Leikkiä, Pelata, Soittaa = Play

Spurred on by Kassen in the last post, and as someone who happens to be learning Finnish, one of the things (originally pointed out to me by Teemu Leinonen) that has struck me is the superfluity of words used to describe “play” – which has always seemed one of these dangerously obscure words in english, with similar problems to “free”.

“Pelata” is to play something you can win (so includes most computer games, and also sports).

“Soittaa” is to play an instrument or make a sound.

“Leikkiä” is more childlike, a play without rules, when you play at being something else, play at make believe or just “play in the garden”.

I think leikkiä seems the most subversive and interesting, as it’s the sort of play where you are learning and exploring without fitting into some pre-existing assumptions (like keeping score, or playing a tune). The sort of games I like (and like to attempt to make) are definitely all about this sort of play.

On game design

It’s recently become apparent that as I am doing a lot of game design, and seem to have loads of opinions on the subject, that I should acknowledge the fact, at least to myself – that my interests in games go further than programming.

I’m also very wary of ‘design practices’ as it’s been my casual observation that, at least in the fields of creative or programming work, they seem to be invented with the object of selling books and brainwashing management to ultimately sell even more books, rather than really helping in any tangible manner.

HOWEVER, I can get over this stick in the mud attitude and describe two design practises that we’ve been using lately:

User centred design

This one I was taught at a design workshop by Ylva Fernaeus, Sara Ljungblad and Mattias Jacobsson from SICS, but I recognise it from elsewhere, and it was good to have it explained in full.

One part of ‘UCD’ (as I’m sure it’s abbreviated to to confuse the initiates) is called user stories. You make up a fictitious person who might play your game, and describe who they are, why they are playing and what their motivations are etc – you can get quite carried away with this, and within sensible margins, it seems to help.

Then you describe the experience of the game from their point of view. This means you can leave out all the details and focus on what you want them to feel – from the inside.

You do this for a handful of people with different backgrounds. It obviously helps if you have a little bit of experience with the sort of people you are imagining the reactions of. We’ve been using our family members as inspiration, which makes it a bit easier.

The result of doing this is thinking about the players rather than the game, and while it sounds simple, forcing you to think like this can reveal some surprises.

Vertical Slice

This one sounds terribly technical, and I picked it up at Sony. It comes a little later, once you have a clear-ish design and you start to write the code. The idea is that you implement only enough to have a single full experience of your game. For instance, if you can choose between a variety of characters – in the vertical slice you only implement one, and implement it fully. When it’s finished, the vertical slice should show you one possible path through the game, but no more.

This is generally used to persuade publishers that their money is safe, and that the game is a winner with the minimum of development expense required.

However, I think it can also fit with the user stories, if you take one of your fictitious players (perhaps the one who represents the strongest demographic you are interested in) and implement the vertical slice as if you were making it for them, you are forced to face some of the most important decisions first.

Then, and this is really the key thing – you can deal with these decisions while the game is still malleable, both in terms of code, and in terms of your understanding of it in your head, and you are in a much better position to come up with the solutions needed.

On Flash, software art and freedom

With the current state of html5 not really being where I want it to be, I feel I need to air my dirty laundry on the use of Flash.

I want to make browser based applications in order to increase accessibility – with the understanding that I may need to make concessions to freedom to achieve this. With experience, I have found (for example by porting fluxus to windows) that such concessions over accessibility lead to more people using free software (and in that case, moving over to the linux version completely over time) than sticking in accepted, and eventually all too comfortable, spaces.

Obviously licensing the source as GPL helps, as does using a GPL toolchain (Haxe). Above all though, in artistic terms I find excessive purity to be counter productive.

Scheme Bricks for Graphics

Scheme bricks was originally designed as a visual programming interface for functional reactive programming using frisbee – an experimental fluxus based game engine built on top of PLT’s FrTime language. I’ve ended up spending the last 18 months beta testing it in livecoding performances with slub using fluxa, culminating in the workshop last week.

This example is one of the “hello world” type scripts in fluxus, a recursive cube structure. It’s the first time I’ve tried this with scheme bricks. Having the interface in the same world as the rest of the objects opens up lots of possibilities, and enters the realm of IOhannes m zmölnig’s “do sinusoids dream of electric sweeps” performances in pure data – code could be written to modify the representation of itself.

Higher priority though, is to spend some time on making the interface itself easier to use 🙂


Hampstead is a text adventure game written in 1984, which conveys a certain attitude I find refreshing 26 years later. It’s a document of London life, and rich in satire of the social customs of the time. It even exists as a museum piece – not sure how many computer games can lay claim to that! “The aim of the game is to attain Hampstead, not just to reach it”.

The hidden history of the Monopoly board game

As I’ve been researching the ideas of Jane McGonigal lately, I was interested to find out the real history of the Monopoly board game from Dmytri Kleiner at the weekend. From wikipedia, thanks to the research of Ralph Anspach:

In 1903, the Georgist Lizzie Magie applied for a patent on a game called The Landlord’s Game with the object of showing that rents enriched property owners and impoverished tenants. She knew that some people would find it hard to understand the logic behind the idea, and she thought that if the rent problem and the Georgist solution to it were put into the concrete form of a game, it might be easier to demonstrate. She was granted the patent for the game in January 1904. The Landlord’s Game became one of the first board games to use a “continuous path,” without clearly defined start and end spaces on its board. A copy of Magie’s game, dating from 1903–1904, was discovered for the PBS series History Detectives. This copy featured property groups, organized by letters, later a major feature of Monopoly as published by Parker Brothers.

While the official history on the Hasbro monopoly website picks up the story a little bit later on, and leaves off all details of its original, critical nature:

It was 1934, the height of the Great Depression, when Charles B. Darrow of Germantown, Pennsylvania, showed what he called the MONOPOLY game to the executives at Parker Brothers. Can you believe it, they rejected the game due to “52 design errors”! But Mr. Darrow wasn’t daunted. Like many other Americans, he was unemployed at the time, and the game’s exciting promise of fame and fortune inspired him to produce the game on his own.

Heres an image from Lizzie’s original patent:

post chmod +x art

Back from Groningen, and my mind is full of all sorts of crazy ideas after GOTO10’s mini festival. Although mini in size, the quality of this event was very high.

The day after arriving, Gabor and I did our best to introduce our workshop participants to livecoding and fluxus, from the basics of scheme to some more visually juicy aspects:

The next day the roles were reversed as we took part in workshops lead by some of the previous day’s participants. This was the ‘speed geeking’ event, we had 30 minutes to learn about a new project and contribute something towards it before moving on to the next. We looked at games as explorations of the struggle between supermarkets and open markets, by playing and helping to refine the rules of a boardgame prototype designed by Selena Savic. There was also a creative strategy involving recycling digital trash by Loredana Bontempi called ddump. I recycled a presentation using open office into a glorious piece of digital art. Then Emanuele Bonetti showed us a new way of sharing image references called pickpic which promoted online collaboration. This was a good format for fast presentation of ideas – I think the time was short enough to keep it slightly chaotic and therefore giving it a fresh, informal feeling.

The evening ended with ‘Petcha Gnucha’ mixing up presentations of work from the Piet Zwart Institute with Groningen’s Frank Mohr Institute.

On Saturday there were talks themed around ‘Hocus Pocus’. Martin Howse discussed the concepts surrounding his island2 installation which was being shown in the sign gallery. He took us on a journey through ideas of protected or hidden spaces including stenography, kernel security rings and software design tied to themes of vampirism, pornography, plague and classical concepts of concealment. Dmytri Kleiner gave a talk looking at how political ideologies tend to attach to different network topologies, what it could mean to be a venture communist and why the world needs them. Finally Florian Cramer made a passionate call for digital art to return to the critical, comparing the work of Constant Dullaart (superb name for an artist, can’t be real) with Heath Bunting’s Own, Be Owned, or Remain Invisible.

In the evening it was our turn (IOhannes Zmölnig, no copy paste and I) to livecode for the enjoyment of those equipped with headphones at the placard concert.

I have some footage of my performance, but it’ll have to wait for the moment. I should also mention Breakfast club – which was an approach to try and document discussions about the previous day’s events the morning after. The theory being that you can lure people into a situation involving cameras and microphones by the deployment of freshly baked croissants first thing in the morning. This worked well to get discussion going between the different groups, and is something I’d like to see used more at other events.

Post industrial rehab

So over a year on from leaving the world of computer games megacorporations and big budget movie special effects, it’s maybe time to be a bit less terse than usual and compare and contrast against life in the shadowy world of arts, academia and free software.

There are fairly obvious benefits of leaving the 9.00-6.30 if-your-lucky world, free to work from home, a shared “space” or a greasy cafe with stolen wifi and no set hours are great. No need to harp on about that. One of the best things I’ve noticed is that my life is now more varied socially, with different projects I’ve met and worked with people from disparate backgrounds in the last year. In a company it’s very easy to just mix with people with similar outlooks as yourself, and it’s generally simple to explain what you do. The world I’m in now is much more messy, more of a network than a hierarchy – and it’s challenging to fit into the often surprising situations that arise.

What I want to concentrate on however, is what I think both academia and arts could learn from the commercial world. It’s not something I hear much about, as it seems the unwritten agreement that it should always be the other way around.

It seems noticeable to me now that teamwork is more critical in a company than elsewhere. In fact the best people I have worked with have exhibited some degree of ego loss, sometimes an almost fanatical desire to make ‘the right decision’ for everyone – not because they will be praised for it, but just because it makes sense and to do otherwise would be abhorrent. In games or film companies, people like this are highly sought after, whereas my feeling is that people who shout a bit too loud or desire a bit too much recognition tend to get weeded out after a time. It seems to me that the worlds of academia and art seem to have their selection biased in the other direction – as they are based on highly individualistic metrics.

Focusing on academia, I’ve been surprised at how much the publication system forces a secretive, protective culture where exposure of material has to be sensitively stage managed. I can clearly see why this arises, but the culture it enforces (a default distrust of one’s peers) seems counter to the core business of what being a scientist should be about. Several projects I’ve been involved in have found it difficult to negotiate the methods of open source development because of this.

I think the assumption that individualism and the competitiveness that it fosters is the obvious way to achieve the best results needs to be reconsidered. It seems in some cases to be restricting us, and that perhaps (to paraphrase foam) these are the times in which we need more branching out, more interdisciplinary thinking which all requires more default trust between us individually, and our many tribes.

So this brings me back to free software. While it can hardly be credited for lacking people bordering on the egotistical, there is something about the openness, and the endless reports of mistakes you’ve made from complete strangers which I think encourages this more humble mentality.