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Highlights from Play Matters

In my review of Play Matters I talked about why I think it is a must-read for any designer. I thought I’d follow that up with some highlights from the book.

These are mostly from the first two chapters. Miguel first talks about what play is. He offers a minimal definition which states that play is contextual, carnivalesque, appropriative, disruptive, autotelic, creative and personal.

Miguel then goes on to distinguish play from playfulness. The former is an activity, the latter an attitude. In addition, play does not have a goal besides play itself, while playfulness does. This move of distinguishing between play and playfulness is very productive. It allows us to be more articulate about playful design.

Play happens in contexts created for play, in those contexts in which the autotelic nature of play is respected. […] The contexts in which playfulness happens are not designed or created for play: they are occupied by play.

The basic idea of playful design is that things can be used for practical purposes but with a playful attitude. Things that are explicitly created for this are playful designs. The act of creating playful designs is a challenge to the traditional relationship between users and designers.

Playful designs are by definition ambiguous, self-effacing, and in need of a user who will complete them. […] Playful design breaks away from designer-centric thinking and puts into focus an object as a conversation among user, designer, context, and purpose. […] Playful designs require a willing user, a comrade in play.

If we accept that users are the ones who complete playful designs, the role of the designed system itself also changes. It is put on the same plane as users, just as the designer was before. Miguel’s account of the contexts within which play happens is one of flattened hierarchies or perhaps more accurately: networks. Networks of people, things, spaces, etc.

This approach to design downplays system authority, a minor but crucial revolt against the relative scientism of design, from games to word processors. […] Playful design is personal in both the way the user appropriates it and the way the designer projects her vision into it. […] Playful technologies are designed for appropriation, created to encourage playfulness. These objects have a purpose, a goal, a function, but the way they reach it is through the oblique, personal, and appropriative act of playfulness.

I love that last bit, because it loops back to the first distinction between play and playfulness. Play is autotelic while playfulness isn’t. But playfulness isn’t a thin layer on top of an otherwise goal-oriented experience. There is a back and forth between goal pursuit and playfulness.

This may seem trivial. But putting technology aside for a moment, we can see tiny acts of playfulness in human activity all the time. They can be tiny flourishes by which we express our personal identities. Even so, they are what make us humans engaged with the world.

With technology mediating, enabling and constraining our engagement with the world the potential for playfulness is not a given anymore. People may play regardless of their context, but we can actively accommodate for it. This is a designer’s responsibility.

At stake is more than our culture of leisure or the ideal of people’s empowerment; at stake is the idea that technology is not a servant or a master but a source of expression, a way of being. […] Playfulness allows us to extend the importance of play outside the boundaries of formalized, autotelic events, away from designed playthings like toys, or spaces like the playground or the stadium.

After the chapters on play and playfulness, Miguel goes on to talk about toys and playgrounds. Games have attracted most of the attention in the conversation about playful design. But we can play with all kinds of playthings, not just games. In this regard, games don’t matter—play matters.

Miguel then goes on to discuss beauty and politics, which should be of particular interest to artists and activists.

In the final section, one chapter is devoted to the changing role of the designer. Miguel suggests we should not model ourselves after game designers, but in stead aspire to be architects of play. The book closes with a meditation on the role of computation in playful design. The statement quoted above about technology as a source of expression is expanded upon. I will end with it here, but not before recommending this inspiring, evocative book one last time.

computers should take their place in the world and play with us—not for us, not against us, but together with us.

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