Sim cities: How can you encourage people to play in the real world?

“Don’t make games,” says Miguel Sicart, a play scholar. He’s talking on stage in Bristol, out of sight from the drizzle. The conference is about making the city playable. It’s about fun urban interventions you sometimes see in big cities. The kind that layers playground-style antics over commercial districts. The kind that has a tendency to leverage Internet of Things (IoT) devices to hold it all together like pieces of invisible string.

The most recent Playable City Award winner, for example, is a project by design firm Hirsch & Mann, aiming to transform pedestrian crossings into “playful multi-sensory experiences”. It uses facial recognition technology to assess a person’s mood, then play a “30-second party” of music and lights.

Sicart’s talk is called “The un-playable city”. We need to stop imposing clunky technological interventions, he says, and start asking why we’re doing it all in the first place. We need to stop making assumptions about how people play. More than anything, we need to stop making games. Why, exactly, is the author of a book called Play Matters telling an audience not to make games?

“One of the things that typically annoys me with playable cities is that we have this [approach]: ‘Oh, let’s bring an artist or a designer or a creative agency, to make a game for this particular space in the city, because then the city will be playable’,” he explains later in the day. “That is the ultimate top-down approach, where we don’t look at how the city is being lived in.


(Above: Concept for Hirsch & Mann’s Stop, Smile, Stroll)

“My provocation was: let’s look at how people are already playing in the city. What kind of playful behaviours are already happening there, and see if there’s any way of enhancing them, instead of substituting or imposing on them. Do people really need new forms of play if they’re already playing in the city?”

It’s a good question. Do people really need playful projects such as Hirsch & Mann’s dancing pedestrian crossing if people are already playing in the city, in their own places, in their own particular ways? I asked Mara Balestrini, a technology researcher who has advised a platter of different cities through the Ideas for Change think tank.

“Through play we can convey complex messages”

“Seeking new opportunities for play can be healthy and should be encouraged,” she says. “Through play we can convey complex messages (e.g. climate change or sustainability challenges), foster prosocial behaviours (walking, talking to strangers, helping others) and even foster collective engagement for meaningful causes.

“Nevertheless, you cannot always know a priori how a playable intervention will be appropriated by different communities in different places, so there’s always an element of risk as you may trigger undesired effects.”


(Above: Mara Balestrini’s Jokebox)

Balestrini admits that, whilst play in cities should be encouraged, there are important considerations to grapple with before plonking a game into a community. She mentions a project she was involved in called Jokebox – a special sensor-laden box that told a joke when two people simultaneously pressed a pair of buttons. The aim was to encourage eye-contact and cooperation between strangers, but her team found public reactions very much depended on where the box was installed in the north-western Mexican city of Ensenada.

“What may seem playable in one context could be offensive or boring in a different one,” she says. “Play is an incredibly situated practice and it varies massively across cultures.”

Authored systems

Part of this problem is an assumption that people from different backgrounds embrace the same types of play. Games are self-contained systems. They are also authored, and – like all authored things – this comes with the baggage of perspective. “Being white, European, highly educated, male – I have a way of playing,” Sicart tells me. “That’s the way I think about play, and if I don’t question that, then I’m going to make games that reflect that. Then I’m going to try and put that into environments where that isn’t the socio-economic or the racial majority, and then we have a problem.”

Getting this right is important, because playful interventions can do so much to create a sense of wonder, momentarily fracture social divisions and re-humanise parts of cities that are scooped clean of soul. Cascoland’s 2007 De-fencing project in Johannesburg, for example, built furniture across barriers in the city. 2015’s Crane Dance Bristol turned a set of cranes into vast synchronised dancers. Joshua Allen Harris’ inflatable sculptures turned plastic bags into short-lived creatures, living and dying above the vents of New York City’s subway system.

Perhaps the reason these projects were so successful is their fundamental connection to the places they are set. These artworks work because they aren’t designed to be exported, but hinge – literally in Cascoland’s case – on the apparatus of specific places in specific cities.


(Above: Cascoland’s De-fencing project)

“It is incredibly hard to export play and fun”

“We need to avoid colonialist approaches and must take into account the richness and complexity of local cultures,” Balestrini stresses. “It is incredibly hard to export play and fun. How about creating a platform where locals appropriate open-ended interventions to create their own games? How about following ethnographic approaches to make sense of what works or is playable in a given context before deploying something that we assume is playable?”

Augmented graffiti

“Don’t assume,” seems to be the ultimate message. Don’t assume to know what a community thinks is fun, and don’t assume that what is playable for you is playable for others. “Don’t make games”, says Sicart. Maybe the response to that provocation is to instead offer tools for people to make their own games, even if the results aren’t what you intended.

It’s an interesting consideration when you consider the innovation du jour of the playable city philosophy: augmented reality. Both Sicart and Balestrini talk to me about the potential for AR – from Pokémon Go to Apple’s ARKit platform – to offer new opportunities for play on our streets, but they also warn about the potential for corporations to commit the very worst in “colonialist approaches”, layering realities on locations they do not own, imposed on communities they do not control.jeff_koons_snapchat_vandalise

(Above: Sebastian ErraZuriz graffitied version of Jeff Koon’s AR balloon dog)

“We must consider what data is being collected, who owns it and for what purposes,” Balestrini notes. “Brands are increasingly interested in using such technologies to study how people move around or to nudge them to consume certain products.”

Perhaps an example of a way forward is a recent act of “vandalism” by New York-based artist Sebastian ErraZuriz, who took “a symbolic stance against imminent AR corporate invasion” by putting graffiti on an AR collaboration between Snapchat and Jeff Koons. ErraZuriz created an identical 3D model of one of Koons’ balloon dog sculptures, covered it in graffiti, and geo-located it to the specific coordinates of Snapchat’s effort.

How’s that for playful?

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