Media and Performance Lab II

I’ve rounded up another week of experimenting in the Media and Performance Lab II (see my post on the first Lab for more info on MAPLAB). I continued looking for answers to the question of ‘How do you design spontaneous behavior ‘. This question holds a design dilemma; once a behavior is designed, or pre-conceived, it ceases to be spontaneous at once. In a reply to one of his post over at deepfun.com, I had a short e-mail conversation with Bernie DeKoven in which he emphasied this dilemma.

Designing for spontaneity. A good problem in deed. Just the kind of task that people who don’t understand fun, or spontaneity, would assign.
-Bernie DeKoven

Someone else, a family therapist, continued:

Although I don’t think we can design spontaneous behavior, I have observed that we can create a climate wherein its occurrence is highly likely.
-Michael Bean

This brought me to approaching the question a tad differently: ‘How can you design a rigid structure that facilitates spontaneous behavior’

The first experiment was inspired on a work by Marie Sester. It’s a white box piece where audiences are provoked to spontaneously interact by using motion tracking and a bright white spotlight.

What interested me about this project is the simplicity of the installation and also it’s rigid nature. The light does nothing other that track a single person. Eventhough participants probably know this, they still show playful behavior.

I took this idea and took it into the Lab and experimented with different modifications. By adding more rules along the way, I was curious as to what rule-set would evoke the most spontaneous (physical) behavior. Another sub-question I’ve been jugglin’ is ‘Does more Ludus evoke more Paidia?’ This is quite the playfulness scholar jargon so to translate: Does a more confined set of rules evoke more spontaneous behavior?’
At first participants are released to ‘roam free’ in the test environment, then certain rules are added ‘don’t touch the red light’ and ‘catch the red light’. Let’s take a look

The most immediate conclusion is that adding certain rules to the environment does evoke more physical spontaneity. Participants are leaping around, hunting or fleeing, playing a schizofrenic game of cat-and-mouse. The immediate question that arises following this conclusion would be ‘is this actually spontaneous behavior?’ Since the behavior is clearly ‘game play’ as participants are conforming to an imposed rule-set.
The question that remains is ‘does it matter?’. On philosophical note: Playfulness is about being present, being totally in touch with your surrounding and (can’t get enough of the Bernie quotes)

being open, responsive, yielding to the moment, catching hold and letting go.

To enter this ‘playful state’, as I like to call it, requires a certain willingness of a participant. It is in this respect that Jaako Stenros commented on my presentation of my findings of the Media Lab that there is a certain aspect of evoking playfulness that involves modding the player: Influencing the participant to such an extent that he or she  is more receptive to playful behavior. Anyone who’s played Twister after a few beers will know what I mean.
Speaking of Twister, as it’s a good example of game-play that evokes physical spontaneity, it provided the inspiration for another experiment in this Media Lab.
An important distinction in this experiment was that participants were not given any rules prior to participation, removing the inhibitions of any imposed behavior.
The experiment started with an empty floor where the participants were asked to enter. Gradually colored hands and feet were projected onto the floor. After a while music started to play, and then suddenly stopped. When the music stopped the ‘system’ created a coloured plain on the surface a player was ‘occupying’. This process was repeated until most of the floor was completely coloured.


The first ‘free-form’ part was received with little spontaneity. The clear symbols of hands an feet implied a certain interaction, to stand on and touch the symbols with the shown limb. After a minute or two the participants started making up rules for themselves, ‘only touch the red symbols’, ‘let’s try to reach out to each other when the music stops’. It was this last ‘spontaneous action’ that sparked the cognitive leap of understanding the rules of the system. Immediately they sprung into action and started to cover as much ground with their bodies when the music stopped. This introduced a certain element of competition that might have subdued any undirected spontaneity, like in my limb-ball experiment.
Still an important conclusion in this experiment was that the knowledge of a rule-set did evoke more physical spontaneity, albeit that the behavior in itself was implied by the game. Again, does it matter? The fun was there, the spontaneity was there, the players were playing.
playas gonna play

Experiment 1: Limb-ball

Last week me and some of my fellow research-based practice colleagues decided to set ourselves a deadline. A deadline for delivering a first experiment, each in our own individual research practices.

Some words to start off with:
Playfulness is interacting with your environment in a way that provides fun (joyful expression). A definition of play, by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, is ‘free movement within a rigid structure’. In my quest for evoking play in public space, I need to present a ‘rigid structure’ to which a supposed audience can relate to. By interacting with this rigid structure a player will ‘move freely’ within it. In doing so, any free movement in this structure that provides fun can be seen as playful behavior.

This leads me to the following question:
How can I design free movement?
or
How do I design a rigid structure that facilitates free movement.

The concept I experimented with:
Players are engaged in a game where they are to score a ball in the opponents goal, by all means necessary. By gradually adding rules to the game the freedom of movement is constrained, players are prohibited to perform certain actions (like touching the ball with their hands). Then, one-by-one, the rules will be taken away to examine if players exhibit more spontaneous playful behavior.
In other words: will the players move more freely within the rigid structure of the game than they did the first time round? Will they will interpret the rule, or lack of rules, in a new way and explore new ways of interacting with them.
I think that when people play (games) they are never aware of the full potential of the ludic activity. It is only in engaging in playful behavior (entering a playful state) that players discover new forms of behavior within the rigid structure of the game.

As competitive games do, the experiment turned out to be very run-aroundey-screamy, an impression:

The experiment was geared towards evoking spontaneous playful behavior. Afterwards, I asked the participants ‘what was the most spontaneous outburst?’ All the participants agreed that the most constrained set of rules evoked the most spontaneous behavior, like this young man resorting to more primal modes of transportations, when the rules dictated the ball could not be touched with neither hands nor feet.

So more contrains lead to more sp0ntaneous behaviour, touching Jesse Schell’s statement I wrote about earlier. It’s something I could have come up with before hand, but it was good to experience it first hand to see it happen.

The element of competition somewhat tainted the experiment. The participants said their inventive, spontaneous behavior never got the chance to erupt, as they were simply looking for the most efficient road to victory, eyes on the prize, so to speak.
I think the next (multiplayer) experiment should be geared towards collaborative play. By taking away the element of competition, winning will no longer be the main goal, making the playful behavior a goal in itself.

Me and my friends used to play a made-up game we called limb-ball. It’s a modification of the dutch ‘hoog houden’, which is Hackey Sack with a soccer ball. We’d done away with the constraint of only using our feet, mostly out of laziness, and decided we could use the whole of our body, hence the name limb-ball. It was the inventiveness and spontaneity of the game that kept us playing it for hours, where the fun peaked when someone made a never-shown-before move prefferably resulting in someone ending flat-out on the ground.

It’s this game that inspired me for this experiment, I might want to conduct another experiment focussing more on the spontaneity of playing with balls.

Another inspiration for this experiment was the great work of Tom Russotti and his Institute for Aesthletics, some of his inspiring words to end with

[megasoccer] does not aim to create a final rule set, but to allow for a constant shifting and reinterpretation of the rules,  creating a more investigative, responsive and interpretive approach to playing the beautiful game.
-Tom Russotti, play artist

Media Lab I – Day 2

The past week has been dedicated to the Media and Performance Lab. After conducting my first experiment here, I wanted to try different approach. In the first experiment I wanted to evoke playful behavior by presenting a context, an environment an audience could relate to, that implied ludic behavior.  It was successful to a certain extent, it worked, people showed playful behavior and engaged in the implied ludic activity. By conducting this experiment I came to a deeper understanding of Salen and Zimmerman’s definition of play: ‘free movement within a rigid structure’. As said before the ludic activity was implied: ‘kick the football into the goal’. This resulted in superficial playful behavior, conforming to the implied interaction, rather than stimulating spontaneous playful behavior.
As a side note: this conditioned behavior was emphasised by the context of ‘experiment’, inviting a test-subject into a space where ‘something is supposed to happen’. Making an audience realise that anything out-of-the-ordinary is happening at all will prove another challenge to overcome when conducting experiments in public space.

In the next experiment I wanted to create an environment that evokes ‘free movement’, spontaneous interaction with the (presented) environment. The Performance Engine functioned as a reactive space, by using fiducials (shapes that can be recognised by the sofware) the audience can influence the music composition that is playing. By showing or hiding the fiducials, different elements of the music could be activated. Buy placing the fiducials on different locations in the space the volume could be influenced.
The possibilities of interactions were limited, I was curious as to how the audience would interact with the system: Will they show spontaneous interaction? How long will it take for them to figure out the system? and most importantly, will they have fun doing it?

The implied interaction, or code, was clear:  move around the fiducials to manipulate the music.  As the only parameter the audience could influence was volume, most of the spontaneous behavior, like waving around a fiducial, dancing or sudden movements, was not ‘rewarded’, that is to say, there was no feedback of they’re (inter)action. This lack of feedback seemed to be demotivating to continue showing any spontaneous behavior.
Half-way trough the video, another element is added. Instead of controlling another element of the music, this fiducial manipulated the overall speed of the music. This proved futile for the audience to understand the system. However, it did trigger further spontaneous behaviour, as the new ‘tool’ required a re-evaluation of the reactive environment.
I think this curious spirit of exploring the possibilities within a  (rigid) structure is quite important for evoking playful behavior. It is, for example, what children do all the time: test their environment for it’s usefulness.

I’m still thought wrestling the dilemma of how to design free movement.

Media Lab: Day 1

Today was the first day experimenting in the Media Lab, which houses the Performance Engine. (check out talltreelabs for more info)

So far into my research I’ve managed to accumulate quite some theory on the subject of ‘playfulness’. Mainly in the field of game design, I am, after all, a game designer. I’ve found useful knowledge on How to evoke playfulness.
As useful as the knowledge may be, I’ve been having quite some difficulty putting this theory into practice. In the end I think it all boils down to choosing a context for the experiments, with the emphasis on the choosing part because it doesn’t really matter what you choose as long as you choose something to go with. The same applies to my subject of playfulness: without a context playfulness is non-existent. This bring me to a deeper understanding of the defition of play by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman: ‘Play is free movement withing a rigid structure.’² At first glance, this definition might seem too simple to describe such a complex phenomenon like play, but it encapsulated the essence of being playful: free movement. For example, kids apply free movement to the stacking of wooden blocks, exploring the rigid structure of physics. As a juggler, I explore my free movement by throwing and catching multiple balls, exploring the rigid structure of gravity and challenging my own physical boundaries.
This brings me to the dilemma of applying game design strategies to evoke ludic activies: How do you design free movement? Well, you don’t. As Jesse Schell poses in his book The Art of Game Design, good game design is not about freedom, it’s about constraints.³ All we can do as designers is create a context, a rigid strucure that an onlooker/participant/player can relate to.

As I said, I’ve had some difficulty in designing such a structure, which was quite frustrating, I’m supposed to be a designer after all, aren’t I?  That’s why I wanted to embark on this research in the first place!
So, what happened: I chose to go for a personal fascination ‘the Ball’.  A ball is a powerful playing prop, other than violent appliances (like hunting), a ball is mainly used for playing. Therefore it forms a clear ludic marker, a symbol that makes the activity recognisable as ludic (Latin for being of play)
That’s was about as far as I got, so there I was, with a sack full of balls (there I said it) asking How can I evoke ludic behavior?

This experiment had a clear code of interaction, that is to say that there was a clear implied interaction. The declarative layer, the squidgy football and projected goal, formed the structure the participant could relate to. The structure changed according to the player achieving goals (hitting the targets), increasing the difficulty of completing the goals.

The combination of the ludic marker (ball) and the declarative layer (football, goal), formed a very clear code of interaction. After a few second of looking around to asses the situation (off-screen), the playing commenced. When the structure changed, the code of interaction remained the same. When the football goal changed to a target, the code of ‘kicking’ remained in effect. The participant eventually refrained to other modes of (physical) interaction: catching the target with his hand, ‘dunking’ the target by jumping on it. When this did not result in any feedback (audio of cheering crowd) the participant used his hands to throw the ball at the target.

In the next experiment I want to design a structure that evokes more ‘free-form’, spontaneous play. Designing a rigid structure that evokes elaborate ludic activties.

Challenge accepted

–sylvan

²Katie Salen; Eric Zimmerman (2003) Rules of play Cambridge, Mass. MIT Press
³Jesse Schell (2008) The art of game design: a book of lenses. Morgan Kaufmann

Adventureland

Urban Experiment researching playfullness in public space. Autonomous Project, 2nd year Design for Virtual Theatre and Games @ Utrecht School of Arts