Playful Revolution teaches Playfulness as a foreign language

I was in Klaten, Indonesia, to teach English as a foreign language. My host at the private school I was teaching at was inspired by my stories about the Playful Revolution, she invited me to host a workshop at the public school where she was teaching English. Continue Reading →

Collaboration with Florian Rivière ~ Urban Hacktivist

Last week I went to Berlin to meet up with Florian Riviere, a fellow ‘urban playfulness’ designer. Florian was invited by a pop-up art gallery called ‘Offsites’, a football themed exhibition in an old fire station. He was asked to prepare a 2 day workshop involving the surrounding neighborhood, Kreuzberg. From the first time we met we immediately hit it off, I noticed straight away that we’re on the same level on the subject and share the same ideas. No time was wasted dilly-dallying about as I was immediately immersed in Florian’s workflow, which I managed to comprehend in the 4 days of collaboration that would follow. Generally Florian starts to scout the surrounding area for inspiration and potentially interesting locations. When I met him I tumbled into a first idea of his: Candy Kicker’. He wanted to use gumball machines that are common in Berlin’s street image. They seem to be otherwise abandoned and he was thinking of ways to re-think their use.

Florian is driven by the act of ‘upcycling’, using found materials from the street to re-create and re-imagine the uses. I’ve found this method really inspiring as it forms an incentive to be creative with the materials at hand, instead of manufacturing installations from the ground up. This is in line with Florian’s thoughts about not being a designer but more of a conceptual facilitator, a self crowned ‘urban hacktivist’. To further elaborate on this conceptual facilitator idea, in conversation with Florian I discovered his vision as an artist (actually managed to get on of my prepared questions in): What do you find is more important in your work: The interactive experience or the conceptual message? Florian answered ‘It’s definitely the conceptual message that is conveyed that forms the most important part in my work.’ This also explains his (inexhaustible) drive to share his work on his portfolio website and his facebook page. It becomes part of the piece as it is shared around the world and people re-think the use of the public spaces around them.It’s this message that is central in his work. To convey this message he uses several tools and techniques to invite his audiences to participate. An important technique in this respect is the ‘Do It Yourself’ mentality. By using materials that are found in the surrounding area and using these in his ‘Hacktions’, audiences are indirectly invited to participate. By seeing the simple, yet effective, nature of the hacktions, audiences will think to themselves: ‘He, I can do that!’ It’s exactly this mentality that is needed to evoke participation on a larger scale.

On the final workshop day (an in-depth post about the workshop will follow shortly) we formed a ‘graffiti soccer crew’ to make the last large-scale Hacktion. We set out to create ‘the worlds largest soccer field’ that would cover the entire neighborhood that we were working in. We plotted the outline of a soccer field on our little map, and set out the create hacktions that would mark the places on the field.

When seeing one of these hacktions onlookers would probably raise an eyebrow, possibly a smile, but when more and more of these popped up, audiences will realise that it’s part of a greater whole. The different locations will be collected in a Google Map, that people could use to find places to go and play a game of football. The indirect message of this piece should invite people to let go of preconceived ideas about where and when you should play. By creating small interventions on strange places that invite people to play, an awareness of pervasive(anywhere/anytime) playing will arise. It’s this vision of reinstating playfulness as a way of life that I want to convey in my own work.We had allot of fun with the declarative layer in this piece, acting out our ‘graffiti soccer crew’ roles. Despite it’s playful notion, it’s something about spray-cans and face concealing masks that gets the adrenaline pumping.


Research Lecture, Theater Kikker: Full write-up

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.

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, 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

Playful Utopia – part 1

Heads up! I barely have time to duck when a fluorescent yellow frisbee zooms past my head. Further down the street a man in a grey business suit throws down his briefcase and with an athletic leap catches the frisbee before it lands on the ground. He get's to his feet and with a graceful movement throws the frisbee further down the street. After brushing the dust off of his pantaloons he picks up his suitcase and proceeds around the corner. The man in the grey business suit holds pace, looks left then right, and steps backwards into the shadow of a doorway. 'You have the merchandise?' an invisible voice asks. Without replying the man in the grey business suit opens the suitcase, revealing it's content. Two identical guns, gleam in the half-light. Medium calibre, long barrels. The hidden figure picks one up, they're fully loaded, judging by the weight of them. 'My payment?' The man in the grey business suit is here for business. A hand, dripping with water, comes out of the dark holding a plastic bag filled with what seems like hundreds of multi colored bouncing balls. The man in the grey business suit accepts the bag and takes one of the balls out. He tests the ball, bouncing it on the ground. He nods approvingly after bouncing the bouncing ball on a few different angles in the doorway. The hidden figure takes the briefcase, he's still holding one of the gun's. The man in the grey business suit freezes when he hears, out of the darkness, the gun being cocked. Repeated pumping noises fill the deserted doorway, then the dripping hand once more reveals itself from the darkness, this time holding the fluorescent pink and yellow gun, aiming it directly at the face of the man in the grey business suit. 'I'm sorry.' The man in the grey business suit splutters when the high calibre water stream hits his face. He's blown backward onto the pavement, struggling against the force of the water stream, the stream pushes him of the curb and he's spreaded across the hood of a parked car. In the fall the bag of bouncing balls is launched into the air and is ripped open. A soaked woman, in her mid fourties, comes running around the corner, armed with two Super Soakers. Without even looking me in the eye she forces one of the water-guns into my hands and, with the same movement, grabs one of the balloons dangling from the ammo-belt around her chest. The, evenly soaked, middle-aged man skidding around the corner is greeted with a water-balloon in the face and two streams of water coming from our super soakers. The man is helpless, overpowered by our superiority. He produces a deafening war-cry when a white van screeches to a halt behind us, the side-door slides open and an attack squad rushes out, armed to the teeth with water-assault gear. We take a few water balloons to the head before being thoroughly soaked by five high calibre water streams. I'm disoriented in the choas of water and pumping sounds, after a minute the chaos stops. Everyone's empty. Smiling broadly everyone looks at each other and disperses withing seconds, the van screeches off. I'm left standing alone, drenched, holding a fluorescent pink and yellow water gun.