Below is my detailed process behind exploring playfulness and storytelling for The Inquiry, my fourth and final prompt for Studio I at Emily Carr University.
This prompt was completed over the span of five week. Not every day, of course.
Initial research about playfulness
Ludic acronym for play
The ludic system is an attempt to create a measurable framework for play. It is a well-known framework for understanding playful behaviour. Bill Gaver et. al. (2004), suggest three guidelines for creating and observing ludic activities.
1. Promote curiosity, exploration and reflection
In order for play to happen there needs to be an element of uncertainty and discovery. People need to be allowed to explore, tamper with things and figure them out for themselves.
2. De-emphasize the pursuit of external goal
Create with playfulness first. Interestingly, if a system can easily be used to achieve practical tasks, this will actually distract from the possibilities it offers for more playful engagement. This means that if you design an app which is primarily a museum guide, it will be mainly used for this purpose. Any playful elements that might be included in the app will perhaps not even be noticed by its users.
3. Maintain openness and ambiguity
If there is too much structure or predefined meaning to an activity or a design, it will inevitably suppress play. If we want people to engage playfully, there needs to be a certain amount of ambiguity and open-endedness to the design in terms of how people may interpret it and give it meaning.
The protective boundaries of play
In his published research titled In Defence of a Magic Circle: the social, cultural and Mental Boundaries of Play (2014), Author Jaakko Stenros describes playfulness as a social contract agreed upon between players, which removes awkwardness or embarrassment. Because of this agreement. “Play has the potential to work as an alibi for players to try out new ways of being for a short period of time.”
So, one could say that playfulness includes:
- A safety to act differently thanks to the boundaries of play
- An alibi to try new ways of being
Miguel Sicart describes playfulness as:
- “…a way of engaging with particular contexts and objects that is similar to play, but respects the purposes and goals of that object or context” (p.3). In other words, the capacity to use play outside the context of play; toys, the materialization of play. Sourced from Sicart’s book Beyond Choices: The Design of Ethical Gameplay (2013).
To put it more simply, play is a set of structured rules of a game that has a degree of competitiveness. Playfulness takes elements of play, but transcends the boundaries of a formal game, allowing us to use in places, objects that are highly contextualized. It allows a person to express themselves in their environment.
Defining non-linear narrative
It’s important to note that there are different interpretations of non-linear, depending on context. When looking at film and television scriptwriting, non-linear can mean jumping between a timeline. That’s not what I’m interested in!
I enjoyed reading Sylke Rene Meyer’s definition of spatial design. It fits within the the context of my work. In her published research Right, Left, High, Low Narrative strategies for Non-linear Storytelling, she defines special story design as:
- Authors and designers deciding to make the formative creative decision by designing a narrative space, rather than writing a constructed story.
It means to look at things in a spatial, rather than linear way.
This would mean that for participants, it gives them the illusion that there are innumerable options to choose from, whereas in reality, the designer has built constrictions to the reality, enabling a certain number of possibilities.
This also means that the narrative is self-led. It is driven by the whim and desires of the participant.
Further space for exploration
So far in my research, I’ve realized that a majority of scholarly articles and discussions of adult play revolve around function. For example, to learn how to be playful in order to build stronger relationships or for one’s higher education. Playfulness is sometimes used as a tool for learning a language or computation. Although these are just a few examples, I’ve realized that my interest and curiosity lies in understanding our innate drive for playful expression. Being playful for the sake of it.
It’s me, hi! I’m the source, it’s me.
Here are some keywords of my own personal reflection on playfulness. I’ve taken these notes over the span of my first semester at Emily Carr University.
*Please note, the relative side of the words does not correspond to its frequency or importance.
My initial thesis mind map also includes elements of play and non-linear storytelling. For my prompt, I decided to focus on these two only.
My initial questions
- Does playful behaviour strengthen our relationship with each other and with ourselves?
- What other feelings does playfulness elicit?
- Is playfulness an essential part of life? If so, in what way?
- How should playfulness be differentiated from play?
- What’s so special about non-linear storytelling structure?
- The good, the bad and the ugly, what are all the facets of experiencing playfulness?
- What factors make playfulness easy and difficult to manifest?
My thesis queries
An initial list of a few thesis queries I’ve developed:
How does playfulness in a non-linear design help adults connect with themselves and with others?
How can we harness playfulness in spatial design to help adults create a sense of connection?
Are the benefits of adult playfulness easily translatable in a non-linear narrative?
Ready Player One: Creating the game
Because my research centers on the introspective experience of playfulness, it’s important that listeners not only understand play using a narrative but also able to reflect on their experience. This is why I decided to create a game!
The intent of the game is to explore:
whether a sense of playfulness can be manifested through uniquely imagined story structures led by participants. The structures would be created through improvisation, a sense of trust and safety, deception, subversive behaviour, and light competition.
I decided that the best approach would be to help my classmates experience the game and my thesis quest. Hopefully this would inform them and help me along with my work!
A few question I had from the start
- Can I strike a balance between too little and too much direction and rules?
- Will people primarily feel playful?
- How will I effectively acquire feedback?
- Will people feel a sense of connection with one another differently, less or the same after playing the game?
- Will it suck?
Initial brainstorming for play
I wanted to create a game similar to the Stanley Parable. It’s a unique, narrative-driven, video gameplay design that explores the notion of free-will. Aside from being well-written and witty, this video game gives the player a multitude of directions and endings. You can choose to follow the predetermined path, or “your own”. You are Stanley, and you are not. There is a narrator, and there is an angry voice that always breaks the fourth wall.
There are 42 endings (very funny, I think this is why) in the “Ultra-Deluxe” remake of the 2011 game. However, every single choice, or deviation, is not left to chance – the game is highly scripted.
I planned on creating an in-person Stanley parable at school, encouraging students (as a group) to navigate the campus using a set of directions from me, the narrator, and having moments where they might deviate from my instructions.
There were elements of my initial query in this idea: subversion, improvisation, a sense of safety in exploration. This was all fun, until I had to plan the story and all the deviations by myself. This is a key element in narrative design: the reason why the player pursues this story beyond the idea that it just might be fun. The idea was scrapped.
I remembered Meyer’s spatial narrative design theory, and decided to try another tactic.
Creating the Deceiviest
Review of literature + game
I discussed with my classmate Siddant about a game where people would design the story first. I was inspired by Telestration ans Rory’s Story Cubes. We quickly came to the conclusion of a competitive game that combines these two.
While continuing my literature, I was strongly impressed by the Never Let me go (p.76) case study, conducted in the National Gallery of Denmark.
It was the designers’ attempt at incorporating a hybrid experience of a museum visit: both the social aspect of museum experiences with what is already associated with museums.
Participants engaged in immersive and creative play as the Avatar and the Controller:
“…The Controller is given the tools to spontaneously orchestrate an experience for the Avatar, taking place in real time in the museum. The system is designed as two connected web apps where only the Controller app has an interface. The interface consists of a menu with different prompts, questions or instructions that can be sent to the Avatar, who will receive them as pre-recorded voice messages. The Controller shares audio with the Avatar in order to keep track of how the experience is playing out. The shared audio is also used to emphasize intimacy and to create a shared space where the two participants can feel safe together.” (P.80)
It’s much more exciting than this. “Can you imagine being this,” might be one prompt. Then: “Now, imagine it’s staring right back at you.”
I found this chapter inspiring because the designers created a space for structured improvisation that was led by a sense of play. Their example showed a sense of trust building with partners, a practice of introspection (imagine being the mouse!) and an opportunity to not think critically of the art, but to simply be playful, in the moment. It is also an opportunity to build a personal experience with the museum (connection with the self and space) as well as an opportunity to explore the personal relationship (teasing, pushing social boundaries and each other).
Participants use the app in an open-ended way, leaving room for interpretation. Relinquishing their actions into someone they trust, and agency to manipulate the game in whichever way seen fit (very Ludic-approved).
Their playful game design made me think of excitement, low-risk, uncertainty, safety, play, improvising, self-expression, interpretation, social, subversive ideas. These values are what I want to emulate in my game!
It was also a new way for players to experience each other. A new framework of the mind, a new perspective of what the present has in front of them. Playfulness can elicit a quick way to find new appreciation for the present.
In their same research, Sicart wrote: “Play is not necessarily about having fun, it’s about opened ourselves to the immense variations of pleasure in the world”
Wow! Okay, Sicart! You have a new fan girl!
I learned in the Never Let me Go interactive play experience, play doesn’t necessarily have to elicit joy or a silly experience.
I’ve learned that playfulness is much more than experiencing play, but about the joys of experiencing the plethora of pleasure in the world. It made me reflect on moments where people were being playful around me, and I wasn’t engaged. I would be worried instead about my relationship, upset at the break of the decorum, or moments of jealousy and envy.
These experiences were of me being in my own head, of feelings of inadequacies. More deeply, they’re embedded in a lack of presence. When concerns pulling me out of enjoying the presence, does it makes it harder to be playful?
- Do distractions ultimately stop us from feeling an overall sense of playfulness?
- What encourages people to step outside of their heads and experience the pleasure of play?
- Can mindfulness and meditations teach me a thing or two about living more frequently in a state of playfulness?
- What kind of environments do we need to cohere the desire, or volunteerism of play?
- Is playfulness a way to step away from suffering? Or another form of it! A new flavour or suffering. (Duncan Trussel)
- If you had to be in a state of being, which is preferable? Is there a more preferable state of being?
- Can introspection through playfulness help us reflect on ourselves?
- Why isn’t there more systems that incorporate palyfulness? Maybe because playfulness can only be created from within? Can you design spaces that can manifest a state of playfulness?
Play testing – The Deceiviest
I created the game using lots of paper and adhesive book cover plastic. The print design was created on Canva.
For each game, there are five players. Each receives a dry erase marker, six image cubes, and a Deceiviest leaflet. The rules of the game are as follows:
An examples of the game in action
The first sentence was “The shepherd led the sheep and he used his cane but they all broke the wooden bridge walking over it.”
The final sentence was: “A man jumped off a plane with his cat in a sheep suit and rode a magic broom and crashed on train tracks.”
I organized two separate groups of five players, one of whom played in both groups. The duration was a little over an hour. I also included music and some snacks to help put people in a sense of ease.
Thankfully, the game functions!
Focus group – the questions
After we played one round of The Deceiviest, I asked people to privately write down:
The sensations/feelings they felt while playing the game, and;
When they felt most playful.
As a group, I ask everyone:
What they enjoyed about the game, and;
What they would improve.
At the end of the game, I briefly explained that I was exploring how to create an environment where playfulness can express itself in a narrative design led by people’s own storytelling.
This is what I observered from people:
- A varied rate of people understood the rules
- Fun was had during the presentation of the story and in between drawing
- Experienced fun by themselves and with others: verbal and non-verbal communication
- Playful experience happening internally, when drawing, and shared together at the end
- It’s structurally difficult for players to break down a sentence into three parts
- The point system was redundant
- The participants are known to me, and to each other, so it was easier for them to feel more trusting of their environment
My experience as a participant
- I enjoyed the creative process, the environment, the people
- Knowing people in new ways: I got to know people around me better thanks to this indirect form of communication
Here is a word cloud of the focus group participants’ keywords when describing feelings they experienced while playing the game:
When asked when they felt mose playful, the similarities were enough so that I was able to divide their information into two groups:
The group discussion
Participants experience a sense of comfort thanks to the familiarity of the game. They said it felt playful to them, particularly the deceiving aspect. Participants also felt playful in their interaction with each other, and appreciated the tools offered to facilitate the game. The rules of the game were complicated. Some took quickly at some took longer to understand.
The incentive of points wasn’t all that much of a drive. The time limits for drawing added (described as low-stakes risks) heightened their experience.
Game design – what to improve
Well, for one, I need to make the game’s rules and the goals more direct. Based on participant feedback, I should clarify and simplify descriptors of of the players roles. Removing the point system seems like a good idea, too. The story writing process of the Storyteller needs to be a bit more streamlined, and I was told to see Mad Libs to simplify the construction of a one-sentence story.
- It’s difficult for people to recall specific moments when they feel playful. Could this be because it’s infrequent for some? Perhaps for others, playfulness is associated with games, and it might be difficult to differentiate from someone’s everyday interaction. I’ll have to investigate further.
- I wanted to emulate a variety of values when creating a game: subversion, excitement, trust, self-expression, vulnerability. I don’t think that I created a narrative design that made it difficult for all of these experiences to exist. The real constriction for these experiences seems to be time and knowledge of the game.
- It’s easier for participants to feel playful with people they know. For the focus group feedback, the “activity category” for which people feel playful is quite varied. I have a difficult time interpreting this.
- During their second playthrough, a player was able to enjoy the game even more, and be more mischievous. Their creativity and “permission” to be devious gave them more space to feel playful.
- Getting participants into a state of play requires multiple sets of feelings. It requires feelings leading up to a state of play and then be sustained during a state of playfulness.
- Contrary to the second ludic rule of framework, I made storytelling the primary goal of my design for users. Perhaps this detracted them from feeling more playful.
- A game with multiple rules might offer a sense of play, but not a strong sense of playfulness.
- Contrary to the second ludic rule of framework, I made storytelling the primary goal of my design for users. Perhaps this detracted them from feeling more playful.
- Play and playfulness can’t be forced on someone. It’s an unpredictable state. Perhaps a game’s success shouldn’t be measured by how many people feel playful at one time or overall, and with another deliverable, but should include other variables.
- Playfulness doesn’t necessarily have to elicit joy or silly experiences. It can offer a moment of respite, euphoria, confusion, sadness, amongst other feelings.
- Time to explore spatial design!
My classmate Sabid mentioned cellular distractions as a deterrent from experiencing the presence required for a playful experience. I argue that a playful feeling doesn’t have to be consistent, when creating a narrative space for people to experience playfulness. Think of a playful activity like a small playground: I’ve set it up so that people can have highly stimulating activity, but children will sometimes take a break near a game, take a moment to themselves near the fence, and later return, all while being in a playful environment. As long as I am able to maintain a playful narrative space, I think it’s okay for participants to take mental breaks here and there, even if it means checking their phones.
- But Julie, doesn’t that take people away from the presence? Who are you, Buddha? I imagine that for many, staying in a prolonged state of presence, or flow, is a difficult thing to maintain. Perhaps even more so when a state of presence has to be maintained with multiple people! There is a good question in there, however. Perhaps spatial narrative design is complementary to playful design.
Improving the Deceiviest
- Having predetermined, interchangeable sections in a sentence would remove an aspect of creativity at the beginning, but helps the game function.
- One recommended using the preexisting game Madlibs as an example of how to structure sentences differently.
- Can we experience a prolonged state of flow, or presence, with a group of people through a playful experience?
I’ve modified the flipbook with these notes in mind. If you’s like to download it and try it yourself. please click this link! I will send you to the Canva file.
As the year wraps up, I have a few questions to think about for the academic semester to come:
- Going from 0 to 60 – how do we encourage people to enter a state of play?
- How important is it to be aware of your sense of playfulness? There is a benefit for the researcher, but entering the state of playful presence might offer insight on mindfulness. This could be another possible direction for my thesis.
- What is the relationship between playfulness, presence and flow?
- Since I’ve described non-linear as spatial design, should I consider creating both multiple narrative directions and a space for a participant’s natural narrative direction to occur?
- Do low-risk scenarios help increase a sense of playfulness?
- Should I explore narrative design without words, that is, guided experiences?
- Pre-playfulness: How big of a role does world building have when encouraging people to enter a state of play/structured playfulness?
- Political playfulness: where can we justify doing playfulness for the sake of it?
- People took breaks from the game. Checking their phones or speaking with friends. Should I create space, or flexibility, for a participant to waver their focus? Or, does it go against our concept of being in the present, or flow? Does this mean that playfulness and flow are different things?
- In Never Let me Go, participants relied on physical ques and the voice app to communicate with one another, rather than through speech. Could physical communication more easily convey a sense of play between people?
- What are the mental, physical and sociological benefits to playfulness?
- Should I include my own feedback in group discussions, particularly if I participated in the activity?