Media Lab: Day 1

Posted on 05/03/2012

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