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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Week 293

Last week Kars did lots of work on BANKEN cre­at­ing among other things a pro­to­type in Marvel of the inter­act­ive video. Based on pre­lim­in­ary res­ults that seems to be con­sol­id­at­ing the design for the project.

Kars briefed the people from Hacking Habitat how they can run our work­shop format Playing with Rules at their first life hack mara­thon. Hacking Habitat is an incred­ibly ambi­tious event about sys­tems and soci­ety and we’re proud that they want to do this.

My desk

I spent the entire Monday mov­ing my stuff out of stor­age and into my new office. It took part of the next day as well but KANT 2.0 is finally up and run­ning. I’ll be work­ing back on Oranienstraße at the Aufbau Haus, a build­ing teem­ing with organ­iz­a­tions and hap­pen­ings. We share a fairly large space with our friends of Syspons and on a clear day we have a view on the Fernsehturm.

The rest of the week Hedgefield and I spent sketch­ing the new dir­ec­tion of SHACHI with sup­port from Kars (who was oth­er­wies tied up with BANKEN). We are under­tak­ing a fairly ambi­tious pivot of the concept but we think that the end res­ult is going to be worth it. By the end of the (short) week we had some­thing that we think we can imple­ment dur­ing the rest of the sprint.

Bycatch was played dur­ing the Apple tv show OMT LIVE about pri­vacy thanks to our Ianus Keller and Hans de Zwart. You can see them enact­ing a sur­veil­lance action over on the VOD.

The pro­file that dude, the Dutch design­ers’ magazine wrote up on my col­our­ful career as an engineer/designer came out. It was promp­ted by Bycatch but it hap­pens to treat most of the stuff I’ve done at Hubbub over the past half dec­ade. I haven’t had the phys­ical thing in my hands yet but friends say it is great. I’d like to thank Viveka van de Vliet and Antony Sojka for work­ing with me on this. Here’s a pic­ture of the first spread.

Dude profile 1

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Week 292

Some sig­ni­fic­ant achieve­ments this week!

Let’s start with Camparc Mark II. We had a suc­cess­ful run dur­ing the week­end. Hardware and soft­ware per­formed admirably—a tip of the hat to Aldo and Arnaud—and people seemed to really enjoy it. Later this week we provided the STRP crew with some addi­tional doc­u­ment­a­tion so that they can run it inde­pend­ently in the week­end to come. We also pub­lished a nice little teaser video made by Sylvan with foot­age shot on Sunday. An expan­ded video will fol­low shortly.

I spent a large chunk of this week build­ing a low fidel­ity pro­to­type of a num­ber of inter­act­ive videos for BANKEN. We are now in a good spot to have our film­mak­ing part­ner shoot rough video, after which we can trans­ition into high fidel­ity prototyping.

For SHACHI we had a week in between sprints in which we reori­ented the game’s fic­tion so that it allows us to more eas­ily adapt to a range of phys­ical con­texts. This was a hard nut to crack, but we man­aged it mainly through some Boydian cre­ation and destruc­tion. Alper did the heavy con­cep­tual lift­ing and Tim rap­idly sketched out a story­board of the new player exper­i­ence. We are now con­fid­ent that we can build a game about free­dom that includes the his­tory of warfight­ing and res­ist­ance in the Netherlands dur­ing WWII as well as cur­rent issues related to sur­veil­lance, cen­sor­ship, etc.

On to Bycatch. We received a great review from Kill Screen. We are pleased not just because they liked it, but more import­antly because they very clearly describe how it feels to play the game. Also this week Alper talked about the game at Hacks/Hackers Berlin and Lekha did the same at Playcrafting NYC. All of which res­ul­ted in a nice bump in pre-orders.

If you like hear­ing Alper talk, I have good news. He has two present­a­tions com­ing up. One is on play­ful organ­isa­tions at CounterPlay and the other is on issue games at re:publica. Both should be worth your while.

This was Alper’s final week of being without a stu­dio. He benefited from LOLCATBIZ’s hos­pit­al­ity while pre­par­ing for the move into KANT’s new digs at Aufbau Haus on the Monday ahead.

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Week 291

I’m writ­ing this from the Netherlands where I spent this week tak­ing meet­ings along­side Kars. I’ll be off to Berlin tomor­row while Kars is in Eindhoven for the first run of Camparc II at the STRP bien­nial. He did a tech­nical test on Monday and final bits of pro­duc­tion for what should be a spec­tac­u­lar launch tonight at the festival.

We’re not work­ing on Home Rule right now. We demoed the pro­to­type and talked about the next sprint at the Museumvereniging on Monday and at the Airborne Museum “Hartenstein” on Thursday. Key dur­ing the fol­low­ing sprint will be the pos­sib­iliy to integ­rate with one museum while still allow­ing other musea to par­ti­cip­ate. I was also really impressed by the cur­rent immers­ive exper­i­ence they have there about the battle around Arnhem.

Lecture by Kars

On Tuesday both of us went to Rezone in Den Bosch for an after­noon of play­ing with and talk­ing about urban devel­op­ment with people from Heijmans. Kars presen­ted on mov­ing away from gami­fic­a­tion to a broader approach on play­ful design. I presen­ted draw­ings we have made for CityCraft, our concept of how the nego­ti­ations around redevel­op­ment could become more playful.

For BANKEN Kars reviewed the cur­rent sprint at Drop and on Thursday we spent part of the after­noon cre­at­ing the first pro­to­type with Public State.

For Bycatch we dis­cussed our mar­ket­ing strategy and tied up some odds and ends before we go into the final stretch. The next thing we are due to pub­lish is a video of people play­ing the game and per­form­ing its sig­na­ture action.

This week Kars received his copy of The Gameful World from the MIT Press with his con­tri­bu­tion along­side those of more or less every­body we admire in the field. I’ve helped with the pro­cess from the begin­ning and I’m chuffed that it has become such an amaz­ing and solid book.

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Week 290

We fin­ished sprints on two pro­jects this week.

For Camparc Mark II, Aldo and Arnaud pushed hard to get a release can­did­ate ready. Lots of hard­ware tweaks were made and devel­op­ment on the Oculus Rift soft­ware was done. In the mean­time I focused on some final pro­duc­tion details, such as mak­ing sure we have plenty of 4G SIMs on hand to burn through when we start stream­ing dur­ing STRP.

Tim, Alper and I worked to get the alpha for SHACHI done. Most of the week was taken up by tweaks, bug fixes and other kinds of pol­ish. In the mean­time we are start­ing mak­ing plans for a first playtest, and the sub­sequent two sprints on the beta.

Aside from those two sprint end­ings, we also worked on two con­sultancy projects.

I lead two sketch­ing ses­sions on BANKEN, banging out ideas for spe­cific play­ful inter­ac­tions which will be part of the inter­act­ive video. In the mean­time another part of the team shot some rough video, which we will use to develop a pro­to­type in the next few weeks.

Alper worked together with Marius Mörders in Berlin on some nice concept visu­al­isa­tions for SHIJIMI. After one more iter­a­tion those will be ready for a present­a­tion next week. In the mean­time I pre­pared a talk on mov­ing from gami­fic­a­tion to play­ful design, which we will deliver along­side the concept.

And aside from this, I vis­ited Leiden University to review crit­ical game pro­to­types made by human­it­ies stu­dents who have the great for­tune to be taught by Joris. I blogged high­lights from Play Matters, Alper vis­ited the boardgame design­ers meetup at Spielwiese again, and I’ve heard rumours of an impend­ing Cuppings user inter­face overhaul…

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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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