Friday the 28th of October was a day I had been looking forward to for a while. It was Playful 2011. It came after a week in which I had to give two big presentations that had been playing on my mind for quite some time so for me it was nice and relaxing to sit back and watch others present on a range of fascinating topics.
The day was kicked off by Toby Barnes of Mudlark. Last year he bemoaned the proliferation of gamification, summed up with a line that has stuck with me ‘no one wants a playful bank’. This year he bemoaned the fact that the future he had been promised as a child had not been delivered. No more space shuttles, no Death Stars, no futuristic concrete shopping centres. Nothing that makes a dent in the world. He always bemoaning. He is right though. This set the tone for the majority of the day. A future lost. A mundane future. We need to dream big again.
Al Robertson was the first non-Toby speaker of the day and he told how most Sci-Fi turned out to be wrong. The Mekon did not arrive in the mid 90s and Lycra suits will never be in fashion. Because of this some people found it too risky to become involved deeply in a form of fiction that is too far from reality and that in all likelihood will never be true.
Cities were mentioned several times throughout the day. Matt Sheret of Last.FM talked about the made up city of Altdorf from Warhammer, the voice given to city objects and infrastructure like Tower Bridge in London and how new stories were being weaved about future towns via metadata using the Derby 2061 project as an example. Are these fictional constructs to be used for good or evil? Is making buildings talk creepy? Will Derby really have a future? And was the game Warhammer just an excuse for Matt’s friend to try and kill him. Either way we need to pick a side.
Another worry from the day was the automation of things and how we interact with them. Louise Downe was worried about toilets. Automatic air fresheners and self flushing toilets. How do you flush the toilet twice? Stand up and sit down again? The issue is about trust and intimacy with these machines. Until they think like we do or we can truly put ourselves in their shoes to understand how they work then that intimacy will never occur.
Louise used a couple of great examples to show how people lack intimacy with the systems around them. How people keep all their receipts as they think credit card companies systems always try to steal from you. How the stories around how ID theft occur get more and more vivid the greater the lack of understanding people have.
The funniest talk of the day came from Brendan Dawes. A man raised in a shit north western seaside town (not Blackpool). A town where the future arrived in the form of arcade machines. Machines With perplexing interfaces like the button laden Defender machines. Darkened rooms full of these machines and the noises and atmosphere that went with them. There were no fruit machines there though as they were for scallys, he told us.
These interfaces shaped Brendan’s outlook and he told of a Microsoft Surface project using knobs that interacted with the device when placed on the screen. The client for the project wanted to add instructions as they thought it was too complex ‘I will resign if we have to put instructions on this’ he told the client ‘I wouldn’t as I need to pay the mortgage’ he confided.
Brendan likes to make things. He told us everyone needs a shed but that for him his shed was a mental construct or as his wife called it, the back room. Brendan did not feel the future had let him down he thought right now we are living in a very exciting period. A time when he can have a 3D printer in his back room and he can print egg cups to replace his broken ceramic ones.
After lunch it was time for The Kaiser, Marcus John Henry Brown. Lovingly introduced by Toby as a scummer (he comes from Southampton the sworn enemy of Toby’s home town of Portsmouth) Marcus set about saying the future we dreamt of is clouding our vision. We are seemingly bound by the Sci-Fi cannon and the ideas they presented in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Marcus called this the middle aged future. Middle aged men obsessed with what they had seen as children. We need to think further out. Marcus urged us to think like really young children. Give a box to a four year old he will go to the moon. Give it to an 8 year old and they will put books in it.
As a writer Marcus has tried to construct some futures 120 years away to try and escape the cannon. The Billion Dollar Dream, a world with no oil, no travel, no plastics etc. A dream within a dream, layered futures and Murder they wrote the future we wanted actually happened then what. Try to Think like a child in these scenarios and it is very very difficult because of our constricted view of the world and the baggage of the world we imagined.
The most explosive and fear inducing talk of the day came from Matt Ward who talked about fake bombs. He had worked on a project called Green = Boom the aims of which were around ‘exploring the notion of ‘recreational bombs’, as a reaction against the over sanitisation of everyday life’ or to put it another way to see what we could create to put people in very tense situations.
The group he worked with made ever more complex fake bombs with balloons simulating the explosive effect. Balloons/Bombs were stuffed up jumpers and placed on heads to add an element of real fear to the diffusion of the fake bomb. The sense of cutting that red or green wire became much more visceral and just like the movies. They found that getting people to suspend their disbelief was easier than they had imagined and real fear was felt in varying degrees by all participants. The people involved in testing the devices were also willing them to go further to heighten the tension e.g. Show a video of some children held hostage, further adding to the research that not only were people willing o suspend belief they were also more than willing to become sick terrorists. It made me think how you would apply these tensions and mechanisms into real life to stop you doing something stupid.
Could you build some sort of fake bomb type device that made you think twice before putting your logon details into a strange site or how about adding some bomb defusing tension to a payment transaction to stop you making a terribly expensive error e.g. buying an expensive item of clothing that you would wear only once.
As the day drew to a close there were two talks that, due to tiredness, I did not have the mental capacity to really appreciate fully. They were both excellent.
The kinkiest talk of the day came from Georgina Voss who talked about the risks, ethics and consent in play using examples from the world of BDSM. For those unaware the acronym BDSM is derived from Bondage, Domination, Submission and Masochism and various mixtures thereof. More commonly aggregated by the unknowing as S&M. Gemma talked about the importance of consent in play and how the rules around acceptance of play are important.
One term in my the talk stood out and in my notes I had written the word with a star next to it. The term was RACK and here is the description from Gemma’s presentations notes.
‘rack’ – risk aware consensual kink. This refuses any unrealistic commitment to safety over risk taking. Instead it includes an adult awareness of potential risk, accompanied by harm reduction strategies, where risk is defined as the potential that something unwanted and harmful may occur.
This adult attitude to riskier forms of play could relate to many things. Naturally I thought about the financial world and the more complex trading and investment environments.I am sure there are lots of obvious jokes around linking BDSM to investment bankers but like Torture Garden it is probably best that I don’t go there. Great talk and I highly recommend you download the slides and notes.
Second brain tester towards the end of the day came from the BBC’s Paul Rissen. Paul wants to make the web more playful o to be more accurate the web of data more playful. Paul explained about the ever growing ecosystem of linked data and that while this is a very important thing it is a bit dull. He laid out a triangle structure of the data world, the physical world and the fiction world. The interactions between these elements offering differing views of the world with some of the interactions being more under utilised than others. I can’t really do justice to this talk without listing all the examples given. Better to just go and read Paul’s detailed notes on the talk. This is the talk I will most likely be coming back to over the next few months.
The day ended with a ramshackle, pitch laden car crash of a presentation from UsTwo. It was hilarious. They told how they had spent a lot of their investors money on lots of games that had sold minuscule amounts. They were all in on one last project. 4,500 hours spent already. 100s of thousands spent. Pressure. They showed designs and concepts from the game. Showed a music video of the theme tune that was recorded by Gruff Rhys from the Super Furry Animals and told how they had added achievements at the last minute as everyone loves badges.
The game is Whale Trail and over its first weekend on sale it sold 38,000 copies. It had been made Apples game of the week globally the day before the talk. They were suffering from major hangovers. The game is great. Buy it.
And that was it for another year. A really great selection of talks. Some mind noodling ideas that are still fizzing round my brain. Some of my less enlightened colleagues fail to see the correlation between Playful and banking and questioned why I attended the conference. I could wheel out stories about the adjacent possible as explained beautifully by Steven B. Johnson or regurgitate quotes from Steve Jobs about the need for a breadth of experiences but I will just say that listening to a lot of smart people’s ideas, experiences, hopes and dreams is good for the soul and the brain. Excellent work by Greg and Toby to organise such a great event. Roll on Playful 2012.
PS Toby won’t ever have a Death Star. Hopefully his children just might.