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An Outline of Playful Design

In the sum­mer of last year we announced a new direc­tion for the stu­dio, which boils down to us no longer fram­ing our work as game design, but as play­ful design. We are inter­est­ed in design­ing a wide range of play­things, and we are also inter­est­ed in design­ing things that aren’t pri­mar­i­ly meant for play but which still ben­e­fit from allow­ing for it.

In recent talks I have been point­ing to sev­er­al ideas that I think togeth­er out­line part of what we con­sid­er play­ful design. I thought I’d write them up here.

1. Community

I have referred to The Well-Played Game by Bernie De Koven, to empha­sise the social con­text with­in which play hap­pens, and the impor­tance of enabling groups to adapt play­things to their needs. One exam­ple of how to do this is by not encod­ing all of a sys­tem’s rules into soft­ware but in stead let­ting peo­ple social­ly nego­ti­ate those rules. Johann Sebas­t­ian Joust does this, and so does our Beesten­bende.

2. Flux

I also think David Kana­ga’s idea of flux dog­ma is very impor­tant: “allow all con­stants to become vari­ables.” By doing this, a play­thing can become like an instru­ment, an expres­sive tool that can be put to many (unex­pect­ed) uses. David’s own Pro­teus is a great exam­ple of this, and we were think­ing a lot about flux dog­ma when we were mak­ing Cam­parc.

3. Invention

And final­ly, when it comes to how we frame design itself, Jack Schulze’s provo­ca­tion “design is about cul­tur­al inven­tion”, oppos­ing it to design as prob­lem solv­ing, has always made a lot of sense to me. Think­ing about design in this way allows us to go beyond the instru­men­tal, even when we are design­ing things with a pur­pose. The work done at BERG often had a whim­si­cal char­ac­ter, pos­si­bly best exem­pli­fied by Lit­tle Print­er. Our own Stand­ing is an attempt to do some­thing that is both use­ful or even seri­ous but makes fun of itself at the same time.

So those are three ideas that tak­en togeth­er give a sense of how we approach play­ful design: 1. Under­stand and design for social groups and let them adapt things to their own needs. 2. Make fixed aspects of a thing vari­able, and put them under peo­ple’s con­trol. 3. Con­ceive of design as a dis­ci­pline that cre­ates things that are not “just” use­ful, but that open up new unex­pect­ed possibilities.

Of course, these ideas don’t sit apart from each oth­er. When sup­port­ing a play com­mu­ni­ty, one applies flux to a thing, and is nat­u­ral­ly prac­tic­ing design as inven­tion. A vari­a­tion on this state­ment can be made start­ing from the per­spec­tive of flux, or invention.

A play­ful design dis­ci­pline like this can lead to bet­ter play­things, but per­haps more impor­tant­ly, it also leads to pur­pose­ful things that are more plea­sur­able to use because they allow peo­ple to make them their own, to express them­selves while using them, while being more present in the here and now, because they can weave them into their own social and phys­i­cal contexts.

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