Stirring $#!* Up With Games: Pervasive and Environmental Game Design Workshop

This workshop is intended for those who wish to explore how games can be designed to directly impact the social fabrics of lived environments such as schools, public institutions, workplaces, and neighborhoods. In specific, this workshop is about how artists, entertainers, educators, policy-makers, and activists can use game design to embolden and empower communities to actively engage in the creative construction of their own realities.

The kinds of games explored in this workshop do not take place in simulated worlds; indeed, many of the games discussed here are not digital at all, and draw more on party games, Happenings, and Situationism than they do on code and computation. What all the games mentioned and imagined in this workshop have in common is that they are woven into or layered upon the lived environments of their players. These kinds of games go beyond merely calling for change by actually bringing it about through playful interventions that both embody and enable transformation, discovery, and social engagement.

Presented October 19, 2012 at Meaningful Play in East Lansing, Michigan.

Additional information: see Research.

Sam Lavigne on designing real-world games that “open up new possibilities [and] new ways of interacting with the world and each other”

Sam Lavigne is the co-founder (with Ian Kizu-Blair) of Situate, a design and consulting studio that produces “games that inspire people to create, explore and connect online and in the real world.” Sam’s groundbreaking work in collaborative production game design has set the standard for challenge-driven social media-making games. The interview below was conducted via email on July 27, 2011.

A lot of different disciplines have been converging on pervasive gaming (or whatever you want to call it) over the past few years. What’s your trajectory into this space?

Ian and I have always loved playing games. We first started making games when we were undergrads at the University of Chicago; at the time, I was studying Comparative Literature, and Ian was studying English. We read about The Beast and were inspired by its ability to bring people together to solve seemingly impossible problems. We got an arts grant from the U of C to make a similarly structured (but entirely noncommercial) game called Helen Chanam, in which players were tasked with finding a missing art student. Shortly afterward, we moved to San Francisco and created SF0. Our goal in SF0 was to let players experience what we had experienced while making our first game: to create adventure and mystery for each other. In SF0 everyone is a player, but everyone is also a game designer. Since our success with SF0, we’ve started a company called Situate and have continued to make games that blur the line between everyday life and game.

There are quite a few urban derive projects out there, but one of the things that’s made SF0 so special is the way that you use a pretty tight set of game mechanics to structure and drive the players’ creative interventions. One line from the game’s About page stands out in this regard: “You may find that your own willingness to interact with the city in new ways varies linearly with relation to your Score.” Why did you choose to structure things with rules and point systems?

Games provide an incredibly compelling vehicle for recontextualizing normal spaces. When we play a game, we let go of our everyday constraints, and our everyday motivations for action. Games open up new possibilities, and new ways of interacting with the world and each other, especially when played offline. Rules and points are an invaluable part of any game, and a key component in allowing us to behave playfully. We can ignore the rules of our everyday lives by embracing the alternate rules of the game. Points both help players track their progress through the game world, and provide a pleasant motivation for continuing to play. (Although with SF0, we found that many of the most advanced players didn’t really care that much about their score after a certain point.)

Collaborative production games have a long pre-digital history. For example, some of the spirit of SF0 seems to trace its origins to Fluxus’ “event scores” and other participatory performance activities and games. What are some of the big inspirations for you from the world of analog games and interventions?

We’re greatly inspired by the Situationists; so much so, in fact, that one of the groups in SF0 is called the BART Psychogeographical Association. We were particularly inspired by the Situationist critique of urban spaces structured for cars and consumerism, the concept of a revolution of everyday life, and resisting the spectacle through everyday direct action and modified behaviors. That is not to say, however, that SF0 is a Situationist game-the Situationists are simply a major inspiration.

InterroBANG and Flashback are both projects intended to be engaged with by young people, students and teachers and as extensions to more formal classroom activities. Did this make the design process significantly different for you and your team? Why or why not?

The design process was actually pretty similar. We tried to structure InterroBang and Flashback in the same way that we structured SF0: give players fun and exciting things to do, and inspire them to create fun and adventure for each other. We wanted the games to act as democratizing forces, allowing students to review each others’ work, and even shape curriculum by giving them the ability to create new missions for the games. We believe real learning can only happen when you’re excited about the topic at hand, so we focused on inciting passion for subject areas rather than trying to teach specific dates and times. In Flashback, we wanted to present history as a living entity, something you participate in directly by taking action in the world.

Can you briefly describe these two projects? What is the main gameplay and what are some key observations about the ways in which people play them? In hindsight, is there something you think that works particularly well and in turn, anything you would change?

Both games have almost the same gameplay as SF0. You start at Level 1 with 0 points. You get points and progress through a series of levels by completing missions in the real world, and posting documentation of what you did online. Other players vote and comment on your work. You also have the ability to create missions for other players to complete. Both projects targeted high school-age students and younger. Flashback was about American history and civics, and InterroBang was more about general problem solving. A quote from Flashback’s about page sums it up nicely: “Flashback is a game in which you complete real-world missions with the aim of de- and re-constructing American History and connecting with others to change the world. You begin at level 1 with 0 points. As you complete missions and advance in level you gain the skills and historical knowledge you’ll need to develop strategies for overcoming persistent historical injustices and defeating your class enemies.”

We were very excited to see how creative and engaged students were in both projects–we got some truly amazing results. Most of the kids who played the games loved them, and I think part of the reason was that we gave them more freedom and space to be expressive than is usually possible in a classroom. We also learned that the games worked best in classrooms with excellent teachers who took time to work with their kids. If I could change anything about these games it would be to give students even more freedom and trust, and provide more support to participating teachers.

 Do you think that location-awareness poses unique or new redefinitions of activism?

This is a very interesting question that I don’t really feel qualified to answer. Knowing and being connected to your surroundings is certainly very important. That said, when we’re online it doesn’t really matter where we’re physically located. SF0, for example, is called “SF0” because we initially thought it would only be for residents of San Francisco. Instead, people started playing it from all over the world and SF0-like communities sprouted up in many unusual and unexpected places.

What is your perspective on “gamification” – both generally, and more specifically, in context to civic society and engagement?

I believe that games should fun and stimulating more than anything else. I love that people want to make more and more interactions playful or “gameful” but I think the current trend of trying to add a game layer to every possible activity is worthless unless the resulting games are high quality. Just because something can be a game doesn’t mean it needs to be.

In terms of civic society and engagement: I believe that games can improve the world in the same way that a great work of art can improve the world. Games, like art, have the capacity to teach us, challenge us, and reveal the world to us in unexpected ways. Both games and art can defamiliarize the world, make it new, and this I think is the starting point for all forms of change.

[This interview, co-written with Susana Ruiz, originally appeared in Volume 3, Issue 3 of the International Journal of Learning and Media (MIT Press), as a part of the “Civic Tripod” report prepared by Susana Ruiz, Ben Stokes, and me.]

Transforming Community Through Pervasive Play

Transforming Community Through Pervasive Play

Detailed presentation of Reality Ends Here, with remarks on the methodology underlying pervasive placemaking interventions of all kinds. Originally presented February 2, 2012 at the Berkeley Center for New Media.

Berkeley Talk: Transforming Community Through Pervasive Play

I will be speaking at the Berkeley Center for New Media on February 2nd, 2012, at 5PM in the BCNM Commons (340 Moffitt). Here’s the description of the talk:

In this talk, Jeff Watson will present Reality Ends Here (2011), a pervasive alternate reality game designed to effect immediate change in the community of learners at the USC School of Cinematic Arts (SCA). Over the course of the project’s 120 day run, collectible cards, rumors, secret websites, and a mysterious black flag drew more than 150 students into an intense underground social game involving collaboration, strategy, and artistic experimentation. By connecting students to one another in unpredictable and serendipitous ways, and by providing a framework for meaningful play and performance, the game transformed a collection of heavily siloed academic divisions into a productively chaotic and interdisciplinary community of practice. Drawing on the research and methodology underlying the design, implementation, and assessment of Reality Ends Here, Watson will argue for the transformative potential of pervasive game interventions across a range of domains, from education and public policy, to activism, innovation, and beyond (Berkeley Center for New Media).

UPDATE: Slides posted here.

Innovation Ecotones

An ecotone — literally, a place where ecologies are in tension — is a transitional area between different biomes, such as the boundary between grassland and forest or between different kinds of forests. Such places are sites for evolutionary dynamism, conflict, and experimentation. Ann Pendleton-Jullian, Director of the Knowlton School of Architecture at Ohio State University, draws on the ecotone as analogy and inspiration in her provocative essay regarding the future of design education and other institutional systems, Innovation Ecotones (.pdf).

Here, Pendleton-Jullian outlines the continuum between linear (“twentieth century”) and elastic/non-hierarchical (“twenty-first century”) learning and innovation models:

The left side of this continuum corresponds to models, methods, and mechanisms associated with twentieth century learning and the right side corresponds to how we are beginning to conceive of knowledge construction for the twenty-first century. A twentieth-century approach to education holds fast to the notion of teaching as a systematic delivery of knowledge—knowledge that is vetted and sanctioned and delivered in discipline-based packages from expert teachers to students. It is education in which one learns about specific stuff and how to do specific things.

In contrast, twenty-first century learning environments are about learning that extends far beyond the classroom (it scales), which in turn promotes elasticity and agency. The assumption is that we need to prepare for futures in which the specific things we will be doing, and specific stuff we will need to know, do not yet exist. Implicated in an education for the twenty-first century are all sorts of new mechanisms—cultural, social, and intellectual mechanisms—that are either directly or indirectly affiliated with the digital age as a global phenomenon.

Intuitively, we understand that a twenty-first century approach to learning is radically different from education that focuses on the accumulation of information and the simplistic transfer of culture and ideas associated with this information. But what is it more precisely? I would suggest that it begins with an epistemological shift in which learning how to learn and act (learning to be), in a highly situated manner, replaces learning about something. And then it is about how this scales, so as to create elasticity and agency.

Agency is the key word here. In the staid and siloed ecologies of traditional education, everyone has their place. Agency is reduced to choosing which silo you’re going to set yourself into — a choice which can drastically scale back your exposure to what’s going on in other silos. As a result, your world — your learning ecology — becomes smaller and less diverse over time. And the less diverse a given ecology becomes, the slower its pace of evolution and innovation.

In an “ecotone culture,” what once was siloed begins to collide, mix, and cross-pollinate, opening new vectors for discovery and collaboration. The results are unpredictable, but rich:

Because the students of the ecotone culture share the space and their work with others unlike themselves – with diverse species – there will be those cases in which one enters as one thing and evolves into something else: an architect, for instance, evolves into a musician/architect; or an astronomer evolves into an astronomer/environmentalist. Like the Greenbul [a bird whose song pitch and aeronautical capabilities adapt in response to its environment], though, it is not a change of song but a new tonality that honors both the song structure and the new context. This means that this new talent will acquire the ability to contribute in more than one field and maintain a key presence in multiple camps.

The ecotone analogy is extensive and highly productive. Diversity of species, new species development, keystone species as engineers, distribution of nutrients, corridors for transfer of creatures and stuff—even the idea of microhabitats (smaller habitats within larger habitats, like a tidal pool)—are all intensely relevant in terms of conceiving, designing, and implementing organizational structures and mechanisms for this innovation ecology model. Each component might independently have an impact and add value to the system, but the fact that the ecotone is a system, rather than a collection of components, means that their collective impact scale.

It should be noted that establishing an innovation ecotone in an institutional setting does not mean that one must completely change the entire system overnight. As I’ve observed over the past few months, a lightweight and entirely opt-in pervasive game geared around peer discovery and collaborative production can have transformative effects on an otherwise siloed educational environment. Once the channels for agency and disciplinary elasticity have been opened, it’s hard to close them again. After all, young media artists, theorists, and designers (among many others) are eager to find their niche in the world, to discover their identities, and to make a contribution — and in diversity, there is opportunity.

Download the complete text: Innovation Ecotones (.pdf)

Jeff Hull on The Games of Nonchalance: a guerrilla street war against banality and routine

Jeff Hull is the founder and creative director of Nonchalance, a hybrid arts consultancy based in San Francisco. At this year’s IndieCade, Nonchalance won the World/Story Award for their “epic, immersive, poly-media, real-world adventure,” the Games of Nonchalance. In the Games of Nonchalance, participants experience a vast transmedia interactive narrative woven into the fabric of the Bay Area, following threads of story and mystery through city streets and a wide array of on- and offline media artifacts. I caught up with Jeff Hull shortly after his appearance at IndieCade.

Hi Jeff, glad to finally get around to this again (click here to read Jeff Hull’s previous interview with Jeff Watson). What’s been happening with Nonchalance over the past few months?

Basically hustling, trying to develop the business so we can continue to do radically creative work. A lot of elbow rubbing and hob-knobbery, presentations and pitches and such. There’s more exciting things, too, like doing a TEDx talk, and winning our first Indiecade Award! We’re quite proud of that.

For those who weren’t there, could you quickly describe what you did at IndieCade?

Without building the “Jejune Institute South”, we were trying to produce a street level installation to give visitors a sense of the real world nature of our game. There were a lot of art and artifacts from the game, with some gritty multi-media to back it up.

I thought of you recently as I was giving a talk on remix culture. We ended up discussing the Situationist concept of detournement, and it occurred to me that this is a good baseline description of the kind of work Nonchalance does. Is that what you’ve been doing all these years, detourning the Bay Area (and sundry other places)?

I never thought of it in that way, but the answer is yes, absolutely. I’ve always been a cut & paste, drag & drop kind of artist, and shamelessly so. I have no qualms about it because I know that what I’ve produced from these other sources is completely original.

One of the things I like the most about Situationist art is how it’s geared toward inspiring the viewer/participant to discover the untapped possibilities of the world around them — “to expose the appalling contrast between the potential constructions of life and the present poverty of life.” What are the potentials you’re exposing, and what kinds of poverty — intellectual, emotional, or even economic — do your projects work against?

“Potential constructions of life” is a great description for what we’ve attempted. We’re presenting this parallel universe in which we’re actively at war with banality and routine. It’s a guerrilla street war, too, not some hypothetical plane. The potential is for collective behavior that promotes warmth and trust, communicating something very meaningful through mass media, and generally allowing for variation, color and fun in the civic realm. The poverty exposed is that of spontaneity and creativity in every day life. We don’t always recognize how confined or restricted or repressed we are, and I’m speaking generally about “us” as a group or society, rather than us as individuals. Re-imagining and then reconstructing how we operate and function as a culture is our greatest aspiration. We can only do it in these microscopic slivers, though. The slivers exist in tandem with the rest of the world, often overshadowed by it, but they do exist, awaiting discovery by the curious dilettante.

Interestingly, the Situationists actually thought through the idea of pervasive or ambient urban/social detournement, which they (somewhat awkwardly) called “ultra-detournement.” In the same passage, they write, “the need for a secret language, for passwords, is inseparable from a tendency toward play.” Is this a need that you have? What needs do you see Nonchalance as being capable of fulfilling?

You always blow my mind with these questions, causing me to deeply reconsider everything I’m doing. The reference kind of evokes “The Crying of Lot 49” in which secret symbols are leading toward an entire social strata hidden right under our noses. I love the concept because it suggests a kind of sleeping giant in our midst. I suppose Nonchalance is gesturing toward that giant, prodding at it’s awakening.

A wise man once said that “[an] emancipated community is a community of narrators and translators.” This kind of “emancipation” seems to be a core component of some of your recent projects, most notably Scoop!, which invited players to become reporters for an actual (temporary) FM radio station. Are even your more narrative-heavy projects like The Jejune Institute really just sly ways to get people to narrate and translate their own community?

Yes and no. We certainly enjoy superimposing our own narratives over other more dominant stories, especially on the local scale. It’s very liberating. And within that framework we’ve strongly encouraged user generated content, and experimented with “open source” media programming, such as Scoop and the 01 project.

On the other hand, that user generated content is highly facilitated and curated by us (because we consider ourselves the ultimate arbiters of style and taste in our productions). We give people a creative template to work within. There are a few folks who have run with it, though, and gone completely off the map. I’m calling out Garland Glessner, Carolee Wheeler, and Michael Wertz, founders of the Elsewhere Philatelic Society. It borrows themes from Nonchalance, but it is it’s own unique and beautiful world. That’s a great example of people narrating their own communities.

Is this sort of what you mean by “Situational Design”?

Not exactly. To be honest, what I mean is “Lifestyle Curation”. That is; allow us to creatively direct an afternoon of your life. To offer a real world glimpse of the “what if”, and invite you to experience the world around you in a slightly different, although heavily contrived, way. I’m reclaiming the word “pretension” by the way. It is a positive force in my universe.

Do you feel that social media and screen-mediated forms of community are anathema to the kinds of visceral experiences you’re trying to create? If so, how is this conflict complicated/mitigated as pervasive computing and mobile media blur the boundary between the real and the virtual?

Actually, through conversations at Indiecade we began to develop a vision for a game on a traditional platform that promotes user generated content and real world interaction. That’s a direction I’d like to see video games take, where passivity becomes antiquated. Technology both empowers us and disables us to various degrees. It can support or discourage real world experience. I suppose the Games of Nonchalance represents a certain nostalgia for more sensual forms of expression and interaction. But how did we produce these experiences? How do most people discover them? Through computers.

Thanks for doing this again. Let’s catch up soon — and see you at IndieCade!

Always a pleasure, Jeff! Until next time.

[This interview originally appeared at the always-awesome jawbone.tv]

[See also: Trap doors and hatches all around: Jeff Hull on infusing variability and play into the workaday world]

Transforming space with play: an interview with David Fono of Atmosphere Industries

Atmosphere Industries is a Toronto-based cross-media design collective whose projects “combine fun, community, technology, and a hearty helping of sprinkles.” Atmosphere’s pervasive games and experiences have exhibited around the world at events such as Come Out and Play (NYC), where they took home the 2010 Best in Fest and Best Use of Tech awards. This weekend, their faux-celebrity camera-stalking game, Paparazzi, will appear as a part of the IndieCade 2010 Big Games Program [sign up for the game here, or just drop by the IndieCade Village at 1:45pm on Saturday, October 9th]. In the leadup to IndieCade, co-founder David Fono took some time out from his preparations to talk with me about Atmosphere’s interaction design philosophy and playful approach to community building.

First, I should disclose that I have brand envy: “Atmosphere Industries” is a great name for a cross-media game design collective. What’s the story behind the name?

Thanks! We actually used to be called “Giant Dice,” but ultimately found that to be a bit too literal — plus, you know, the whole gambling allusion. Credit for “Atmosphere Industries” goes to my co-founder, Kate Raynes-Goldie. By “Atmosphere,” we mean that while our weapon of choice is games, our broader goal is to play around with ambiences and different ways of experiencing the world. The “Industries” is just meant to be ironic because factories don’t actually exist these days, or something.

Artists working in this space come from an unusually wide range of backgrounds, both in terms of theory and practice. What was your trajectory into the realm of pervasive interaction design?

I suspect I align myself with most others in this space by admitting my origin story is fairly nerdy. I went to school for computer science, discovered human-computer interaction, aligned myself with a professor who was into technology art, and developed an obsession with social media back when it was totally avant-garde. So the ingredients were there, but the catalyst was a version of The Game (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Game_(treasure_hunt)) I played while interning at Microsoft Research. After returning home, I concocted the harebrained scheme to do something similar in Toronto, but make it last 10 times longer. So, the answer to your question is: it just seemed like fun.

Recently, some commentators have placed so-called “Big Games” in opposition to screen-based “virtual” games. Do you think this is an opposition that’s going to make sense in a few years?

I spend a lot of time trying to explain what I do to people whose only conception of a game is the kind you see on a screen. Pervasive games of any sort are very much on the fringe, and I don’t see this changing for the foreseeable future. If you think of what constitutes a major success in the domain right now — Foursquare, SCVNGR, a few iPhone AR games — these are simplistic games with a small user base of early adopters. Compared to the multi-billion juggernaut that is the videogame industry, they barely even register. The entire world now thinks in terms of screens (even if those screens have GPS and accelerometers.) Personally, I don’t really expect to see this change; I mean it would be fantastic if pervasive games become a substantial force, but it’s far enough off that I find it more productive to think of our work as a niche cultural artifact that offers an alternative vision of the distant future. That’s why we’re an art collective, and not a business, per se. Though if anyone wants to give us money, we can make that work.

As a side note, it’s interesting to note that while virtually everyone stares at me blankly for at least 20 seconds while I describe what a “street game” is, virtually everyone has also spent a significant amount of time playing them — as kids! It’s definitely a comment on society that we seem to have erased these memories from our minds, and replaced them with Halo 3. I’m not sure what that comment is, though.

I see games and activities that layer interaction over the real world simultaneously moving in two general directions: along one path, I think there’s a movement toward more asynchronous or “ambient” games that players can integrate into their daily lives as a kind of background activity — think cross-media Parking Wars or Farmville. The other path leads to real-time/real-world games that work kind of like events or theatre performances, where players show up and have an intense, focused experience. As a designer, what do you see as the strengths and limitations of these paths?

One of my great internal struggles is deciding which of these I’d rather be working on at any given moment.

Ambient games are fantastic, because you have the chance to draw users into deep, sustained narrative or gameplay structures. There’s more raw material to play with a long-term experience, and more user attention to take advantage of. More importantly from a “business” perspective, you can reach a way larger audience. Getting 40 people to love your game is very satisfying, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally want to appear on the cover of Wired.

In terms of crafting a powerful experience, though, nothing beats an event. Theatre really is definitely an apt analogy here. I recently had the following revelation: This is theatre, and I should be talking to theatre people. Big games are fundamentally performative and narrative-driven even when they’re not, and when you start looking at interactive theatre shows, the boundary between the two forms becomes essentially invisible. And the difference between making a casual, online game vs. a theatrical performance is comparable to the difference between writing an essay and having a fist-fight. The great thing about theatre, of course, is that it’s highly visceral, profoundly draining, and over almost instantly.

More than a few of your games have covert or overt political/educational messages. Is this just a natural consequence of setting your games in the real world, or are Situationist-style political interventions a part of Atmosphere’s mandate?

To be honest, this is something I’ve never really thought about. Our latest game, Gentrification: The Game!, was (for obvious reasons) our most seemingly political, but we went to great pains to avoid embedding a distinct political message in the game. We were primarily concerned with creating a compelling game. Our mandate is simply to provide enjoyable, playful experiences that transform and reflect a space.

Our interest in themes like gentrification isn’t the result of a pointed artistic agenda, but neither is it a natural consequence of doing our work — I think, rather, it’s a consequence of doing our work well. Our games are about spaces, and if you’re going to have an audience engage meaningfully with a space, you have a responsibility to explore the issues and concerns that are particular to that space. If you’re faithful to that design principle, political or educational themes are unavoidable. A general failure to accomplish this is central to the critiques of pervasive gaming I’ve seen, and just about every game could benefit from deeper ties to the context which it appropriates. But it’s very, very hard to do, and I guess that’s why we don’t see too much of it.

What’s coming up for Atmosphere?

We’ve got a few projects in the pipeline, including some collaborations with theatre folks, as well as some online-only games. But the big thing for the foreseeable future is trying to build up a community around pervasive games (or, more broadly, “unconventional games”) in Toronto. There is a shocking lack of people doing this sort of thing in Canada as a whole. So, if you’re a Torontonian and you’re reading this, you should probably contact us. We have a website going up soon at recess.to, and we’re planning to get some regular events running in the new year.

Thanks for taking the time to do this — and see you at IndieCade!

Another City for Another Life: the unforeseen games of the city of the future

ARGs, pervasive games, and location-based social games echo and reiterate a range of earlier experiments in ambient and locative art. Graffiti, sticker art, mail art, and other kinds of analog methods for creating distributed narratives paved the way for the kinds of practices that are today exploding in number and purpose thanks to ubiquitous computing and the real-time web. Lettrism and Situationism redefined urban space as a canvas for experimentation, play, and collaborative production. In 1959, Dutch architect and artist Constant Nieuwenhuys wrote “Another City for Another Life,” for the third issue of Internationale Situationniste. This text, which calls for a city “harmonized” by “unforeseen games” that make “inventive use of material conditions,” surely must be one of the founding documents of locative art and pervasive gaming. I include it here in its entirety:

The crisis in urbanism is worsening. The construction of neighborhoods, ancient and modern, is in obvious disagreement with established forms of behavior and even more so with the new forms of life that we are seeking. The result is a dismal and sterile ambiance in our surroundings.

In the older neighborhoods, the streets have degenerated into freeways, leisure activities are commercialized and denatured by tourism. Social relations become impossible there. The newly-constructed neighborhoods have but two motifs, which dominate everything: driving by car and comfort at home. They are the abject expression of bourgeois well-being, and all ludic preoccupations are absent from them.

Faced with the necessity of building whole towns quickly, cemeteries of reinforced concrete — in which great masses of the population are condemned to die of boredom — are being constructed. So what use are the extraordinary technical inventions the world now has at its disposal, if the conditions are lacking to profit from them, if they add nothing to leisure, if imagination is wanting?

We crave adventure. Not finding it on earth, some men have gone to seek it on the moon. We prefer to wager on a change on earth. We propose creating situations, new situations, here. We count on infringing the laws that hinder the development of effective activities in life and in culture. We are at the dawn of a new era and are already attempting to sketch out the image of a happier life, of unitary urbanism (the urbanism intended to bring pleasure).

Our domain, then, is the urban nexus, the natural expression of collective creativity, capable of subsuming the creative energies that are liberated with the decline of the culture based on individualism. We are of the opinion that the traditional arts will not be able to play a role in the creation of the new ambiance in which we want to live.

We are in the process of inventing new techniques; we are examining the possibilities existing cities offer; we are making models and plans for future cities. We are conscious of the need to avail ourselves of all new inventions, and we know that the future constructions we envisage will need to be extremely supple in order to respond to a dynamic conception of life, which means creating our own surroundings in direct relation to incessantly changing ways of behavior.

Our conception of urbanism is therefore social. We are opposed to all the conceptions of a ville verte, a “green town” where well-spaced and isolated skyscrapers must necessarily reduce the direct relations and common action of men. Conurbation is indispensible for the direct relation of surroundings and behavior to be produced. Those who think that the rapidity of our movements and the possibilities of telecommunications are going to erode the shared life of the conurbations are ignorant of the real needs of man. To the idea of the ville verte, which most modern architects have adopted, we oppose the image of the covered town, in which the plan of roads and separate buildings has given way to a continuous spatial construction, disengaged from the ground, and included in which will be groups of dwellings as well as public spaces (permitting changes in use according to the needs of the moment). Since all traffic, in the functional sense of the term, will pass below or on the terraces above, the street is done away with. The large number of different traversable spaces of which the town is composed form a complex and enormous space space [in its place]. Far from a return to nature, to the idea of living in a park as individual aristocrats once did, we see in such immense constructions the possibility of overcoming nature and of submitting the climate, light and sounds in these different spaces to our control.

Do we intend this to be a new functionalism, which will give greater prominence the idealized utilitarian life? It should not be forgotten that, once the functions are established, play will succeed them. For a long time now, architecture has been a playing with space and ambiance. The ville verte lacks ambiances. We, on the contrary, want to make more conscious use of ambiances; and so they correspond to all our needs.

The future cities we envisage will offer an original variety of sensations in this domanin, and unforeseen games will become possible through the inventive use of material conditions, like the conditioning of air, sound and light. Urbanists are already studying the possibility of harmonizing the cacophony that reigns in contemporary cities. It will not take long to encounter there a new domain for creation, just as in many other problems that will present themselves. The space voyages that are being announced could influence this development, since the bases that will be established on other planets will immediately pose the problem of sheltered cities, and will perhaps provide the pattern for our study of a future urbanism.

Above all, however, the reduction in the work necessary for production, through extended automation, will create a need for leisure, a diversity of behavior and a change in the nature of the latter, which will of necessity lead to a new conception of the collective habitat with a maximum of space space, contrary to the conception of a ville verte where social space is reduced to a minimum. The city of the future must be conceived as a continuous construction on pillars, or, rather, as an extended system of different structures from which are suspended premises for housing, amusement, etc., and premises destined for production and distribution, leaving the ground free for the circulation of traffic and for public messages. The use of ultra-light and insulating materials, which are being experimented with today, will permit the construction to be light and its supports well-spaced. In this way, one will be able to create a town on many levels: lower level, ground level, different floors, terraces, of a size that can vary between an actual neighborhood and a metropolis. It should be noted that in such a city the built surface will be 100% of that available and the free surface will be 200% (parterre and terraces), while in traditional towns the figures are some 80% and 20%, respectively; and that in the ville verte this relation can even be reversed [20% and 80%, respectively]. The terraces form an open-air terrain that extends over the whole surface of the city, and which can be sports fields, airplane and helicopter landing-strips, and for the maintenance of vegetation. They will be accessible everywhere by stair and elevator. The different floors will be divided into neighborhing and communicating spaces, artificially conditioned, which will offer the possibility of create an infinite vaiety of ambiances, facilitating the derive of the inhabitants and their frequent chance encounters. The ambiances will be regularly and consciously changed, with the aid of every technical means, by teams of specialized creators who, hence, will be professional situationists.

An in-depth study of the means of creating ambiances, and the latter’s psychological influence, is one of the tasks we are currently undertaking. Studies concerning the technical realization of the load-bearing structures and their aesthetic is the specific task of plastic artists and engineers. The contribution of the latter is an urgent necessity for making progress in the prepatory work we are undertaking.

If the project we have just traced out in bold strokes risks being taken for a fantastic dream, we insist on the fact that it is feasible from the technical point of view and that it is desirable from the human point of view. The increasing dissatisfaction that dominates the whole of humanity will arrive at a point at which we will all be forced to execute projects whose means we possess, and which will contribute to the realization of a richer and more fulfilled life. (notbored.org)

More on Constant Nieuwenhuys: Texts, Photos, and Paintings at notbored.org, profile at DADA and Radical Art, “Constant Vision,” by Lebbeus Woods

Trap doors and hatches all around: Jeff Hull on infusing variability and play into the workaday world

Last month, I put out a call on the IGDA ARG SIG discussion list for information about the use of pervasive games and ARGs in museums, universities, libraries, and other institutions (for more on that, see this resource). One of the people who responded to this call was none other than Jeff Hull of nonchalance, the Bay Area urban art organization responsible for (among other things) the Jejune Institute, which happens to be one of my favorite pervasive story/game projects ever. Sensing that Jeff was a kindred soul of sorts, I asked him if he would do an interview about public space, community, and play.

It strikes me that a lot of the work going on right now in location-based experience design can trace its origins back to Situationism, sticker art, and — going way back — graffiti. There are also some obvious connections to amusement park and museum design. What are the big touchstones for you?

Wow. I’ve never had any one zero in so accurately on my influences before. For years, before we started Nonchalance, I was doing a guerrilla campaign called Oaklandish that was really attempting to fuse together the ideals of Situationism and Street Art. We’d use multi-media devices and historicaly driven content to produce happenings designed to gather large groups of people together in negative urban spaces, so they could begin to interact with each other and the space around them in new ways. It was literally “the construction of situations”, with a strong post-graffiti mindset. Haring and Basquiat are like Patron Saints to me for the very literate, site-specific graffiti art they did early on. And, yes, we absolutely had an amusement park mentality as we are created the Games of Nonchalance. When I grew up I worked as a child performer at a place called “Children’s Fairyland” in Oakland, and it was this magical hokey little fantasy world, where you could literally fall down a rabbit hole. They had magic keys where you could turn them in a lock box and suddenly hear a recording of a nursery rhyme, while looking at a diorama of the cow jumping over the moon, or whatever. There was a yellow brick road leading through the park to an Emerald City. We want to present those kinds of interactions everywhere across the civic realm, so that trap doors and side hatches exist all around you, all the time, fuzed into the urban landscape.

Over the past few years, a lot of different disciplines have been coming together around notions of embodied experience, public space, community, and play. Everyone from performance artists to game designers to educators and curators seem to be grasping at different versions of the same thing. But what *is* that thing? Do we even have a word for it?

Interestingly, most of our intern applicants have been architecture students. Somehow they’re all thinking about their work in a different way, too. There’s some kind of convergence. When I asked the question to our production manager Sara Thacher, she felt like it wasn’t necessarily useful to put a label on it, but we both agreed that the zeitgeist is happening. Sara is more interested in “why” so many different people are exploring this new “Third Space”. We agreed it is in part a reaction to the narrow confines of sanctioned activities in public space, which have been largely defined by commerce. We can legally: commute, shop, and drink a latte. Walk or run in a park between sun up and sun down. Otherwise you’re somehow suspect. People feel isolated by that. I think we’re all trying to loosen those reigns through their own individual contributions.

My name for it is Socio-Reengineering. That’s Jejune Institute terminology, and in our story it has dubious connotations, but we’re actually quite sincere about this aim. To infuse variability and play into the workaday world by re-engineering the way that people navigate and experience the space and the population around them. Sometimes it can happen in a seemingly spontaneous way, like a flash mob, and sometimes it is the result of meticulous design and effort.

One thing I really like about the Jejune Insitute is the fact that it’s a cross-platform interactive narrative that works a little bit like a gallery installation: it’s just *there*, online, on the air, and in physical space. This represents a very different approach to storytelling than that found in more “traditional” ARGs, which are typically structured around the gradual unveiling of story information leading up to a climax event of some sort. What made you pick this different path? What did you gain (and/or lose) by abandoning the unity of time?

You’re correct about the induction center as “gallery installation”. We wanted to create an immersive automated well-curated environment, and to have it exist semi-permanantly. We were outsiders to the ARG universe, and totally ignorant of it’s culture and customs. So when we finally appeared at the ARG Fest-o-Con in Portland, we learned that we had inadvertently solved one of the major stumbling blocks of earlier ARG’s; “replayability”. What we had produced could be experienced over and over again, and shared with friends, and so on. The big trade off was that it was local. People in other parts of the world are not able to experience it directly. But ideally we’ll be able to produce unique experiences in other cities in the future. Every city should have their own game!

The other thing that led in this direction was that after doing work in the streets for so long I became very curious about those semi-public and private spaces as well. What are the boundaries between them? A corporate office building has all those questions built into them. There’s this very sterile environment that is in someways meant to intimidate people. We used that to our advantage in the narrative, and at the same time subverted it by asking people to explore and reexamine that space. That was a clear incentive for us in creating the induction center.

You’ve been embedding story and play into the Bay Area for a while now. What kind of dividends has this paid in terms of building community and bringing like-minded individuals together?

For players; yes, there’s definitely been a coming together of like-minded people, especially with the recently released Act IV. It emphasizes group play, inter-dynamics, and trust so that when the group completes the experience they have truly been through a rite of passage together. We’ve been hearing from participants that they have really gelled with other players this way and formed deeper bonds. You can really see it in the EPWA protest video; all these weirdos just coming out of the woodwork to party in the streets. Ironically, because I’ve remained “behind the curtains” for so long, I don’t feel like I’ve benefitted socially from any of these activities! I’m really looking forward to coming out from backstage more and interacting directly with the players in the future.

Is civic engagement an artistic imperative?

I’d say not. Great art can be something completely personal and private.

I live in Los Angeles. Do the kinds of projects we’re talking about work best in denser cities like San Francisco or London? Or can we imagine locative stories anywhere, and on any scale?

I view these productions as being fully scaleable. It’s not so much an issue of geography and architecture as much as culture. A map isn’t unpredictable, but people can be! Once you know who the participant is then you can begin to imagine how they might interact in that particular environment. For example, I’d love to produce something for Las Vegas. There is also the “Accomplice” game in Hollywood, which operates a little more like dinner theater in the streets.

If you go back to the 1990s, a lot of people were predicting that the future of storytelling and play was going to be defined by screens, VR goggles, and, ultimately, brain implants. Thankfully, it looks like that’s not the way we’re heading — at least not right away. Where do you see all this locative stuff going in the next few years?

Mobile technology can potentially allow us to get away from the screen and back into the real world. I’m awaiting a few app features to be developed so we can take our immersive experiences to a new level, and which would allow other users to create their own real world adventures. I want my phone to let me know about the secret discovery awaiting me right around the corner. Then I want to share that discovery. I foresee every institution with real space developing their own interactive mobile applications; the Magic Mountain choose-your-own adventure iPhone game, the MOMA interactive mystery tour, or the narrative based campus orientation experience, as you had mentioned. I think at first there will be a ton of poorly designed ones, until people get over the novelty of it and recognize it as a true art form, like film.

What’s next for nonchalance?

On the practical side, we just put together a board of advisors to help us develop our business. On the creative side, we’re talking to a potential collaborator right now in the mental health field about producing a multi-sensory maze that serves therapeutic purposes. It would essentially be an inward-bound expedition through the gauntlet of emotions, with positive achievements built into it. Have you ever been on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride? It would be like that, but for your psyche. That’s one thing on the table, but we’re still looking at other opportunities.

Nonchalance‘s practice stands at the intersection of three core concepts: Narrative, Consciousness, and Space (both public and private). Founded in Oakland in 1999 by director Jeff Hull, the organization’s primary goal is to infuse more variability and play into the civic realm. Over the intervening years the team has comprised a fluctuating roster of collaborators that currently includes Sara Thacher, Sean Aaberg, and Uriah Findley. Past projects have included “Oaklandish,” “The Liberation Drive-In,” “Urban Capture the Flag,” and “The Bay Area Aerosol Heritage Society.” With over 100 free public events under its belt, Nonchalance has received thirteen consecutive “Best of the East Bay Awards,” and produced exhibits and installations for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Oakland Museum of CA, Southern Exposure and the Oakland International Airport. They are currently wrapping production on the “Games of Nonchalance,” an “Immersive Media Narrative” leading participants on a journey of urban exploration throughout San Francisco’s hidden present and past.