Saturday, October 28, 2006

Alternate reality basements

Last month, I visited my parents' home in New Jersey. It's actually our childhood home, where my twin sister and I grew up from age 8 to 18. (A small Flickr set of the best affordances of that house, including the rusty hooks in what we called "dead man's alley", is here.)

I was really stunned and amazed and happy when I went to do yoga in the basement to find remnants of the first game i ever designed, 21 years ago at age 8, on the tiled floor.

The basement tile in our house was (and still is) amazing, made up of giant squares in a dozen vintage colors in odd patterns on the floor. Very quickly after moving in, my twin sister Kelly and I spotted the most playful affordance of these tiles and started designing life-size board games for the basement. (This was the summer after third grade).

Each giant block, made of up four tiles, represented one square, of course. Our first, and to this day my favorite, monumental work in this genre of basement gaming was called PROM DATE. You had to get a date and stuff before landing on the final square marked PROM.

My sister and I tried to make the games as unobtrusive as possible (so that our parents wouldn't yell at us and make us stop.) So to mark out all of the spaces, we used transparent scotch tape to show borders of squares and to label the spaces. (Strips of tape could be used to form transparent letters on top of the tiles.)

The effect was that it looked like an ordinary basement floor until you looked closer and from the right angle. Then, you suddenly would realize that there was all of this secret marking that told you how to play a game.

Although we would peel up the tape after a game was played out, in order to get ready to lay down the new one, sometimes the stickiness stayed behind and collected dirt and grime over the years. In front of my feet here in this picture taken in 2006 is four letter's worth of grime collected since 1985 on what used to be the final space of "PROM DATE". The letters, of course, spelled PROM.(Click on the photo to see my flickr annotations of which grime meant what originally!) I was so so happy and amazed to find these traces of the game still present. I can hardly imagine a more moving artifact from my childhood.

So I guess that two decades ago at the age of 8 I was designing "transparent" and "ubiquitous" games already. That makes me happy. Don't be looking for the alternate reality game "prom date" any time soon though. ;)

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Interoffice Games

I did not invent this myself-- I received it in an email from my mother-in-law today. She and her colleagues at a wonderful Bay Area design firm are actually doing this. All I can say is... in accordance with the prophecy!*

*see 10-point dare #6

How many points can you rack up in a day? A week?

1) Run one lap around the office at top speed.2) Ignore the first five people who say 'good morning' to you.3) Phone someone in the office you barely know, leave your name and say,"Just called to say I can't talk right now. Bye."4) To signal the end of a conversation, clamp your hands over your ears andgrimace.5) Leave your zipper open for one hour. If anyone points it out, say,"Sorry, I really prefer it this way."6) Walk sideways to the photocopier.7) While riding in an elevator, gasp dramatically every time the doors open.

1) Say to your boss, "I like your style" and shoot him with double-barreledfingers.2) Babble incoherently at a fellow employee then ask, "Did you get all that,I don't want to have to repeat it."3) Page yourself over the intercom (do not disguise your voice).4) Kneel in front of the water cooler and drink directly from the nozzle(there must be a 'non-player' within sight).5) Shout random numbers while someone is counting.

1) At the end of a meeting, suggest that, for once, it would be nice toconclude with the singing of the national anthem (5 extra points if youactually launch into it yourself).2) Walk into a very busy person's office and while they watch you withgrowing irritation, turn the light switch on/off 10 times.3) For an hour, refer to everyone you speak to as "Bob."4) Announce to everyone in a meeting that you "really have to go do a numbertwo."5) After every sentence, say 'Mon' in a really bad Jamaican accent. As in"The report's on your desk, Mon." Keep this up for 1 hour.6) While an office mate is out, move their chair into the elevator.7) In a meeting or crowded situation, slap your forehead repeatedly andmutter, "Shut up, all of you just shut up!"8) At lunchtime, get down on your knees and announce, "As God as my witness,I'll never go hungry again."9) In a colleague's DAY PLANNER, write in the 10am slot: "See how I look in tights."(5 Extra points if it is a male, 5 more if he is your boss)10) Carry your keyboard over to your colleague and ask, "You wanna trade?" 11) Repeat the following conversation 10 times to the same person: "Do you hear that?" "What?" "Never mind, it's gone now."12) Come to work in army fatigues and when asked why, say, "I can't talk about it." 13) Posing as a maitre d', call a colleague and tell him he's won a lunch for four at a local restaurant. Let him go.14) Speak with an accent (French, German, Porky Pig, etc) during a very important conference call. 15) Find the vacuum and start vacuuming around your desk.16) Hang a 2' long piece of toilet roll from the back of your pants and act genuinely surprised when someone points it out.17) Present meeting attendees with a cup of coffee and biscuits, smashing each biscuit with your fist. 18) During the course of a meeting, slowly edge your chair towards the door.19) Arrange toy figures on the table to represent each meeting attendee, move them according to the movements of their real-life counterparts.

And if that wasn't enough for you... How to keep a healthy level of insanity:1) At lunchtime, sit in your parked car with sunglasses on and point a hair dryer at passing cars. See if they slow down. 2) Tell your children over dinner. "Due to the economy, we are going to have to let one of you go."3) Every time someone asks you to do something, ask if they want fries with that.4) Put your waste basket on your desk and label it "IN". 5) Put decaf in the coffee maker for 3 weeks. Once everyone has gotten over his or her caffeine addictions, switch to espresso.6) Finish all your sentences with "In accordance with the prophecy."

I'm very interested in some of the dares' references to players versus non-players. Clearly this game is meant to be played among a particular group of co-workers co-conspiring in a larger office environment full of other colleagues who are not in the know, or "in the dark" about the game.

I love the humor of the dares, but as I've said before, "dark play" is not really my favorite kind of play. Dark play, a term I borrow from performance studies co-founder Richard Schechner, is play in which there is no clear frame separating the game and reality. Some players know they’re playing, other players might not, and people looking on might mistake the gameplay for reality.

I prefer “transparent play,” which allows onlookers to intuit that others are playing, grok the rule set quickly and join in the gameplay if they wish. So I would love to see a fully transparent version of this game.

One simple design tweak would be to post the list of dares somewhere public in the office, like on the refrigerator, or in mailboxes. Keep some of it a secret--is this for real? am I supposed to do this? is this authorized?--to keep the thrill of the dare, but at least make it clear what all the orchestrated chaos is about!

Teaching: Ubiquitous Play and the Everyday

I'm teaching again!

Here's the course description for the BFA/MFA seminar I'm teaching at San Francisco Art Institute next semester. For those of you who aren't familiar with the school, SFAI was founded in 1871. It's one of the oldest schools for contemporary art education in the U.S., and it's known for emphasizing intense conceptual and critical work alongside the development of technique. The course I'm teaching is for SFAI's Design + Technology program, which is a really amazing interdiscipinary major that emphasizes theory and writing and a critical understanding of designed systems, while also developing a strong technology practice in terms of both hacker and maker skills. I taught Game Design as Art Practice there in Fall 2004, and I really loved the students and the creative environment. I'm really looking forward to being back there in 2007!

An Introduction to Ubiquitous Play in the Everyday

Experimental game design is the field of interactive arts that seeks to discover new platforms and contexts for digital play. This course examines the contemporary intersection of ubiquitous computing and experimental game design. The convergence of these two fields at the turn of the twenty-first century has produced a significant body of games and performances that challenge and expand our notions of where, when, and with whom we can play. This course explores how and to what ends such projects reconfigure the technical, formal and social limits of play and performance in relation to everyday life.

Throughout the semester, we will design and test a series of playful interventions and performances that seek to turn everyday life and public spaces into a “real” little game. A primary goal of students in this course will be to develop a critical gaming literacy that can be applied to ordinary, everyday life. Together, we will work to read the “real” world as rich with playful opportunities, carefully testing everyday media, objects, sites, and social situations for the positive and negative consequences of inscribing each within the magic circle of a game. Readings will concentrate on classic design manifestos from the fields of ubiquitous computing and game design, as well as theoretical essays on collective intelligence, public space, and the performance of everyday life.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Citations and Spectacles: Chapters 3 and 4 are live!

I've been posting my dissertation chapters in serial format (my favorite rhythm for engagement, as I wrote about here). In case you missed them, Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 are now live!

If any of my chapters are going to be controversial, I suspect it is these two.

Throughout my dissertation as well as my blog, lectures and actual design work, I have expressed a fairly strong preference for certain game design practices: scalability and sustainability of participation and iteration, rather than "situated" play and one-off projects; transparent play that invites direct engagement rather than "dark"play that produces mostly gawking, confusion, or alienated spectatorship; and actualization of concepts and prototypes for a real, public audience so as to best support the discovery of emergent uses and desires. In these two chapters, I occasionally challenge some well-known projects in terms of their aesthetic choices and deployment practices. I hope that the fact that I hold their designers in high regard is clear even as I ask some difficult questions about the goals of different genres of ubiquitous play and performance, and the kinds of significant technical, social, cultural and personal impacts they are most likely to have--or to not have.

For years, most of us working in this particular gaming space have limited our discussion to cheering on the projects we like best. At the start of a field, I think this kind of positive support is extremely important. But by now offering a critical take on some of the original canonized projects of the categories of ubiquitous computing games and pervasive games, I am arguing that the field is strong and diverse and socially important enough that we can--indeed, we must-- ask the tough questions that typically have been left unasked. I certainly do not expect to have the last word in reply to these questions; I can already imagine (and hope to see written!) challenges to my own critiques and intrepretations. And I look forward to a real dialogue, where researchers and designers have enough confidence in the field to publicly disagree with each other, developing in this space.

Here's a sneak preview of the topics and themes of each.

From Chapter 3: Colonizing Play: Citations Everywhere, or, The Ubicomp Games

... In a lecture for the 2005 International Conference on Pervasive Computing, Laurent Ciarletta proposed a ubiquitous computing research and development strategy based on mimetic technological performance. In the face of ubiquitous computing’s failure to manifest itself in the present, Ciarletta suggested a playfully performative mode of redress: faking it. The title of Ciarletta’s talk, “Emulating the Future”, recommended imitating now an imagined, future state of truly ubiquitous computing in order to better understand the destiny of the field. In the accompanying paper, Ciarletta writes:

In order to specify good applications, it would be interesting to completely
emulate those systems, creating fake worlds where the specific piece being
developed can be embedded, tested, compared with other solutions and
demonstrated in its context, even though some of the technologies have not been
developed yet, or are available only as prototypes on a small scale (3).
In other words, by creating as-if ubicomp systems—working, local demonstrations of ubicomp technologies and infrastructures that are not ubiquitous yet, but which might someday be—the field can mimetically manifest ubiquitous computing’s hoped-for “there”.

Ciarletta’s suggested “fake worlds” call to mind a kind of theatrical play, a staged magic circle in which computing behaves as if it were already ubiquitous. To adapt theater-games activist Augusto Boal’s famous provocation, such emulation might not be the ubicomp revolution in itself—but it could be a rehearsal for the revolution.[1] If this language of revolution sounds rather confrontational, consider Schmidt’s proposed solution to ubiquitous computing’s problem of not being there yet. He encouraged his HCI audience to continue aggressively pursuing Weiser’ vision, “confronting real people in real everyday environments” with more and more functional ubicomp prototypes ([20]). If we are not at the desired “there” of ubiquitous computing yet, Schmidt suggested, perhaps it is because we have not staged a dramatic enough confrontation. Ciarletta’s plan to fake effective ubiquitous computing by “emulating the future” offers precisely such a dramatic means to advance the field.

The term ‘emulation’, of course, has a special meaning in computer science: emulators are programs that allow computers to masquerade as a different make and model. The most popular such emulators are those that allow users to run programs from the past. (For example: I can use an emulator program to install and run Commodore 64 code written in 1988 on my 2006 Sony Vaio laptop.) Given the close relationship of technological evolution and games development discussed in Chapter Two, it is not surprising that game programs for obsolete personal computers and consoles comprise the vast majority of available emulator-related downloads. Widely circulated emulators for various Commodore, Amiga, Spectrum, and Colecovision models, to name just a few, enable users to play literally thousands of classic and cult-favorite computer games.[2]

Whereas traditional computer emulators are designed to allow us to play games from the past, could ubicomp emulators let us play games from a specific, hoped-for technological future? What might we learn from such provisional, forward-looking games—about the present state of ubiquitous computing, and about the future of gameplay in a ubicomp society? Would emulating the future of play help define and advance the field toward the ultimate there of ubiquitous computing, the there where we are not yet?

In this chapter, I explore the role of experimental, emulatory game development in furthering the expansionist efforts of ubiquitous computing. First, I will examine how researchers create novel game prototypes that aspire to be both smart and persuasive. By smart, I mean designed to produce research insight about current ubicomp platforms, infrastructure and interfaces. By persuasive, I mean designed to convince future ubicomp users and technology gatekeepers that the manifest destiny of ubiquitous computing is indeed a vision worth pursuing. A smart ubicomp game aims to advance the field technically closer to its goal of computing anywhere and everywhere by revealing how to better construct, embed, network and deploy ubicomp technologies. A persuasive ubicomp game aims to advance the field socially and organizationally by demonstrating to the public the potential benefits of ubicomp technologies.

Then, I will explore the performative function of play in ubicomp games research. It is not enough to design smart and persuasive games; their arguments and results must be made citable, that is to say, replicable. As a fundamentally scientific practice, ubicomp gaming therefore constructs its own “theater of proof”, Bruno Latour’s term for the mechanism through which scientific aims and findings are introduced into a network of circulating references (The Pasteurization of France 85). Organizational sociologist Diane Vaughan argues: “For engineers, a design is a hypothesis to be tested. But tests only approximate reality. The proof is in the performance” (quoted in McKenzie 96-7). Ubicomp game design, I will argue, formulates hypotheses about the value and feasibility of ubiquitous computing. Playtests—a term frequently used to describe the prototype demonstration of ubicomp games—are the experimental performances that provide citable proof of these hypotheses. I will examine how the network of playtests attempts to make manifest, that is to say to make legible and credible, the destiny of ubicomp technologies—a destiny whose self-evidence is arguably called into question by the persistence of the field’s question: “Are we there yet?” The work of the playtests, then, is to provide better evidence, to construct a convincing map of viable future ubicomp sites—both in terms of contexts and locations.

Finally, I will consider the play values expressed through ubicomp game design. What are the particular qualities of play that are explored and enacted in these games? What kinds of gamers do they produce? As I have argued previously, ubicomp games represent the joining of two mutually supportive manifest destinies: the tendency of games to colonize new technological platforms, and the desire of ubiquitous computing to colonize new everyday objects and social spaces. I therefore will analyze how ubicomp technology values, as articulated in major manifestos of the field, subtly transform the aesthetics of digital gaming and, more importantly, how these values train the players themselves to embody and enact ubiquitous computing’s vision of an ideal network.

[1] Boal originally writes: “Perhaps the theater is not revolutionary in itself; but have no doubts, it is a rehearsal of revolution!” in the essay “Poetics of the Oppressed” from his 1979 collection Theatre of the Oppressed.

[2] Perhaps the best current emulator resource is The Old Computer (, which houses downloadable emulators and game programs for 338 VIC-20 games; 842 Atari 2600 games; 913 Nintendo games; 2455 Commodore 64/+ games; and many, many more.

From Chapter 4: Disruptive Play: Spectacle Everywhere, or, The Pervasive Games

...The Situationists, in fact, wanted to accomplish with play then precisely what ubiquitous computing wants to do with technology now: to achieve a seamless integration into everyday life. In “Contribution to a Situationist Definition of Play”, Debord argues precisely this point: “Play, radically broken from a confined ludic time and space, must invade the whole of life” ([3]). And just as ubiquitous computing dedicates itself to imagining and constructing a technological infrastructure for the future, so too do the Situationists aim toward a future eventuality of more ubiquitous play, what they term “the coming reign of leisure” ([3]). Debord writes: “The work of the Situationists is precisely the preparation of ludic possibilities to come” ([5])

Debord wrote “Contribution to a Situationist Definition of Play” in 1958. Is it too early—or too late, for that matter, considering that the Situationist movement officially dissolved in the late 1970s—to ask precisely which ludic possibilities have already come in the wake and in the spirit of the Situationist movement? Where might we find examples of play radically breaking free of the magic circle and pervading the whole of everyday life? In the 1960 “Situationist Manifesto”, Debord et al write: “So what really is the situation? It's the realization of a better game” ([5]). Here, the Situationists use the term game metaphorically as a way to understand the potential for a more participatory culture and a more fully engaging quality of life. By a better game, they mean a better social structure. But I want to suggest that examining contemporary projects designed and deployed as real, experimental games offers an excellent opportunity to explore the Situationist philosophy in action as well as to understand urban computing’s application of Situationist techniques. Therefore in this chapter, I will explore the emerging category of pervasive games, a genre of city-based, ubicomp-inspired games that invade public spaces with highly mobile and visible play.

The Integrated Project on Pervasive Games (IPerG), a leading pervasive games design research group, defines their category of work: “Pervasive games are a radically new game form that extends gaming experiences out into the physical world” (“iPerG Welcome”). I want to make several points about this proffered definition.

First, the introduction of digital gameplay into the material environment can be understood not only as an interest in a more embodied gaming practice, but also and more importantly as a desire for more integrated gaming. IPerG writes: “Our vision: to produce entirely new game experiences, that are tightly interwoven with our everyday lives” (“IPerG Vision”). This vision statement strongly echoes the Situationist play strategy as well as quintessential ubicomp claims, such as Mark Weiser’s statement that “the most profound technologies are those that… weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it” (94). The physical world is appealing to pervasive game designers, then, primarily for the opportunity it provides them to create digital gaming that is not as easily compartmentalized as screen-based play. Material affordances of everyday things, I will demonstrate, are not necessarily explored or exploited by pervasive game design. Materiality is significant, instead, for the new sites and social contexts it provides, suggesting new arenas and occasions for gameplay. Indeed, pervasive games embrace the friction and fusion that occurs as a result of this relocation of digital gaming into novel physical settings. This creative relocation is what I call the gaming détournement.

Second, the verb used by IPerG in its pervasive gaming definition to describe the work of the genre is to extend. As this diction implies, the pervasive genre is an active exploration of how far boundaries can be pushed. To accomplish this exploration, the games use what urban computing researchers Eric Paulos and Tom Jenkins call “urban probes” to break the magic circle. Urban probes are “rapid, nimble, often intentional encroachments on urban places”—in the case of urban computing, designed to provoke awareness and discussion, and to collect data, about the role of technology in city life (““Urban Probes: Encountering Our Emerging Urban Atmospheres” 1). In the case of pervasive games, urban probes provoke awareness and discussion about when, where and how it is appropriate to play. But because these are gaming probes, rather than gaming installations, we will see in each pervasive game’s design a sense of mobility, of designed routes for channeling the flow of gameplay through different parts of the urban environment. This designed flow is what I call the gaming dérive.

Third, it is important to note how the IPerG definition adopts a rhetoric of design revolution. Just as the Situationists saw breaking the magic circle as a radical intervention, so do pervasive game developers. In the tradition of urban computing, pervasive games explore urban identity, critique habitual behaviors, and seek to construct experimental social structures. Such construction often requires highly disruptive design. Indeed, a sense of breaking the rules and defying social norms is fundamental to all of the pervasive games I will discuss in this chapter. These urban projects aim to shock the public into new ways of seeing and socializing; as a result, the aesthetic of these projects tends to be big (scaled) and visually arresting (spectacular).

Through a close reading of the design and implementation of four major pervasive games, I will demonstrate that pervasive games operate on two different, and often conflicting, levels: as both situation and spectacle. The former affords public game play opportunities, while the latter offers the public perception of someone else’s game. Measuring the degree and the ends to which a pervasive game creates an open situation versus the extend to which it operates as a closed spectacle is ultimately, I will propose, the most important evaluative tool for analyzing the socio-technological work of projects in the genre.

Can the aesthetics of public spectacle, when combined with iconic game imagery and interaction patterns, be used to organize and to inspire direct participation in a playful situation? If so, what kinds of urban communities and technological relations will emerge in and around this participatory spectacle?

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Happy Birthday, Kelly! Happy Birthday, Me!

Happy Birthday, Kelly! We are 29 years old today.

To celebrate my half of the identical-twin birthday, Kiyash and I have planned a Bay Area transit adventure. First, we are driving to Sausalito, where we will take the ferry across the San Francisco Bay to the Embarcadero. Then we'll walk along the waterfront to Pier 39, where we will drop some quarters at Musee Mechanique. From there, were continute walking along the waterfront, stopping en route for some kind of picnic lunch, and then on to the Golden Gate Bridge. We'll walk across the Golden Gate Bridge and wind up back in Sausalito, where it's a couple more miles to the car. So 12 miles urban hiking, plus some old-school amusements and gameplay and fun public transportation. Sounds like the perfect birthday celebration to me!

We'll catch up with Kelly and her partner Brian on the East side for vegan brunch tomorrow morning. Photos on Flickr when we return...

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The perils of avant garde baking

Those of you following the cookie rolling adventures know that I have a thing for playful baking adventures.

Well, late last year, before I started my final dissertation crunch, I wanted to have a few last hurrahs before I disappeared into writing oblivion. So Kiyash and I had a blow-out night of improvisational dessert making with two of our favorite gameful people, Liz and Zach Radding (at whose birthday party, you may recall, we invented Chicken Soccer Bowling). I made a traditional Finnish pannukaku in anticipation of our pending Scandinavian adventure. (And as it turned out, the stacked pancake dessert I made that night turned out a lot better than the disastrous first leg of our trip!)

Anyway, I've finally gotten around to posting online an infamous 20-second video that emerged from that night. This video was taken about a minute after we four took our first (and for very good reason, our LAST!) bites of one of the improvisational desserts, Zach's spicy, citrusy flourless chocolate cake. It must be said: No amount of tropical fruit syrup or Autumn fury spices could save the orange-infused graham crackery madness of this memorable, if not entirely edible, chocolate event.

My two favorite pieces of ancient Germanic wisdom: "I laugh, because I will cry if I do not" and "I cry, because I will laugh if I do not". You decide which of the two we four victims of a certain disastrous chocolate improvisational dessert item are doing in this video.

(If you look closely, you'll be able to spy the pannukaku I made on the table, a big round fluffy mulit-layered thing of double-broiled pancakes which fresh whipped cream layers smothered in guava-papaya sauce!)

By the way, the 2006 follow up to Improv Dessert Night is an epic baking battle: El Mejor Alfajor vs. El Mayor Alfajor.