Week 302

I returned from a long hol­i­day in South-East Asia to find the busi­ness hum­ming along nicely thanks to Alper’s cap­able stew­ard­ship. I’ve men­tioned this before, but the fact that all of our work lives in Asana makes it super easy for me to catch up on things and pick up where I left off.

I took over design dir­ec­tion on SHACHI from Alper, who had the tough job of being both design and tech­nical lead in the past few weeks, but per­formed admir­ably. We spent the remainder of the week work­ing with Tim and Niels on the game’s second beta. It’s a joy to see an increas­ing amount of gor­geous art and witty prose find its way into the game.

I called our friends at Drop to dis­cuss BANKEN’s pro­gress, and later on provided some sug­ges­tions on how to deal with a couple of design issues that emerged from a recent test. They were mostly related to cla­ri­fy­ing the inter­ac­tions in inter­act­ive video, which to a non-gamer audi­ence can be a lot less obvi­ous than to those who have played The Walking Dead, etc.

We also star­ted pre­par­ing work on two new pro­jects. One is code named KOKORO and involves pro­to­typ­ing a play­ful product for the improve­ment of men­tal well-being of middle school chil­dren. The other is code named TEDASUKE, which is concept devel­op­ment for a tool with which volun­teer work­ers in a vari­ety of social enter­prises can develop their skills.

Towards the end of the week Alper and I had a call with Lekha to share stor­ies about Bycatch’s suc­cess­ful launch at TWO5SIX, and the sub­sequent media cov­er­age. (Check out the blurbs on the game’s web­site. If you want to sup­port us in our efforts to break new ground in the issue game space, con­sider order­ing a copy or two, or share the story about the game with your friends.) We also dis­cussed mar­ket­ing efforts going forward.

Alper did a great job explain­ing Bycatch to Dutch national radio, res­ult­ing in a cool item which you can listen to here (if you under­stand Dutch).

Odds and ends: I draf­ted a blog post on a play­ful museum exhib­i­tion design work­shop which I ran a while ago, due to be pub­lished soon. Alper also went to another Unity meetup. He tells me he learned some stuff, which is always nice.

Finally, a heads-up: Alper will be in Vienna for Über­all App Congress on June 10–11. He’s clos­ing key­note of the second day, and will be talk­ing about “design for a play­ful world” (of course).

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Week 301

Last week I pro­cessed the last of the media atten­tion for Bycatch. We now have a fairly hand­some list of praise in vari­ous lan­guages at the top of the page (check it out!) with Kotaku, Killscreen, Deutschlandradio Kultur, WIRED, NOS and Bright. We might add one or two more to that but with that it’s time to close off this chapter and move for­ward to our next steps. Next up most likely we will make a video about the game. We will also be talk­ing about and play­ing Bycatch around the world over the course of the year.

SHIJIMI hit a minor snag that will be resolved in the fol­low­ing weeks. It does look like every­body is enthu­si­astic about the pro­ject so it looks increas­ingly likely that this will move out of the tent­at­ive stage.

Project SHACHI is well under­way con­sid­er­ing some changes hap­pen­ing over on the cli­ent side. For us it mostly means that the cur­rent sprint could not be com­pleted due to external factors and we will be post­pon­ing our playtest.

We will be involved in an upcom­ing sym­posium about auto­mated game design organ­ized by the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. We con­sul­ted on this before thanks to our asso­ci­ate Joris Dormans’s involve­ment in the pro­ject. The topic of com­puter aided game design includ­ing fur­ther work on Machinations is some­thing that is highly rel­ev­ant to our prac­tice. More on this later.

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Week 300

Last week we were mostly con­cerned with cap­tur­ing the press atten­tion the launch of Bycatch net­ted us. You can see most of the atten­tion pos­ted over at the offi­cial web­site but we were happy to read things writ­ten on WIRED, Kotaku, NOS, Control-Online among other places. Not to men­tion the stuff still in vari­ous pipelines. All of that atten­tion res­ul­ted in a lot of sales. So much in fact that our Berlin based ful­fil­ment oper­a­tion is run­ning low on product. Don’t let that stop you from order­ing our game though. We have plenty more in our Utrecht office.

On the other track work on SHACHI picked up pace and we’re busy build­ing that while we wait for our next playtest oppor­tun­ity. Other than that it was a fairly quiet week with a couple of meet­ings here and there.

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Week 299

Last week I was in the Netherlands to par­ti­cip­ate in a pitch meet­ing in Tilburg. The rest of the week I worked at the Utrecht stu­dio in Kars’s absence, took some meet­ings and coin­cid­ent­ally caught up with a bunch of friends. I went over to SodaProducties to talk over a bit of inven­tion we will be doing for them soon. Pictured below is their view on our studio.

Sky over Utrecht

The rest of the time I was busy pick­ing up pro­ject man­age­ment for SHACHI’s final beta sprint after which we should have a fully func­tional though not yet fin­ished product.

My talk at Republica has been recor­ded at Voicerepublic so it’s nice to be able to listen to that again.

Before I flew back to Berlin on Friday even­ing I pre­pared everything for the launch of Bycatch the next day in Brooklyn. Subalekha went on stage dur­ing TWO5SIX and talked about the game and the think­ing behind it. Now that we have finally launched, we’re busy keep­ing track the ongo­ing cov­er­age and orders that are com­ing in.

On cov­er­age: the press release is online and Bright was one of the first to cover the launch last Friday. More to follow.

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Week 298

Republica

Last week I pre­pared and gave a talk at Republica and spent some time at the fest­ival after work. Republica sort of is the German SxSW and brings people from all over to Berlin for a couple of days. I caught up with lots people and spoke to some report­ers as well.

Republica

That week being the Berlin web week there were tons of other events as well includ­ing my col­league Peter Bihr’s long anti­cip­ated Thingscon. I crashed a bit of their social pro­gram and met a bunch more people there.

Kars fin­ished all of his work for SHACHI and flew off to Indonesia early in the week for some well deserved R&R. I flew to Amsterdam on Sunday for appoint­ments in the Netherlands and to con­tinue Hubbub oper­a­tions and pro­jects dur­ing his absence.

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Week 297

This was a rel­at­ively quiet week. We made plans for the next sprint on SHACHI. Alper con­tin­ued his search for a Unity developer to sup­port us on the same pro­ject. (Suggestions and applic­a­tions welcome.)

I did some last-minute design work on BANKEN. Alper star­ted pre­par­ing for his talk at Republica next Tuesday.

Demoing Bycatch at New Gamegrounds

I went over to New Gamegrounds to demo Bycatch. I also played a fun and silly game involving waffles by our friend Duncan Speakman, and to attend a couple of inter­est­ing talks on games and mor­al­ity. Highlights included David Nieborg, Pawel Miechowsky and Annette Mees.

We’re also con­tinu­ing to plan the launch of Bycatch at TWO5SIX in a few weeks.

Finally, in case you missed it, I put up a tran­script of my Creative Mornings talk on using games for learning.

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Three Perspectives on Serious Games

At the end of last year I was invited to give a talk at Creative Mornings Utrecht on the theme “edu­ca­tion”. I figured it would be a nice oppor­tun­ity to share the things I’ve learned over the past 5+ years of prac­ti­cing applied game design. I tried to con­nect a wide range of sources with examples of how I’ve applied them in my work at Hubbub. The res­ult is a pretty good reflec­tion of our cur­rent pos­i­tion on ser­i­ous games, games for change and game-based learn­ing. So in addi­tion to the video, the slides, and the list of sources, I thought I’d blog a rough tran­script of the talk here.

TL;DR

A sum­mary for the impa­tient: Most often, when we talk about using games for learn­ing we talk about how people learn by play­ing games. I pro­pose there are two addi­tional per­spect­ives that are equally prom­ising. One is the learn­ing that hap­pens when people change exist­ing games. The other is the learn­ing that hap­pens when people make new games. For each of these three per­spect­ives I give examples of how we approach them in our own prac­tice. These approaches should be equally use­ful and inspir­a­tional to design­ers work­ing out­side of the field of games.

Serious Games and Games for Change

To start things off, let me intro­duce Bycatch. It’s a card game about remote war­fare and drone sur­veil­lance. The game fea­tures a novel mech­anic that sim­u­lates sur­veil­lance. You use your cam­era phone to take pic­tures of hands of cards of oppon­ents. Each card con­tains a pic­ture of a per­son. At any point in the game one such per­son is sus­pec­ted of ter­ror­ism. It is your goal to elim­in­ate that per­son. To determ­ine where to strike, you make use of the sur­veil­lance you’ve gathered. A lot of things can go wrong when you try to take a pic­ture of a hand of cards. Those things are an ana­logy for the things that can and do go wrong in actual drone warfare.

We describe Bycatch as an issue game. We prefer not to call it a ser­i­ous game. The label implies only a spe­cific class of games can teach things.1

We also dis­like the label “games for change”. Such games are typ­ic­ally com­mis­sioned by insti­tu­tions. As a res­ult, they usu­ally can’t chal­lenge those same insti­tu­tions. And there­fore they usu­ally lack teeth.2

In an issues game, the issues explored are modeled by the game’s mech­an­ics. As you play, you are made com­pli­cit in the issue’s dynam­ics. And that’s it. The aim of issue games is not to con­vince you of a par­tic­u­lar course of action towards solv­ing the issue. As a res­ult, there is a lot of room for crit­ical, eth­ical and per­form­at­ive play.3

1. Learning by Playing Games

Games are sim­u­la­tions of exper­i­ences. Their mean­ing is cre­ated as much by what they include as by what they leave out.4 From this per­spect­ive, what we learn when we play games is what they are “made of” – pro­ced­ural sys­tems. The fun in games emerges from learn­ing and mas­ter­ing such sys­tems.5 In this talk I call this the game per­spect­ive. It cen­ters on games as designed artefacts.

At Hubbub, when we design games for learn­ing from this game per­spect­ive, we start by look­ing for the activ­it­ies that make up the sub­ject mat­ter. We then trans­late these activ­it­ies into game mechanics.

For example, in Beestenbende, the goal was to make a game that could be played in a sci­ence museum, which would teach people some­thing about the sci­entific method. We selec­ted the museum’s cab­inet of curi­os­it­ies as the space where the game would take place. The goal of the game is to con­clus­ively prove that a par­tic­u­lar animal is a mem­ber of a par­tic­u­lar group. Players do this by tak­ing pho­tos of animal fea­tures on dis­play in the cab­inet. In this way, the cab­inet again becomes the tool it once was in the nat­ural sci­ences. And the sci­entific method is trans­lated into game actions.

This game per­spect­ive is fine, and it’s prob­ably the most com­mon way of think­ing about how ser­i­ous games work. But it is import­ant to remem­ber it is only one of sev­eral per­spect­ives. For example, we can shift our focus from games as arte­facts to the import­ance of play.

2. Learning by Changing Games

“Play is free move­ment within a more rigid sys­tem.” It is the way in which we become fully human. It is express­ive and a way of enga­ging with the world. Play mat­ters.

When we look at games through the lens of play, all of a sud­den indi­vidual people mat­ter. They com­plete the work star­ted by the designer. I believe play­ers should be allowed to adapt a game to their needs. Only when play­ers can change, a play com­munity can form around it. Players need to be able to adapt games to their needs. At this point a game becomes a cul­tural prac­tice.

From this play per­spect­ive people learn when they can change the game they are play­ing. The act of adapt­a­tion is the source of learn­ing. Elsewhere, I have called this design through under­spe­cific­a­tion. Nowadays I like to use the term flux dogma. “Allow all con­stants to become vari­ables.“6 Let play­ers change and make up their own rules.

We did this in Beestenbende by delib­er­ately not encod­ing a sig­ni­fic­ant part of the game’s rules in the soft­ware.7 As a res­ult, play­ers can nego­ti­ate amongst them­selves about how best to play. We’ve seen Beestenbende play­ers give each other a break for example, when they felt the game was too hard and they wanted to move on.

The whole design of Camparc was and con­tin­ues to be an exer­cise in under­spe­cific­a­tion. We res­isted the urge to design a spe­cific game around these huge pan­or­amic cam­era balls and in stead approach them as a prob­lem of toy design: Making them sup­port a wide range of play activ­it­ies, many of which we can’t foresee.

3. Learning by Making Games

To talk about the final per­spect­ive, I first need to talk about why many people are inter­ested in using games for learn­ing. This is because they use com­puters, and com­puters are really good at count­ing. The thought is that if we make a game for change, and we use com­puters, we should be able to meas­ure the change. But not all things worth chan­ging are meas­ur­able. In addi­tion, it is prob­ably impossible to con­clus­ively prove their use­ful­ness. So if you ask me, this line of reas­on­ing is a dead end.

But mak­ing games is a way for me to think through things, to dive deep into top­ics I find inter­est­ing. And I enjoy teach­ing other people to do the same. In fact I think mak­ing games about things is a way to get bet­ter at learn­ing in general.

Game design is iter­at­ive design. It is craft­ing sys­tems that are unpre­dict­able when inhab­ited by humans. You are con­fron­ted with many of the chal­lenges we are facing as humans in the world today. So game design is a very use­ful skill and way of look­ing at the world.8

So mak­ing games is use­ful too. This is the design per­spect­ive.

At Hubbub, the way we do this is by invent­ing quick-and-dirty, spon­tan­eous, improv–style work­shops that are all about iter­at­ing like crazy. One recent example is the work­shop we ran at ThingsCon Amsterdam. We chal­lenged par­ti­cipants to invent new smart products through play. They were asked to ima­gine house­hold appli­ances as char­ac­ters, and to impro­vise short stor­ies around them.

Towards a New Practice of Playful Design

So those are three per­spect­ives on ser­i­ous games. By play­ing games, we learn sys­tems. By chan­ging games, we chal­lenge sys­tems. And by mak­ing games, we craft systems.

It is import­ant to point out that the ways we do this are just as use­ful out­side of applied game design. Many designed things can and will be played with. If you’re inter­ested in facil­it­at­ing this, con­sider doing the fol­low­ing on your next pro­ject: (1) start by focus­ing your design­ing on enabling activ­it­ies, (2) allow people to change aspects of the thing in mean­ing­ful ways, and (3) invite your audi­ence to design with you.

As you can tell from this talk I think much of con­ven­tional applied game designed is flawed in one way or another. However I remain very excited about design­ing for play. I think we can take use­ful ele­ments from the prac­tice of design­ing ser­i­ous games, gami­fic­a­tion and game-based learn­ing. We can leave behind the parts that are hold­ing us back. And if we com­bine the end-result with a par­tic­u­lar fram­ing of design-as-invention, we can shift any design prac­tice towards a more play­ful one.

  1. Ian Bogost has writ­ten at length about the short­com­ings of think­ing in terms of ser­i­ous games and games for change. His book Persuasive Games is a good place to start. []
  2. At TEDxUtrecht I used the term gen­er­at­ive games to talk about the need for ser­i­ous games and games for change to allow room for out­comes not pre­de­ter­mined by their design­ers. []
  3. Earlier I blogged about how we use the issue game approach in Bycatch to let people exper­i­ence goat rodeo. []
  4. This idea of games as incom­plete, sub­ject­ive sim­u­la­tions also comes from Ian Bogost. It is first intro­duced in the chal­len­ging but reward­ing Unit Operations. []
  5. There is no bet­ter single source than Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun for an explan­a­tion of how a par­tic­u­lar kind of fun offered by games emerges from learn­ing. []
  6. For a head-spinning deep dive into flux dogma check out Music & Games as Shifting Possibility Spaces by David Kanaga. []
  7. The best example of a digital/physical game hybrid that I keep return­ing to is Johann Sebastian Joust, of course. []
  8. My work on games has lead to a con­tinu­ing interest in the the­ory of decision-making and the work of mil­it­ary strategist John Boyd. []
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Week 296

I was in the Netherlands last week to fin­ish the first beta of SHACHI. The three of us (Kars, myself and Hedgefield) went to the Airborne Museum in Oosterbeek on Wednesday to playtest it. Playtests are abso­lutely essen­tial to val­id­ate both for us and our cli­ents that what we are doing is going in the right dir­ec­tion. We had three times two kids play our game and we got pos­it­ive res­ults with also enough room for improve­ment. We’ll be busy design­ing and imple­ment­ing a new ver­sion in the next weeks.

Kars eval­u­ated Camparc Mk II over at STRP and dis­cussed the future of the pro­ject. He also con­trib­uted more design and pro­ject sup­port on BANKEN.

I took a train back to Berlin at the end of the week to catch the tail end of A MAZE. I played Bycatch with some people there.

Playing Bycatch at A MAZE

Kars’s talk at Creative Mornings Utrecht has been pub­lished which is an excel­lent over­view of learn­ing, play and games and pro­duct­ive ways to think about them. A write-up of the talk is forth­com­ing but you can watch the video below already.

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Week 295

The vast major­ity of our time this week was spent on SHACHI. I draf­ted copy, Alper did soft­ware devel­op­ment and Tim worked on art­work. Next week we’ll playtest the first beta.

I what time remained, I did the odd bits of design dir­ec­tion on BANKEN, which has transitioned into pro­duc­tion. As a res­ult my role has shif­ted to a less hands-on one.

Next week is A MAZE in Berlin. Alper atten­ded a big edi­tion of Talk and Play which served as a sort of pre­lude to it.

As we inch ever closer to the offi­cial launch of Bycatch, we took care of a few more mar­ket­ing tasks. Alper talked to a big German news­pa­per and I worked with Ties on addi­tional images for our press kit.

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Week 294

Here are some brief (belated) notes on last week.

Project SHACHI saw good pro­gress. I pinned down the game design for the first beta in a bunch of screen sketches on index cards and some state mod­els on white­board. Alper con­tin­ued to do soft­ware devel­op­ment on the pro­to­type in Unity while Tim fur­ther developed the artwork.

I reviewed the high fidel­ity pro­to­type for BANKEN and also joined Bureau Drop for a present­a­tion to the client.

Lekha, Alper and I had another call about Bycatch in which we planned the offi­cial launch, which I am happy to report will be at TWO5SIX. A fuller announce­ment will fol­low in due course but you heard it here first!

Alper pre­pared and gave a present­a­tion at CounterPlay in Århus. He reports: “The con­fer­ence was a lot of fun and I met a lot of people who think play is the future.”

Finally, I atten­ded the first Hacking Habitat lec­ture. Saskia Sassen talked on the theme of “How to Be Seen”. She described how high fin­ance has the tend­ency to make cer­tain groups of people super­flu­ous. They are pushed out and no longer offi­cially accoun­ted for. Zihni Özdil provided a brief response in which he argued that crit­ics of neo­lib­er­al­ism should make an effort to com­mu­nic­ate their con­cerns in plain lan­guage. Otherwise, the people affected by it the most are simply not reached.

The lec­ture was fol­lowed by a two-day event in which par­ti­cipants from vari­ous groups of con­cern worked together on solu­tions to the issues raised in the lec­ture. Our Playing with Rules work­shop format was one of tools they used. It was also a first step for us towards “open sourcing” the format, because facil­it­a­tion was handled by Hacking Habitat. I received some encour­aging reports from the organ­isa­tion on how it was received.

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