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Highlights from Play Matters

In my review of Play Mat­ters I talked about why I think it is a must-read for any design­er. I thought I’d fol­low that up with some high­lights from the book.

These are most­ly from the first two chap­ters. Miguel first talks about what play is. He offers a min­i­mal def­i­n­i­tion which states that play is con­tex­tu­al, car­ni­va­lesque, appro­pria­tive, dis­rup­tive, autotel­ic, cre­ative and personal.

Miguel then goes on to dis­tin­guish play from play­ful­ness. The for­mer is an activ­i­ty, the lat­ter an atti­tude. In addi­tion, play does not have a goal besides play itself, while play­ful­ness does. This move of dis­tin­guish­ing between play and play­ful­ness is very pro­duc­tive. It allows us to be more artic­u­late about play­ful design.

Play hap­pens in con­texts cre­at­ed for play, in those con­texts in which the autotel­ic nature of play is respect­ed. […] The con­texts in which play­ful­ness hap­pens are not designed or cre­at­ed for play: they are occu­pied by play.

The basic idea of play­ful design is that things can be used for prac­ti­cal pur­pos­es but with a play­ful atti­tude. Things that are explic­it­ly cre­at­ed for this are play­ful designs. The act of cre­at­ing play­ful designs is a chal­lenge to the tra­di­tion­al rela­tion­ship between users and designers.

Play­ful designs are by def­i­n­i­tion ambigu­ous, self-effac­ing, and in need of a user who will com­plete them. […] Play­ful design breaks away from design­er-cen­tric think­ing and puts into focus an object as a con­ver­sa­tion among user, design­er, con­text, and pur­pose. […] Play­ful designs require a will­ing user, a com­rade in play.

If we accept that users are the ones who com­plete play­ful designs, the role of the designed sys­tem itself also changes. It is put on the same plane as users, just as the design­er was before. Miguel’s account of the con­texts with­in which play hap­pens is one of flat­tened hier­ar­chies or per­haps more accu­rate­ly: net­works. Net­works of peo­ple, things, spaces, etc.

This approach to design down­plays sys­tem author­i­ty, a minor but cru­cial revolt against the rel­a­tive sci­en­tism of design, from games to word proces­sors. […] Play­ful design is per­son­al in both the way the user appro­pri­ates it and the way the design­er projects her vision into it. […] Play­ful tech­nolo­gies are designed for appro­pri­a­tion, cre­at­ed to encour­age play­ful­ness. These objects have a pur­pose, a goal, a func­tion, but the way they reach it is through the oblique, per­son­al, and appro­pria­tive act of playfulness.

I love that last bit, because it loops back to the first dis­tinc­tion between play and play­ful­ness. Play is autotel­ic while play­ful­ness isn’t. But play­ful­ness isn’t a thin lay­er on top of an oth­er­wise goal-ori­ent­ed expe­ri­ence. There is a back and forth between goal pur­suit and playfulness.

This may seem triv­ial. But putting tech­nol­o­gy aside for a moment, we can see tiny acts of play­ful­ness in human activ­i­ty all the time. They can be tiny flour­ish­es by which we express our per­son­al iden­ti­ties. Even so, they are what make us humans engaged with the world.

With tech­nol­o­gy medi­at­ing, enabling and con­strain­ing our engage­ment with the world the poten­tial for play­ful­ness is not a giv­en any­more. Peo­ple may play regard­less of their con­text, but we can active­ly accom­mo­date for it. This is a design­er’s responsibility.

At stake is more than our cul­ture of leisure or the ide­al of people’s empow­er­ment; at stake is the idea that tech­nol­o­gy is not a ser­vant or a mas­ter but a source of expres­sion, a way of being. […] Play­ful­ness allows us to extend the impor­tance of play out­side the bound­aries of for­mal­ized, autotel­ic events, away from designed play­things like toys, or spaces like the play­ground or the stadium.

After the chap­ters on play and play­ful­ness, Miguel goes on to talk about toys and play­grounds. Games have attract­ed most of the atten­tion in the con­ver­sa­tion about play­ful design. But we can play with all kinds of play­things, not just games. In this regard, games don’t matter—play matters.

Miguel then goes on to dis­cuss beau­ty and pol­i­tics, which should be of par­tic­u­lar inter­est to artists and activists.

In the final sec­tion, one chap­ter is devot­ed to the chang­ing role of the design­er. Miguel sug­gests we should not mod­el our­selves after game design­ers, but in stead aspire to be archi­tects of play. The book clos­es with a med­i­ta­tion on the role of com­pu­ta­tion in play­ful design. The state­ment quot­ed above about tech­nol­o­gy as a source of expres­sion is expand­ed upon. I will end with it here, but not before rec­om­mend­ing this inspir­ing, evoca­tive book one last time.

com­put­ers should take their place in the world and play with us—not for us, not against us, but togeth­er with us.

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