It always surprises me how many angles and approaches there are to the idea of play, and the Gambaloa project meeting in Berlin was a perfect example. Researchers and practitioners with a background in physiotherapy, education, business and game design all presented game-based work from their subject areas, sparking a lively debate on the many cross-over points. As an urban Geographer with an interest in experimentation and creativity in the city, and a player-designer of pervasive games, my own focus lies on the concept of playfulness in the context of everyday space. This is perhaps a bit broader and less clearly defined than ‘games’, but I consider play a fundamental part of any game. We play games – we want to experience moments of playful activity, joy and immersion within them.
After all the great practical applications and design ideas around games for adults, my presentation took a more conceptual approach. It considered different examples of play in urban spaces, and the dynamics that make this play possible in such an everyday environment. The two main ideas here are enchantment and improvisation: enchantment as the little spark of the extraordinary that hides in the most mundane objects and spaces, and which we can experience if we are open to it; improvisation as the ability to bring different objects and materials into new and unexpected relations with each other. Although abstract as ideas, I think those are important inspirations for game-based learning and for the challenge to create play environments in often very un-playful spaces.
To show how this might work, we turned the rest of the session into a little experiment. I first asked the group to take a few minutes to look around the room and get acquainted with the objects and materials around. I then split them into four ‘families’ and gave them the following scenario: they are medieval clans at war, and they need to build a missile launcher or catapult with whatever they can find to attack each other. The groups quickly went to work – some discussing a strategy, others collecting as many materials as possible. We had cables, a white board, jackets and pens involved in sometimes adventurous contraptions, which rapidly evolved with a process of trial-and-error. While I am not sure there was a winner, it was fascinating to watch the transformation of the space that took place in those few minutes. The conference room with a standard seating arrangement turned into a playful space of movement, activity, mess and laughter.
This is not sufficient for a good game, or for a real learning context. But it is a call for spontaneity and open-mindedness – sometimes we need very little to play, just play where you are!