I was recently one of four British participants selected to take part in Watershed’s Playable City project in Tokyo. Working alongside 7 Japanese counterparts and an awesome support team from the Pervasive Media Studio and British Council Japan, we spent a week exploring the theme of playful welcomes:
In 2020, the world will focus on Japan for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. In the run up, the construction period and during the games themselves, thousands of people will visit the city who have not been before. With the theme of a ‘Playful Welcome’, seven Japanese and four UK participants will collaborate and develop playful ideas to connect visitors and local people to each other and to the city, during this exciting time.
…The Playable City Tokyo 2016 Creative Lab and Forum programme is part of the trial research project for the governmental “Basic Policy for Promoting Measures related to Preparations for and Management of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo in 2020”.
Further details about who was involved can be found on the Lab’s page on the Playable City website.
It was an intense week with a lovely group of intelligent, observant, generous people all riffing off each other and their surroundings; poking at gaps in language and disjoints between cultures, asking many questions and exploring even the smallest of details alongside the big questions.
Some of the very many things we packed into that too-short amount of time included some of the following…
A map-making exercise of the area around the WIRED lab in Ark Hills where we were based. These maps led us to complete creative activities, to seek out the deity hidden in plain view and to chase after leaves. The one I made was effectively a prompt for people to slow down and to look up: a sort of treasure hunt of details and views.
We also concocted small games for each other. Jo and I were set the Chopsticks Challenge which comprised several tasks that had to be completed working together elbow-to-elbow to make a pair of chopsticks with our forearms. I’m quite impressed with our portrait of Hilary!
As the week progressed we were allocated to different teams and we began the task of a more focussed critique of Tokyo and the processes of interaction and integration we might like to see happen as visitors start to arrive as part of the upcoming Olympic Games.
We filled many ginormous sheets of paper with notes and diagrams like this:
(I can assure they all made perfect sense at the time!)
Gradually the concrete room we were colonising became covered in the traces of our thought processes and we began to distil out key themes and assemble them into a proposal for things-that-might-be.
With limited time and resources, prototyping was very lo-fi …but fast, and full of energy. Also little magic moments like this demonstration of a restaurant queue enlivened into a collaborative dance routine by responsive light panels in the floor!
Other experiments took place outside.
We only got into trouble with the local security guards twice in the whole week…
As our ideas got bigger they also started to ask more questions about the types of interactions we wanted to nurture, the places we wanted these interactions to happen and how we wanted to mediate these.
Our group repeatedly grappled with the ideas of gateways, rabbitholes and entrances, so when it came time to take our prototyping outside to include real people and places, we chose to take things right back to basics and to do some experiments questioning how the very first invitation might work. What does it take to bring someone over that line between playing and not playing?
To focus in on the invitation we had to choose play that was familiar enough that we wouldn’t need to explain the rules. One thing led to another and suddenly we were armed with a selection of signs and an escalator in the nearby shopping centre.
Our aim was to use the fixed space and timespan of the journey up the escalator as a space in which to recruit people to playing a game of Rock, Paper, Scissor (or Janken Pon) at the moment that they reached the top.
We tried different signs in the approach to the escalator and also on and alongside the escalator itself, but without much uptake at all. It wasn’t until we ‘rebranded’ the escalator as The Janken Escalator that things started to turn around.
Perhaps not at all unsurprisingly, the real change came when we had a person waiting at the top of the escalator, ready to start throwing shapes. Up until then we’d had a poster with a pre-made choice that the player ‘played’ against by making their choice – and grabbing a piece of paper representing it – on the way up.
Playing with a real person is just loads better!
Again I think we raised as many questions as we answered, but that’s when you know things are interesting. Alas we were out of time, though, and the following day we were presenting our research to a room full of people before wrapping up and saying our goodbyes.
You can see my Flickr album of photos from the workshop here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nikki_pugh/albums/72157673973684273
It was a wonderful, challenging, stimulating workshop to have been a part of and it’s left me hungry for more of the same. It’s also been interesting to have had the work flow structured by someone else – making me reflect on the processes I would normally work though and highlighting aspects that I find more or less important to me in my practice. For example, in particular I felt the lack of having a specific place to be designing interactions for. What was interesting though was that I also felt the lack of having a technological system to work with too.
Normally I’d be reciting a mantra of “don’t start with the technology”, but Playable City is ultimately about being playful with the infrastructure of a place (rather than just being playful in a place) and it felt like that was missing a bit from the ideas we explored.
I wonder both how I would approach the brief if I tackled it by myself, but also how we would build on what we did in that one week if we tackled it again as a group.
I think even if I did do a solo project I’d be carrying the Playable City cohort with me: my perception of Tokyo is now mediated through the eyes and experiences of everyone in the group and the things that they shared.