Hubbub has gone into hibernation.

Public Game Installations & Player Engagement

A few weeks ago I had the plea­sure of speak­ing at Dutch E-Cul­ture Days in Helsin­ki. An event orga­nized by Virtueel Plat­form, it took place at the World Design Cap­i­tal Pavil­ion and last­ed two days. On the first, sev­er­al Dutch trans­me­dia projects were pre­sent­ed. My favorite was film­mak­er Floris Kaayk’s Human Bird­wings project, an elab­o­rate media hoax about the dream of human flight. The sec­ond day was all about cities and social tech­nolo­gies. Alper dis­cussed his work at Hack the Gov­ern­ment — app con­tests and the promis­es and pit­falls of open data — and Michiel talked about recent work­shops done by The Mobile City in Ams­ter­dam and Moscow aimed at improv­ing the sense of own­er­ship of pub­lic space.

I was asked to talk about PLAY Pilots, a project that is now two years old — which feels like ages ago. The orga­niz­ers asked me to use it as a lens for talk­ing about how to design for audi­ence engage­ment. It was nice to get an oppor­tu­ni­ty to reflect on this work now that I have some more dis­tance from it. I think it all holds up pret­ty well. Cer­tain­ly, the choic­es we made did not all work out for the best, although oth­ers did. In any case, I thought it would be good to write up what I talked about, for the ben­e­fit of oth­er game instal­la­tion mak­ers, and the peo­ple who com­mis­sion them. (If you pre­fer watch­ing the actu­al talk, a video is avail­able.)

Hav­ing intro­duced Hub­bub as well as the project — read the project write­up for a gen­er­al intro­duc­tion — I went through each live game. I talked about how each plays and also, how it was con­nect­ed to the web­site. The aim was to show that the game cre­ators used very dif­fer­ent approach­es to invit­ing peo­ple to play, social play dynam­ics and what I’ve come to call records of play.

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The PLAY Pilots live games

Invitation to Play

How do play­ers approach a game instal­la­tion? Or to put the ques­tion dif­fer­ent­ly: How does a game instal­la­tion approach play­ers? These are two sides of the same coin.

Wip ’n’ Kip was shaped as a car­ni­val attrac­tion. The cre­ators were there to active­ly sell the game to the audi­ence and encour­age them to step up and play. Dur­ing play ses­sions they would encour­age play­ers and spur on the crowd. This game instal­la­tion grabbed play­ers by the throat. A high­ly effec­tive approach, giv­en the fes­tive atmos­phere at the event — left field elec­tron­ic music fes­ti­val Stekker­fest — made fea­si­ble by its short dura­tion.

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MC Karel encour­ag­ing a Wip ‘n’ Kip play­er

In con­trast, De Stere­oscoop had to run for a decid­ed­ly longer peri­od of time — more than a week. It was set up at the Nether­lands Film Fes­ti­val pavil­ion and was acces­si­ble to all passers­by. The instal­la­tion had an idle mode — sim­i­lar to arcade video games. It would at times run a short video that explained the machine’s work­ings. Oth­er than that, it would just ran­dom­ly play clips. This, cou­pled with the leg­i­ble phys­i­cal inter­face — turn tables that actu­al­ly spun — it tempt­ed peo­ple to give it a go.

Final­ly, Band­jes­land ran for two days but at an indoor music fes­ti­val — the won­der­ful Le Guess Who?. Its out-of-the-way loca­tion in the venue forced the cre­ators to come up with yet anoth­er approach. They wouldn’t be able to stand next to the game and ask peo­ple to play, or have it sub­tly present itself to passers­by. In stead, they made find­ing the game part of the fun by scat­ter­ing clues point­ing towards it through­out the venue, piquing curios­i­ty.

So game dura­tion and phys­i­cal place­ment are fac­tors that affect how a game instal­la­tion can invite peo­ple to play. In addi­tion, how a game approach­es poten­tial play­ers is one ele­ment that can be used to give it a cer­tain char­ac­ter — from enthu­si­as­tic and invit­ing to restrained and mys­te­ri­ous.

Social Play

When it comes to engage­ment — once play­ers have start­ed play­ing — I find it is use­ful to think about what type of social play a game instal­la­tion engen­ders. Let’s look at each PLAY Pilots live game again to see how they’ve done this.

Wip ’n’ Kip was all about spec­ta­cle. To play meant engag­ing in this intense­ly phys­i­cal act while at the same time look­ing slight­ly ridicu­lous. Play­ers were put on a stage. Races, which saw three play­ers com­pet­ing, thank­ful­ly did not last long. Mean­while the audi­ence laughed, encour­aged con­tes­tants and applaud­ed win­ners.

De Stere­oscoop allowed for one or two peo­ple to play at the same time. The result of their actions — the scratched and mixed clips from films — was eas­i­ly seen by audi­ence from fur­ther off. In a sense, play­ers were VJ-ing. The rewards — more about those in the next sec­tion — incen­tivized explo­ration: Play­ers were encour­aged to keep look­ing for inter­est­ing jux­ta­po­si­tions. This was a much more laid-back and con­tem­pla­tive expe­ri­ence.

And final­ly, Bandjesland’s expe­ri­ence was very com­mu­nal and chaot­ic. Play­ers could just drop in when­ev­er they felt like it. Each night con­sist­ed of essen­tial­ly an hours-long play ses­sion, with con­tri­bu­tions from numer­ous peo­ple. You could just stand around the instal­la­tion for a while, watch oth­er peo­ple play and when­ev­er you felt like it join in.

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Col­lab­o­ra­tive play in Band­jes­land

So social play is about think­ing in terms of the com­mu­nal expe­ri­ence. The rela­tion­ship between those play­ing and those watch­ing the play­ers — the audi­ence. Each of the PLAY Pilots game instal­la­tions result­ed in a kind of per­for­mance, but very dif­fer­ent ones.

Records of Play

The last thing I dis­cussed dealt with what hap­pens after play. In terms of engage­ment, it is inter­est­ing to think about how people’s rela­tion­ship with a game instal­la­tion can be pro­longed once it is no longer phys­i­cal­ly present. In PLAY Pilots we devel­oped a web­site in par­al­lel with the live games. Each game was con­nect­ed to the web­site in a dif­fer­ent way.

Play­ers of Wip ’n’ Kip received a tick­et with a unique code after their race. They could use this to claim their race time on our web­site, as well as see a slow motion video of a por­tion of the race, record­ed with a high speed video cam­era. The idea here was that to have par­tic­i­pat­ed in this game instal­la­tion was some­thing play­ers would enjoy brag­ging about online. So we gave them some bits they could eas­i­ly link to and go “look what I did”.

De Stere­oscoop looked for inter­est­ing com­bi­na­tions made by play­ers and print­ed out tick­ets, once again with unique codes. These allowed play­ers to claim badges — a com­bi­na­tion of two love scenes would yield the ‘Roman­tic’ badge for instance. They could also see what films they had used to get this badge, in case play­ers were curi­ous about the film and hadn’t rec­og­nized it. So this was much more a case of enabling play­ers to keep a record of their play actions, with decid­ed­ly less per­son­al data being cap­tured.

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Claim­ing Stere­oscoop badges on the web­site

The cre­ators of Band­jes­land took a dif­fer­ent approach. Hand­ing out codes for each con­tri­bu­tion made no sense in the jovial, drop-in-when­ev­er-you-like atmos­phere of the game. There were no clear end points to indi­vid­ual play ses­sions. Fur­ther­more, Band­jes­land was much more about the col­lec­tive out­come. So the music pro­duced by all the play­ers was record­ed, as well as the sounds in the room. These were mixed and put on Sound­Cloud as big live record­ings. The sam­ples indi­vid­ual play­ers record­ed to con­tribute to the con­tin­u­ing com­po­si­tion were also all stored, time­stamped and put online. Play­ers could look up their sam­ples, down­load them and also see where in the live record­ing the sam­ples appeared.

So when it comes to records of play, you should think about whose con­tri­bu­tion you’re sav­ing — a group result or an indi­vid­ual result. It’s also worth think­ing about in what way a play­er will be able to recov­er their records. Nowa­days, codes of var­i­ous kinds are still the eas­i­est mech­a­nism for unam­bigu­ous retrieval. Per­haps at some point, RFIDs will replace these. But in many cas­es, it is just as easy for a play­er to find their stuff in a list based on some eas­i­ly remem­bered meta­da­ta. And so, often you can spare your­self the has­sle of gen­er­at­ing and dis­trib­ut­ing these codes which also pre­vents them from break­ing up the play expe­ri­ence. Also and final­ly, think of your records of play as social objects, things play­ers might like to share with friends, and enable them to do so. At the very least, make these records eas­i­ly link­able.

Some­thing I have not gone into here but that might also be a con­cern for you, is that in some cas­es play­ers might not want their play actions to be stored. Pri­va­cy con­cerns like these should be tak­en into account on a case by case basis. In our case, these game instal­la­tions were all part of pub­lic events, so there is a shared expec­ta­tion that what­ev­er one does is pub­lic and might be shared.

And to Conclude

So those are my thoughts on design­ing for audi­ence engage­ment when mak­ing game instal­la­tions. In a way a lot of this is about think­ing beyond the act of play itself and zoom­ing out to think about how peo­ple enter into a game, what role the audi­ence has and what hap­pens once play­ers leave. The “next larg­er con­text”, so to speak. Some­thing that ulti­mate­ly is always a good thing to do in design, no mat­ter what you’re mak­ing.

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Hap­py PLAY Pilots play­ers

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