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 deepfun.com, 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

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 Wiegerjonker.nl

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?
or
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.