no.31 vol.8 spring 1999

Zapping the child within
Doors of perception 5: PLAY
conference, Amsterdam, 26, 27, 28 November 1998


Months before the actual event took place, the theme of ‘play’ met with enthusiastic responses – a sign indicating that the organisers of the Amsterdam based Doors of Perception conference on multimedia, design and culture have a keen instinct of what’s on designers’ and like minds. The catchword was equally inspiring to this magazine, and resulted in the ‘secret theme’ of the last issue, that was prepared well in advance of the definitive programme of the conference. With this in mind, and considering the massive e-mail hype that was generated in the weeks before this 5th Doors of Perception by the organising Netherlands Design Institute, it comes as no surprise that the conference was highly successful in terms of attendance, but less so in terms of fulfilment – high expectations can be a liability.

Well over 1500 delegates crowded the vast hall of Hendrik Berlage’s famous 1903 stock exchange in the inner city of Amsterdam. They came from all design disciplines, education, industry, management, publishing, social sciences and politics, to listen to an intense three-day line-up of speakers from equally divergent backgrounds. The conference’s Poet Laureate, 1960’s icon Simon Vinkenoog, enthused with his typical mixture of jest and sermon, reminding us of both historian Huizinga’s erudite remark in ‘Homo Ludens’ that “poesis is in fact a function of play” and the ingenuous 1960’s mantra “If you make a revolution, make it for fun!”

These opening remarks could, or should, have set the tone for the rest of the proceedings. But in spite of the organisers’ memento that “play is too often limited to the times and tools of childhood”, the core of the conference addressed exactly that, the times and tools of childhood. Not that we didn’t learn anything from the presentations by such eminent scholars and practitioners as art historian Barbara Maria Stafford, game and interactive technology researcher Sarah Woods, computer games pioneer Brenda Laurel, educator Yasmin Kafai or game developer Eric Zimmerman, but even when they were not specifically talking about children, they addressed the theme of play in the more limited context of games.

Zimmerman, for instance, director at the New York game design company Flat Inc., gave an interesting resume of “thousands of years of interactive products: games”, stating that “games are models of productive conflict, and thereby inherently co-operative.” His scholarly remarks on games as “closed systems that allow limited behaviour” and their fascinating aspect that “you follow rules and end up playing”, which at first sight is a deeply incongruous combination, didn’t compensate for the fact that he mainly addressed the internal mechanisms of games, and hardly the cultural effects of play. Yasmin Kafai, researcher of computational learning at UCLA, reflected on a project in which children acted as designers of their own games. “Hard fun!”, she said, adding that she was “struck by the quality of children’s attention for computergames”. And Sarah Woods, researcher at NCR’s Financial Services Knowledge Lab, London, related an experimental project based on “a trusted piece of public computing”, the ATM machine, that resulted in a “relationship building game” for 12 year olds centred around their – bank accounts.

All these speakers, and more, though often highly interesting in themselves, treated games and playing as things characteristic for a child’s world. This notion of play being associated with childhood was never far away in most of the addresses at the conference, even in those that stressed the importance for adults of “becoming the child that you should be”, as Jean Luc Godard once said. What strikes me in this, is the tacit assumption that we have either forgotten how to play the moment we came of age, or consider children as beings from another planet, that we can study and learn from, but never fully identify with. Most people seem to have forgotten that their own childhood is less than a lifetime ago. They treat it as abstract history, not as personal and lively memory. “How do children play?” Woods asked academically, observing that “they don’t need elaborate environments...” The hell they don’t, I thought, remembering my tinkering with sticks and stones or whatever, a third of a century ago. In this context, Caroline Nevejan’s call to “appreciate children as citizens, not merely as consumers” was almost a novelty. Like Kafai and Woods, Nevejan, co-director of the Amsterdam Society for Old and New Media (recently retired to start a new career researching education in the network society), pleaded for a boost in the interest in new media and computer technology in teaching: “Trust the kids with the tools!”

But what about the other way around? How can citizens and consumers be like children? Again, the answer was mainly found in the context of games. Will Wright, Maxi’s designer of SimCity, the multi-awarded 1989 city building computer game, showed work on a new game simulating a family in a house. The game involves designing the house and furnishing it, budgeting on the family’s ‘earnings’, and managing the characters’ daily lives and their interaction with objects, income and spending, neighbours and family members. It is the kind of game that would allow you to meticulously re-create your own family life on a virtual scale, if only for the impulse to correct all of its flaws in order to live perfectly, albeit on screen. In an interesting observation about the difference between children and adults playing, Wright said: “Young kids enjoy failure, they click on anything to see what happens…” Adults don’t like failure. Kids playing with train sets love derailments – fathers hate them.

Gong Szeto, of io360 designers, New York, pointed to a similar fear of failure in adult life when he summoned up the frugal utilitarianism of today’s dense and congested work spaces, that are accepted because grown-ups don’t whine about a little hardship, concluding “…delight is for sissies…” The same goes for most application interfaces, where any notion of playfulness is quickly discarded as childish or as a sign of dumbing down.

The tragic thing about this disdain in ‘serious’ design circles for a sense of play in work or other essentially adult environments is that it’s often legitimate. In design, a notion of playfulness more often than not leads to discharges of the most hideously infantile residues in designers’ or product developers’ brains – think only of Microsoft’s ‘Clippit Office Assistant’ a big-eyed, tail-waggling animated paperclip that pops up to address the user in a desperately youngish ‘yo, what’s up’ lingo, the kind of tone that makes you keenly appreciate kids’ horror regarding teachers who try to address them ‘in their own language’.

It actually is a missed opportunity of the 5th Doors of Perception conference that it did not tackle this rift in perceptions of play. We more or less simultaneously saw the shamelessly bland exploitation of children’s lust for the ugly and dirty in David Vogler’s live advertisement for his ‘Gak’ (a sort of ‘slime’, but more shrewdly marketed) range of “toy solutions based on a feeling, on a brand!”, and the on-screen applications and buttons by Apple’s Bas Ording that are ‘tooltoys’ in the best sense imaginable. Like Szeto, Ording is one of the rare designers who don’t mistake playfulness for childish stylistics or just plain dumbness. His dynamic user interfaces, from simple buttons with a ‘rubbery feel’ to small data stacking applications that disguise highly sophisticated software in enticingly tactile and ‘intuitive’ screen objects, embody play in the way Huizinga referred to: as poetic result of free-minded exploration. Ording’s digital revolution is fun, but of the kind that in the words of Domus Academy’s Marco Susani “should be integral to any product.” A sign of things to come that we will report on in more detail in a later issue, these attempts at joining the exploratory ‘handling’ of things on-screen with Gong Szeto’s notion of “play as the ultimate interface” were the eye-openers in a conference that in other respects lingered too much on the received notion that we should give free range to our ‘inner child’ without addressing the acute conflict between the kindergarten and the carnage of daily life.

max bruinsma