Hubbub has gone into hibernation.

Improving media literacy with games

On Fri­day 23 Octo­ber I pre­sent­ed at an event on ‘social gam­ing’. It was orga­nized by Waag Soci­ety’s Cre­ative Learn­ing Lab and and took place in the won­der­ful Beeld & Gelu­id cen­tre in Hil­ver­sum, which at the same time was host to the first edi­tion of the Gam­eX­pe­ri­ence event.

Dutch cube by Eke Miedaner on Flickr

Below is a tran­script of the talk (trans­lat­ed from Dutch) along with most of the slides. In short, it is an intro­duc­tion of the Hub­bub ‘phi­los­o­phy’ and an expla­na­tion of how this relates to media lit­er­a­cy. I hope you find it of interest.

Hel­lo, my name is Kars Alfrink. I am the founder of Hub­bub, a new design stu­dio. We cre­ate phys­i­cal, social games for pub­lic space. We cre­ate games that take on mean­ing­ful prob­lems, such as social issues.

By phys­i­cal we mean that our games get you mov­ing. We believe our cog­ni­tion is deeply con­nect­ed to the sen­so­ry per­cep­tion of phys­i­cal real­i­ty. We think it is valu­able to recon­nect peo­ple to the places they inhabit.

By social we mean that social dynam­ics, the way peo­ple inter­act with each oth­er, are a mate­r­i­al we work with. By def­i­n­i­tion, the mean­ing of games is social­ly con­struct­ed. We con­scious­ly design for this.

Change Your World photo by Alper Cugun

One exam­ple of our work is an urban game we cre­at­ed for Your World, in which play­ers claimed ter­ri­to­ry in the cen­tre of Rot­ter­dam. They did this by plant­i­ng flags on cross­roads. Sub­se­quent­ly, they cam­paigned for their “move­ment” at these spots.

We think games are inter­est­ing because they are com­plex sys­tems that run on peo­ple.1 For us, tech­nol­o­gy is a means, not a goal. Our medi­um is human behav­ior.2 With games we hope to increase the sys­tems lit­er­a­cy of people.

Sys­tems lit­er­a­cy and media wis­dom are close­ly relat­ed to each oth­er. The over­lap­ping media land­scape is a com­plex adap­tive sys­tem. Peo­ple should­n’t pas­sive­ly inhab­it it, but should be its active shapers.

The Lost logo

Lost is a tele­vi­sion show about a group of peo­ple who after a plane crash are marooned on a mys­te­ri­ous trop­i­cal island. It is famous (or infa­mous) for its com­plex sto­ry lines as well as for the com­plex web of media that has emerged around the show.

A diagram by Dan Hill illustrating the complexity of Lost's media space

This is a dia­gram by Dan Hill that show the events occur­ring from the release of one Lost episode in the US to the release of that same episode in the UK. Offi­cial and unof­fi­cial media, blogs, wikis, forums, spoof web­sites and even a book on Ama­zon are plat­forms for Lost’s sprawl­ing sto­ry.3

The ouroboros

An episode of Lost illus­trates on a small scale what I mean when I say that the over­lap­ping media land­scape has become a com­plex adap­tive sys­tem. Although the behav­ior of the parts might be pre­dictable to some extent, as a whole it cer­tain­ly isn’t. These sys­tems shape our behav­ior wether we’re aware of it or not. In turn, we shape these sys­tems, ad infini­tum.


Biol­o­gists call this process coevo­lu­tion; when two species are depen­dent on each oth­er for sur­vival. Cer­tain species of hum­ming­bird for instance have bills that are shaped to fit the flow­ers they feed from, and pol­li­nate as a result too.

How do we edu­cate peo­ple about the coevo­lu­tion­ary process that exists between them and the media they use? How do we make them aware of the fact that they can, in their own small way, change it? We think you can do this by let­ting them explore the lim­its and pos­si­bil­i­ties of com­plex sys­tems with­in a safe con­text. Or to put it sim­ply: by let­ting them play.

A screenshot of Budget Ball's homepage

Let’s look at a few exam­ples: Bud­get Ball is a game cre­at­ed by Area/Code, com­mis­sioned by the US gov­ern­ment. It helps play­ers to under­stand the effects of grow­ing debt. In this way, one of the fun­da­men­tal ele­ments of the glob­al cred­it cri­sis is made comprehensible.

This shows the unim­por­tance of tech­nol­o­gy (Bud­get Ball is a phys­i­cal sport). It also beau­ti­ful­ly illus­trates the fact that the actions play­ers per­form in a game can be com­plete­ly unre­lat­ed to the mes­sage the game is sup­posed to con­vey. (There is no the­mat­ic rela­tion­ship between a ball game and the cred­it cri­sis, right?)

A screenshot of StarLogo

Mitch Resnick­’s Star­L­ogo is a tool with which chil­dren can build and sim­u­late com­plex sys­tems. For exam­ple, how traf­fic jams emerge. It’s kind of like Sim City, but with the hood open.

Star­L­ogo uti­lizes prax­is, exper­i­men­tal learn­ing, or as I like to call it: think­ing by doing. We feel that the sep­a­ra­tion between prac­ti­cal skills and the­o­ret­i­cal knowl­edge is an arti­fi­cial one. To deal with com­plex sys­tems, reflec­tion in action is required.

A screenshot of the Smokescreen homepage

Smoke­screen is a game by Six to Start for Chan­nel 4. The goal is to teach youth about the impor­tance of online pri­va­cy and secu­ri­ty. On the world wide web they solve puz­zles. Their progress is reward­ed with bits of story.

The top­ic of Smoke­screen is a sen­si­tive one. But because this is a game, play­ers can exper­i­ment with­in a safe con­text and gain insight into the effects their actions may have.

Dalmatian Dog by Richard Gregory

Our brains are excel­lent pat­tern match­ing machines. They adjust to new pat­terns and when con­front­ed with chaos, they start look­ing for order. Sys­tems are noth­ing but pat­terns that unfold over time.4

Nicholas Roerich's set design for the first act set for The Rite of Spring

To explain, take Stravin­sky’s The Rite of Spring. For its time, this piece was uncon­ven­tion­al to say the least. As a result, its ini­tial recep­tion was poor. Peo­ple hat­ed it. Only lat­er, when their brains had adjust­ed to the music’s new pat­terns, was the piece prop­er­ly valued.

In the same man­ner I hope that with phys­i­cal, social games, we can make peo­ple more capa­ble of ‘read­ing’ com­plex sys­tems, and ‘writ­ing’ them. Thank you.

  1. This is an expres­sion I’ve heard Kevin Slavin of Area/Code use, and I think it is spot on. []
  2. This is an asser­tion Robert Fab­ri­cant of Frog Design made in his pre­sen­ta­tion at the IxDA’s Inter­ac­tion ’09 con­fer­ence. []
  3. While prepar­ing this talk, I was intro­duced to this won­der­ful dia­gram by Matt Jones through his pre­sen­ta­tion at Design by Fire ’09. []
  4. The image is by Richard Gre­go­ry and is titled Dal­ma­t­ian Dog. Dur­ing the prepa­ra­tion of this talk I was intro­duced to this exam­ple and the next one thanks to James Box and Ceny­dd Bowles’ pre­sen­ta­tion at Design by Fire ’09. []
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