Each year, in October, I go to Playful at Conway Hall, London. This year was no exception.

I don’t get to go to many conferences, but I make sure I attend Playful each year for two main reasons:

  1. Over the years I’ve got to know a few of the people behind it – they work at Mudlark
  2. I get to meet up with people I wouldn’t normally get to see and talk to on a regular basis.

Of course, I also get to meet new, interesting people and hear some great (and, very occasionally, not-so-great) talks that provide nourishment for my own thinking.

This year was the first without Toby Barnes at the helm, so my expectations were shifted, as I had no idea what Greg Povey and the gang had up their collective sleeves. The only thing I thought would remain the same was the feeling that I wouldn’t have a regret about attending.

The day started well.

I’d arranged to meet up with John V Willshire, the creator of Artefact Cards and someone I’ve longed to have a chat with. It didn’t disappoint (I hope it was the same for him) – within minutes both Star Wars and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy were topics of conversation. And we had an interesting chat about roads in London that people rarely used and how taking different paths through the city opened up whole new ways of getting to places, and learning things about a place/city/area. There’s an analogy about the web in there, which I’m sure I don’t need to spell out.

Also, we drank amazing coffee at Wild and Wood. If you haven’t done so, and enjoy quality coffee, get over there.

A half hour later, two very interesting people joined us: Heather LeFevre and Brian Millar. Both were generous in their insights (while we drank more coffee) and I hope that I’ll get to meet with them again soon – or at least interact with them on Twitter.

At last we were off to Playful. The day had started really well, how would it turn out?

Just as brilliant, as it goes. And not just because choosing Josie Long as compere proved to be an ace decision.

 

Mark Sorrell

An energetic start to proceedings came by way of Mark Sorrell from Hide&Seek. These are the ideas I took from his talk: when the rules are removed, playing a game is simplified and easy to pick up. And this makes people look at the audience, not what is happening on a screen. This is how children learn games. Simply, Mark wanted to see more computer mediated games and fewer video games.

He wasn’t anti-video game, but instead was saying that games didn’t need graphics to be compelling or immersive, or extremely playable. As someone who doesn’t own a games console but enjoys games, I felt I understood that perspective.

 

Anab Jain

Hailing from collaborative design practice, Superflux, Anab talked about how the world around is miraculous yet no one seems troubled by it. She described adulthood as “manufactured normalcy”, which is so true. We do normalise the fantastic things that happen, take the astonishing for granted (and even complain about it).

She asked us, what would weaponised playful engagement look like, suggesting that a crowdsourced futurism could give us the answer. And having then gone on to show how asking people what their positive/optimistic view of the future could be, a playful way of approaching the amazing things that we take for granted might just be the way to go.

 

Hannah Donovan

I’ve been a fan of This Is My Jam since it started. So I was excited to see that Hannah was booked to speak. Thinking she’d talk about music, it came as a shock that the framing of her talk was about craft. Of course, it was about music, but Hannah came at it from an entirely different point of view – and managed to make it about play all at the same time.

I wrote down the following:

Play as craft.

Craft as play.

Hannah talked about how craft is becoming more relevant in the digital space. The old way of crafting something is now spinning into the digital realm. Weirdly, she referenced MySpace (the old one, which she described as the digital bedroom wall) and how this allowed people to express a personality, to craft an aesthetic of their own and how in the increasingly homogeneous world of the web (Facebook, et al) a personalised aesthetic is being lost.

So how does this relate to music, beyond a passing reference to MySpace?

Hannah stated that music is visual. From t-shirts to the posters on the bedroom walls of the world. Music creates tribes, associations. It gets people to express themselves, to create things of their own. Remix, as it were. And it’s this that makes music a craft. It’s the handmade element. That’s play.

 

Einar Sneve Martinussen

When you come from a mining town in the far north of Norway, it sets you on a certain path. At least, in the case of Einar, it has. Mining is about blowing things up to expose things. To then grind them down to extract the profitable mineral. The thing that, until you extract it, is invisible.

Einar talked about how technology is part of daily life, yet it’s generally invisible. And while people talk of networked cities of the future, they fail to realise that they already are. It’s just that you can’t see the connections. Which is why Wi-Fi Painting was created.

By playing with these invisible connections, Einar was, along with his colleagues at Voy, determining a design language for invisible technology. As he noted, it’s something that broadband and communication companies have long struggled to do: show off their products. And in doing so, this new design language will inevitably allow new ways to play.

I look forward to that.

 

Siobhan Reddy

Siobhan is Studio Manager at Media Molecule, which if you’re a gamer you’ll know about. I’m not a gamer, so I didn’t. But not being an avid user of consoles or handheld devices made by Japanese electronics manufacturers didn’t matter, as Siobhan set about showing us a delightful game in progress, Tearaway.

A collective wow occurred at Conway Hall.

This is the craft thread of the day brought to the fore. In spades.

Siobhan took us on the rollercoaster journey of making such a game. And in doing so, I jotted down a few of the bullet points that resonated with me. I suspect many people who read this far on this blog post will understand these (italics my own thoughts/notes):

  • Bad implementation is not the same as a bad idea.

This is so true, I can’t quite believe it’s not said more often.

  • Excite with personality.

Not your own, but the personality of what you’re making.

  • Develop your team like a band – and have a jam. Riff on the energy of what you’re doing.

Bands know how to collectively make good, exciting and inspiring things. Creative teams can learn a lot from how bands interact. A good analogy.

  • Add [creative] tension. It’s a good thing and gets you there. But it must be a mix of chemistry and tension.

Furthering the band analogy. And one I wholeheartedly agree with. If everyone plays nice, you’ll only ever produce mediocre stuff. Not that teams should be at each other’s throats, but as a CD once said to me: don’t just agree with me because I’m the creative director. I’ve never forgotten that advice.

  • Keep your ‘jams’ loose.

It’s good to work to a framework, but just as Hannah suggested in her talk, it’s good to keep it loose enough to allow for a bit of a wander. Keep it too rigid and your end result can be formulaic.

  • Inspired people create good things.

Simple. And true. Which is why I always tell young creative people to look at less advertising and more fashion, art, theatre, museums, etc.

  • Creative people pay a soul tax.

They do. So make sure you keep their soul filled. Giving them time to absorb some of the suggestions above helps.

  • We. Just. Have. To!

The basic take-out from this final slide, I think, is that creative people can’t help but do things. Whether that’s writing, coding, drawing, sewing… the list goes on.

If the final version of Tearaway is as good to play as it was to listen to Siobhan’s talk, I may just buy myself a PS Vita.

 

Simon Cutts

As a poet, artist and editor, Simon knows a few things about putting on a gallery show. He started Coracle in the 1970s and shared his tales of the interesting ways they showed work.

He talked about how the postcard is a public work of art. We all learned that in Italy, only 11 words are allowed on a postcard. If you write more, they’ll be put to the back of the postal queue. This immediately made me think of a personal project I’m working on which will use Artefact Cards to explain things to people. It will use just a few words and a URL. I sat wondering if John was fiercely scribbling down some thoughts about this.

Simon heavily referenced Concrete Poetry in his talk – which is more than a way to show work, it’s art that forces you to play. This seemed to be the underlying purpose of Coracle – to create playful art, not the kind that’s just stared at and couldn’t be touched.

Art shouldn’t always be out of bounds. Hear hear.

 

Bennett Foddy

After lunch, we were treated to a talk about how games should fuck with people. That’s my turn of phrase, although I like to think it’s one that Bennett would approve of.

Bennett is the creator of QWOP. If you’ve played it, you’ll know why Bennett believes that failing and frustration is integral to a good gaming experience. But more than that, confusion should be a part of a game’s core experience, as this initiates intrigue in players.

Pain in games is necessary, he suggests. Not actual physical pain (although a lot of games do have element of pain involved, such as Slapsies) but annoyances or things that make you get frustrated. It builds relationships between the game and the player. And it will also build communities.

I can’t do the hilarity of the talk justice here. But if you play one or more of Bennett’s games you’ll probably experience the essence of his Playful talk sooner rather than later.

The takeaway of the talk, for me, was that games shouldn’t inhabit the space between fun and play, as they won’t be interesting – to develop or to play.

 

TechSquad

I saw the gaming experience created by DerbyQuad online. It looked stunning and I wish I’d travelled to Derby to actually play it. But I didn’t.

Their talk was, in a word, shambolic. But I liked that. These weren’t professional speakers and their realism brought the project to life in a way that a polished talk wouldn’t have. These people make things and have fun. They are as entertaining as the things they create. I liked them immediately.

They really messed with people in their gallery space. They gave visitors something to interact with but made the outcome different to what was expected – such as a drum that, when hit, played piano arpeggios, for example. And to see if it worked they asked 50 eight-year-old kids to try it out first. Kids don’t lie if something is crap. A useful thing for us all to remember.

And they didn’t use any tech that everyday people couldn’t get their hands on. It made a playful piece of art even more accessible. And it looked incredibly immersive.

If you’d like to know more about the project v0.1 they ‘talked’ us through, this is a good place to start.

 

Holly Gramazio

What do you think of when someone says the word, clapping?

Perhaps it’s one of the three things that Holly had up on her first slide: applause, cheese negotiation, or mockery. Hmmm, maybe not the middle one, right?

Regardless of what you consider clapping to be, Holly wanted us to do more of it. To use it as a form of play. It’s actually used quite a lot, often as a form of communication in games (such as blind football). And in one form it’s actually a game, one called Danish Clapping Game.

I’ll admit I was curious, yet slightly disturbed to hear about this. But then I realised that clapping, in my life, is generally tied to something positive. And play is a positive experience (unless you’re playing one of Bennett’s games, perhaps).

Holly wanted not just to see more clapping games, but also to see them become more strategic rather than just about skill.

And with the proliferation of brands using vending machines that require you to do things in order to get a freebie, I hope that clapping will soon see a renaissance beyond negotiating the price of cheese.

 

Alice Taylor and Mint Foundry

Alice is one of the co-founders of MakieLab, which some of you may know from their 3D printed dolls, MAKIES. She introduced and interviewed the four designers tasked with making a toy that has a reason to exist. They had three months to come up with an answer.

A tough brief. How do you make something playful that has a real purpose beyond play?

Turns out it’s a toy that’s part Tamagotchi and part breadmaker. It’s called Dough Globe, a toy that the team called LivingTech.

They used organic matter (sourdough) to control, but also provide an incentive to play, a game. And at the same time get kids and adults (the players, as it were) interested in another area: baking.

I thought the idea of the brief was fantastic. And listening to the four young designers talk about how they went about things – how rapid prototyping allowed them to experiment quickly and see what worked and what didn’t – really showed us the future of game design (and other design areas).

3D printing is going mainstream, but it’s not just about making your own jewellery or egg cups, it’s democratising the design and production process in the same way the internet brought democracy to publishing.

Exciting times ahead. And playful times, too.

 

Tom Ewing

The final talk of the day was about online surveys. Not easy to make that sound like a playful thing. And it brought about the first instance of that awful word, gamification, to Conway Hall. But for good reason.

Tom, who works for BrainJuicer, showed us how making surveys more like games not only made them easier to do, but also made the results better. It’s a bit like Dungeons and Dragons – but not in a geeky way.

There are three elements of D&D that Tom uses to make surveys interesting to take:

  1. You create environments
  2. You give people decisions to make
  3. You grant people magical powers

Okay, so perhaps the last one is a stretch. The serious side is that making surveys feel more like games improves the experience immensely. Tom went on to show us a number of examples of how the properties of play and games do make market research feel valuable to consumer groups.

I’d like to see that applied to other areas of life, such a form filling at the bank, for example. Or applying for a car loan. Or perhaps filling in your profile for a new social network – a laborious task, which can hamper wide spread adoption.

Gamification is a much-maligned word (for good reason) but the principles behind what makes play and gaming enjoyable shouldn’t be ignored – or applied to less exciting parts of life.

 

And so, the day ended. Almost.

Audience participation is an important part of Playful, and this year didn’t disappoint. We all got to make paper aeroplanes while we watched our own interpretation of the day played back to us (via interviews that took place throughout the day, and Tweets) and then, finally, we all got to launch our paper planes.

Now I’m really looking forward to Playful 2013.