There are already reviews of the day out there, as people are more disciplined at writing up the day than I am. Not that I’m actually going to write up the day in the “this is what they spoke about” kind of way. I’ll do what I normally do and write about what I got out of it. If some of that resonates with you and your experience of Playful 2013, great; if not, then that’s great too. If you’ve never been, then perhaps this will get you along to next year’s one-day gathering at Conway Hall in London.
There is something special about Playful. It’s always brilliantly curated – in the true sense of that word. It’s always full of great people, and newbies who’ve come along to experience it for the first time. There is no ego – not that I’ve ever noticed – and there is always at least one thing that is leftfield, yet still fits the brief.
And that brief, this year, was playing with form and the speakers’ interpretation of that.
For the second year running there was a compère who wasn’t from Mudlark, the company behind Playful. This year was Sharna Jackson, who was funny, witty and suggested she had considered hiding her EpiPen® in the audience and swallow a nut to see who could find it and inject the life-saving adrenalin first. I like that kind of humour, so I could feel that it was only going to get better from there. And it did.
Duncan Fitzsimons of Vitamins was up first. He talked about how the company had used bananas to understand what people wanted from a phone, leading to the discovery that it wasn’t the phone that was the problem, but how people use it to do things. The thing is, people don’t like to learn all the time, particularly if they’re getting old. That’s why they put the phone they’d devised into the manual. They also created a folding wheel and, most recently, a LEGO calendar that could be digitized via a photograph on a smartphone. Playful ways to discover ideas that really do change lives. This is what happens when you have a magician as one of the founding members.
Anne Hollowday followed. I’d already seen the videos that Anne had created around making things, and was looking forward to hearing her talk about the experience. I learned that I should “Build what it is you want to build and learn as you go.” No old school marketing allowed, then. Good. Anne also quoted the filmmaker Walter Murch, saying we need to feel a project, to immerse ourselves and be carried along. Go with the flow, as it were. What feels right will be right. She also cautioned us to keep editing, but not to discard the remnants, as there are many stories in what has been taken away as much as there is in what’s left. The form emerges from the process, but passion for a project can find new stories in the ‘sawdust’ of what we’re doing.
I don’t play video games. Yeah, I know, shock! horror!, right? It’s always weird to hear video games designers talk, as I have no concept of the games they make. But what I do understand is their need to make things work for a wide range of people in order to get them to play or interact with their games. George Buckenham brought to life his quest to build a controller that had the right feel. That not all controllers should be the same – and while a generic controller was necessary, it wasn’t always correct. To prove this point, he talked about his game, Punch the Custard, which was a playful way of getting people interested in a video game, without the need to become experienced in pressing the right button at the right time.
I’ve seen John V Willshire of Smithery talk more than once. He’s a smart chap. He talked about how boxes are inherently playful, as they inspire curiosity: what’s in them? The anticipation of not knowing what they contain can often be better than the discovery. Media, as we know it, is all about boxes and things being made to fit. What it we thought about it from the other way around? With digital, fluidity is being brought to the analogue world we grew up with, and it’s allowing us to break the constraints of what the box could be. One way in which John has been demonstrating this is with The Key To Leadership project, which is helping business leaders understand what digital means to transformational leadership. A lot of John’s talk reminded me of how Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes built something new from an old story by playing with the original’s form.
UPDATE: John has kindly put his talk up on Medium. Go read it.
Fran Edgerley was nervous, and quiet. Which was a shame as she need not have worried – her talk was very inspiring. What I managed to take from her talk about building a cinema from the shell of an old petrol station, and other ways of playing with what we know of architecture and the urban space, was about making us see it in a new and exciting way. She introduced me to thinking about building things with materials that are not indicative of the area in which they are being constructed. I felt a real parallel with the way in which digital structures are becoming a part of the fabric of a city, yet seek not to change it but enhance it. Using an example of wooden bricks being used to construct a building, it gave me an insight into how, if the materials are recognisable by the untrained person, they feel like they can get involved in building something. The proliferation of coding apps and sites that require zero coding knowledge is a good example of what I mean.
Next up was Pippin Barr. He’s a games developer with a difference. I know of Pippin’s work thanks to Bennett Foddy, who spoke at a previous Playful. A lot of laughs, but in among that was a lot of really good points: creativity is loaded with meaning when framed within the context of what you’re doing; players can be playful no matter the subject matter, and we should let them get into the reality of the experience. The latter point was made clear when people complained at having to pay in Pippin’s Marina Abramovic game, even though they didn’t actually have to part with real money. You can even see her latest Marina Abramovic Institute before it’s built, because Pippin has created a virtual version. Is it art? He has the answer to that question over on this site. Most of what Pippin spoke about what challenging the form of something and how it changes it. Nothing says this stronger than Pongs, which remixes the classic game in many ways, each designed to challenge you about what you think the game is.
Lunch. I had a pint and played a game with some friends. It involved drawing awesome things and telling stories.
Rushing back after a pint and lunchtime fun, it was time for Dani Lurie. I’d been looking forward to Dani’s talk, as I’m a subscriber of Oh Comely magazine.
But first, there was a brief interlude where one of the sponsors, Preloaded, got to pitch their new Games With Purpose site, which is all about collecting together, in one place, Games with, er, purpose. Go check it out, as it contains a game called 10, which was created by an old art director partner and friend of mine, on its homepage.
Dani talked about mischief, which entailed stories about interacting with the world in new and creative ways, and how children learn by testing. Her way of bringing this to life was to test Royal Mail. She and her team sent a variety of items – from money, to bananas – through the post, often by putting the stamps and address right on the item. Most arrived, but I can imagine the fun they gave to the Royal Mail staff as they passed through the system. She also talked about psychology and the game of Sky Pointing. This is, essentially, the basis on which all Flashmobs were created before T-Mobile killed the concept. Mischief isn’t bad – it’s about provoking the mundane. Obviously, we should all be mischievous more often. Anything that stops the current safety I see in the creative world has to be a good idea.
Next up was Marie Foulston. I know Marie’s playfulness from her work she did on Playlist Club – sadly a now defunct project that was a place to find curated music of a level that no algorithmic nonsense could ever bring to the fore. Yet, Marie didn’t talk about that. She spoke about a game she played. I’ll confess, I have no idea what Animal Crossing is. I think it’s a game on the Nintendo. Not for me. But that’s okay. Marie’s talk showed me that these games people play are incredibly personal – and can involve a real emotional undertaking for many people. In her story, not only did the game imitate life, her life often imitated the game. There was a lot to be taken from that and be applied in my working life.
I never thought I’d be sitting somewhere enthralled about talk of mummified venison and rotting fruits. But then I hadn’t seen Ben Reade of the Nordic Food Lab talk before. It was amazing. For Ben, food is his toy. And now he gets to work in a place where playfulness and food go together. And it’s all about experimentation – no one really knows if something will work, but there’s only one way to find out and that’s to do it. In the industry I work in, there is always lots of talk and I’m intending to bring more of the experimenting to my working life in the future. He talked about taking known variables and letting them lead you to unknowns – and that ‘playing about’ with them in new ways does that. Ben proved that the results can often be astounding and that there is always something to learn from what others may interpret as a mistake – the environment in which you work has to be free of judgement, or what he described as “like playing jazz saxophone while stoned.” I think he meant a combination of structured and unstructured. I don’t know: I’ve never played saxophone.
The very Reverend Dan Catt is someone I’ve met and I know (a little). Recognisable for his immense and impressive beard, I’d never seen him do a talk before. He blew my tiny mind with one question: what if a game of Snakes and Ladders could constantly change? Dan set out to test whether this was possible, creating almost 1 billion permutations of a snakes and ladders board until he found 1001 that could offer everything from a quick game to one that lasted hours. He will publish a book of these at some point, he promises. Some time in the next three years. Until then, I’ll be trying to scrub the words “imagine an orgy of snakes and ladders boards” from my memory.
The penultimate speaker was Stefanie Posavec, who is a data illustrator, or someone who is playful with data. I know her work from the Stephen Fry app she helped create for his Fry Chronicles book. She likes to do physical data visualisations, and that was the basis of her latest work at the Facebook campus. I learned they have an analogue research lab full of letterpress, silkscreen equipment and sign painting ephemera around for people to use. Stefanie had the unenviable task of working with Facebook’s data to try and visualise it. A Herculean task that she decided to ignore, instead focusing on small data within the behemoth. Small, and personal. She looked at relationship data – people who posted about their spouse and the interactions between them – and used this to create a ‘data dance’ that was transferred onto the floor of Facebook’s HQ using decals. A really lovely way of bringing to life a personal moment created on a public site.
Finally, the time came for it all to end, but not before Rob Lowe finished the day with a really inspiring talk. No, not that Rob Lowe! Rob spoke about how simple lines, perspective and optical illusions can combine to create beautiful, immersive things: his paintings. He makes the complex from the simple – and not complex in a difficult sense, but in its ability to absorb people. I learned a little more about Moiré patterns, and a lot more about how Rob uses them to confuse and confound the eye in truly pleasant ways. The perfect way to show another way of thinking about playing with form.
And that was it. Then it was time to go and spend several hours drinking with interesting people. Which I did.
As I was writing this up, I thought a how resting on my laurels was something I’d chosen to give up a few years ago. I thought about how form was just another element I could choose to use in different ways and that no single method is right. I felt energised thinking back on the day. Playful always does that. I don’t know how the Mudlark crew continue to do it, either. I’m certainly glad they do.
Here’s to This is Playful 2014.