The Rules of Public Space

I’m at the brink of an important phase of my research into evoking playful behavior in public space: Defining the rules of public space. The first step in this process would be to define ‘ public space’ . Then I want to analyse the behavioral patterns that make up the conditioned behavior we show. To make a correlation with my research project I will to use the analyses model I plotted, according to the 5 dimensions of play postulated by J.N. Liebermann

I like to think of human behavior in public space as living inside a semi-permeable bubble, It’s a theory I developed in conjunction with a colleague Wieger Jonker, he wrote about it on his blog over here (in dutch)
image courtesy of

The thing about the bubble: It’s quite a necessity to keep your sanity in public space. It’s an instinctive defense mechanism against the overload of impulses we are confronted with everyday: colorful commercials, hassle-some street salesmen, cacophonous urban soundscapes and, above all, dreaded social interaction with strangers!

To give some context to analysing this behavior I’d like to introduce the 5 dimensions of play, postulated by J.N. Lieberman. I’ve plotted them in this diagram that can function as an analyses model for playful behavior.
Here’s an example of the model in action, analysing the game of tag.
Lieberman describes 5 dimensions of playful behavior being: Manifest Joy (it’s experienced as fun), Sense of Humor (it’s funny; makes you laugh), Cognitive Spontaneity (as in crossword puzzle), Physical Spontaneity (as in dancing) and Social Spontaneity (in for example theatrical improvisation).
In this diagram the game of ‘Tag’ is analysed, Physical Spontaneity has a strong presence in this game, whereas cognitive spontaneity does not, as there is little ‘intellectual challenge’ in winning a game of tag. There’s also some points in social spontaneity, as deciding ‘who am I going to tag’ or ‘I’m going to tease the hunter and run away at the last minute’  is based on social spontaneity.

To put this into contrast, here’s the model analysing how playful ‘behavior in public space’ is. There is room form some social spontaneity, but any extravagent approach (Hé! Wanna share my banana!) would be frowned upon as it will puncture the ´social acceptance bubble´ described earlier.

The goals of my quest for evoking playfulness in public space is to dissolve this bubble and broaden the spectrum of playful behavior in public space. I want to achieve this by presenting a playful counter-image, or ludic intervention, that audiences can relate to by interacting with them.
By participating in a ludic activity in public space, audiences might broaden their view on how you should behave in public space, and incoroprate more playfulness in their day-to-day life.

Playful revolution! Share banana’s!

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?