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Occupy the future at Playful 2011

After mak­ing the many dif­fer­ent cre­ative indus­tries out there take games seri­ous­ly (and sub­se­quent­ly sort of regret­ting the con­se­quences) Play­ful was back this year and decid­ed to look towards the future. Ever since I pre­sent­ed there in 2008 this has prob­a­bly been my favorite event of the year. So I returned after a much-regret­ted hia­tus to attend Play­ful 2011 — the shape of things to come.

Longing for a Death Star

Con­fer­ence direc­tor Toby Barnes kicked off the day bemoan­ing the fact that there was still no Death Star float­ing some­where in space. He longed for a return of ambi­tious future think­ing as opposed to the more mun­dane, close-to-home, near future fore­sight that seems to be in vogue. The “where’s my jet­pack” argu­ment, basi­cal­ly. But Toby qual­i­fied this fur­ther by adding he was long­ing for more folk want­i­ng to make “a dent in the uni­verse” because, as was implied, that is what these times call for.

Escaping the prison of imagination

He was lat­er scold­ed by Mar­cus Brown, being accused of liv­ing in the “mid­dle aged future” a neat term he coined to describe the fact that cur­rent inno­va­tions are shaped by the ideas imprint­ed on our col­lec­tive uncon­scious by sci­ence fic­tion of the 70s and 80s, best exem­pli­fied by the uncan­ny resem­blance of Siri to HAL-9000.

What I found most fas­ci­nat­ing about Brown’s talk, but sad­ly had to be rushed due to time con­straints, were three far-future worlds he sketched and sub­se­quent­ly chal­lenged the audi­ence to imag­ine liv­ing in. “The Bil­lion Dol­lar Show”, for instance, is a world post peak-oil, where we have to make do with­out any fos­sil fuels. It’s not a distopia, but some­thing akin to a real-life Far­mVille.

Sci­ence fic­tion, as Al Robert­son point­ed out ear­li­er in the day, has con­struc­tive play­ful­ness at its core. What I think Mar­cus Brown was attempt­ing to do was get us think­ing beyond what we know, and force our minds into the unknown, and to get play­ful­ly cre­ative with the pos­si­bil­i­ties. To break out of the future sce­nar­ios we know from the sci-fi that have aged and — let’s face it — haven’t aged well.

Making things that dent

How­ev­er, there is some­thing in Toby Barnes’s call for “mak­ing a dent”, but I think it needs to be cou­pled with Mar­cus Brown’s demand to break out of the “prison for kids with too much imag­i­na­tion”. And in fact, dur­ing the day, some of the talks I enjoyed the most were great exam­ples of con­struc­tive play­ful­ness attempt­ing to make a dent — how­ev­er small — in culture.

Bren­dan Dawes sung the prais­es of devices such as the Maker­Bot, and empha­sized the need for each of us to have a “shed” in which to exper­i­ment and tin­ker (even if the thing you call a hack­er space is actu­al­ly just the back room). The fact that this can lead to inter­est­ing new prod­ucts is exem­pli­fied by Popa, “a big red but­ton for your iPhone cam­era”. Which arguably would not be pos­si­ble with­out the futurey tech­nolo­gies at our dis­pos­al today, such as desk­top fabrication.

Both Chris O’Shea and Toca Boca called for more open-end­ed play in iPhone games for kids — some­thing which I think can be direct­ly traced to Playful’s evan­ge­lism over the past years. Chris shared work-in-progress on a dig­i­tal race car toy, which includ­ed exper­i­ments with phys­i­cal iPhone cas­es that kids could build them­selves. Toca Boca impressed us with a large num­ber of dig­i­tal toys for imag­i­na­tive play pro­duced in under a year, with my per­son­al favorite being Toca Hair Salon. Who doesn’t want to groom a lion?

Final­ly, Matthew Ward amazed me with Green=Boom, an instal­la­tion allow­ing you to expe­ri­ence the thrill of dis­arm­ing a bomb, some­thing we’ve seen a zil­lion times in action movies but have prob­a­bly nev­er done our­selves. The bomb in this case is a bal­loon which is popped if you cut the wrong wire. It’s amaz­ing to see how our bod­ies respond to a seem­ing­ly harm­less set­up like this with high lev­els of dis­tress. Appar­ent­ly decades of see­ing oth­ers go through the ordeal on the sil­ver screen has con­di­tioned us in a big way.

To sum­ma­rize, what I took away from Play­ful is that mak­ing things is still the best way to com­plain, wether it’s con­sumer elec­tron­ic­s’s shift to touch­screens, the com­pet­i­tive nature of enter­tain­ment soft­ware for kids, or the con­sump­tion of vio­lent imagery in main­stream media, the future we find our­selves liv­ing in today enables indi­vid­u­als to make real, tan­gi­ble inter­ven­tions with very lit­tle time and means required. Con­sumer cul­ture has become a play­ground for makers.

Update, Octo­ber 24, 2011: added sec­tion head­ers and a few more links.

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