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?
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

Evoking Play in Public Space – Flowchart

In my quest for evoking play in public space I’ve come up with the following flowchart.
It’s divided into three different phases, ranging from tickling the curiosity of a non-suspecting onlooker, to engaging a player to the extent of entering a ‘playful state’.

Let’s take a closer look at each step. In public space everything and everyone is part of the ludic activity, whether you want it or not. Even if an onlooker is unaware of anything ‘out-of-the-ordinary’ happening, he can still have an influence on the ludic activity, hence the name unaware participant. To be involved in the ludic activity an unaware participant must become an ambiguous participant² , this is the exciting phase of triggering an audience to investigate ‘what the hell is going on here’. This makes curiosity the driving force in this phase. This curiosity phase reaches a threshold when a participants recognises the activity as being ludic of nater, e.g. the audience ‘understands’ what’s going on. When this happens the audience will enter the motivation phase, reaching a threshold when a participan realises, ‘this looks cool, I want to join in’. This is when the participant needs to be lured in by being offered in invitation. When the participant accepts the invitation, thus becoming a player, he will be engaged in playful behaviour. When engaged in ludic activity a player will get more and more immersed in the playful behaviour, to the extreme of being totally immersed in the activity, which I’d like to call the ‘playful state’. See my previous post on this.
(click on the image to enlarge)

This model can serve as a flowchart for designing and analysing (ludic) interventions in public space.

²I borrowed this name from the great book on pervasive gamese, see:
Markus Montola, Jaakko Stenros, Annika Wærn (2009) Pervasive games: theory and design. Morgan Kaufmann

My personal definition

playfulness is interacting with your environment in a way that provides fun (joyful expression)

To engage in playful behaviour, one needs to be confronted with a ludic activity, and accept an invitation to join in. Play is voluntary, when it’s not, it ceases to be playful at once.
When engaged in ludic activity a player will get more and more immersed in the playful behaviour, to the extreme of being totally immersed in the activity, which I’d like to call the ‘playful state’. In this playful state a player is receptive to everything in his surrounding, reacting to the impulses with the sole purpose of maintaining or increasing the pleasure of the activity. In this sense play clearly exists outside of ordinary life, and the activity aims to uphold itself.

In my research I am curious to the phenomena of ‘transformative play’, meaning: to engage in playful behaviour within ludic activity (outside ordinary life) that influences your personal behaviour (inside ordinary life).
I see different methods for achieving this effect. The first would be to simulate real-life encounters and activities within a ludic activity. By engaging with the ludic activity a player will show behaviour that might trigger a reflection on his behaviour within his ‘ordinary’ life.
A second method to achieve transformative play would be to cross the boundaries, or magic circle, of the ludic activity and traverse into the realm of ordinary life. By fading the border between play and ordinary life a player might gain the insight that play is not only useful for it’s own sake, but is can also be applied to day-to-day activites to complete them with more joy than before, improving the quality of life.

I’m aware that the last few sentences contain some assumptions on the social value of playfulness. By stating this I see the need for asking the question: How can I test the (transformative) effects of any ludic activity?

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.

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


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

Introduction Research Project

Hello world. There, I said it.

This is the first post on my blog, documenting the progress of my Research Project. It´s titles How to Evoke Playfulness in Public Space.

I work with playfulness. Rulesets are the game, playfulness the name.
Play is inside everyone of us. It comes by nature to children and it is the way we have learned much of what we today take for granted. It’s impulsive, it’s energetic and loaded with vigour. Why have we stopped being playful? How can we reach back down inside and unleash the inner playfulness. Have we been conditioned by our parents? By our sociological environment?

In this research project I want to reverse engineer our conditioned behaviour in public space. By introducing interventions into public spaces like streets, shopping malls and bus stops I want to invite people to engage in ludic activities.