The academic homestead of Annika Waern

Archive for the category “Me, myself and I”


14692101_10154520227440396_7304965817657911855_oThe past year was academically hectic, to a level when I just gave up on trying to capture everything in separate posts. This is an attempt to catch up on everything that happened. (I have probably missed things.)

The year started with Jon presenting his thesis that I already blogged about, and the fairly impressive presence that my research group had at CHI that I have also blogged. In addition to those were more or less closely related to play design and play studies, my Ph.D. student Mareike Glöss was coauthor on a great article on Über and how the mobile technology shapes the experience for drivers and passengers.

At CHI, Josh Tanenbaum grabbed me for a short video interview for his pervasive game class. While this interview was originally only intended for his students, he has now put it online and I kind of like the result. It’s a pretty playful video, and it reflects some of the more important things I have learned about pervasive game design and participation since the book came out in 2009. Some of the things we talk about seem to foreshadow Pokemon Go that struck the world about two months later.

DigiFys did not go unpublished for long – for soon, Eva-Lotta Sallnäs Pysander travelled to Australia to present the second project publication at Designing Interactive Systems. The article describes how the environment and the installations affected each other in a schoolyard field test of interactive play technology, and got a honourable mention!

Next, Elena Márquez Segura defended her Ph.D. thesis. The thesis is called “Embodied Core Mechanics: Designing for movement-based co-located play” and focusses on design strategies for the design of physical play. The thesis work focusses primarily on the early stages of design: on ideation methods and on ways to involve participants in shaping play. The core question that Elena has explored concerns what is actually being designed in these projects, as the technology often is just a tiny part of the whole design. Her answer is that the key thing to design is what she calls ‘embodied core mechanics’ – tiny snippets of physical activity that may involve many persons and several resources, and in which are manifest such qualities that the designers and players have found desirable. Elena’s thesis is  based on ideas that she started to investigate already in our joint 2013 CHI article on co-located play, and that have been developed through multiple design investigations.

Only a week later, Patrick Prax defended his thesis called “Co-creative Game Design as Participatory Alternative Media”. Patrick’s thesis is an investigation of how players shape the development of online games over time, not just trough play but also in a very concrete way by developing add-ons and other supporting resources. But it is unclear what power that players have – Patrick argues that their influence could potentially be a critical tool and as such provide some political power. Still, in most of his examples player-developers rather become a resource for unpaid labor for the companies. This is an intriguing thesis that manages to put the spotlight on a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly common.

In the midst of summer, Pokemon Go struck bringing brief a brief moment of fame back for this old pervasive games scholar. I have written about the game here and here and in Swedish at the Uppsala University webpage. I was also interviewed by Swedish radio and UNT, the Uppsala daily newspaper. I hope that there soon will be a new blockbuster pervasive game that I can feel more enthusiastic about.

Late summer, DiGRA announced its inaugural selection of distinguished scholars, and I was elected to be one of them. While there certainly are many people that should have gotten recognition ahead of me and my recognition should probably be read as a thank-you for years of service to the organisation as program chair and journal editor, I am very proud of the title.

In October, Mareike Glöss defended her thesis “Technology encounters: Exploring the essence of ordinary computing” and by that, I ran completely out of Ph.D. students. Mareike has been studying how we approach information technology as part of our ordinary life, with a focus on family practices. Mareike’s thesis is anthropological and fits somewhat uneasily into human-computer interaction, but I would still recommend it for reading for all who aspire to develop everyday technology. In the end, Mareike’s conclusion is that despite the way technology is going increasingly mundane, we do not entirely integrate it into our collection of ‘stuff’. Technology doesn’t shrink into the background as other ‘stuff’ does, and it tends to create hubs of activity, sometimes for the whole family together. So essentially, Mareike has shown that I am wrong when I say that it’s becoming impossible to research interaction with IT separately from other interactions, as IT is becoming a part of everything we do. There is no saying that this will always be true – but right now, technology still seems to inhabit its own ontological space.

Later in October, I travelled to Austin to do a keynote at CHIPlay. It was a bit scary – I took the opportunity to talk about research and ideas that I haven’t fully developed yet and that deal with ways to look on play design as an alignment process between players and designers. (Some of this work has gone into an article that hopefully will come out in ToCHI during 2017.) The abstract for the talk can be found here. I also presented a paper that was mostly Elena’s work: the article “Playification: The PhySeEar case” where we basically look upon a more playful approach to gamification.

Late October, I presented a draft paper at the Uppsala Colloquium on “Communication, material and discursive power dynamics”. The colloquium was organised by my colleagues Vaia Douaki and Nico Carpentier, and I was definitely the odd bird out in this context. I tried to work through some of the documentation around two larp productions that were directed towards more mainstream audiences, but I don’t think that topic was political enough for the communication scholars. (I would like to take this text to Knutepunkt, to get some feedback before I finalise it.)

November and December were, thankfully, a bit more tranquil. In my spare time, I started to work together with the Cabaret crew to reshape the larp for a third run that will happen in June 2017. In late December, I playtested a scenario based on Cohen’s last record that seems to work pretty well. The scenario is called ‘You want it darker’ just as the record, and it is of course very much centred on Cohen’s music. And death.  I tried to finish a few papers on old projects before January hit with the start of new projects, but succeeded only with those that had set deadlines.

Apart from scary, 2017 looks to be again quite hectic. I hope I’ll have a little time also for blogging.


Moving jobs

I haven’t been active on this blog for a while. The main reason is my change of jobs. In April this year, I took up a position as professor in Human Computer Interaction at Uppsala University. Which leads to the question “now what on earth did that come from?” and the gut reaction “aaargh I’m becoming my mother!” as my mother was professor in the very same subject.

Being a professor in Uppsala has so far meant 1) adapting to teaching students in HCI rather than in game development, and 2) networking with a lot of cool people in the university and local industry. I am also heading the advisory board for the bachelor program in game design at Gotland, but I am not actually working there. I have a new Ph.D. student who is NOT doing game-related research, but I also got two of my old students accompanying me. Both are also presenting their licentiate theses now in November and December – but those deserve their own posts. I have taught a course in Social Media where the students blogged about everything they did in the course – and created a pretty comprehensive overview of the subject.

I have played several very good larps recently – I haven’t blogged about Celestra nor Mad About the Boy (which I helped organise) nor The Cabaret larp musical (that I am actually designing), and not about the Palestinian larp festival Beit Byout or the Stockholm Scenario festival. (Looking back at this period, I realise why I didn’t have much time for blogging.)

In August, Jon Back presented our joint paper about Codename Heroes at the international DIGRA conference. We should publish more on this project – it is huge – so this is just a first. It covers the gender aspects of the design. Hopefully, the article will soon be added to the DIGRA library and then I’ll write a short announcement about it. I also spoke on the subject of teaching game design at Foundations of Digital games (paper available here) and held an invited talk at CHItaly about the differences and similarities between game research and HCI.

So, with this quick recap I hope I can get back to writing some nice posts about games and game analysis soon.




Solmukohta 2012 – My rant about why larps may not change the world

Arrived at Solmukohta, I immediately got fired up by the larp correspondant to Gamification: The everpresent idea that Larp Can Change The World that formed the theme of the keynote speech by Mike Pohjola. So I wrote and delivered a rant. (I wrote it while listening to Eirik Fatland’s excellent presentation on the fundamentals of larp design – sorry Eirik for typing away during your presentation!)

“I want to rant about one of the most recent and most popular dogmas in larpdom – in fact, it was the opening talk of Solmukohta this year:


I am afraid that this isn’t much more than a convenient excuse for us to feel good about our hobby. I seriously doubt that larps can change the world, and they very definitely don’t do it as they look today.

Most scenarios we design have no power to question anything; rather, they reinforce and emphasise the societal structures that we know from our daily lives, from literature or from history books. Fantasy larps play in societies with feudal structures, racism and rampant hegemony; second world war larps in military settings with set hierarchies, bullying and violence. The reason why this happens is not laziness, it is because these structures are recognizable – they tell people what to do in the larp. Ursula LeGuin faced this problem when trying to write feminist fantasy, and she described is as ’having to walk the untrodden path’. Well, in a larp, it is even harder – because you will have to make all your players collectively walk this untrodden path. So it is no surprise that we stay with these well-known worlds. If you wanna make another ’between sky and sea’, expect to have to train your players in pre-game workshops for a year.

Well, we can still question them, can’t we? We certainly do – I played in KAPO, a game that aimed to re-create the experience of losing your humanity to the system. Nobody goes out of that experience without questioning such systems. But very often we just go out of the larp thinking ’Well we are SO lucky not living in THAT kind of society!’

Furthermore, even if we play a larp that questions structures in our contemporary society, we cannot change the world by just questioning it – we need to also construct the alternatives. And constructing the alternatives in LARP settings is not only hard, it very rarely happens. I don’t think that we ever play alternative utopian societies in Larp settings – a world without conflict is simply too boring.

Can larp change people, then? Can larp change the world one person at a time? Well, yes. I do believe that a good larp can challenge our perspective of the world and allow us to reflect on ourselves. But it happens much more rarely – and may be more shallow- than we’d like to think. When did you see the school bully play a low status role? In the larp, he’ll almost always be a high-ranked soldier or the larp might just break down. When did you last see a beautiful young girl play an old hag? In most scenarios, she’ll be cast as a princess and dressed up in clothes that makes her even more beautiful.

Finally, even if larp did all of this: if we learned to question, enacted the alternative, or learned to understand ourselves, how would this change society? Society doesn’t consist of individuals but is a structure. It is changed by politics and activism on the streets, and not by hiding in a forest or castle larping. And sorry to say, even when larping takes to the streets – in the kinds of larps that I have  both helped stage and studied –  it does not really become a sustainable form of activism. I still entertain a hope that it can, but I have yet to see it happen.

Dear larpdom – don’t fall into the ’gamification’ trap! Face facts – most lapers don’t go to larps to learn. We go to have a great experience! Truth is, most larpers go to larp to have fun – sometimes by crying our eyes out, but it’s still for fun. You may even call it a ’pasttime’ or a form of ’entertainment’.  So if you want larps to change the world, evenif it is  one player at a time, this is what you have to work with – and against.”

Tom Tit’s science café – and research on ‘stupid questions’

Me speaking at the science café. Shows that I have lost some weight, nice!

Last Thursday, I participated in a winter holiday ‘science café’ at Tom Tit’s. I love doing this kind of appearances, especially when I have a chance to discuss with kids. I started out by saying that researching games involves a lot of asking really, really stupid questions, and finding complex answers for them. And then I started asking some of those questions to the audience: such as ‘why do we play?’ and ‘what is the difference between playing and gaming?’. As usual, kids were better at finding answers than adults, such as actually admitting that we play games because it’s fun and not just because it’s educational.

In return, I learned about a couple of really interesting IPad applications that are making their way into pre-school. The example that I found most interesting was Toca Tea Party. It uses the IPad as a tiny interactive table, around which kids pretense-play a tea party together, or alone, or with their stuffed animals as party guests. I love the idea and how it illustrates how innovative applications can be, when the interface is nothing but a sturdy screen that you can place anywhere including on the floor. But I would want to see an IoT version, complete with play cups and toy food!

(After the Science Café, I went straight home and hit the sack – nurturing a flu that has kept me grounded for five days straight now. The flip side was that I finally got around to starting this blog.)

Annika Waern, brief C.V.

Docent 2007, Ph.D. 1996, currently employed as professor at Stockholm University, Dept. of Computer and System sciences. Annika Waern has a long background as an industry-oriented researcher from the research institutes Swedish Institute of Computer Science and Interactive Institute. She has participated in numerous collaboration projects with industry. National examples include the PUSH project with Ellemtel in the early nineties, and Vinnova projects with small companies such as WeRunFree (with Street Media 7) in 2010. International projects include the Common-KADS project also in the early nineties and the Kimsac project in the late nineties. Most importantly, she headed the IPerG (Integrated Project on Pervasive Games) project during 2004-2008. This project involved nine partners from five countries in developing design and technology for Pervasive Games. Most of the results from this project are still available at the project homepage. The project also produced an easy to read book with design tips and considerations for Pervasive Games.

Today, Annika works within the context of the Mobile Life excellence center. Her research is still focussed on pervasive play, but has shifted from the experimental design of full games towards more detailed research on the interplay between game design, interaction design, and the activities that people engage in when playing these games. Some of this research specifically focusses on the role of using our own bodies in games, other on how to create interesting and negotiatable spaces for play.

A personal account of Annika’s research career was posted at the DSV web in March 2012 (in Swedish). Most of her more recent publications are available from the web pages above.

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