My niece is named Zooey. She is 4, and she loves to play.
Her name happens to derive from the Greek word for “life.” Actually, in Greek, there are two separate words for life, bios and zoë. The first indicates life in the sense of a single organism, which will eventually die. Zoë names the life that continues through the generations: the life force, the gene pool. This sort of life is associated with Dionysus, the Greek god of revelry[i].
As illustrated in the film The Human Scale, many of us suffer from the conditions of modern urban life. Our actions are regulated by shame, passiveness, and loneliness. Our access to resources is more abundant than ever, and our yet our time is more parcelized and scarce than ever before. Deprived and stagnated, the ranks of living dead are growing. But there is hope…
The Copenhagen Play Festival occurred on the 25 and 26 of May in Frederiksberg, and presented a world of games in urban space. The format combined opportunities to try new board games, aleatory games, and even word games with lectures by professionals and intellectuals specializing in interactive design and game design.
Why should we play? The lecturers at the festival offered many possible answers:
+ Play is neurologically linked to innovation through the random poetry available from the juxtaposition of apparently unrelated ideas.[ii]
+ Play is often a shame-attacking exercise. Within the alternate reality of the game, it is safe to play the fool.
+ Play, especially in urban space, offers an invitation to transgress: to work productively between the rules of the game and the rules of society.
+ In summary, opportunities for ludic intervention (“playfulness”) disrupt and juxtapose layers of perception to facilitate (social) innovation. For example, many of the games in urban space considered at the festival used smart tech (smartphones or tablets) to cast a fictional layer over the built environment. Players interface with the screen, wherein an alternate, video game reality is portrayed, to (in one case) shoot at other players with smartphones within range. In this case, the “soft architecture” figured by wifi, radio, satellite, and cellular service disrupts or is at least juxtaposed with the “hard architecture” or the physical built environment. Stretching the metaphor, Isabel Fróes, a scholar of interaction design and a lecturer at ITU in Copenhagen, proposes that each time we participate in online social networking from a device while circulating in the city, we are, in a sense, joining a game.
Johan Huizinga in his book, Homo Ludens (1938), calls the playground a sort of sacred space of play. On a playground, we have every expectation that play will occur. In this way, it is less rich for social innovation because there are fewer opportunities for the disruption of our expectations of public space or of our layers of perception. In contrast, spontaneous games are a way of reminding people of their own agency.
Viktor Bedö presented the methodology of writing games that he and his colleagues use at their collective, Invisible Playground. This Berlin-based group makes site specific games at a variety of scales “from lightweight design workshops and playtesting events to elaborate transmedia productions.” To make site-specific games, the group conducts a site analysis of the spaces, forms, and flows on the site, and then derives a game from the existing conditions.
The explicit rules of the game must be boiled down to 3-4 rules, according to Bedö, if excited newcomers are expected to remember. The games range between fact and fiction: some games incorporate the built environment and the flows of people into the game (in one game, if your marker was kicked through the metro station by passing commuters, then you lose points. But it is within the rules of the game to ask passerbys to help you protect your marker from other players. In another case, the pedestrian signals for crosswalks were incorporated into the rules of the game.) Other games construct a parallel alternate reality that depends on the existence of the surrounding built environment but does not interact with it (such as the smartphone shooting game I described above, or in the most common cases of Live Action Role Play). In the games where the gap between game and reality is smallest, it becomes easier to read instances of affordance or empathetic design in the city, Bedö suggests. These could be a place, such as deep, hip height, south facing window sills that offers a seat in the sun, or a material choice, such as a wood finish on something anticipating human touch, like a handle, bench, or column. Where the world of the game coincides with the physical built environment, players notice these elements more than usual, Bedö argues.
How is it that people move from everyday life to play in an urban environment?
Sylvan Steenhuis, to whom I owe credit for the water gun video embedded above, has written a very clear, perceptive Master’s thesis on playfulness in public space. It is available to view online through the link below. The key diagram visualizes the transition from not participating to playing as a soft edge.
In the case of the water gun game, this edge was constructed socially, through the sudden availability of water guns, encouraging team members, and social energy on a hot day. On a playground, this edge is constructed physically with clear territorial edges for what does and does not pertain to the playground. In the case of public life spaces, it becomes possible to merge the built edge and the social edge through considering simple human dynamics, for example: people are attracted by people. A great restaurant not only serves great food but provides a bustling, interesting atmosphere. In creating places for people at GA, I find we use somewhat related or analogous techniques as is proposed by Steenhuis. Even the language overlaps: in both cases, as Helle Lis Søholt has said, “people respond to the invitations they receive.”
What possible benefit do spontaneous ludic interventions offer?
For the individual, a disruption of the public sphere can result in social innovation. One’s social network could increase, leading to a date, a new friend, childcare, or work. Revealing or superimposing layers of perception could result in new insights, or an expanded sense of the possible. Spontaneous interventions can become self-perpetuating, and transformative (like the Greek zoë) . They can make our experience of urban space more lively.
For the city, increased liveliness and spontaneity in urban places stimulates exchange, which can invigorate local economic life. People attract more people, and a fun and lively city is likely to be a safer city, as Jane Jacobs proposes with the concept of “eyes on the street.” With more people on the street, more people are watching, and crime is less likely to occur unchecked.
Most of all, spontaneous games are a way of reminding people of their own agency. One can choose to accept an invitation to play, or reject it: one has choice. The opportunity to participate in urban games implicitly reminds people that they are participating in urban life, and that, in itself, is a choice. Engaging in play, or reflecting on why one has rejected play increases social capital, interconnectedness and interdependence. Improved social capital usually correlates with increased willingness to care for the commons, a caring which improves life for everyone. Care for the commons encourages nascent human tendencies, such as gratitude, generosity, empathy, compassion, responsibility, and self-respect. Engaging in spontaneous and purposeless play secures youthfulness and life.
A shooting game using wifi + smartphone.
Future urban games festivals:
+ Metropolis Festival 2013 Copenhagen (August)
Here is a bibliography of urban play that you might enjoy reading:
+ Johan Huizinga Homo Ludens
+ Thomas S. Henricks Play reconsidered: sociological perspectives on human expression
+ Jacques Rancière The Emancipated Spectator
+ Markus Montola, Jaakko Stenros, Annika Waern, Pervasive Games Theory and Design: Experiences on the Boundary Between Life and Play
[i] Hyde, Lewis The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property quotes Carl Kerényi’s book on Dionysos [sic]
[ii]Kay Redfield Jamison, clinical psychologist, author of Exuberance: The Passion for Life