectivity during play, therefore we are very happy that we managed to start and end the pilot having all the players present at the same time and place. During the pilot we made sure there would be regular contact with the players by email. After the pilot we realized two strong elements of this specific alternate reality game: the excitement of changing the future from the present and the combination of physical gatherings and online communication.”

5. What’s next for the project?

We made a bid book. This bid book is a proposition for partners which are dealing with shrinking regions and have a high interest in creating a sense of urgency and awareness for inhabitants to start to co-anticipate on the effects of depopulation.

Let’s Shrink!’ (‘Leve de Krimp!’) consists of a generic and a specific part. The generic part is the framework of the game which can be applied in different regions that deal with depopulation and aging as a strong demographic change. The specific part is the possibility of shaping the content of the game to the culture, mentality and relevant themes within a shrinking region. For the next stage of the project Studio Papaver would like to work with partners who have a strong interest in the generic part (such as ministries and European programs) and partners who have a strong interest in the specific part (such as local organizations and private parties). Our next step would be to play a larger pilot and then fine tune the game to play it for real.”

Thank you Anne and Zineb and best of luck with developing ‘Let’s Shrink!’ further.

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