Hubbub has gone into hibernation.

Slides and notes for ‘Limits of the Imaginable’ – a lecture on the future of applied game design

Last week I found myself in the gor­geous sur­round­ings of the Roy­al Dutch Acad­e­my of Sci­ences (KNAW) to talk about my views on the future of applied game design at an expert meet­ing orga­nized by the Nether­lands Study Cen­tre for Tech­nol­o­gy Trends (STT). I was one of four speak­ers, the oth­ers being David Shaf­fer, Jeroen van Mas­trigt (HKU) and Jeroen Elf­ferich (Ex Machi­na). The lec­tures focused on var­i­ous domains: edu­ca­tion, soci­ety and tech­nol­o­gy, respec­tive­ly. My focus was design. Below you’ll find a selec­tion of slides and my notes for the talk.1 If you’re deal­ing with fore­sight, design fic­tion, applied games, archi­tec­ture or biol­o­gy, I hope you’ll find it use­ful or at least thought-pro­vok­ing.2

Hel­lo, my name is Kars. I am the founder and prin­ci­pal design­er at Hub­bub, a stu­dio that inves­ti­gates ways of affect­ing soci­ety and cul­ture using games in pub­lic space. Thank you Jac­co for invit­ing me here. So I was asked to talk about design. These kinds of pre­sen­ta­tions often start with a def­i­n­i­tion of design. I won­t’t do that. Instead I’ll start with an example:

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

This is Roy Neary (played by Richard Drey­fus) in the film Close Encoun­ters of the Third Kind. You are all famil­iar with this film, I assume? What Roy does in the film, build­ing this mound with­out know­ing up front what it is or what it means: design­ers to this all the time. They engage in think­ing through mak­ing.

Lyddle End 2050

These are images from the Lyd­dle End 2050 project, insti­gat­ed by Rus­sell Davies. He invit­ed peo­ple all over the world to imag­ine the future by mod­i­fy­ing mod­el rail­way stuff. The idea is that mak­ing mod­els is a kind of time trav­el. It’s also inter­est­ing to see how it’s kind of a col­lec­tion of indi­vid­ual imag­in­ings that gel because of the few small con­straints. Rus­sell calls this way of work­ing ‘spec­u­la­tive modeling’.


So any­way, design deals with the future all the time. It shares this with sci­ence fic­tion. Where the two over­lap, peo­ple often talk about design fic­tion. This is when one uses the tech­niques of design to cre­ate believ­able poten­tial futures or to sug­gest alter­na­tive presents. One per­son who is quite active in this field is the sci­ence fic­tion author turned design crit­ic Bruce Ster­ling. In a recent arti­cle, he writes that we are expe­ri­enc­ing “a mas­sive cyber­net­ic hem­or­rhage in ways of know­ing the world”. We have so many ways of exam­in­ing real­i­ty, that this has lead to a col­lapse of our val­ue sys­tems. Old ways of deter­min­ing what is worth­while have gone out the window.

He also describes how design and sci­ence fic­tion as a result have become unable to effec­tive­ly imag­ine any future. This is the prob­lem I find myself con­front­ed with. But I’m not the only one. Famous sci-fi author and con­tem­po­rary of Ster­ling, William Gib­son, has stopped writ­ing sci­ence fic­tion. The same goes for Kim Stan­ley Robin­son, whose recent book is on Galileo Galilei. In an inter­view he says:

“If the world is a sci­ence fic­tion nov­el then what do you read? What can the lit­er­a­ture do for you?” What indeed.

The way to deal with this, as Ster­ling writes in the afore­men­tioned arti­cle, is to map the edges of what we cur­rent­ly find imag­in­able. To get a sense of the con­tours of that gap. And sub­se­quent­ly to plug it. The way to plug this hole is through action. Through prag­ma­tism. I think that is the only viable stance. In this time, when we (or at least I) have been kind of total­ly gob­s­macked by cur­rent events, “peak every­thing” as John Thackara likes to call it. The way to move ahead is by doing, by con­stant self-improve­ment, through ‘prac­tice’ as Ger­man philoso­pher Peter Slo­ter­dijk calls it. In fact, I think the “gam­ing mind­set” that Jane McGo­ni­gal talks about is sim­i­lar to this stance. So we as game design­ers might need to become more like our play­ers. Fear­less­ly ven­tur­ing into the unknown, think­ing through action, con­stant­ly self-improving.

But any­way, back to the gap. What might the con­tours of that gap be? I would like to look at two areas where I feel like I am run­ning up against true unknowns. One is the urban­ist, deal­ing with the cities more and more of us humans find our­selves liv­ing in. The oth­er is bio­log­i­cal, deal­ing with the liv­ing, the myr­i­ad species we share this plan­et with, all the way down to the small­est ones, like bac­te­ria. And the build­ing blocks of life. At the end, I hope you’ll come to share my vision, which is that we need a new kind of game design, one that is much more rela­tion­al and envi­ron­men­tal, to deal with these unknowns.


So cities. Let’s start by agree­ing that humans are becom­ing an urban species. More and more peo­ple find them­selves liv­ing in cities. Over 50% of the globe’s pop­u­la­tion. We’ve kind of invent­ed cities to aug­ment our abil­i­ties, as these kind of engines of cul­ture. Cities work (or used to work any­way) because it allowed all these dif­fer­ent kinds of peo­ple, all with their own spe­cial­i­ties, to live in close prox­im­i­ty to each oth­er. They enable rapid exchange of ideas. They increase serendip­i­ty, which is this dri­ving force behind inven­tion. No won­der design­ers love busy urban centers.

Cities are becom­ing the new states, they are lead­ing the way, in stead of the nations they are part of. In devel­op­ing coun­tries peo­ple move into the city in the hopes of find­ing a bet­ter life. Devel­op­ing cities put a tremen­dous pres­sure on the envi­ron­ment, this we all know. Old ways of build­ing cities don’t work any­more at the cur­rent scale. Old cities need hack­ing and fix­ing. At the same time, they’re our best bet of sur­viv­ing into the future. Matt Jones wrote a design fic­tion piece about this with the won­der­ful title ‘The City Is A Bat­tle­suit For Sur­viv­ing The Future’.


But it’s not just about the good old cities in the west­ern world. It gets weird­er when you look to the devel­op­ing world. We real­ly do not know what life is like in those cities, what makes them work. Let alone what game design for those urban­ites looks like. Take the city of Shen­zhen, for instance. Whol­ly owned by man­u­fac­tur­er Fox­conn. It was dubbed iPod City because it man­u­fac­tures Apple parts. More than 14 mil­lion peo­ple live there. Life is gov­erned by “a schizoid mix of glob­al cap­i­tal­ism and hard­line com­mu­nism”.3 Can you imag­ine these peo­ple play­ing Xbox Knect? I can’t.

But what will they play? And, as applied game design­ers, what issues can we address? If we want to invent for such a cul­ture, we’d first need to get to know it. I myself have worked on applied urban games in the past for under­priv­i­leged areas of Dutch cities. We focused on cre­at­ing games that increase social cohe­sion, renew peo­ple’s sense of agency in the hopes of rekin­dling cit­i­zen­ship, but real­ly, those are all issues rel­e­vant to West­ern con­tem­po­rary cities. If iPod City is the future of cities, I want to know what the social issues are there, and start design­ing for those.

Sci­ence fic­tion author J.G. Bal­lard pre­dict­ed Shen­zhen, to an extent. In his nov­el Super-Cannes he describes an elite work­er’s par­adise called Eden-Olympia. It’s a closed soci­ety where every­thing is per­fect­ly arranged. The pro­tag­o­nist enters this par­adise and dis­cov­ers an under­world where peo­ple engage in heinous acts. The thing is, the res­i­dents wel­come this under­world, and are even encour­aged to engage in it by res­i­dent psy­chi­a­trists as a stress release. To escape from the bore­dom and social restraint that gov­erns their every­day life. I don’t know. But maybe applied game design can do for Shen­zhen what this under­world does for Eden-Olympia? Offer a release valve?4

Sketch of person on bed dreaming of nothing

When I was prepar­ing this talk I thought I would leave it at that. But this being a talk about design I felt oblig­ed to at least make a small attempt at envi­sion­ing what such a game might be. So on the way here, in the train, I did some quick sketch­es. The first, as you can see, is me try­ing to fig­ure out what a per­son in a Shen­zhen-like future city might be dream­ing of. Again I hon­est­ly do not know. The only way to fig­ure out is to go to such cities and explore what life there is like.

A sketch of pickpocket the game

The sec­ond was inspired by some quick research I did on social games pop­u­lar in Chi­na. It turns out many of the games on Chi­nese social net­work­ing sites are clones of the ones we know from Face­book and such. Like Far­mville. There’s one impor­tant dif­fer­ence though: many of these games are much less ‘friend­ly’ and fea­ture com­pet­i­tive, even nasty ele­ments. In the Chi­nese equiv­a­lent of Far­mville, you can steal stuff from oth­er play­ers homes, or leave pests in their yards… So I was think­ing back to Bal­lard’s Eden-Olympian under­ground, and was won­der­ing if a per­va­sive game that would catch on in Shen­zhen might involve pick­pock­et­ing? Anyway.


A playtest at a pig farm

Lets move on from cities to biol­o­gy. Maybe it’s best to start by telling you about a project I am involved with, which I have code­named Buta.5 Project Buta is about explor­ing the poten­tial of games for inter­ac­tion between humans and domes­tic pig. You could call it a crit­i­cal design project, where we are attempt­ing to come up with designs that are fea­si­ble on the one hand, and on the oth­er hand embody the many eth­i­cal stand­points one finds in the meat indus­try: those of farm­ers, con­sumers, cit­i­zens, ani­mal rights activists etc. What hap­pens to peo­ple’s per­cep­tion of pigs if they play with them and dis­cov­er (like I did) that they are at least as intel­li­gent as your pet dog?

Two exampled of projects by Natalie Jeremijenko

So trans-species inter­ac­tion. That’s a tru­ly brave new world, some­thing I can only see the con­tours of. Natal­ie Jere­mi­jenko is a design­er who is very active in this space. She talks about re-script­ing the ways we relate to our envi­ron­ment, includ­ing the liv­ing species we co-inhab­it it with.6 Many of her works are very play­ful. Like this tad­pole walk­er, or this rig that one can use to com­mu­ni­cate with fish. Com­pared to humans, ani­mals are a whol­ly unex­plored ter­rain of playmates.

E.chromi and Scatalog

Or con­sid­er the field of syn­thet­ic biol­o­gy, which looks at biol­o­gy as a mate­r­i­al for design. Every year, at the iGEM (Inter­na­tion­al Genet­i­cal­ly Engi­neered Machines) Jam­boree, teams of stu­dents com­pete in the cre­ation of new liv­ing sys­tems. On of last year’s entries was an e.coli bac­te­ria that can secrete one of sev­en col­ors. It was dubbed E.chromi. Design­ers who were part of this team pro­posed a thing called Scat­a­log: cheap, per­son­al­ized dis­ease mon­i­tor­ing using this new bac­te­ria. You eat the bac­te­ria, they col­o­nize your intestines and col­or your feces if a dis­ease is detected…

Computational Wood

Can you imag­ine using liv­ing mate­ri­als as a plat­form for your game? The mind bog­gles. OK, one more. This is design fic­tion, but let’s be hon­est, if we can get bac­te­ria to make pret­ty col­ors, why can’t we make trees grow con­duc­tive lay­ers so that they can become a plat­form for com­pu­ta­tion? This is Com­pu­ta­tion­al Wood, a project by Matt Cot­tam. Imag­ine trees that can act as com­put­ers. As they grow, they might become more pow­er­ful machines. Machines that could be used for play and games.

Sketches for a game of food poisoning

So, again, some sketch­es. Future games might be cre­at­ed around syn­thet­ic sub­stances. Maybe you can play a game of food poi­son­ing. You sneak a game sub­stance into your friend’s food with­out him notic­ing. Next day he wakes up with a green tongue. You win.

Sketch of a football match between humans and dogs

I have a sneak­ing sus­pi­cion the only rea­son we haven’t seen soc­cer match­es between humans and dogs is because the dogs will sure­ly win.

In summary…

A shot from Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Let’s sum­ma­rize the points I’ve been try­ing to make. To start, design­ers deal with the unknow­able all the time. They explore the unknow­able through mak­ing. But myself, and many design­ers and futur­ists alike are hav­ing issues with get­ting a clear pic­ture of what lies ahead. It seems as if there are unchart­ed lim­its to our cur­rent-day imag­i­na­tion. I have tried to show you two domains where I myself have run into these lim­its, where I have to throw up my hands and say: “I don’t know”. In the hopes that we can start mov­ing beyond those bor­ders. Not by talk­ing, but by mak­ing. What’s our Dev­ils Tow­er?

The first domain is: the future of cities. We are an urban species, and if we want to arm our­selves for future life we’d bet­ter learn to live well in cities. But the future city looks noth­ing like the one we know now. It’s prob­a­bly some­thing like Shen­zhen. What does life look like in there? What kinds of play can we imag­ine in that space? It’s part­ly a new tech­no­log­i­cal fron­tier, part­ly a social one.

The sec­ond is: the realm of the liv­ing. Biol­o­gy is becom­ing a mate­r­i­al for design. This includes game design. Can you imag­ine a game that runs on bac­te­ria? Or that you play with your back­yard fox? Just like we need to learn to live well in cities. We need to learn to live well with the oth­er species inhab­it­ing this plan­et. Play is a uni­ver­sal, trans-species lan­guage. Future applied game design will need to deal with the bio­log­i­cal as much as with the tech­no­log­i­cal. The line between both will sure­ly blur.

So those are some of the lim­its of the imag­in­able, as I see them. I hope you feel an urge to plug the hole in our imag­i­na­tion of this future as much as I do. And I would sug­gest we do this through action. The main chal­lenge I see with all this is nice­ly summed up by a quote from the archi­tect Eliel Saari­nen:

“Always design a thing by con­sid­er­ing its next larg­er con­text — a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an envi­ron­ment, an envi­ron­ment in a city plan.”

A frame from the film Powers of Ten

It reminds me of the Ray and Charles Eames film Pow­ers of Ten. In oth­er words, we need to become bet­ter at under­stand­ing the effects any­thing we make has on its sur­round­ing con­text. We might need new tools for this, or new ways of look­ing at things. It might be that the games we make are a way to see these sec­ond-order effects.

The future of applied game design, in oth­er words, is a future where design has become very much a rela­tion­al, and envi­ron­men­tal dis­ci­pline. But per­haps it already is.

  1. The slides with­out notes are also up on SlideShare. []
  2. A video of the talk is now up on Vimeo. []
  3. For a fas­ci­nat­ing account of Shen­zhen, see ‘The bal­let of iPod City’. []
  4. For a view on Bal­lard’s sig­nif­i­cance for video game design, have a look at the arti­cle ‘Rag­doll Meta­physics: JG Bal­lard, Bore­dom, And The Vio­lent Promise Of Videogames’ by Jim Rossig­nol. []
  5. I am work­ing on this at the Utrecht School of the Arts’ Design for Play­ful Impact research pro­gram. []
  6. For a good intro­duc­tion to Jere­mi­jenko’s work, check out this TED talk. []
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  1. Posted November 4, 2010 at 09:15 | Permalink

    Inter­est­ing talk and a lot of inter­est­ing links.

    Some thoughts on what you said : “[…] hav­ing issues with get­ting a clear pic­ture of what lies ahead […]” or when you’re think­ing of pos­si­ble games for a soci­ety like in Shenzen.

    Aren’t you plac­ing the design pro­ces in a cer­tain cor­ner? I like to believe you can use “design” to come up with ideas to shape the future (which inevitably requires one to take a stand), instead of try­ing to fore­see the future (and thus believ­ing it’s the result of any­thing but your design, but you can be suc­cess­ful by fore­see­ing it) or try­ing to manip­u­late the present (which is the result of dif­fer­ent process­es(?) and hence per­haps incompatible).

    In oth­er words, I believe design is to be applied to shape the world as you think it should be. Or as Buck­min­ster Fuller put it “Call me trimtab”.

  2. Kars
    Posted November 4, 2010 at 13:33 | Permalink

    Thanks for the thought­ful com­ment Brecht. I feel I might have failed to prop­er­ly express my hang-up with spec­u­lat­ing about the future. I too believe design to an extent shapes the future. But the tricky thing is that what we think is pos­si­ble is heav­i­ly influ­enced by the pos­si­ble futures we are famil­iar with (from, for instance, sci­ence fic­tion). See for instance this piece (PDF) by Bell and Dour­ish. So it is use­ful to exam­ine what our visions of the future are, and what gaps there might be in it. Because those blind spots at least part­ly shape what we will put into action today. Hope that clar­i­fies things a little.

  3. Posted November 4, 2010 at 14:28 | Permalink

    In the 50s sci-fi promised us nuclear pow­ered fly­ing cars, instead we got the inter­net. Link’s not work­ing, I’ll look for the file on the interweb,thanks!

  4. Kars
    Posted November 4, 2010 at 21:47 | Permalink

    Exact­ly. “Where’s my jet­pack,” right? The link should work now. Made a lit­tle mistake.

  5. Posted July 5, 2011 at 03:38 | Permalink

    Yes I agree that the design is the influ­ence of the future, but we are lim­it­ed by what we can envi­sion. We are lim­it­ed by our lack of cre­ative vision — no mat­ter how cre­ate we may already be. For exam­ple, the ancient author of the Book Of Rev­e­la­tion (in the Chris­t­ian holy book, The Bible) has to try to describe events and items in the future which he has clear­ly had a vision of, yet when he describes those things he can only refer to the items which exist in his present world. How can he describe things in the future when he does­n’t have a frame of ref­er­ence which fits for those items?

    How do you describe an orange — what it looks like, what it tastes like — to an alien from anoth­er planet?

    Same con­cept. Also, a lit­tle of the Heisen­berg Uncer­tain­ty Prin­ci­ple comes into play. By describ­ing our vision of the future we have already begun to alter our present real­i­ty and begun to shape our path towards that future.

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