An Outline of Playful Design

In the summer of last year we announced a new direction for the studio, which boils down to us no longer framing our work as game design, but as playful design. We are interested in designing a wide range of playthings, and we are also interested in designing things that aren’t primarily meant for play but which still benefit from allowing for it.

In recent talks I have been pointing to several ideas that I think together outline part of what we consider playful design. I thought I’d write them up here.

1. Community

I have referred to The Well-Played Game by Bernie De Koven, to emphasise the social context within which play happens, and the importance of enabling groups to adapt playthings to their needs. One example of how to do this is by not encoding all of a system’s rules into software but in stead letting people socially negotiate those rules. Johann Sebastian Joust does this, and so does our Beestenbende.

2. Flux

I also think David Kanaga‘s idea of flux dogma is very important: “allow all constants to become variables.” By doing this, a plaything can become like an instrument, an expressive tool that can be put to many (unexpected) uses. David’s own Proteus is a great example of this, and we were thinking a lot about flux dogma when we were making Camparc.

3. Invention

And finally, when it comes to how we frame design itself, Jack Schulze’s provocation “design is about cultural invention“, opposing it to design as problem solving, has always made a lot of sense to me. Thinking about design in this way allows us to go beyond the instrumental, even when we are designing things with a purpose. The work done at BERG often had a whimsical character, possibly best exemplified by Little Printer. Our own Standing is an attempt to do something that is both useful or even serious but makes fun of itself at the same time.

So those are three ideas that taken together give a sense of how we approach playful design: 1. Understand and design for social groups and let them adapt things to their own needs. 2. Make fixed aspects of a thing variable, and put them under people’s control. 3. Conceive of design as a discipline that creates things that are not “just” useful, but that open up new unexpected possibilities.

Of course, these ideas don’t sit apart from each other. When supporting a play community, one applies flux to a thing, and is naturally practicing design as invention. A variation on this statement can be made starting from the perspective of flux, or invention.

A playful design discipline like this can lead to better playthings, but perhaps more importantly, it also leads to purposeful things that are more pleasurable to use because they allow people to make them their own, to express themselves while using them, while being more present in the here and now, because they can weave them into their own social and physical contexts.

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