how might we imagine extended environments that empower us to play together?
A core tenet of my communal computing research is that play is essential to any healthy learning, creation, and flourishing (see Homo Ludens). Play is fundamental to agency, the secret ingredient for creating a society where people feel empowered to express themselves and in communion with others. In addition to the standards of what you’d expect from technical research (lots of reading, practice implementing, speculating, etc.), I want to know how we can propagate the cultural change necessary for making this sort of imagination, play, and agency the expected norm.
In these futures I’m grasping towards, play should feel natural, easy—as fundamental and unconscious as breathing. Play as an adjective shouldn’t even need to exist anymore because it will a part of the very nature of operating.
How could our digital environments not only enable play but also push our culture towards a fundamental expectation of play as a natural and fundamental part of being?
“gamification” - a warped flavor of play
In digital spaces, we've already seen playing take on foreboding shapes. Playing has become co-opted by gamification. When companies talk about making their product more fun and playful, they often turn to the levers popularized by addictive games and apps to promote some arbitrary sense of progress towards manipulative ends. High scores, badges, leveling up, redeeming points are all applied, salves upon an unbroken wound.
The methods capitalize on our dopamine-seeking brain and co-opt our attention in malicious ways. As C Thi Nguyen writes in his study of games, games capture and flatten our values to the point that the “games are playing us” (manipulating us to chase after their designed measures of value) rather than the other way around.
play as curiosity, as wayfinding, as collective discovery
Instead, the kinds of play I speak of are the magical moments following your curiosity. Play happens when you are answering the questions that your nose, eyes, mind, and senses ask of you—the things the world and your inner self compels of you in the everyday wonder of life.
I want to talk about the playful nature of curiosity within us and communal exploration.
I’ve been drawn to the anchor point of parallel play, commonly used in child psychology to refer to children playing in the the same space together, regardless of whether they are actively playing with each other.
I think of all the wonderful emergent phenomenon that happen on playgrounds and other low-pressure communal spaces, where the environment reveals others’ curiosities. For example, when you’re on the swing set, you could start matching the rhythm of those next to you, have a friendly competition for who can go higher. When you’re coworking in the same room, each tending to each others' thoughts or tinkerings or tip-tapping away at keyboards in peace, you can get the immediate feedback from the room on the idea you’re struggling with.
I’m grasping towards the play that happens when you’re sitting in a cafe on a sunny spring day, there’s a vibey jam bathing the room in the swirl of possibility, and you feel yourself harmonizing with the motions of the others in the room. Where at once, you feel whole with your fullness of being and interconnected with everyone else around you.
In these moments of parallel connection, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. There’s a simultaneous feeling of strong individual expression and a collective energy lifting everyone up.
We know very well what these look like in physical space, so how might we imagine digital environments that enable and empower the same behavior?
imagining digital playgrounds
What might digital playgrounds look like? Places where we are not only allowed to but encouraged to play and explore in a shared space, where you have both the safety to follow your individual curiosity and the potential of merging games with the others around you.
I’ve recently been inspired by Cas Holman’s work on imagining toys and playspaces that allow children “to build without having to master a tool.” The core philosophy revolves around giving children access to the fundamental capabilities that real designers have (rather than “dumbing it down” for ease) while making it as accessible as possible for experimentation and self-discovery.
Although nothing in digital space quite captures the extent of Holman’s ideals, I see threads of it in end-user programming tools (e.g. those described in my call for more agentic technology), the pockets of the internet where emergent behaviors are normalized into ritual, large MMORPG games (Runescape, Club Penguin, etc.) with gathering areas to grow together, and the common act of curating content in themed collections, available in every social media app.
top: the Tuscan Milk story phenomenon when people first discovered how you could co-opt comment sections and reviews and bottom: a picture of a fishing spot I visited all the time in Runescape as a child, sometimes with over 100 people overlapping on the same tile to fish together.
How might we imagine extended environments that empower us to play together? Some rough directions follow—I would love for you to yes-and these and also provoke with new directions in the comments (please co-opt them as the milk reviewers have pioneered)!
1) multi-faceted ways of being together through spectrums of collaboration
Play inherently involves sharing space together, in the way that games are denoted by “magic circles.” In digital space, we often have to share space with each other in very extremes, binary ways: either we are shouting in each other’s ears and completely exposed in our real-time video OR we are invisible to each other.
Instead of binary switches, let’s consider knobs for togetherness and spectrums of collaboration. These continuous measures of sharing space together parallel gradients of intimacy, one of Christopher Alexander’s patterns for well-designed architecture. Like inviting physical places, our internet landscape should support multiple modalities of togetherness and offer us the ability to take actions along varying levels of pressure (e.g. from lurking to reacting to commenting to live streaming your face to the world).
Rather than purely asynchronous (traditional posting and message chats and forums) and purely synchronous forms (collaborative doc editing, video conferencing, open-world video games) of being together, how might we imagine in-between, ambient, peripheral ways of being together?
in-between forms of togetherness
In the physical world, there’s a much richer sense of sharing space simply because of all the natural effects of inhabiting a space. You can tell when your roommate was working in the kitchen in the morning, if they had cooked themselves some breakfast by the pan hung to dry, the bench left slightly ajar, the half-full coffee cup forgotten on the table. Our being there is a natural effect of entropy, and it takes more work to return things exactly to the exact same state as before. The multifaceted presence available to people makes it much safer to play by giving you the agency to choose how identifiable you want to be with your actions.
The opposite is true in the digital world. There is no concept of decay (other than the occasional bit flip which defies all expectations). It takes more work to mimic the effects of decay, to enable actions to automatically produce residue. Under these constraints, how do we create more liveness in sharing space together? What is the natural residue that our digital actions might produce?
I love this exploration from Google’s Seed Studio around creating “little signals”. They evoke the kinds of technology that nudge us towards the things we care about rather than binary (and inevitably drastic) measures.
We’ve explored the digital equivalent in (we)bsite, where we support a spectrum of ambient presence, between async and synchronous: from showing past fingerprints that people have left from dragging letters to showing live fingerprints and moving cursors (of other people actively on the site at the same time as you).
Other examples include:
J and her friend have a shared google doc as a todo list and marking them done is done via arbitrary color / text choices (and other leaving notes in a shared space when the other person is not there)
live cursors on the same site
drawing together in a collaborative whiteboard
my explorations with bulletin, that surface content you want to sit with in places you already go to (like your twitter feed).
iPhone widgets that show new information over time
How else might we imagine ways of sharing space together that combine the best of individual exploration and communal play? (Philosophically, I’ve found inspiration from tequiology, a call to reimagine technological innovation as a common good drawing inspiration from tequio, a term to describe communal labor for common infrastructure in Mexico and with other words in other parts of Latin America.
2) interactive websites that show rather than tell
There’s a great game design philosophy of “show don’t tell.” When adopted right in websites, this dynamic actively encourages visitors to explore and play, and it teaches and reveals in response to this playing. Instead of prescribing a single, dominating goal, these environments nudge you, but leave the ultimate path up to you. In return, when you find something fun, surprising, or interesting, you feel ownership over that discovery. Open-ended showing in place of telling and pushing impart agency unto the visitor (now player).
For example, chias.website encourages visitors to click around and explore because of the lack of scrolling and the whimsical design. Nick Jones’ site transforms scrolling into a new interaction that forces you to pay attention and discover what other interesting nuggets have been hidden in the site. Ilithya’s site is a wonderful portal into her own world. Immediately, you are forced to find your footing in this unusual landscape, where even your cursor movements trigger a different interaction than the norm. This philosophy inspired a lot of the interactions on (we)bsite too by embedding multiple playful interactions throughout the elements that inspire whimsy. Even opening a link is converted to dropping a letter onto a literal wooden desk rather than clicking a blue phrase.
a beautiful example of how people will often find their own way to express themselves, going against the prescribed paths when the very form of the prescription feels invalid (source)
It’s common to see things that feel good to other people dismissed as toys, as if they aren’t applicable in the “real world,” but having fun with something often leads to inventing entirely new methods of playing. I played a lot of video games growing up, and my parents never could understand how I would lose myself in them for so long. But video games have long been the source of folk ingenuity, from Super Smash Bros Melee culture and exploits to Minecraft worlds.
Simply, it should feel fun.
Making things juicy and textured may not seem like it would do much, but how something feels (the soul in it) determines people’s first impressions on how they should interact with it. Rather than looking at metrics and strict plans to determine what is highest impact, this problem should be approached the same way poets and artists approach making great art. They are chasing after what viscerally impacts them.
“Game Feel taps into the human nature of performing actions that have no purpose. They just feel good.” — from a fantastic piece on Brad Woods on Juice.
What is something that you used that left a permanent mark on you? Something that felt fun to keep exploring and finding out what else the creator left for you to discover?
3) what if... fundamentally more communal devices?
A big obstacle to even sharing digital space is that our devices are inherently solitary. This era of technology has prized individual customization with the ultimate innovation of the personal computer. As a result, when we use each other’s phones, we’re disoriented by the vast differences in layouts and settings.
I think this obscurity also causes a lot of the dehumanization that occurs in digital spaces, because entire people and their niche preferences are distilled down to avatars and screen names.
If we knew that they kept their brightness at an overbearing 100% in the middle of the night, preferred to use 8pt font for all their apps, or texted with their index fingers instead of their thumbs, would we have more empathy for and shared intimacy with our fellow digital wanderers? I suspect yes, based on the research on the Lesser Minds Problem, which demonstrates the effectiveness of subverting people’s instinctual dehumanization of homeless people by asking them “a simple probing question about vegetable preferences.”
Where else have you found spaces for communal play? What do you picture when you think of a digital playground? What would an ecosystem for freeform wonder and curiosity look like?
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