I prefer writing original texts for this blog, but right now I want to spread the word on two recent publications from my group. Since starting in Uppsala, I have moved over to publish as much as possible in the CHI community, and I am getting a bit worried that those publications may fly under the radar on game scholars.
I am very happy about our ToCHI paper ‘Designing for Transformative Play’, co-authored by Jon Back, Elena Márquez Segura and myself. This is a long and complex text, especially the background section is quite a mouthful. The core contribution in the article is a four-faceted model for how the play activity relates to a particular play design (and in this concept, we include a wide range of designs including both games and various forms of toys).
There are some ideas underlying this model that I believe may be considered quite disruptive. The most important one is that play design is, inherently, a collaborative activity involving both players and designers. When you start to look at play design this way, one of the things you have to take into account is that the design may change over time, as the game (or toy or whatever) is being played with. The main purpose of the model is to capture how such changes come about, which is why the article is called ‘… for transformative play’. We are not entirely alone taking this step, and we were in fact directly inspired by Patrick Prax work on game modding. But even for the kind of very concrete modifications and additions that Patrick discusses, he ran into a lot of resistance against the idea that players are in fact co-designers; a debate he brings forward in his thesis. Our work is even more radical, as it does not assume that any material aspects of the design need to be changed – we consider it sufficient if the social contract changes. Patrick’s work highlights a very important aspect of this collaboration: that it is not on equal terms and that a political perspective can be applied in analysing exactly how this collaboration plays out.
The second idea relates to how such a model becomes relevant for design. Much of the design research in third wave HCI focusses on providing more or less precise design guidelines. In the article, we describe how our team first used the model analytically (in studying how a play design was played), then to inform the design goals and strategies in another project, and finally in shaping the design process itself to implement a playful collaboration between designer and user/player. We argue that the third strategy was the most successful approach. This is a radical stance, as it allows even the design goals to shift to encompass the creative input from players. I suspect that this approach will be difficult for reviewers to accept in research. Imagine what will happen if we start submitting articles where the research question is ‘we weren’t sure what this would accomplish but when we saw what worked, we decided it was the thing we wanted’.
The third disruptive idea in the article is that we do not discuss game design or toy design, but consider both examples of play design, that is, designing what people do. An early version of this article is included in Jon Back’s thesis, which is all about play design. This idea is old; it originates in Salen and Zimmerman’s observation that games are ‘second order design constructs’, where interesting and/or desirable effects are most appropriately articulated on the activity level. But that doesn’t make it less radical because it implies that the material, pre-designed constructs actually are irrelevant. If the play activity changes, the game has been changed. If two different constructs are played the same way, they implement the same activity.
The second publication is about activity-centric design in general. This article was co-authored with Jon Back and is called ‘Activity as the ultimate particular of interaction design’. It was presented at this year’s CHI conference. It is focussed on how an activity-centric perspective may usefully be brought into the design-centric ‘third wave’ HCI tradition. This is a much scarier publication, as the activity-centric perspective is not at all new to HCI in general; it is only the most recent pragmatic design work that has become very artefact-focussed and this is also what we critique. The article is aiming to charter what happens if this focus is shifted, using examples from recent HCI publications (not our own, which might have been a mistake); the article argues that it changes both how design knowledge is usefully articulated, and how the design instances need to be documented and presented. We truly expect to either be shot down for this article, or entirely forgotten.
I hope this has triggered some interest for the texts!