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The Transformers at dConstruct 2011

Over two weeks have passed since dCon­struct 2011 so it’s high time I post my talk.

I felt a bit appre­hen­sive about this one: dCon­struct tends to have a pret­ty het­ero­ge­neous audi­ence, so it’s hard to know what kind of talk to shoot for. In addi­tion, I was slight­ly wor­ried about how peo­ple would react to my com­ments on the UK riots, being an “out­sider” myself.

How­ev­er, I get the sense peo­ple appre­ci­at­ed my attempt to con­nect design (game design in par­tic­u­lar) to cur­rent issues, which is grat­i­fy­ing. I guess I should’ve just trust­ed Andy Budd’s judge­ment when he okayed my abstract. Him and the rest of the folks at Clear­left did an out­stand­ing job putting this on and I am glad to have been part of it.

So below are some of my slides and notes. This isn’t a ver­ba­tim account of what I said that day, but rather a kind of hyper­text remix. It’s become a bit of a long read, but I do hope it’s worth it. Enjoy, and do get in touch if you have any com­ments, ques­tions and so on.

Update, Octo­ber 6, 2011: a video of this talk is now up on vzaar.

Preamble

I start­ed with an intro­duc­tion on how I was plan­ning to talk about reuse of old build­ings, and how neigh­bor­hoods as a whole ben­e­fit from this. I had been plan­ning to make this talk a con­tin­u­a­tion of, and an elab­o­ra­tion on, this ear­li­er post. In addi­tion, I would have includ­ed ideas on how new tools are allow­ing us to shape our sur­round­ing in increas­ing­ly dra­mat­ic ways. Enri­co Dini’s D-Shape is a great exam­ple of this.

But then, I said, the recent UK riots made me change plans. I felt it would be a bit too friv­o­lous to sing the prais­es of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, since at least a few areas that serve as pop­u­lar exam­ples of the phe­nom­e­non (such as London’s Hack­ney) were hit pret­ty bad­ly. So instead, I decid­ed to talk about the dark side of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion.

Riots in Tottenham

Unseeing

As a start, I described the won­der­ful, weird place known as Baar­le-Nas­sau in the Nether­lands and Baar­le-Her­tog in Bel­gium. It’s a town with some of the cra­zi­est bor­ders you’ve ever seen. Over twen­ty Bel­gian exclaves in Dutch ter­ri­to­ry make up Baar­le-Her­tog. An addi­tion­al num­ber of Dutch exclaves are embed­ded in those Begian ones again. This com­pli­cat­ed mess emerged from a series of medieval treaties, agree­ments, land-swaps and sales between the Lords of Bre­da and the Dukes of Bra­bant. (If you real­ly want to know, head over to Wikipedia.)

The borders of Baarle

The sit­u­a­tion on the ground is seri­ous­ly odd. (So odd, in fact, that it’s a reg­u­lar sub­ject of light news enter­tain­ment.) Bor­ders are marked with spe­cial tiles through­out the town. There are build­ings right on top of these bor­ders, which means you can enter a home from Dutch ter­ri­to­ry and leave it into Bel­gium (and vice-ver­sa). It gets stranger even, with homes that have their entrance on a bor­der lead­ing to two address­es, and sto­ries about mixed-ter­ri­to­ry restau­rants hav­ing to ask din­ers to move from the Dutch to the Bel­gian part of their estab­lish­ments when Dutch clos­ing time had passed.

Tiles marking a border in Baarle

Baar­le is a bit sim­i­lar to the cities of Beszél and Ul Qoma, as described in Chi­na Miéville’s excel­lent The City & the City. Like Baar­le, they are two cities that take up the same geo­graph­ic area. But Miéville goes one step fur­ther and includes the idea of “cross­hatched” areas. That is to say: areas that are con­sid­ered to be in both cities, but have dif­fer­ent names and occu­pants are thought to be in one place or the oth­er. This is because the res­i­dents of the book’s two cities are trained from birth to “unsee” the res­i­dents and build­ings of the oth­er city. So if an inhab­i­tant of Beszél comes across some­one who is in Ul Qoma in a cross­hatched square, they are required to ignore each oth­er. If they don’t, it’s con­sid­ered a gross trans­gres­sion, and a shad­owy orga­ni­za­tion known as ‘Breach’ steps in to dis­ap­pear the offend­ing indi­vid­u­als. In prac­tice this rarely hap­pens as res­i­dents are thor­ough­ly con­di­tioned to pick up on the sub­tle dif­fer­ences in behav­ior of oth­ers, as well as the dis­tinc­tions between the two cities’ archi­tec­ture.

Miéville’s book is clear­ly inspired by places like Baar­le, but also what hap­pened in the Balka­ns and Berlin. The Berlin wall serves as a par­tic­u­lar­ly dis­con­cert­ing exam­ple sine the bor­ders were closed overnight, sep­a­rat­ing peo­ple from their jobs and fam­i­lies. An insane sit­u­a­tion if you think about it. But what makes The City & the City so dis­con­cert­ing is that it goes beyond the idea of phys­i­cal sep­a­ra­tion lead­ing to social sep­a­ra­tion. The social sep­a­ra­tion in Beszél and Ul Qoma hap­pens with­out phys­i­cal bound­aries and (to a large extent) through mutu­al choice.

The Berlin wall

And so you would think stuff like this is the purview of weird fic­tion, the stuff writ­ers like Miéville excel at. But in fact, it’s very close to my expe­ri­ence of life in neigh­bor­hoods around the world. As an exam­ple I’ll quote from an anec­dote shared by James Meek at the Lon­don Review of Books blog, which is a descrip­tion of an inci­dent at Broad­way Mar­ket in Hack­ney, Lon­don.

“As Ghaith [a friend of the author from Iraq] and I walked down the street a dis­tur­bance began. A group of about thir­ty young black kids were mov­ing togeth­er, look­ing anx­ious and excit­ed. Some had makeshift weapons in their hands, poles and lengths of bro­ken-off wood. After a moment, between a gap in the shops that looked through to the base of a tow­er block, we saw the rea­son for their anx­i­ety – two tiny fig­ures on bikes, dressed in black, hood­ed and masked. As we watched, one of the fig­ures reached into the pock­et of his hood­ie and lift­ed – just enough to show – a hand gun, spread­ing pan­ic among the larg­er group.

The trou­ble sub­sided as quick­ly as it began and the par­tic­i­pants dis­persed before the police arrived. Through­out the episode, a young, casu­al­ly dressed, thought­ful-look­ing white cou­ple sat at a table out­side a wine bar, watch­ing and sip­ping white wine. The neck of the bot­tle leaned, mist­ed with con­den­sa­tion, from the rim of an ice buck­et on the table. The cou­ple didn’t look con­cerned that the gang con­fronta­tion or turf bat­tle, what­ev­er it was, would affect them; the feud­ing kids didn’t seem to see them, either.”

Not alone is this an exam­ple of how sur­re­al life in gen­tri­fied areas can get, it is also of vol­un­tary self-sep­a­ra­tion. I think this kind of behav­ior can give rise to ten­sions and if dri­ven to extreme forms leads to ter­ri­ble things such as the UK riots.

Broadway Market

Hackney

A flash crash of civil society

Now I was shocked and sad­dened to see the riots hap­pen. Of course, I expe­ri­enced none of it first-hand but did get a sense of its impact on local com­mu­ni­ties through some of my Lon­don friends on Twit­ter. As the events unfold­ed, I felt com­pelled to dig deep­er, to try and under­stand some of what might have caused the riots. How­ev­er, the pur­pose of this talk is not to pro­vide a defin­i­tive expla­na­tion of the riots. I won’t pre­sume I can. But what I did find has lead to some insights. Insights that, in turn, give rise to some impor­tant ques­tions. (If I had to rec­om­mend one post on how to view the riots it would be this one.)

For instance, I came across this quote, from a Lon­don­er who was asked wether riot­ing is the cor­rect way to express your dis­con­tent. The per­son respond­ed:

“You wouldn’t be talk­ing to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?”

Which exem­pli­fies the short­com­ings of main­stream media of pro­vid­ing cer­tain groups with­in soci­ety with a voice. It can also be read as an attempt by these groups to hack the atten­tion econ­o­my of the over­lap­ping media land­scape. A kind of gam­ing of the sys­tem.

Of course, civ­il dis­obe­di­ence isn’t any­thing new. Riot­ing is of all times. A favorite exam­ple of mine are the Provos, a Dutch counter-cul­tur­al move­ment that made things uncom­fort­able for the author­i­ties in the mid-six­ties. They’re most­ly known for their non­vi­o­lent “ludic actions”. For instance, they would go out on the streets with blank ban­ners, ban­ners with noth­ing writ­ten on them. And still, they’d get arrest­ed. This way, they high­light­ed the oppres­sive regime they were liv­ing under, at the time.

Provos with white banners

So although there’s noth­ing curi­ous about riot­ing, what is new is the scale at which it can be ‘orga­nized’ on short notice. This, of course, is enabled by the new tools we have at our dis­pos­al, things like Twit­ter, and BBM. (More on the role of social soft­ware in the riots in this Ars Tech­ni­ca piece.) In addi­tion, con­tem­po­rary west­ern soci­ety seems to have become sig­nif­i­cant­ly more volatile. I’m con­fi­dent this can be attrib­uted, at least in part, by the incred­i­ble amount of pos­i­tive feed­back loops present in our media land­scape. Mes­sages get passed around indis­crim­i­nate­ly and each refer­ral ampli­fies the chance of an idea (how­ev­er hare­brained) spread­ing fur­ther.

And so sim­i­lar to what black box trad­ing algo­rithms did to the stock mar­ket (the May 6th, 2010 flash-crash on Wall Street, an occur­rence pop­u­lar­ized in design cir­cles by Kevin Slavin) these new tools and the medi­as­cape have done for soci­ety, lead­ing my friend and col­lab­o­ra­tor Alper to label the UK riots a “flash crash of civ­il soci­ety”.

Now I’m not sug­gest­ing the tools are the prob­lem. After all, they can be used for good as much as for evil, as exem­pli­fied by the #riot­cleanup hash­tag peo­ple ral­lied around to clean their neigh­bor­hoods right after the trou­ble start­ed. I don’t think we need less use of these tools. In fact I think we need more use of them, but also a dif­fer­ent use.

And so the big ques­tion that all this leads to for me, is how can we make soci­ety more resilient? How can we use these new dig­i­tal tools to do so?

Testbeds & meeting places

I think what made the riots so unset­tling is that they high­light­ed the frag­ment­ed nature of the neigh­bor­hoods in which they took place. Loot­ers weren’t just act­ing unlaw­ful­ly but also, appar­ent­ly against what is con­sid­ered social­ly rea­son­able. Who would loot in their own neigh­bor­hood? But for all intents and pur­pos­es, parts of these neigh­bor­hoods were in sep­a­rate cities, like Beszél and Ul Qoma, or Baar­le. This is the result of the rules peo­ple choose to live by. The will­ful self-sep­a­ra­tion. I won­der what might hap­pen if we make these rules more tan­gi­ble. What if before the riots took place it was already clear that in terms of the rules peo­ple live by, these neigh­bor­hoods were in dif­fer­ent cities?

Since all of this is about rules, and games are made up of them, I think we can use games to make a dif­fer­ence.

One way games can cre­ate change is through a prac­tice Ian Bogost has dubbed ‘pro­ce­dur­al rhetoric’. We can make per­sua­sive state­ments in the shape of sim­u­la­tions or rule-based rep­re­sen­ta­tions (games, in oth­er words). Bogost calls the cog­ni­tive fric­tion play­ers expe­ri­ence when con­front­ed with a sub­jec­tive sim­u­la­tion of real­i­ty, that dif­fers from their per­cep­tion of the world, ‘sim­u­la­tion fever’. It is by work­ing through this fever that peo­ple might adjust their view of things. The fact that games are about rules makes them well-suit­ed for deal­ing with com­plex sys­temic issues, like the social ones I’ve been dis­cussing so far.

For exam­ple (and this is tak­en from an excel­lent arti­cle on pro­ce­dur­al rhetoric by Bogost in the book The Ecol­o­gy of Games) Ani­mal Cross­ing can be expe­ri­enced as a cri­tique of con­sumerist soci­ety. You know, you start the game and are imme­di­ate­ly in debt to Tom Nook (whom I’ve come to despise, and I’m not the only one). So you need to work to pay off your mort­gage but you’re con­stant­ly tempt­ed to buy stuff to fill your house with. The game is a pret­ty accu­rate depic­tion of (an aspect of) how many of us lead our lives. What’s nice is, you can also decide to step out of this rat race in the game and just be idle and do non­pro­duc­tive stuff and expe­ri­ence the bliss of this. So it’s not all bad. That’s what makes it a good pro­ce­dur­al cri­tique. You get to play with the rules.

Animal Crossing

In a sim­i­lar way, we can make games about how we cur­rent­ly live togeth­er and about how we could live togeth­er all at once.

The pop­u­lar approach to affect­ing people’s behav­ior is to incen­tivize it with tan­gi­ble or arti­fi­cial rewards. This is not intend­ed to be a defin­i­tive cri­tique of gam­i­fi­ca­tion. Oth­ers have done this in a most excel­lent man­ner. Suf­fice to say gam­i­fi­ca­tion focus­es on rewards, and dis­re­gards rules. By offer­ing rewards for reci­procity, it sug­gests there is no intrin­sic val­ue in it. This is a prob­lem­at­ic thing to do.

I’d rather see us use games as test­beds for new ideas. A favorite exam­ple of mine is Parfyme’s Har­bor Lab­o­ra­to­ry. An art project that took place in Copen­hagen in 2008. Parfyme cre­at­ed a play­ground where peo­ple could come in and exper­i­ment with alter­na­tive uses of the har­bor. So this can be thought of as an open-end­ed game. With­in a game like that you can try new things and see what sticks. These things can sub­se­quent­ly be applied out­side of the game.

Harbor Laboratory by Parfyme

Social self-sep­a­ra­tion acts as a fil­ter bub­ble. I’m no stranger to the com­fort­able feel­ing of being sur­round­ed by like-mind­ed indi­vid­u­als. But we need new per­spec­tives too. So I’m propos­ing we can coun­ter­act this fil­ter bub­ble with games that let you expe­ri­ence alter­na­tive views. On the one hand, games can mod­el such new per­spec­tives.

On the oth­er hand, a game can be a place where you run into peo­ple with alter­na­tive views. Sure, the video game scene can tend towards mono­cul­ture, but oth­er kind of games, folk games for instance, are great at bring­ing peo­ple from diverse back­grounds togeth­er. For instance, play­ing chess in the park. But I am now also think­ing of my expe­ri­ence play­ing Johann Sebas­t­ian Joust and new games dur­ing the DiGRA 2011 con­fer­ence. Games like this work because they con­di­tion social dis­course through rules. But they are mal­leable as well, so they can be adapt­ed by play com­mu­ni­ties and are thus more acces­si­ble than your typ­i­cal video game.

Chess in the park

Johann Sebastian Joust

Preconditions

So there’s a poten­tial to use games to achieve greater social resilience. But to get there I think we need to adhere to a few prin­ci­pals. Togeth­er they form the con­tours of what I’m aim­ing for.

First of all, and this has been bril­liant­ly dis­cussed by Tom Armitage in a recent blog post at Kill Screen, such a game shouldn’t be apart from every­day life, but should fit into it. We should be able to make it part of our rou­tine. The mixed-up-with-every­day-life part of per­va­sive urban games has always been what I find most excit­ing.

But, and this is a big but, the cur­rent form of urban games pre­vents them from being played at scale. They are typ­i­cal­ly event-based, lim­it­ed to spe­cif­ic times and loca­tions and can only han­dle a small num­ber of peo­ple. They tend to be cost­ly to orga­nize, if cal­cu­lat­ed on a per-play­er basis.

I men­tioned Vis­i­ble Cities by Hol­ly Gra­mazio and Kevan Davis (which I dis­cussed before) as a great game about unsee­ing that is played in pub­lic space. It lets you expe­ri­ence the weird­ness of this behav­ior in an exag­ger­at­ed man­ner. I think that’s a pow­er­ful idea. But as I said, it won’t reach a large num­ber of peo­ple due to its form. This is not a cri­tique of the game, I know the design­ers delib­er­ate­ly chose this form and aren’t as inter­est­ed in reach­ing large num­bers of play­ers as I am. But still.

Visible Cities

For a game’s rules to spread far and wide they need to be meme-like. I’m think­ing of some­thing like BookCross­ing. Grant­ed, it’s not a game, but it is a rule­set that spreads eas­i­ly and as it spreads gives rise to (in this case) a bot­tom-up glob­al library. Or games that bor­der on social prac­tices like Mafia / Were­wolf. Those are also sim­ple enough rule­sets, freely avail­able, that have spread like wild­fire in cer­tain com­mu­ni­ties.

Meme-like rules need to require lit­tle to no cen­tral author­i­ty. Games like this need to be self-gov­ern­ing, in the man­ner of fam­i­ly board games. Sim­i­lar­ly, Bar­Camps are self-spread­ing rule­sets that when put into action are (to a large extent) com­mu­ni­ty-gov­erned.

Of course, for a game like this to spread as described and do all these things it needs to be dig­i­tal, it needs to live on the net­work, be dis­cov­er­able, share­able, etc.

An idea

When I was build­ing this talk an idea emerged of a kind of game that might do the things I am talk­ing about. So I thought it would be worth­while to put it out there, to see if there’s any­thing in it.

To explain it, I first need to talk about Nom­ic. This is a game where a move con­sists of sug­gest­ing a new rule for the game. Play­ers vote on sug­gest­ed rules and when accept­ed a new rule imme­di­ate­ly becomes part of the game. This way, Nom­ic is a sim­pli­fi­ca­tion, an abstrac­tion of legal sys­tems. In par­tic­u­lar of their self-amend­ing prin­ci­pal, because the rules gov­ern­ing the intro­duc­tion of new rules are them­selves sub­ject to change. So it’s a rule­set in con­stant flux.

Nomic

I some­times think that nowa­days, we’re all engaged in our own pri­vate game of Nom­ic. That is to say, we con­tin­u­ous­ly recon­sid­er the rules we chose to live by (at least some of them) in the hopes of improv­ing our exis­tence. Of course, there’s rules exter­nal to our­selves which we are sub­ject to as well. Rules gov­erned by law, the gov­ern­ment, cul­tur­al con­ven­tions. But it seems that the influ­ence of these large insti­tu­tions has waned and the space they’ve left now has to be tak­en up by self-select­ed indi­vid­ual rules. And we’re still kind of fig­ur­ing out how to live well togeth­er in such a sit­u­a­tion.

But if code is law, as Lawrence Lessig has argued, then there is an oppor­tu­ni­ty to take this intan­gi­ble, mas­sive­ly par­al­lel game of Nom­ic and cod­i­fy it, using social soft­ware.

Per­haps we can cre­ate a game to nego­ti­ate these indi­vid­ual rule­sets. A game where the tac­it rules of indi­vid­u­als and groups are made explic­it. The incen­tive for play­ers to par­tic­i­pate is actu­al pow­er, a stake in the total rule­space. This game might func­tion as a sand­box for new rules, that we’d col­lec­tive­ly like to live by out­side of the game. And in doing so, it might become a plat­form for a more resilient mode of coex­is­tence.

I’m not say­ing this will pre­vent riots, but it might. It is my hope that with these new shared rule­splaces we might start to rein­te­grate the frag­ment­ed nature of our most vibrant neigh­bor­hoods. My inten­tion is not to iron out the seams that make them inter­est­ing, but to cre­ate new inter­con­nec­tions between the islands that they are now made up of, using the trans­for­ma­tive capac­i­ties of games.

Update, Sep­tem­ber 21, 2011: in addi­tion to the quote I lift­ed from him, Alper Çuğun made sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions to this talk, which I neglect­ed to men­tion at time of pub­lish­ing.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted September 20, 2011 at 20:24 | Permalink

    Kars – a beau­ti­ful argu­ment beau­ti­ful­ly made.

    It remind­ed me of Paul Romer’s “The­o­ry of His­to­ry, With Appli­ca­tions”, his argu­ment being that human inno­va­tion con­sists of (a) tech­nolo­gies and (b) social rule sets, and that the time has come to shift inven­tion to the lat­ter part, point­ing to Hongkong and the Chi­nese Spe­cial Eco­nom­ic Zones as suc­cess­ful exam­ples for such “social rule inno­va­tion” sand­box­es.

    It also remind­ed me of the high­ly under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed book “Mod­els and Mir­rors” by anthro­pol­o­gist Don Han­del­man. He dis­tin­guish­es two types of rit­u­als: those that (re)present/mirror (i.e. show real­i­ty as it is or should be), and those that perform/model (i.e. take par­tic­i­pants through a trans­for­ma­tive expe­ri­ence result­ing in a dif­fer­ent real­i­ty). Ian’s pro­ce­dur­al rhetorics are some­where in-between, though lean­ing to the mir­ror events, your idea leans to the mod­el­ing events.

    There is one poten­tial point of debate, though: Mak­ing the implic­it explic­it, hard-cod­ing rules that before were open to ambi­gu­i­ty, inter­pre­ta­tion and rene­go­ti­a­tion on the spot pro­found­ly changes the nature of the inter­ac­tion thus gov­erned, and not nec­es­sar­i­ly for the bet­ter. (Along those lines, David Wein­berg­er ones spoke in defense of the web’s “tac­it gov­er­nance”.)

  2. alper
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 22:07 | Permalink

    @Sebastian: That list would not be com­plete with­out the Berk­man Center’s def­i­n­i­tion of Net­worked Publics which I most recent­ly heard from danah boyd at I think the last Hyper­pub­lic event:

    Net­worked publics are publics that are restruc­tured by net­worked tech­nolo­gies. As such they are simul­ta­ne­ous­ly: 1. the space con­struct­ed through net­worked tech­nolo­gies and 2. the imag­ined com­mu­ni­ty that emerges as a result of the inter­sec­tion of peo­ple, tech­nol­o­gy and prac­tice.

    It indeed shows that there has been a lot of think­ing around this sub­ject already. It may be time that game design­ers shine their light on how society’s rules can be retran­scribed. That knowl­edge may be a wel­come addi­tion to how soci­ety works. I know a lot of peo­ple from society’s mar­gins are already —out of neces­si­ty— experts at gam­ing sys­tems how­ev­er frag­men­tary their under­stand­ing of them.

  3. Kars
    Posted September 21, 2011 at 09:51 | Permalink

    Sebas­t­ian, Alper, thanks for the thoughts and resources. I’ve got my work cut out for me, it seems.

    Let me start by say­ing I am not 100% sure it’s a good idea to tran­scribe the tac­it rules peo­ple live by. And I am sen­si­tive to the dis­tinc­tion between mir­ror­ing and mod­el­ing. You know I am incred­i­bly inter­est­ed in the cre­ative and trans­for­ma­tive poten­tial of games and so I am not very inter­est­ed in spoon-feed­ing a world­view baked into a soft­ware sim­u­la­tion. The idea I closed the talk with is half-formed, per­haps too much so. But the assump­tion behind it is that there is a need to play with the social rules we live by. And that by doing so mutu­al under­stand­ing and respect can be increased and suf­fer­ing like that which we saw with the riots could be pre­vent­ed or at least reduced.

    When it comes to tech­no­log­i­cal ver­sus social inno­va­tion, I guess I am more focused on the lat­ter than a lot of design­ers, But I wouldn’t sep­a­rate them com­plete­ly. After all, ulti­mate­ly, design is about mak­ing, and for this, tech­nol­o­gy is a mate­r­i­al. The social inno­va­tion goes hand-in-hand with the tech.

    Doug Wil­son tweet­ed, in response to my use of Joust as an exam­ple: “…for me it’s not game as metaphor, but game as per­for­mance.” I guess what I like about the game is that it puts tech­nol­o­gy at play and much of the rule mak­ing hap­pens out­side of the domain of hard­ware and soft­ware.

    But as Alper points out, with the rise of net­worked publics, that dis­tinc­tion isn’t as tidy as it used to be. When I play Joust I am not just deal­ing with the rules enact­ed by the local play group, but also those that I have gleaned from videos and blog posts and tweets online. The net­worked per­for­mance of those rules, so to speak.