Hubbub has gone into hibernation.

Slides and notes for ‘The City Is My Games Console’ at CIID

A few weeks ago I had the plea­sure of doing an open lec­ture at CIID; the Copen­hagen Insti­tute for Inter­ac­tion Design. Below you’ll find a selec­tion of the slides I used, plus a rough tran­script of what I said.1

Not includ­ed is arguably the most fun part of the after­noon, which was a playtest of an audi­ence game I’ve been design­ing. I’ll devote a sep­a­rate post to that once I get the video footage of the ses­sion sorted.

Many thanks to Alie Rose for mak­ing this hap­pen and to all who attend­ed and par­tic­i­pat­ed. I thor­ough­ly enjoyed it and hope you did too.

About a game

I fig­ured it’s eas­i­est to start with an exam­ple. Here’s a video of a game we did last year for the Euro­pean youth year which took place in Rotterdam.

Change Your World photos

So how it worked was these kids were all start­ing move­ments. They com­pet­ed for ter­ri­to­ry by plant­i­ng flags. They could then cam­paign for their move­ment at these places. They were scored based on the num­ber of fol­low­ers they got. And the win­ner got cash and coach­ing to make their move­ment a reality.

The game was designed to have them expe­ri­ence the val­ue of col­lab­o­ra­tion first hand. It was also used as visu­al indi­ca­tor of what was going on in the city dur­ing that year. And it trans­formed an area of Rot­ter­dam, which is usu­al­ly almost exclu­sive­ly used for shop­ping, into a polit­i­cal are­na, suck­ing in pedes­tri­ans and redefin­ing the rela­tion­ship between young peo­ple and adults.

Hyperlocal game design

So I’d like to talk to you today about what I find some of the most excit­ing stuff to work on at the moment, which is this idea of hyper­local game design.

“In the end, the design of tech­nol­o­gy […] must let us active­ly prac­tice at some­thing, how­ev­er hum­ble. Tak­ing part in locale is one such activity.”

—Mal­colm McCul­lough, Dig­i­tal Ground

That kind of departs from the above quote from Mal­colm McCul­lough’s book Dig­i­tal Ground, where he argues that tech­nol­o­gy, urban com­put­ing if you will, should facil­i­tate people’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in place-making.

An airport

Because, to some extent, many urban spaces have become just that, space, with­out any his­to­ry, lay­er­ing, local-ness to them. They could be any­where. And so McCul­lough argues for design­ers to be sen­si­tive to place and deploy tech­nol­o­gy in a way that is appro­pri­ate to it.

And I think that to a large extent what has been going on with games in cities, often at least, is that they don’t real­ly relate to the specifics of the loca­tion2 and I think that is a shame. Because I think games can be tools to ‘re-place space’, if you will.

So maybe, anoth­er exam­ple of a game we did will help to clar­i­fy the point I’m try­ing to make. We did a game called Kop­pelkiek in a trou­bled neigh­bor­hood of my home­town Utrecht, called Hoograven. It was com­mis­sioned by a design event which looked at the func­tion design can have for society.


We were kind of inspired by this idea of Jane Jacobs about the charms of city life being the many inter­ac­tions with strangers. Which kind of runs against much of the con­tem­po­rary think­ing about inte­gra­tion issues, which basi­cal­ly says we should al become BFFs, so to speak.

So we came up with a game that would gen­tly encour­age casu­al inter­ac­tions in the neigh­bor­hood through a very light-weight rule­set that would run per­va­sive­ly over a peri­od of three weeks. The basic idea was: you take pho­tos of your­self with oth­ers in var­i­ous sit­u­a­tions for points.

Physical feedback loop

You would upload these pho­tos to a web­site for points and get bonus points for com­plet­ing col­lec­tions. We set up shop in the neigh­bor­hood, assist­ing play­ers and exhibit­ing all the pho­tos in the win­dows of a shop that was about to be demol­ished. (Part of the area was being rede­vel­oped dur­ing.) In doing so we hoped to cre­ate a phys­i­cal feed­back loop, and to increase the chances of peo­ple encoun­ter­ing the game spontaneously.

Front door assignment photos

And we came up with assign­ments that were place spe­cif­ic, although there were also many gener­ic ones. Here’s a col­lec­tion of pho­tos for the front door assign­ment, for instance.

In any case what was inter­est­ing was that peo­ple were relieved about some­thing hap­pen­ing in their neigh­bor­hood that wasn’t about the prob­lems there. But in stead was just some­thing dif­fer­ent from the stuff that was usu­al­ly going on (which wasn’t much).

The Sultan's Elephant

So I think of this game as a way to kind of amp up the diver­si­ty of uses of the streets. Again, inspired by Jane Jacobs and her thoughts about the emer­gent, com­plex order of city life. I think there’s a real role for urban games there. And it is one that is at the core of why I start­ed Hub­bub. I don’t want to see streets be used just for shop­ping and com­mut­ing. There’s more to life than just this.

Second order effects

It’s also, for me, inter­est­ing to think about how you can use games to achieve local effects. Not by forc­ing them onto peo­ple by sub­mit­ting them to arbi­trary rules and telling them it’s a game. That’s bad design. There can be a loose cou­pling between a game and its sec­ond order effects. As I dis­cussed before with Change Your World, which is most­ly about skills and attitudes.

Christiania, Temporary Autonomous Zones

But anoth­er aspect of a game like Change Your World, and many oth­er event-based games, is an effect sim­i­lar to what is com­mon prac­tice in the world of cul­ture jam­ming, which is this idea of the tem­po­rary autonomous zone. We’re in Copen­hagen, Chris­tia­nia is a won­der­ful — albeit per­ma­nent — exam­ple of this. But car­ni­vals and block par­ties all to some extent fit in this category.

Boxing, the magic circle

This effect comes about through a mutu­al agree­ment on rules. Actions and inter­ac­tions in the city get new mean­ings. When speak­ing of this dynam­ic, game design­ers use the term mag­ic cir­cle. In a sim­i­lar man­ner, Frank Lantz of Area/Code has said “games are styl­ized sys­tems of social interaction.”

Take box­ing for exam­ple. With­in the arti­fi­cial real­i­ty of the box­ing ring, punch­ing some­one in the face gets you points. Doing the same out­side of the mag­ic cir­cle of box­ing, on the street, would like­ly get you jailed. I can’t put it more blunt­ly than this.

Warchalking, the hobo code

And there’s this real­ly inter­est­ing dynam­ic between passers­by not in the know and game play­ers. It is part of the fun. In the excel­lent Play­mak­ers doc­u­men­tary you see a geo­cacher who real­ly enjoys doing some­thing out of the ordi­nary that no-one notices. This reminds me of the hobo code and war­chalk­ing. It is a very effec­tive pattern.

The Soho Project, play as performance

Where­as oth­er play­ers, like those engaged in a game of cap­ture the flag (or The Soho Project, from which this image is tak­en) enjoy the fact that peo­ple are star­tled by their odd behav­ior. This is play as per­for­mance and when art­ful­ly done can make a game in a spec­ta­cle that is as enjoy­able to watch as it is to play.

An agent of Hubbub doing field research in Hoograven, Utrecht, NL

There’s many aspects to game design. When you ad place speci­fici­ty to the mix it becomes even more chal­leng­ing than it already is. You need to immerse your­self in the envi­ron­ment. We set up a tem­po­rary stu­dio in a vacant shop when we were doing Kop­pelkiek. We sought out com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers to have them be ambas­sadors for our game. We ran playtest in situ. Etc.

A spread from Kevin Lynch's Image of the City

And we walked the area many times to get a sense for its for­mal prop­er­ties. To get a sense of the sys­tems and the process­es that were already there. This we did before we even start­ed design­ing the game. We’ve been very inspired by the vocab­u­lary devel­oped by Kevin Lynch for this. It pro­vides you with a much more fine-grained view of how a city is expe­ri­enced, at least visu­al­ly, in terms of wayfind­ing. It has you look at cities at a high­er resolution.

Invisible cities

But of course, with com­put­ing becom­ing such a huge influ­ence on city life. Lynch’s stuff isn’t enough. The chal­lenge, as Adam Green­field has right­ly point­ed out, is that a lot of the com­pu­ta­tion­al lay­ers of the city are opaque. We need new tools to map those.

Chromaroma, literacy

And just as a side note, when it comes to a lit­er­a­cy of urban com­put­ing, I think there’s real oppor­tu­ni­ties for the appli­ca­tion of urban games there. We can make games that make peo­ple more aware, of aware in a dif­fer­ent way of the tech­nolo­gies embed­ded in the urban fab­ric. As for instance Chro­maro­ma does, by using the Lon­don Oys­ter card as its input, and visu­al­izes your trips as you score points by traveling.

A parkour traceur, planning for the unexpected

And final­ly, to bring this back to archi­tec­ture and city plan­ning, what I find very excit­ing is that urban games pose real chal­lenges to those dis­ci­plines in the sense that they demand them to kind of plan for the unex­pect­ed.3 Or at least allow for enough space, loose­ness for play to happen.

Stewart Brand's pace layers, loose spaces

Which is com­mon­ly known as adap­tive design; allow­ing peo­ple to re-appro­pri­ate their devices, envi­ron­ments, etc. And you know what? Game design­ers could real­ly offer some help there, because like cities, their rule­sets need to allow for play, they can’t be too tight (no choice, you’re rail­road­ed), or too loose (con­fu­sion, no mean­ing­ful choic­es). So I guess, ulti­mate­ly, the effect I hope we can achieve with these kinds of games is enhanc­ing the auton­o­my of the urbanite.

  1. I’m still not sat­is­fied with how SlideShare deals with notes so I’ve only shared the slides there. []
  2. This applies to many loca­tion-based ‘games’ we’ve seen late­ly, such as Foursquare and Gowal­la. []
  3. Who’d pre­dict the way this traceur uses this grate? []
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  1. Posted June 13, 2010 at 17:27 | Permalink

    Nice way to share your pre­sen­ta­tion Kars!

    Just curi­ous, who was your audi­ence dur­ing this open lecture?

  2. Kars
    Posted June 15, 2010 at 16:02 | Permalink

    Thanks Marc, fun­ny you should think this is a nice way to share it. Don’t you think it’s an incred­i­bly old fash­ioned for­mat? The lec­ture was open to every­one, so the audi­ence was quite var­ied (as far as I could tell at least). I guess most were either from the local tech/geek scene or peo­ple with a design back­ground, most­ly CIID stu­dents, alum­ni or fac­ul­ty. And then there were a few who were in the same line of work as we are with Hubbub.

  3. Posted June 16, 2010 at 10:28 | Permalink

    What I like about this style is that it gives you more depth to the sto­ry and that google can index it. I guess the word sim­plic­i­ty comes to my mind…

  4. Kars
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 11:30 | Permalink

    Yeah, I’ve got­ten frus­trat­ed with Slideshare main­ly because I do most of my web read­ing through Instapa­per nowa­days. Being search engine friend­ly is a nice plus.