My (by now former) doctorate student Jon Back defended his Ph.D. thesis in February.The thesis is called ’Designing public play: Playful engagement, constructed activity, and player experience’.
This is a thesis is one of a range of recent dissertations that focus on play rather than games. It is not entirely easy to make this move. Play is typically seen as a broader category than gameplay, and is by that even more difficult to delimit and frame. What is play, to start with? To this, Jon adds the challenge that he is interested in designing for play, privileging the role of a designer in shaping the play activity. This is tricky. Whereas there are ways to make that distinction reasonably clear for game design, it becomes extremely problematic for play design, as so much of play is creative.
Jon’s been researching and designing public play for a long time now, both as an academic and as an active street performer. A key feature of his work is that he wants to make it relevant for designers. This is not a philosophical thesis, it clearly belongs to the pragmatic approach to design research that characterises third wave HCI. The central contribution of the thesis is still rather abstract, and consists of two frameworks to help the designer conceptualize of play in a way that foregrounds the rather loose relationship the play activity to the produced design. Based on several case studies including our joint project Codename Heroes, he is also able to provide some hands-on guidelines.
Jon and I think very much alike; and I am not sure if he has influenced me or vice versa. I am of course immensely proud of him at this time, and want everyone to read his thesis! But I cannot escape thinking that the relationship between designer and the designed play activity is even more complex than this thesis makes it – that it only begins to scratch the surface.