Tag Archives: culture

Counterplay 17

Following my research and teaching trips, culminating at the harbour of the increasingly beautiful and cosmopolitan Aarhus, I arrived in plenty of time for the beginning of Counterplay 17. Not that I needed to worry, as the wonderful Mathias Poulsen (who almost single-handedly forms this playful bubble into existence each year) opened proceedings by telling us that playful people tend to be late.

This was followed by a blast of an opening by Anthea Moys, who herself arrived late on the stage – climbing and apologising to everyone she trampled over; and then proceeded to ask us to do the same, to find our actual seats. When we found them, we had to draw our neighbour’s faces without looking down at our paper. A great start that set the tone for the whole conference, this was just one of Anthea’s examples of her incredible playful art projects in Johannesburg.

Climbing and drawing

Anthea had us climbing, apologising and drawing

She mastered twelve different sports and then played, single-handedly, against twelve first teams. Her aim was to accept and stare failure in the face; and redefine success as the act of learning and playing, rather than failing to win. An approach that resonated with many, and created ripples of discussion about failure over the rest of the day. Gwen Gordon followed Anthea; a former Muppets puppeteer, who now uses play to improve lifestyles.

My session was next. I’m currently interested in the ‘invitation to play’; or what causes people to accept a playful activity, or reject it. I therefore had an idea about introducing elements of play into a non-playful scenario played out in every institution across the world: the board/committee meeting. We started with Apologies (apologising for something non-playful we do within our jobs), Introductions (giving each other fictitious names and roles) and the minutes of the last meeting – the 50 pages of which happened to be distributed across each attendees’ pack in random order. After that, things got very strange; as attendees tried to complete secret missions whilst creating their own playful approaches within the meeting room. It was really difficult to remain seated and straight-faced, as I decided the Chair should do.

Active session

After lunch, and meeting up with old and new friends from across Europe, I attended Luca Morini‘s session on playfully hacking serious systems. Luca had us exploring the fabulous venue of Dokk1 (the huge and open public library that Counterplay occupies, in amongst the daily life of thousands of local students and families) in order to find places that were closed to us, for some reason. He used this as a way to introduce his idea that formal systems are game-like: they follow rules and states – and therefore can be gamed themselves.

An energetic keynote next from Portia Tung, who shared her approach to introducing play into corporate boardrooms. And then it was time to launch the first Counterplay book, The Power of Play, including articles, games and activities from many attendees of last year’s conference (myself included). It’s a beautiful, thoughtful and creative book – which I’m still leafing through and finding new interesting things to do and think about.

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In the evenings we all headed to the excellent new Aarhus Street Food area, with stalls selling food from around the world, and good local craft beer to match. It was here that much of the creative thinking and networking went on each evening.

Day two dawned, and two of the people I’d been talking to at length in the evening were speaking: Kirsten Anderson, who had us all blowing bubbles; and Dom Breadmore from Coventry University, who gave a great talk about the invitation to play, and the importance of designing playable experiences, rather than playful ones (more agency in the former, when they invite interaction). I spent the rest of the morning exploring all the activities around Dokk1 outside the formal programme, including catching up with Rikke and Claus from Coding Pirates, who were working with children on creating Viking-themed games.

CPtweet1After lunch we became future explorers, heading out into the city in small teams to help Eva (a fictional character we created based on the hashtag #finding4eva) create a map of future elements within the city. This was part of an ongoing project by Dan Barnard, and gave us a new way to explore the city’s hidden areas, as well as thinking about environmental issues and future planning. Also, our team won (yay!).

It was then time for the final keynotes. Lena Mech followed the theme from the earlier workshop by using examples of playful work in cities to suggest that the invitation to play is more complex than we might think: we shouldn’t, she suggests, be arrogant in thinking that everyone can play, and should instead use ludic markers to tempt them in: whether human activity, or physical attributes in the landscape. Finally, returning four years on after his first (excellent) keynote at the first Counterplay, Miguel Sicart was back to pace the stage again. Like a prowling tiger, Miguel added what – in my opinion – could have been the last chapter of his book: a call to arms. He used examples of playful/creative groups that have worked against dictatorships or regimes to show us that small personal or group actions can start to work against dominant negative forces. A fabulous finish to the formal programme.

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As last year, there was a further day of creative play following the main conference – so about half of us returned on the Saturday to consolidate our thinking around this year’s emergent themes. My group was thinking about setting seeds and growing playful approaches outside of the conference; and we came up with the idea to connect different people together with a tangible artefact – a package that would be sent between us with something to apply to our own context, and then add something else before sending it on (see Marian’s explanatory post).

In amongst the thinking, I also attended a final session by Mikel Haul, who has been researching the origin and development of the Chase the Goose popular game from the Ancient Greeks. His plan is to create a physical version of the board game, including its iconic squares (such as death, or the well), at spaces in Middlesborough, Tokyo, and Aarhus: and so we helped him by mapping out the board over the circular levels of Dokk1.

And that was it, although many played on well into the night – and through the flights home. It was, yet again, an incredible experience: almost all due to the people who attend from across the world with a common ethos – I made many new friends and colleagues who I’ll be carrying on the thinking and conversations with as the year progresses. Huge thanks to everyone who was there and made it such an incredible experience – and in particular to Mathias and his team of helpers, without whom this wonderful event wouldn’t occur.

 

 

 

 

 

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Counterplay 2014: Make People Play

I’ve been in touch with Mathias Poulsen, applied games evangelist working in Denmark, for several years: we have a shared interest in authentic contexts within games for learning. And so it was without any hesitation that I accepted an invitation from him to speak at a new conference he was organising based around the central idea of playfulness.

Counterplay a festival of play and games – brought together three aspects: playful learning, playful culture and playful business. More importantly, the sense of play extended to the whole event, with the fascinating cultural spaces in beautiful Aarhus used to great effect.

The 360° rainbow roof of Aarhus's ARoS art museum

The 360° rainbow roof of Aarhus’s ARoS art museum

Starting in Aarhus’s forward-thinking main library (games consoles and playful areas mix with the shelves of books), Mathias opened the conference by describing his aims in creating it, and then we were straight into an excellent opening keynote from Thomas Vigild (Head of Vallekilde Game Academy, Copenhagen) which looked back at classic definitions of play and linked them to modern examples in games and experiences, with a good sense of humour. The theme which I found most interesting was pausing within play: allowing us to reflect on our actions, think about what might be next, and strategise.

Splitting into the three tracks then, I caught a talk by Santeri Koivisto (Teacher Gaming LCC, creators of Minecraft Edu) who explained how they help teachers across the world to utilise Minecraft and now Kerbal in helping students to create landscapes, structures and stories for themselves. I switched to the culture track then, to hear Steen Nielsen – the Gaming Librarian from the Aarhus Library – talk about their plans for a new library building currently being built on the waterside. The interior has been designed around the ideas of children and adults playing, with media and traditional play spaces built in to the structure. Steen also described the kind of activities they run within the current library: from board game evenings to mini alternate reality games.

After lunch Kirsten Campbell Hughes from London’s EduGamesHub described the trials and benefits of creating and running the LEGup meetings. Mathias then hosted the first of three ‘open space’ discussions – two of which I participated in. The first asked how we could promote a culture of playfulness, and produced some great examples of small playful aspects from around the group (such as slow ninja fights for groups, or juggling to focus the mind). The second, the following day, split into various groups – and mine held a deep and engaging discussion about how we could introduce play and games into more schools and universities (create playful examples within teacher training or staff development days; and provide teachers with a few simple but powerful games to engage students in difficult skills like group work, reflection, problem solving etc.).

Godspanen cultural area

Godsbanen cultural area

At the end of the main talks we headed over to Godsbanen – where a Spilbar had been set up (game bar) in one of the warehouses. The area is a reclaimed space for artists, designers etc., and the warehouse housed a number of collaborative multiplayer games on consoles, kinects, and card games. I had great fun playing the unreleased Joust with the Kinect. More card games were played throughout the delicious meal, and we ended up finishing the night in (of all places) a Sherlock Holmes theme pub, complete with slightly creepy waxwork models and a displaced, thematically, karaoke bar.

There were play spaces within the main conference, and on the second day I spent some time watching and playing with beat blocks, music tiles and the utterly fun/frantic modular floor tiles from Playware. The sessions started with Phil Stuart showing examples of well-designed digital games; Harald Warmelink describing his PhD study linking online gaming/gamers to playful aspects of the  work environment; and Jean-Baptiste Huynh (the man behind Dragon Box) describing his national Norway Algebra Challenge – the success of which, and interesting model, came from a co-ordinated staged launch across the country with students battling against each other (modelled on the MOOC concept – learning small chunks at the same time). I then shared my thoughts about using simple contextual games to create authentic learning experiences – including some interactive Lego modelling – before Henrike Lode (designer of the excellent Machineers learning game, which I first saw a few years ago when Henrike was just graduating) gave an impassioned speech about killing off ‘edutainment’ and bad gamification, and gave us four examples of games where both the game and the learning had been designed properly together, to maximum effect for each.

I must make a quick mention here of the fabulous group of people at the conference, which provided for some fascinating discussion and shared learning across the two days and evenings. Special mention has to go to Zuraida Buter, playful curator of many things including the Global Game Jams, and Mathias, Henrike, Santeri, Thomas and Tobias mentioned elsewhere here: who made my trip much more valuable with their insights and long discussions over coffees and Danish beer.

Closing slide from Miguel Sicart: make people play

Closing slide from Miguel Sicart: make people play

The conference was wrapped up in perfect style: firstly with an experiential look at how Tobias Staaby uses zombie games (The Walking Dead and Last of Us) to teach complex psychological and ethical concepts to his classes (stopping for group discussion/voting at key decision points in the narrative). Miguel Sicart then provocatively claimed that games should die: but went on to make the clever observation that play and playfulness are what we need to aim for. A game may help people to become playful (although equally, so could objects or other people), but ultimately the game will be forgotten, whereas a sense of play can pervade and live on, through other experiences. It was a rousing call to arms – and finished the conference on a perfect slide:

make people play

Congratulations to Mathias for a truly excellent and immersive first conference: a playful format, playful topics, playful participants from diverse sectors, and a game which is set to play for many more rounds yet.