The academic homestead of Annika Waern

“Designing Activity and Creating Experience”: Jon Back’s licentiate thesis


Jon presenting, surrounded by a magic circle. Photo by Sofia Stenler.

Two weeks ago, my Ph.D. student Jon Back defended his licentiate thesis. (The ‘lic’ is a non-compulsory intermediate exam on the way to your Ph.D.) The thesis is named ‘Designing activity and creating experience‘, and is based on Jon’s experiences in designing, staging and studying two locative experiences. The first one was an art experience in locative storytelling based both on physical artefacts and  a GPS-based commenting system. The second is our joint ongoing project Codename Heroes.

The licentiate is as mentioned a ‘half-way’ exam, and this is very clear in Jon’s contribution. Jon is struggling with a central problem in game design, in that it is ‘second order’ design. You do not create peoples’ experiences: they create them for themselves, by acting out within the context of a game design. In Jon’s thesis this design issue meets with the perspective on experiences that is prevalent in interaction design research: McCarthy and Wright’s appropriation of Dewey’s concept of experience. The way the words ‘an experience’ are used in interaction design they denote the subjective experience of a lived-through sequence of actions and events with a clear beginning and end.

Through the lens of ‘experience’, Benford and Giannachi have for example formulated experiential trajectories as a tool for designing and analysing an experience.Although trajectories can apply to a range of designed experiences, it works best with fairly railroaded ones. They provide less explanatory power when it comes to analysing games and their ‘second order design’ qualities. My understanding of Jon’s licentiate is that he is trying to build a similar analysis tool for game design. More specifically he addresses play in public space as this form of play presents particular difficulties in attracting participants, offering modes of participation, and providing exit and entry points. To get there, he emphasises that experiences do not exist until they are over – until the arc of experience has come to its end. Although this is in line with what Dewey writes it is seldom examined in interaction design research, and it gives a specific angle to Jon’s work that I am not sure he is aware of himself yet.

Jon continues to study play in public space for another year. I look forward to continue working with him!


John McCarthy and Peter Wright (2004) Technology as experience. MIT Press 2007 (reprint)

John Dewey (1934) Art as experience. Pedigree trade 2005 (reprint)

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