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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