Research Lecture, Theater Kikker: Full write-up

Posted on 28/05/2012

I love to play.

An irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, once said ‘we don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing’ This is really true, somewhere in growing up we tend to lose touch with this playfulness that I’m after.

‘…stop that… behave yourself… grow up!’

My artistic goal is to reinstate this playfulness in my audiences, through my discipline of interactive performance design. I’d like to show some of the projects I’ve worked that exhibit what I want to reach with my Interactive Performances.

First off: the Mad Hatter, a commision for Solar festival. We wanted to design a game that provoked social interaction between strangers. Each players receives a hat with a single ribbon around it, whenever you see another play also wearing a hat, the first one to courteously take off his hat for the other player, receives one of the other players ribbons. Sn example of a simple ruleset that is added to an existing structure, in this case that of a festival, that influences the players behaviour. So your dancing doing whatever you do at a festival, and at the same time you’re looking over your shoulder waiting for an ambush by someone in a paper-mache top-hat.

next up: King of the Chill, or chillzone. A collaborative project in the first year of my course Design for Virtual Theatre and Games, the first urban game I developed.

A simple ruleset: We started off with one couch on the neude in Utrecht, and a big thermometer that would keep track of how many peple had chilled in the chillzone. these chill-points could be spent to buy more chill items that would expand the chill zone. There was a catalogue where the king of the chill, which was whoever was wearing the crown at that moment, could spend chill-points to buy more couches, a bag of pillows or a box of ice-cream, anything that would improve the quality of the chillzone. Because these players wanted that box of ice cream they were actually inviting strangers from the street into the chillzone to gain points and expand the chillzone to be able to hold more chillers. Another example of a simple rulesets that evokes playful behavior.

Since then I’ve always been fascinated to find ways for Evoking Playfulness in Public Space by Ludic Intervention, which incidentally is also the title of my Master Thesis.

don’t worry we’ll get into the different aspects further down the line, no need to grasp it all in one go.

I’d like to show you a best practice. I was involved in the concept-fase of this project. It’s a commercial project, that’s why it’s so fancy, but nevertheless a good case study.

for me a best case for evoking playfulness in public space by ludic intervention. We’ll take a closer look in little bit.

The main body of my research until now has been ‘playfulness’, asking the question: What is playfulness?

It’s not that easy to put your finger on, lucky for me, there’s been quite some academic research on the subject. One of the earliest and most influential works is Homo ludens by the Johan Huizinga. Huizinga was a historian that was devoted to finding the ‘play element in culture’.

I love this bit from his introduction where he says: ‘It’s ancient wisdom, but it is also a little cheap, to call all human activity play’.I think this is what he pleads for by calling his book Homo Ludens, which is latin for ‘playing man’, as opposed to the homo sapien, or rational man, as we’ve been known as since the 18th century.

65 years later, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman wrote rules of play combining all the academic research and applying it to game-design, great book anyone who’s even remotely interested in game-design should read it. They did a comparison of all the scholarly definitions of play over the decades. As you can see, there’s not really a unanimous definition, everyone has a different approach and different elements they think are important. I’m going to spare you all the technical details because, thankfully, they’ve come up with a more concise definition of

Play is free movement within a rigid structure

At first glance it might seem a little simple to grasp such a complex phenomena as play is, but we’ll take a closer look.

Now first I’d like to take some time to make the distinction between game and play. They are actually on a scale running from paida to ludus, ludus being what we call game play, playing within a confined set of rules, a classic example is the game of chess, where you play within the rigid structure of the squares of where your pieces are allowed to stand, and players agree to certain rules by which your free movement is restricted within the rigid structure.

At the other end of the spectrum is paida, which is actually latin for learning, which stands for the free-form play that we see in children playing in a playground. nobody wins playing in a playground, there’s no points to be scored but it’s definitely a playful activity, and there’s allot of free movement in what you can do with sand.

Paidia and Ludus exist next to each other, they hardly exist on their own, usually it’s a little bit of both. in the book rules of play they visualise this continuum with this model.

The outer rim represents all playful behavior,so everything from crazy dancing to playing in a sandpit, the core represents game play, like playing a game of chess. In between these two is the grey area of the ludic activities, These are playful activities that have the free-form playing aspect but also clearly exist within a certain structure.

A good example is two college students throwing a frisbee back and forth. There’s no strict rules as to how you should play, but there’s certainly a structure where the play takes place, you don’t drop the frisbee and the fun is in spectacularly and creatively throwing the frisbee back and forth. It’s this creativity in playful behavior that interest me, and the goal of my artistic practice, create a framework, a situation that will evoke ludic behaviour.

Now I was looking for what the driving force of this creative playful behavior was and I came out on Spontaneity, as to move freely within a rigid structure one needs to exhibit spontaneity.

I found a like minded person, Josefa Nina Lieberman. (she actually passed away a few weeks ago she was 90, I bet she never stopped playing) As a psychologist she did extensive research into what playful behavior is, she talks about five dimensions op play. Being: Cognitive spontaneity, which you need for solving a crossword puzzle, physical spontaneity in for example some crazy dancing, and social spontaneity which becomes apparent in playing with others and socially interacting. Then there’s the sense of humour that playing makes you laugh, and Manifest joy as playing makes you happy.

So these are some of the elements within the realm of playfulness that I find interesting. As an interactive performance designer I asked myself the question of how do I evoke play? How do I apply this knowledge to get people playing? And as play is free movement, as a designer, how do I design free movement? As play is voluntary, when playing does not arise out of free will it ceases to be playful at once. This posed a kind of design dilemma: How do I design free movement?

I conducted an experiment where I experimented with different sets of rules to see what rulesets evoked the most spontaneous behaviour.

As competitive games tend to do, it turned out to be a very run-aroundey, screamy kind of game. But the most important conclusion came from the feedback session afterwards: The players felt that within the most confined set of rules they found they had exhibited the most spontaneous playful behavior. This made me think of something Jesse Schell said in one of his talks which is ‘good game design is not about freedom, it’s about constraints’. This made me reformulate my question to ‘how can I design a rigid structure that facilitates spontaneous behavior?’

This brings me to the last phase of my research, of which I’m at the brink right now, applying this knowledge to public space, how can I evoke playfulness in public space?

One of the big challenges of working in public space is that it’s a game in itself, there are all these rules we conform to, you don’t look someone in the eye for more than a split second and everyone has it’s own personal space that’s not easily penetrated. I like to see it as everyone having a protective bubble around him. This is very natural, it protects you from the information overload that is around you all day every day. If you wouldn’t have this bubble your head would explode. But this poses a challenge, as a designer, to penetrate this bubble and get people to play.

I’ve read this book called Pervasive Games, pervasive games are games that exist outside of the computer screen and in the reality around you, it has a lot of similarities to what I call ludic interventions. During our second week in the Media and Performance Lab I had the pleasure to meet Jaakko Stenros of Game Research Lab in Finland. In conversation with him he talked about modding the player, influencing the player in such a way that they enter a playful state, which would be the ultimate goal of a ludic intervention.

I’ve devised a model, based on allot of knowledge gained from the book about pervasive games, that can be used to engage people in public space. There’s three phases and some milestones you can use. I’d like to use the water pistol experiment as a case study.


It all starts with a certain awareness, a noticing that something out-of-the-ordinary is happening, in this case it’s quite the bombastic awareness as there’s people in coloured T-shirts running around and making ruckus, but it’s this awareness that is needed to turn an unaware participant into an ambiguous participant. This ambiguous participant is kind of where the honey is in this story. Small side-set: in the book Pervasive Games they don’t speak of spectator, there’s only unaware participant as anyone in the vicinity of the game turns into an element of the ludic activity. So it’s your goal as a designer to make them aware and curious to find out what is happening.

This curiosity needs to be nurtured in this phase until participants reach a ludic recognition, acknowledging the ludic nature of an activity. A tool to reach this are ludic markers. In this experiment they use the epicness of Red vs. Blue team and of course water-pistols, very clear ludic markers, as they are devices created for the sole purpose of playing.


When a participant knows it’s for playing you need to cultivate a motivation in your participant, a participant needs to want to join in, as play is voluntary he needs to join in out of free will. When he’s motivated to join there needs to be an invitation, he needs to accept an opening to engage with the ludic activity. In this experiment it’s quite the rough invitation, people are just jammed a water-pistol into their hands. An important element in this phase is that participants need to be able to decline the invitation, for example the person in the top right corner who gives the pistol back and continues calling his mom, or whatever he’s doing.

When this invitation has been accepted the participant turns into a player and can start to engage with the ludic activity to finally reach this playful state that I want my audiences to experience.

When in this playful state they’re in touch with the spontaneity and freedom of play, not worrying about turning up for work in a soaked three-piece suit.