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New Games for New Cities at FutureEverything

Last week I was in Man­ches­ter for FutureEv­ery­thing. I pre­sent­ed on games and how they can be used to improve city life. Below are my notes and a selec­tion of slides. It’s longish, but hope­ful­ly infor­ma­tive. I’ve tried to con­nect crit­i­cism of gam­i­fi­ca­tion with the virtues of open-end­ed play, and show how the lat­ter can build skills that are use­ful for good urban liv­ing. Thanks to Greg, Kevin and Drew for hav­ing me and for orga­niz­ing such a won­der­ful con­fer­ence. I enjoyed my stay in Man­ches­ter, the patch­work of indus­tri­al her­itage and thor­ough­ly mod­ern archi­tec­ture pro­vid­ed me with some inter­est­ing scenery for walk­ing the city. Any­way, read on for the talk.

Think back to your child­hood. What did you play with? My mom is a preschool teacher. So when­ev­er I was bored we were giv­en clay, wax crayons or card­board. Lat­er on I got heaps and heaps of LEGOs. And I drew a lot. Lots of play for me and my broth­er and sis­ter con­sist­ed of cre­ative play.

My friends how­ev­er, they had He-Man… and Trans­form­ers and lat­er on M.A.S.K. Remem­ber M.A.S.K.? I was so jeal­ous of them. I always want­ed to have those. I some­times went over to play with them. And it was fun, no doubt. But at the end of a play ses­sion like that, we wouldn’t have made much. Per­haps we would have told a few sto­ries. But they tend­ed to be odd­ly sim­i­lar to the car­toons these toys are based on.

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The cray­olas and the He-Man toys rep­re­sent two very dif­fer­ent types of tools for play. One is about open-end­ed play, and the oth­er is about pre-script­ed play. One is cre­ative, pro­duc­tive or even trans­for­ma­tive. The oth­er is con­sump­tive, con­fir­ma­tive or even pre­scrip­tive. It is my opin­ion that what the world needs right now is for us to play more with the for­mer – the cray­olas – and less with the lat­ter – the image-focused toys. Because the types of skills we devel­op as we play with the cray­ola-like toys of today, are the types of skills we can use to address some of the issues we’re faced with in con­tem­po­rary and near-future cities.

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Put dif­fer­ent­ly, one kind of play is about the actions you engage in. The oth­er is focused on the thing. It’s the dif­fer­ence between this adven­ture play­ground, where kids have built their own cas­tle, and the play­ground on the right, where kids are pro­vid­ed with one. You can see the for­mer requires very dif­fer­ent skills from the latter.

Let’s talk a bit more about those skills, shall we? It turns out open-end­ed imag­i­na­tive play builds a set of skills col­lec­tive­ly known as exec­u­tive func­tion.1 I use the term “skill” loose­ly here, it’s actu­al­ly a con­cept “used by psy­chol­o­gists and neu­ro­sci­en­tists to describe a loose­ly defined col­lec­tion of brain­process­es that are respon­si­ble for plan­ning, cog­ni­tive flex­i­bil­i­ty, abstract think­ing, rule acqui­si­tion, ini­ti­at­ing appro­pri­ate actions and inhibit­ing inap­pro­pri­ate actions, and select­ing rel­e­vant sen­so­ry infor­ma­tion.”2 An impor­tant part of exec­u­tive func­tion is self-reg­u­la­tion. Self-reg­u­la­tion is what chil­dren devel­op when at social, imag­i­na­tive, unplanned unsu­per­vised play. Sim­ple things like a game of hide and seek, per­haps with some social­ly nego­ti­at­ed rules thrown in.

When no-one is telling you what to do…

So open-end­ed play builds self-reg­u­la­to­ry capac­i­ty in kids. But that capac­i­ty car­ries on into adult­hood. It’s this capac­i­ty you use to over­come obsta­cles, to mas­ter cog­ni­tive and social skills and to man­age your emo­tions. It’s the stuff that kicks in when no-one is telling you what to do. Vital stuff in today’s atom­ized, hyper-indi­vid­u­al­ized world. At least, if you want to live well, and want to live well with others.

The prob­lem is, few­er and few­er of children’s play­time is unsu­per­vised and unplanned. In fact it has been co-opt­ed and com­mer­cial­ized to a large extent. This has been going on for decades. It start­ed with things like this, Mattel’s toy gun called the Thun­der Burp. No longer did you need to build your own gun from twigs or tub­ing and use your imag­i­na­tion to fill in the rest…

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And this co-opta­tion of chil­dren’s play by cor­po­rate inter­ests has tak­en on grotesque forms now, such as in this thing called KidZa­nia

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KidZa­nia is a the­mepark that offers chil­dren an “edu­ca­tion­al expe­ri­ence”. It’s a child-sized con­sumerist utopia where kids play at hav­ing var­i­ous jobs, such as flip­ping burg­ers or work­ing in a print shop. They earn Kid­Zos which they can deposit at a bank and use to pay for oth­er activ­i­ties or phys­i­cal items. Most of the activ­i­ties are spon­sored by large cor­po­ra­tions – the parks would not be finan­cial­ly fea­si­ble oth­er­wise. So the burg­ers activ­i­ty for instance, is spon­sored by a cer­tain fast-food chain fea­tur­ing gold­en arch­es. And here kids are “play­ing at” fill­ing a coke bottle.

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There are KidZa­nia parks across the world, in Mex­i­co, Japan, Indone­sia, Korea, Por­tu­gal and Dubai. There’s a ton more being planned to open. Of course KidZa­nia mar­kets to par­ents, who, dri­ven by the urge to give their child the very best upbring­ing they can afford, can’t resist. As a result, chil­dren are brain­washed to be good con­sumers with cor­po­rate jobs. All in the name of “edu­ca­tion”. I’m not say­ing the par­ents are blame­less, and sure­ly my per­son­al pol­i­tics are shin­ing through here, but I do believe this is a strik­ing exam­ple of how we have come to see play.3

Let’s return to the adventure playground

We see play as some­thing that enter­tains. Some­thing you con­sume. In any case, recall the impor­tance of exec­u­tive func­tion, of self-reg­u­la­tion, and how it is trained through open-end­ed play. Now think about the types of play chil­dren – and adults – are being pro­vid­ed with. What we need is the oppo­site of what we are giv­en. So let’s return to the adven­ture playground.

Now, we have sev­er­al gen­er­a­tions who have grown up with less prac­tice at self-reg­u­la­tion. That includes myself and quite a lot of you out there today. At the same time, our world has got­ten more com­plex. Deal­ing with all this com­plex­i­ty actu­al­ly demands more self-reg­u­la­to­ry capac­i­ty from us.

When I say com­plex I don’t just mean com­pli­cat­ed. I mean we’re con­tin­u­ous­ly deal­ing with sys­tems made up out of small parts inter­act­ing in var­i­ous ways. In aggre­gate we can­not pre­dict the out­comes of those inter­ac­tions. An exam­ple we can all relate to is the recent glob­al cred­it cri­sis. It is tempt­ing to think it was the result of the shenani­gans of a few irre­spon­si­ble bankers. But in truth, it was the result of a huge­ly com­plex system’s fail­ing. Our actions as home own­ers have cer­tain­ly con­tributed to the ulti­mate cat­a­stro­phe. It’s hard though to see how our indi­vid­ual choic­es can lead up to such events.

It’s the but­ter­fly effect, a seem­ing­ly minor event lead­ing to sig­nif­i­cant out­comes. Like Edward Lorenz said: “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tor­na­do in Texas?” I think we can all become bet­ter but­ter­flies, with more sense of how our actions con­tribute to the whole. This will not hap­pen through top-down con­trol. It requires self-direct­ed work from all of us.

But with less self-reg­u­la­to­ry capac­i­ty, we’re less able to moti­vate our­selves in the work we do, and the oth­er activ­i­ties life con­fronts us with. And we got here, at least in part, thanks to the co-opta­tion of open-end­ed play. What I find per­verse is that there are peo­ple who pro­pose to use the same planned, pre-script­ed play to increase our ‘engage­ment’ with what­ev­er is the work at hand. It is now often called gam­i­fi­ca­tion. But it start­ed with rel­a­tive­ly benign stuff like these loy­al­ty cards. I think, if we go down this route, we’ll be in more trou­ble than we already are. In stead, we should be help­ing peo­ple devel­op those self-reg­u­la­to­ry skills so they them­selves can trans­form what­ev­er con­text they are faced with.

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I have many issues with gam­i­fi­ca­tion. There have been plen­ty of sol­id retorts on many lev­els by lots of peo­ple smarter than me.45 But let me offer two points of my own: one, gam­i­fi­ca­tion forces peo­ple to play. And two: it indis­crim­i­nate­ly slaps reward sys­tems on tasks both shal­low and deep. It risks hol­low­ing out intrin­si­cal­ly reward­ing activities.

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My pal Karel here has a keen sense for this. When I gave him this Ako­ha card after treat­ing him to cof­fee and hav­ing a nice con­ver­sa­tion, he was far from charmed. In fact he was insult­ed. This pho­to was tak­en short­ly before he tore up the card, pre­vent­ing me from cash­ing in my points. In his view, hav­ing a cup of cof­fee with a friend is worth the trou­ble in and of itself. I shouldn’t need a game to go through the trou­ble. And you know what? He’s right.

It’s also the case that where­as true play is always engaged in vol­un­tar­i­ly, many gam­i­fi­ca­tion designs leave you with no choice. You are con­front­ed with a sys­tem you must use for util­i­tar­i­an rea­sons, and now you are asked to jump through addi­tion­al hoops so that you will be more “engaged”. You do not play a gam­i­fied sys­tem, this sys­tem is play­ing you. It starts with sim­ple things like the vir­tu­al plants on the right of this Ford Fusion Hybrid’s dashboard…

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…and it ends with at least mild­ly wor­ry­ing things like My Coke Rewards, which incen­tivizes the con­sump­tion of Coca-Cola.

In addi­tion, mak­ing good games is hard. Con­sid­er the many mediocre games on the mar­ket. Here’s a few of them list­ed on Meta­crit­ic. Do you real­ly want your bank­ing sys­tem to be gam­i­fied by some well-mean­ing but bliss­ful­ly igno­rant design­er who has been asked to “just add points”?

Gamification won’t save us

So I’m sure it’s clear at this point that I do not believe gam­i­fi­ca­tion will save us. It adds points and badges to the sys­tems we suf­fer under every­day, with­out actu­al­ly fun­da­men­tal­ly address­ing their nature. One thing I think we need to do is to take up that gaunt­let. And when it comes to games and the com­plex city life we live nowa­days, I think we should be focus­ing on the peo­ple in the city, in stead of the stuff. Because it is ulti­mate­ly the behav­ior of the peo­ple that shapes the city, all the way to its built form. And games are excel­lent shapers of behavior.

The things that make life worth liv­ing in any city are non-script­ed. Some call it city­mag­ic. It is the joy that results from hav­ing such a high con­cen­tra­tion of peo­ple in one place, all going about their busi­ness each with their own hopes and desires. Good cities are those where cit­i­zens feel they have the agency to do this, and where they are not afraid of unfore­seen con­se­quences to their actions. It’s like Jane Jacobs said:

“Cities have the capa­bil­i­ty of pro­vid­ing some­thing for every­body, only because, and only when, they are cre­at­ed by everybody.”

Now, the net­worked city makes this chal­leng­ing for us. Many if not all aspects of life are now struc­tured by infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy and much of that tech­nol­o­gy is find­ing its way into the built envi­ron­ment. The trou­ble is, to the ordi­nary cit­i­zen the process­es that are influ­enc­ing our lives so strong­ly are opaque, and often inscrutable. Like this CCTV cam­era, which is designed in such a way that you can­not tell wether it is aimed at you or not…

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One way to address this is to bring bet­ter design to those urban infor­mat­ics. This is a worth­while endeav­or and I am glad super smart folks are engaged in it. My propo­si­tion though, is that games can con­tribute to the build­ing of the self-reg­u­la­to­ry skills that cit­i­zens need to both bet­ter read and write the con­tem­po­rary city.

Literacy of the networked city

This lit­er­a­cy of the net­worked city is some­thing that resides in peo­ple, not things. And I think games and play are an excel­lent train­ing ground for this kind of lit­er­a­cy. I’ll give you an exam­ple in a minute, but before I do, remem­ber that what makes cities mag­i­cal is all those peo­ple you do not know. The serendip­i­tous encoun­ters and the great things they are up to. And that, to live well in the city, it is of the essence to give each oth­er the much need­ed space to do this. To real­ize, in oth­er words, that strangers are your friends, with­out them actu­al­ly hav­ing to be your friends.

Recent­ly I par­tic­i­pat­ed in my first all­ey­cat. They’re scav­enger­hunt-like races orga­nized by bicy­cle couri­ers and cycling enthu­si­asts. You typ­i­cal­ly ride them on one of those fash­ion­able fix­ies. It was a love­ly experience.

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Not only is it a great way to serendip­i­tous­ly explore the city, but it’s also a love­ly struc­ture for inter­ac­tion with strangers. I wasn’t too famil­iar with the city, so I tagged along with a few oth­er rid­ers who had a nice pace. We roamed the streets like a pack of stray dogs and flu­id­ly weaved through traffic.

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Some of these guys real­ly have super­hero-like skills when it comes to wayfind­ing and read­ing traf­fic. It was men­tal­ly expand­ing to wit­ness. After­wards we had a beer, a chat and then we went our sep­a­rate ways.

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The point is not that these games turn you into instant friends. In stead, the point is that you’re remind­ed that any fel­low cit­i­zen can be the occa­sion­al team mem­ber, some­one you hook up with to achieve some­thing, and that’s it. That’s an impor­tant real­iza­tion for any urban­ite to have.

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More inter­ac­tions with strangers: at one point dur­ing the race I round­ed a cor­ner and there was a group of chil­dren at a tram stop cheer­ing us as we came past. For a moment I felt like Lance Arm­strong, and I am sure they were play­ing at what they had seen on TV. Smiles all around. So play­ing a game like this builds skills, and real­iza­tions, any urban­ite needs to bet­ter deal with strangers.

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The ques­tion is, what the all­ey­cat of trans­mo­bil­i­ty looks like. How do we race each oth­er when we’re using our Boris Bikes and our Oys­ter cards to hop from modal­i­ty to modal­i­ty? Per­haps it’s Chro­maro­ma, per­haps it’s some­thing else, but in any case, we need these games and we need our sys­tems to accom­mo­date them.

When the now still ana­logue wayfind­ing sys­tem in the tube is replaced by a piece of urban infor­mat­ics, I want it to still allow for this kind of stuff. Because it’s these lit­tle things that make our cities such won­der­ful places to live in.

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It’s the age-old dilem­ma of city plan­ners; plan­ning for the unex­pect­ed. Antic­i­pat­ing, for instance, what this free run­ner is doing with these street lights, is next to impos­si­ble. Attempt­ing to plan for it is almost para­dox­i­cal. But it’s vital. Because in addi­tion to build­ing use­ful skills for urban liv­ing, self-ini­ti­at­ed play like this, the things peo­ple get up to with­out top­down insti­ga­tion, is what keeps the city vibrant and alive.

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I vis­it­ed Berlin a while ago, and dur­ing a night of tour­ing the city’s bars and clubs, we came across a pub­lic toi­let that had been con­vert­ed, gueril­la style, into a music venue. Seri­ous­ly. In one cor­ner there was a band mak­ing a ton of noise. Here’s a small clip tak­en that night… There was a guy in the oth­er cor­ner sell­ing beers for next to noth­ing. We were asked to make a small dona­tion for the band. It was won­der­ful­ly grass­roots and strange.

Bring more of life into games

So these games I’m talk­ing about make life more inter­est­ing and build use­ful skills that exer­cise your capac­i­ties as an urban­ite to the fullest of your poten­tial. Life doesn’t need to be made more like a game, we don’t need a game lay­er. We don’t need to be put through an adult-sized KidZa­nia. In stead, we need to bring more of life into games. And each game we play can be a prayer or a med­i­ta­tion for a bet­ter world.6

Put people before stuff

My time is almost up so let me make a few final requests. To those of you who shape urban pol­i­cy and deal with the deploy­ment of urban infor­mat­ics: please put peo­ple first in your work, trust in their capac­i­ty to do won­der­ful things and enable them to do so. To those in the busi­ness of mak­ing games, put peo­ple first too, and try to see that games can be so much more than mere enter­tain­ment media ready for mind­less consumption.

And to all of you, the play­ers, when you get back from this con­fer­ence, or bet­ter yet when you go out onto the streets of Man­ches­ter tonight: Play a lit­tle. It’s good for you. And it’s good for your city.

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  1. “Old-Fash­ioned Play Builds Seri­ous Skills”, NPR []
  2. “Exec­u­tive func­tions”, Wikipedia []
  3. “State of Play”, The Morn­ing News []
  4. “Can’t play, won’t play”, Mar­garet Robert­son []
  5. “Exploita­tion­ware”, Ian Bogost []
  6. “Spis­si­fy Da Gam­i­fy”, David Cal­vo []
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