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Evoking Playfulness

in Public Space
by Ludic Intervention

Sylvan Steenhuis
Master of Arts in Performance Design 2011/2013

Contents Introduction 1. What is Playfulness 1.1 Defining Play 2. Evoking Playfulness 2.1 Designing Free Movement 3. Playfulness in Public Space 3.1 The Rules of Public Space 3.2 Engaging People in Public Space 3.3 Case Study: Big Shots - Water Shootout 4. Towards a Playful Utopia References

I love to play. Ive always been fascinated by the vigorous force that drives children to explore and interact with the world around them. Playing comes by nature to children, as an instinctive curiosity for testing their surroundings for its potential usefulness. Playfulness forms a driving force for creativity, social cohesion and learning. Yet, somewhere in growing up we tend to lose touch with our playfulness. The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once said : We dont stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing. Ultimately, play leads to the seemingly useless emotional pleasure of sheer joy. This uselessness could be the cause of the abandonment of playful activities in our society, it makes way for performance and efficiency. Public space is the common space of our society, however, the conditioned behavior we exhibit here does not allow for playful intervention. Because of the patterned use of the public space, we feel there simply isnt the room and the time to engage in playful activities. Therefore, to facilitate these playful activities in public space, existing structures of social contexts have to be adapted or transformed to engage your audiences. By testing the boundaries of our established society we can evoke engagement, raising awareness of the fluidity of our society and the existential fulfillment of playfulness. Play is universal; a powerful language. Humans, and all mammals alike for that matter, are apt at recognising play. Therefore, play is a force that has the power to intervene with the rigid structure we call society. This paper is written using a practice-based research methodology. The research questions have arisen out of artistic practice, and the theoretical findings of this paper aim to inform and inspire the artistic practice, in this case within my discipline of Interactive Performance Design. In this paper I will formulate a working definition for playfulness, or at least make an attempt to understand playfulness to such an extent that it can be applied to the design of playful activites; what does it mean to engage in playful activities? When we have reached a working definition it will be applied to answer the question: How can you design a situation that facilitates playful behavior?

To put the findings from the first chapters into practice we take to the public space: How can you engage people in public space? When the behavioral context of public space is defined the theories for evoking playful behavior are applied to evoke playfulness in public space by ludic intervention.

1. What is Playfulness
In the introduction to his book Homo Ludens (1938), Johan Huizinga states: It is ancient wisdom, but it is also a little cheap, to call all human activity play1. Along the same lines, Peter Gray makes the distinction that people know two kinds of behavior: Playing and that other stuff you do2. Playing is fundamental to human behaviour, yet it evades is in our day-today lives, this makes it hard to pinpoint. Confusingly, the word play is adapted in a variety of uses, many of which exceed our purpose here. Ill name a few to illustrate the complexity and varied uses of play, for example: we play a musical instrument, the play of light on a wall, putting something into play. In his book The ambiguity of play (1997) Brian Sutton-Smith elaborates on these rhetorics of play3, they tend to dizzy the laymans brain. As interesting and intriguing as these rhetorics may be, they surpass our goal here as our purpose is practice based research, therefore, we search for a working definition that will help us create an experience of meaningful play in our games.4 1.1 Defining Play In 2004 Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman wrote Rules of Play, game design fundamentals. In their book they have included a comparison chart of all the academic definitions of the past decades. As no definition is the same, their chart illustrates the ambiguity of play that Brian Sutton-Smith elaborates on5. Thankfully, Salen and Zimmerman present a concise definition that will serve as a working definition for this research: Play is free movement within a rigid structure At first glance, this definition might seem too simple to describe such a complex phenomenon, as play is, but it encapsulates the essence of being playful: free movement. For example: Kids apply free movement to the stacking of wooden blocks, exploring the rigid structure of physics. A juggler might explore his free movement by throwing and catching multiple balls, exploring the rigid structure of gravity and challenging the rigid structure of his own physical boundaries. As play is tends to be such an omnipresent phenomena it is important to make a clear distinction as to what kind of play you, as a designer, are designing for. At this moment it is important to distinguish play, what we are researching in this paper, from game. The separation can be traced back to Plato (c. 360 BCE) who distinguished paidea (play) from ludus (game), a definition: A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules

Johan Huizinga (1937) Homo ludens; a study of the play-element in culture. english translation (1955) Boston : Beacon Press (p.27) 2 Gray, P. (2012) The Many Benefits, for Kids, of Playing Video Games. Psychology today 3 Sutton-Smith, Brian (1997) The Ambiguity of Play. Harvard University Press 4 Salen K., Zimmerman, E. (2003) Rules of play. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press

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that result in a quantifiable outcome.6 The theory of playfulness is strongly relevant to game design, although not necessarily the other way around. Games are a subset of play7 as being playful is a necessity for playing a game. This puts the terms in a continuum running from ludus (controlled play) to paidea (spontaneous play)8 This is clearly visualised in the graph as posed by Salen and Zimmerman9 The outer rim stands for everything in the range of being playful, whereas the core stands for playing within a confined set of rules or game play. In between these two is the grey area of ludic activities. These are play activities that clearly exist within a certain structure but also incorporate the free-form spontaneity of being playful. I like to use the example of two people throwing a frisbee back and forth. There are no strict rules as to how you should play, nobody wins at playing frisbee, but there is certainly a structure wherein the play takes place: you dont drop the frisbee and the fun is in spectacularly and creatively throwing the frisbee back and forth. It is this spontaneous, creative force in playful behavior that fascinates me and will be the focus of this paper, and the goal of the artistic practices. Like play, spontaneity and creativity are concepts that do not let themselves be easily defined. Especially the studies into creativity tend to diverge into a manifold of domains, but to apply these theories to evoke playfulness within the artistic practice we must further define playful behavior. The answer may lie in the domain of psychology, by reverse-engineering playful behavior we can find methods on how to design for playfulness. The psychologist Josefa Nina Lieberman has done extensive research into what it means to exhibit playful behavior. She postulates 5 dimensions of play, plotted here (on the next page) in a pentagonal model, where each corner represents one of these dimensions. This model can be effectively used to analyse playful behavior. As a matter of example, the red shape in the model below represents the game of tag, where each corner of the shape represents how much of that dimension is apparent within the ludic activity.

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Salen K., Zimmerman, E. (2003) Rules of play. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press Salen K., Zimmerman, E. (2003) Rules of play. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press 8 Ehrmann, J., Lewis, C., Lewis P. (1968) Homo Ludens Revisited. Yale University Press 9 Salen K., Zimmerman, E. (2003) Rules of play. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press

In her theory she talks about three forms of spontaneity, which is the driving force of paideic free-form play. Cognitive spontaneity is the fuel of imagination, needed for solving riddles, or playing pretend. Physical spontaneity comes into play in for example crazy dancing or roughand-tumble play. Social spontaneity is apparent in playing with each other and socially interacting. There is sense of humour in playing as it can make you laugh-out-loud and, last but not least, play makes you happy as it manifests joy. These dimensions give shape to a basic framework for understanding ludic activities. This framework can be used as a design model; fitting a concept into this model gains you insight in the different dimensions of play that it might evoke. It can also be used to reverse-engineer certain playful behavior: By analysing specific playful behavior, the model can provide parameters, a framework, for the design of a ludic activity that incorporates that behavior. This give and take dynamic of playfulness turns out to be characteristic to the designing techniques, the next chapter will be devoted into exploring ways to evoke playfulness.

2. Evoking Playfulness
A basic freedom is central to play ... This liberty is its indispensable motive power and is basic to the most complex and carefully organized forms of play.10 In the previous chapter we have covered different dimensions of play and the aspects of ludic activities. Being a practice based research this chapter will be devoted to applying the knowledge gained from the first chapter to the design of interactive performances. As an interactive performance designer I ask myself the question: how do I evoke play? How do I apply play theory to actually get people playing? And as play is free movement, as a designer, how do I design free movement? Roger Caillois said play is voluntary, when playing does not arise out of free will it ceases to be playful at once. This poses the design dilemma: How do you design free movement? 2.1 Designing Free Movement Salen & Zimmerman posed play is free movement within a rigid structure. I conducted an experiment where I let participants play a simple game. The same game was played with different sets of rules to see what ruleset (rigid structure) would evoke the most spontaneous behaviour (free movement). The experiment was conducted as follows: Participants were led into a space and divided into two teams. The teams were instructed to, at the blow of my whistle, score the ball into the opponents team by all means necessary. I started with this ruleset to accustom the players to the game but also test their spontaneity within such a free set of rules. Every five minutes I would blow my whistle and add one rule to the ruleset, further constraining the free movement of the players. First, the players were not allowed to use their hands. Then the players were not allowed to walk with the ball, then they werent allowed to touch the ball with their hands or their feet, until they werent even allowed to make sounds or use their eyes.


Caillois, R. (1958) Man, play, and games. english translation (1961) Meyer barash, the free press, Glencoe (p. 27)

When the most confined set of rules was reached, the rules then were then double backed every 5 minutes until the game was back at the start as a free-for-all ball game.

As competitive games tend to do, it turned out to be a very run-aroundey-screamy kind of game, players were running around frantically to score that goal by all means necessary. I found that this competitive element subdued the players spontaneous playful behavior, as they were merely looking for the most efficient way to victory. The most important conclusion from this experiment came from the feedback session afterwards: The players felt that within the most confined set of rules they found they had exhibited the most spontaneous playful behavior. This made me think of something Jesse Schell said which is good game design is not about freedom, its about constraints11. In conversation with Bernie Dekoven about this topic he writes Designing spontaneity. A good problem in deed. Just the kind of task that people who dont understand fun, or spontaneity, would assign.12 This made me reformulate my question to how can I design a rigid structure that facilitates spontaneous behavior? In my quest for evoking playfulness in public space, I need to present a rigid structure to which a supposed audience can relate to. By interacting with this rigid structure a player will move freely within it. In doing so, any free movement within this structure that provides fun, manifests joy, can be seen as playful behaviour.

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Schell, J. (2008) The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses. Morgan Kaufmann DeKoven, Bernie (2012) Personal email conversation

3. Playfulness in Public Space

In this chapter we will combine the findings from the previous chapters in answering the research questions: How to evoke playfulness in public space by ludic intervention 3.1 The Rules of Public Space The challenge of working in public space is intervening with established, powerful structures governing people's (social) behavior. This conditioned behavior influences the (lack of) social interaction. The public space can be seen as a game in itself, as people act by certain rules: You dont look someone in the eye for more than a split second and everyone has its own personal space around them that is not easily penetrated. I like to see this as living inside a semipermeable bubble, Its a theory I developed in conjunction with a colleague Wieger Jonker13. This bubble is a natural phenomena, a necessity to keep your sanity in public space. Its an instinctive defense mechanism against the overload of impulses we are confronted with everyday: colorful commercials, hassle-some street salesmen, cacophonous urban soundscapes and, above all, dreaded social interaction with strangers! This poses a challenge, as a designer, to penetrate this bubble and allow people to play by facilitating ludic activities.

image courtesy of


Wieger Jonker (2012)

To put this into contrast, we will use the model of the 5 dimension of play to analyse how playful behavior in public space is. There is room for some social spontaneity, but any penetrative approach (H! Wanna share my banana!) would be frowned upon as it will puncture the social acceptance bubble as described above. A primary goal of a ludic interventions would be to dissolve this bubble to broaden the spectrum of possibilities for interacting with participants. This is can be achieved by presenting a playful counter-image, or ludic intervention, that audiences can relate to by interacting with them. 3.2 Engaging People in Public Space Pervasive games are games that exist outside of the computer screen and in the reality around you, it has a lot of similarities to what I call ludic interventions. I had the pleasure to meet Jaakko Stenros of Game Research Lab in Finland14. In conversation with him he talked about modding the player; influencing the player in such a way that they enter a playful state. When in this playful state participants will be more receptive for playful behavior. Ive devised a model, partly based on knowledge gained from his book, that can be used to engage people in public space. The model consists of three phases a participant should pass trough and three key milestones that should be incorporated in the design of a ludic intervention. This process will turn an unaware participant into an immersed player.


co-author of: Montola M., Stenros J., Annika W. (2009) Pervasive games: theory and design. Morgan Kaufmann

In any case it all starts with a certain awareness within the audience. As all play exists outside of ordinary life (Huizinga, Caillois), noticing that something out-of-the-ordinary is happening is essential for engaging people in public space. Luckily, humans are apt at recognising play15, In pervasive games they dont speak of spectators or an audience, only unaware participants, as anyone in the vicinity of the game turns into an element of the ludic activity. Once this awareness is created unaware participants turn into ambiguous participant. This ambiguity in participation is a crucial moment, is he in or is he out?. When an awareness has been established it is important to nurture the curiosity of an ambiguous participant, this forms the first phase of the model. This curiosity needs to be nurtured in this phase until participants manage to reach ludic recognition, acknowledgement of the ludic nature of the activity. A technique for ludic recognition is the use of ludic markers; elements and aspects of the activity that give away the ludic nature of an activity. When ludic recognition is achieved its important to cultivate a motivation within you participants, a participant needs to want to join in, as play is voluntary (Caillois, Sutton-Smith), the participant needs to join out of free will. When a participant is motivated to engage with the activity there needs to be an invitation to reel in the prey. The participant needs to accept an opening to engage with the ludic activity. When this invitation has been accepted the participant turns into a player and can start to engage with the ludic activity to finally reach a playful state which would be the ultimate goal of a ludic intervention. 3.3 Case Study: Big Shots - Water Shootout As a matter of example we will use the engagement model to analyse a ludic intervention by Big Shots (NL). The context of the intervention is a campaign for a dutch soft-drink, conveying the slogan of have you still got it in you?, it will serve as a case study. For the best experience, if you have access to an internet connection, take a look at the footage.16 The experiment aims to create a spontaneous water fight between people waiting on either side of an open bridge. Volunteers rush in and hand-out water-pistols to the waiting people. When the bridge slowly closes the people get ready and rush at each others in a splash. This intervention utilises a spectacular, bombastic approach for creating awareness; people in coloured T-shirts come rushing in with shopping carts filled with water-pistols. This approach proves effective to turn the unaware participants into ambiguous participants, nurturing their curiosity.


Markus Montola, Jaakko Stenros, Annika Wrn (2009) Pervasive games: theory and design. Morgan Kaufmann 16 a video of the intervention can be found online at this link:

This intervention succeeds in creating ludic recognition by using several techniques and strong ludic markers. The participants had little trouble recognising the classic game structure of Red vs. Blue and in essence the ludic activity was driven by the use of water-pistols, very clear ludic markers, as they are devices created for the sole purpose of playing.

This experiment utilises a point-blank invitation, participants get the water-pistols jammed into their hands; crude yet effective. An important element in this phase is the possibility for participants to decline the invitation, for example the person in the top right corner of the image below who gives the pistol back and resumes his phone call. To stress this again, all play is voluntary. If a participant does not engage from an intrinsic motivation and own free will, it ceases to be playful at once.

When the invitation has been accepted a participant can start to engage with the ludic activity. The design of participatory engagement varies with each ludic activity. The analysis model presented earlier shows us the dimensions of the exhibited playful behavior within this intervention.

A strong element to facilitate engagement is the use of the elements already present in the public space. The slowly closing bridge, for example, creates a suspense within the ludic activity, giving the participants space to engage with the activity. The stronger the engagement grows, the closer the participants get to the playful state. When in this playful state theyre in touch with the spontaneity and freedom of play, not worrying about turning up for work in a soaked three-piece suit.

4. Towards a Playful Utopia

Public space is not necessarily a playful place. Yet, it is the designated place where the members of our society meet and connect. To re-instate playfulness as a way of life means to intervene with the conditioned social behavior we exhibit in public space because, hell, if we can pull it off in public space, we can pull it off anywhere. I met Florian Rivire in Berlin for a collaboration. Florian is driven by the act of upcycling, using found materials from the street to re-create and re-imagine their uses. Ive found this method inspiring as it forms an incentive to be creative with the materials at hand, instead of manufacturing installations from the ground up. Among allot of other things, we talked about the importance of activating audiences to incorporate playfulness in their day-to-day life.

This is in line with Florians thoughts about not being a designer but more of a conceptual facilitator, a self crowned urban hacktivist. To further elaborate on the role of a conceptual facilitator I asked Florian about his vision as an artist: What do you find is more important in your work: The interactive experience or the conceptual message? Florian answered Its definitely the conceptual message that is conveyed that forms the most important part in my work. This also explains his (inexhaustible) drive to share his work with the community. It becomes part of the piece as it is shared around the world and people re-think the use of the public spaces around them. To convey this message he uses several tools and techniques to invite his audiences to participate. An important technique in this respect is the Do It Yourself mentality; by using materials that are found in the surrounding area and using these in his Hacktions, audiences are indirectly invited to participate. By seeing the simple, yet effective, nature of the hacktions, audiences will think to themselves: H, I can do that! Its exactly this mentality that is needed to evoke participation on a larger scale. Indirectly, audiences are thus invited to let go of preconceived ideas about where and when you should play. By creating small interventions on strange places that invite people to play, an awareness of pervasive(anywhere/anytime) playing will arise. Its this vision of reinstating playfulness as a way of life that I want to convey in my own work. In this research we have been looking for ways to evoke playfulness, to invite audiences to become playing participants. The conceptual approach should work as follows: Audiences see the intervention and could reflect on their own behavioral patterns and maybe even change them to match the vision of the intervention, but this is a long procedure! If the goal of an intervention is to influence a participant's behavioral pattern it could be more efficient to

incorporate a more point-blank approach to evoke playful behaviour. Im convinced of the power of play and its use for directly influencing someones behavior and experience. I believe the most effective way of conveying the message would be to use these techniques in extension of one another: Confronting an audience to interact with a ludic intervention that conveys the conceptual message of a playful mindset. By participating with a ludic activity in public space, audiences might broaden their view on how you should behave in public space, and incorporate more playfulness in their day-to-day life. In the end, it all comes down to the synergy between the design of a ludic intervention and the playful mindset of the participant. To translate this to public space means to intervene with the existing social context with an appealing and inviting ludic activity. We, the designer, the artist and the aware participant will seize the public space to live out our right to play.

Playful revolution! Share bananas!

Beekveldt, D. (2010) Methoden en Technieken, een onderzoek naar playfulness. HKU Caillois, R. (1958) Man, play, and games. english translation (1961) Meyer barash, the free press, Glencoe Cskszentmihlyi, M. (1991) Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. Harper Perennial Cskszentmihlyi, M. (1993) Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennial DeKoven, Bernie (2012) Personal email conversation Ehrmann, J., Lewis, C., Lewis P. (1968) Homo Ludens Revisited. Yale University Press Gray, P. (2012) The Many Benefits, for Kids, of Playing Video Games. Psychology today Huizinga, J. (1938) Homo Ludens. Haarlem: H.D. Tjeenk Willink & Zoon. Huvendick Jensen R., Ulv Lenskjold, T. (2004) Designing for social friction: Exploring ubiquitous computing as means of cultural interventions in urban space. IT University of Copenhagen Koster, R. (2005) A theory of fun for game design. Paraglyph Press Kalliala, M. (2006) Play culture in a changing world. McGraw-Hill International Lee, I-Ching (2007) Playfulness in Children with Autism. Department of Occupational Therapy, National Cheng Kung University Montola M., Stenros J., Annika W. (2009) Pervasive games: theory and design. Morgan Kaufmann Pope, R. (2009) Creativity: theory, history, practice. Routledge Salen K., Zimmerman, E. (2003) Rules of play. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press Salen K., Zimmerman, E. (2006) The game design reader : Rules of play anthology. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press Salen, K. (2006) Roger Caillois: The Definition of Play, The Classification of Games Schell, J. (2008) The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses. Morgan Kaufmann Smith, K. (2008) How To Be An Explorer Of The World. Perigee Souza e Silva, A. de, Hjorth, L. (2009) Playful Urban Spaces: A Historical Approach to Mobile Games, Simulation Gaming Sutton-Smith, Brian (1997) The Ambiguity of Play. Harvard University Press

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