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Archive for the category “Own publications”

Two new publications

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.

Figure 1

The four-faceted model of play activity, copied from the article. I won’t explain the two axis here, so go read it!

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!




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.

Playing @ CHI

My former and soon-to-be former Ph.D. students presented work at the CHI conference this year that is relevant for this blog. (CHI is the biggest and most prestigious conference in human-computer interaction.) Elena Márquez Segura and Laia Turmo presented on ‘Embodied Sketching‘, detailing and illustrating an approach to ideation for co-located physical play. Jon Back presented on “Designing Children’s Digital-Physical Play in Natural Outdoors Settings” as late-breaking news. This is a first publication from a very interesting collaboration project, in which interactive installations are designed into a landscape environment to support children’s play in a rich way.

Being a supervisor in the final phase of a Ph.D. is a slightly weird feeling. Of course, you have known for a long time that they already know their subject better than yourself. Still, when they start to realise that they do and get self-sufficient, you feel at the same time proud – and old and useless. But mostly proud.

(I had a paper in CHI myself too, on ethics of unaware participation.)

Children that play a tablet game learn – but how?

The DiGRA 2015 articles are now up in the DiGRA library. This year I got one article in together with my fantastic master student Gunnar Bohné, on his study of pre-school children playing a very simple tablet game. The setup of the study is very much Gunnar’s work. He created a fun and engaging method of figuring out the children’s understanding of the game content – check it out!

The theoretical part is perhaps less exciting, or at least dissatisfying. We argue that existing models for game-based learning don’t match what the children do with this game. The issue is that the children play with the game; they don’t just play the game. They do actions that are inspired by but not included in the game. There is no model of game-based learning that captures this attitude towards games – as a play material. We argue that Ian Bogost’s basic framing of procedural rhetoric as entymeme, a rhetoric where the required player actions complete the games’ argument, comes the closest. But the game itself is not a good example of procedural rhetoric, as its procedural game challenge has almost nothing to do with the narrative, and it is the voluntary actions that the children add that extend, rather than complete, the game’s rhetoric.

The article can be found here.

In the crucible of science

Early prototype for one of the technology-supported experiments.

Last year, my group ran a collaboration project with Tom Tits Experiment in Södertälje; a hands-on science center in the tradition of the Exploratorium in San Fransisco. The goal was to rebuild some of their experiments to become part of an overarching game. While the game definitely has the purpose of teaching science, it is not your typical learning game; instead, focus is placed entirely on increasing engagement with visiting families.

The first article from this project was published in November at ‘Advances in Computer Entertainment Technologies‘ and is now available from the ACM library. The article is focussed on the design choices, challenges and solutions, and only briefly describes the initial evaluations. (The full-scale evaluation was done last summer and we are still working through the data.)

The best part is that the science centre is seriously invested in the project. We did two public tests last year – first in February and then scaled-up in July-August – both open to the public. While the research project ended in August, Tom Tits has taken the game further and is now making it a permanent part of their exhibition. From what I have gleaned, the final version looks really cool; the ugly screens are gone and replaced by mechanical devices that show scores, and a fabulous end reward installation. I hope to be able to do some kind of study of the final installation as well.

Your larp sucked – or how to get useful feedback from players

So, I did a little inspirational talk and a follow-up workshop at Knudepunkt 2015. Some people seemed to want to get access to my slides. They are available here.

It’s about things to think about when gathering feedback from players after a larp. Since it may all sound very obvious and simple, I would recommend anyone who want to do it to carry out the exercise at the end of the slides. The devil is, as always, in the detail.

The design space of body games

This year’s proceedings from CHI (the SIGCHI conference on human factors in computer systems) have now made it into the ACM digital library. Elena Marquéz Segura, Jin Moen, myself and Lina Johansson had a full paper together this year. It is called “The design space of body games: Technological, physical and social design” and tells the story of how we designed games with and around the “body bug”, a nicely designed playtool with very small capabilities for interaction.

I am rather satisfied with this paper. At its core, the paper is about how pervasive game design involves designing much more than just a game engine and an interface. In that sense, it is similar to the ‘360 illusion‘ paper from 2009. But where that paper dealt with fiction-heavy and large-scale games (and seems to be read as a paper about larp), this time we apply the same principle to a much simpler and restricted range of games which we call ‘Body games’. These are games that are played by moving and take their main enjoyment from body movement. By restricting the domain this way and by looking at a really restricted playtool, we are able to be much more precise in what the design goals are and how we can bring in physiological and social aspects into the game design.

This paper is to a large extent Elena’s achievement. Most of the work in this paper was  Elena’s master thesis project; and it is now also part of her Ph.D. work. Without her energy, enthusiasm and fantasy I doubt that this project would have gotten far.

Framing Games

Jessica Enevold took this picture of me during my presentation. I was not particularly aware of being photographed at the moment…

My Nordic DIGRA article ‘Framing Games’ has just been made accessible from the DIGRA library. It is yet another attempt at defining games, this time with the explicit goal to treat digital and non-digital games equally. To me, it is primarily a stepping stone towards another article I want to write about the role of fiction and narrative in games (which anybody who follows this blog may already have guessed).

One may wonder why we need to define games at all, and especially why we would define games using anything but nominal definitions (essentially, how we use the word ‘game’). ‘Game’ is such a vague concept. But I see game definitions as a way to frame not so much what we study in game studies, but why. In the article I argue that game studies should – and do – focus on the interplay between structures of game, and the play activity that people engage in when playing games. I argue that games are systems of rules and goals, but not just any such systems of which there are many in society. What makes games different from other systems is that we use them for play. Since play also is a vague concept I also discuss ‘play’ quite extensively – not that I completely define play, but I argue for some minimal requirements on an activity to consider it to be play.

It is this two-axis perspective (games as structures with an intended use) that I wanted to be the major contribution of the article. It is also what makes my definition different than most other game definitions, both those that define games as systems, and those that see games as family concepts or rely on property collections. One important point is that I use play rather than game-play as the use context, which widens  the scope outside that of of most other definitions.

The article has some weak parts, which makes me want to rewrite and resubmit it elsewhere. One weak point is that my framing of ‘play’ is socioculturally dependent (which I want), but that I have not clearly formulated “who decides”, that is, what sociocultural context it could be that determines if a structure is a game or not. Clearly, I don’t want a formulation which makes games change their status every time they are being used, but neither do I want a formulation that makes the status unchangeable (as it would no longer be socioculturally dependent). I have an idea of how to sort this using some sort of sterotypical classification approach. A more serious weak spot is the two-faceted view of ‘resignification’ that I derive from Bateson (see below), as at the same time resignifying the external meaning of an action, and preventing the internal meaning to hold outside the play context. The first aspect works well, but the second creates a lot of weird boundary cases (it was problematic even when Bateson used it) and it also seems awkward from a semiotic perspective. In particular, it makes it very difficult to classify sports. This I might actually want to change, and I suspect that re-reading Luhman (see below) might help me work this out.

I am happy for feedback!

My article:

Waern, A. Framing games. Proc. Nordic DIGRA, Tampere, Finland, June 2012.

Bateson and Luhman:

Bateson, G. A theory of play and fantasy. Psychiatric research reports, 2, 1955, p.39-51. Reprinted in Bateson 1972.

Luhmann, N. Deconstruction as second-order observing. New Literary History. 24.4 (1993): 763-782.

Athletes and Street Acrobats: Parkour as a community of play

Yesterday, Elena Balan presented our joint CHI paper ‘Athletes and Street Acrobats’ at this years Computer Human Interaction conference, in Austin, Texas. The paper tells the story of how we teamed up with Air-Wipp and Street Media 7 to develop a mobile community service for Parkour and free-running practitioners. For game researchers, the most interesting aspect is probably how we analyse Parkour as what deKoven calls a community of play, but also how the play value is contested from within by a simultaneous valuation of skill and performance.

Waern, A., Balan, E. and Nevelsteen, K. Athletes and street acrobats: Designing for play as a community value in Parkour. Proc. CHI’2012, Austin Texas. ACM. Download pdf

Mobile digital interactive storytelling – a winding path

Finally,  ‘New Review of Hypermedia and Multimedia’ has published the special issue that I co-edited with Frank Nack. The issue is about storytelling in mobiles, and has a large focus on the use of locative storytelling in cultural heritage contexts – in museums and in cities. Frank and I wrote an introduction to the issue (which is actually a double issue) that I think turned out pretty well. We come from very different backgrounds, Frank working with adaptive storytelling and hypertext, and I with games. In the introduction, we were able to superimpose the development in those two fields, to illustrate both common issues and attempts at solutions. The core argument we build is that travelling – moving – in itself creates a sequential experience that shapes a narrative, and that mobile interactive storytelling must harness that power as well as be interactive in the hypermedia sense. As we write, “There is an inherent conflict between the emergent narrative structures generated by motion, and providing rich personal adaptation of a story”.

The articles in this double issue are good too, so check it out at the NRHM home page!

Full reference:

Nack, Frank, and Waern, A. Mobile digital interactive storytelling – a winding path. Introduction to special issue on Mobile digital interactive storytelling, New Review of Hypermedia and Multimedia 18 (1-2) 2012. Pages 3-9.

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