Accelerating Understanding Of The Social Life Of Public Spaces Via Big-Urban-Games.

Posted on September 11th, 2012 at 10:32 am by in Our Work


Accelerating Understanding Of The Social Life Of Public Spaces Via Big-Urban-Games.

As you may know, for at least the past three years, I have been using big-urban-games (B.U.G.-coined by Katie Salen and others) and play as mechanisms for accomplishing great things when it comes to participatory design and learning. On one hand I have hacked games such as hide-n-go-seek, capture the flag, and parcours to implicitly instill the character (tenacity, resilience, work ethic, etc.), teamwork, joy, relentless testing, and embracing of ‘failure’ that are essential for doing seemingly impossible things. In short, I utilize traditional games, play, and building challenges at the beginning of a project or workshop to ‘prototype’ the behaviors that I want students or community members to carry into a design or learning process. This has proven hugely successful, even transformative, in my work. On the other hand, I use these games to rapidly accelerate a participants’ understanding of a building site, neighborhood, the given design problem, and the inherent qualities of the available building materials. To be clear, there are a lot of subtle, nuanced material choices, game choreography, duration decisions, etc. that I have made when hacking these simple games that have profound effects on the outcomes of the game and thereby its impact on the ensuing design/learning process. i.e.- you are missing a lot of opportunities if you simply give kids nails, hammers, and 2 x 4’s and ask them to build an adventure course. For example, using 2 x 4’s is a bad choice of building materials for this ‘game’ if you are hoping to achieve many of the ‘soft’ benefits mentioned above.

Embedded in these games are rigorous ‘testing’ of all of the aforementioned things in a fashion that leads to much deeper understanding in considerably less time than is possible through traditional means. One example of this is that via capture-the-flag or building an adventure course (and then racing on it) lead participants’ to not only completely ‘test’ and thereby understand a building site in new ways (including a certain degree of increased empowerment to change it), but it causes their brains to ‘map’ the site much more effectively.

Confused? If I were to ask you to drive from point A to point B and then sit in the passenger seat from point B to point C, which route would you be better able to recall? The first of course. This is basic development psychology and goes back to the most elemental way that we learn–by interacting with and ‘testing’ things.

For a couple of years now, I have wanted to use B.U.G.’s to help young designers more rapidly and effectively understand the social life behind a public space/place (in addition to many of the character/social benefits mentioned above) and yesterday I finally got a chance to see that through. The game, a hot mash-up between hide-n-go-seek and sharks-and-minnows, challenged our Industrial Design students from the University of the Arts to ‘disappear’ in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square. In effect, the game required them to deeply understand the place, its users, the park’s activities, the overarching patterns of personal interactions, etc., and then to mimic these if they wished to hide from us in plain sight.

Although the game could use some tweaks–including explicitly incorporating mobile technology for all participants to share meta observations about their roles and the park during the game, while their senses/perception are incredibly heightened–I could not be happier with the results. I am particularly impressed by the lengths they went to ‘disappear’, including borrowing props, people, and animals to accurately portray existing interactions; ingratiated themselves with existing user groups (to hide); and the ‘winner’ even shaved most of his body, painted his nails, and dressed up like a business woman! How did it impact their learning and knowledge of the park? The post-game post-its pictured above reveal just a few of the great results. The most unexpected benefit was that all of the students implicitly also had to understand and master a wide variety of ‘leave-me-alone’ signals which in turn provide great entry points for devising innovative tactics for directly engaging park users in the coming weeks.

Want to read more about some of our past uses of B.U.G.’s?

The impact of capture-the-flag as a site research tool from the perspective of one of our #teendesignheroes. Click here.

Reflections on leveraging game and play into a design/learning process. Click here.

One of our first instances of using the designing and building of an adventure course as a design research tool. Click here.