Playable City Tokyo

Playable City Tokyo

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…

Looking up

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.

Looking up

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!

chopstick drawing

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.

group sharing

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!

magic moment

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.

pick one

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.

janken escalator

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!

(c) British Council, photo by Kenichi Aikawa

© British Council, photo by Kenichi Aikawa

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.


Also traces

You can see my Flickr album of photos from the workshop here:

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.


Coming up: being a bit whooshy with the National Trust

Next week I’m going to start a short stint working with a couple of digital producers based at the National Trust’s Croome Court property in Worcestershire.

It’s a pretty amazing place with gorgeous sweeping Capability Brown landscaping and a house with many stories to tell. (Click for larger versions of the photos below.)

I’ll be helping Clare Harris and Ashleigh Moore as part of their 4-year mission to investigate new approaches to the Croome visitor experience.

They’re currently working on a time-travelling adventure mission for families and I’ll be helping them with prototyping and trying out some ideas. My brief: “a bit whooshy with the right amount of peril”.

I’m looking forward to it!

Playing Out

This made me smile a lot; not only from a play point of view, but also the place-making.

Playing Out from Playing Out on Vimeo.

Colony prototype, in Holly’s words

It’s been deadline central around here for the last couple of weeks, so various things have slipped through the blogging net. Fortunately, Holly Gramazio has written a lovely insightful post outlining precisely what what going on last Tuesday:

We went out in a group of four, and wandered around, occasionally passing the bundle between us – just to see what it was like, how the vibrations felt, whether people looked at us oddly or didn’t notice, whether we felt friendly and warm towards the bundle or annoyed by it. In the end we wandered arond for an hour or so, everyone taking a couple of turns with the bundle.

The first thing we noticed was that was that holding the bundle gives you an immense feeling of entitlement. Only you can tell when it’s vibrating; only you can interpret its whims. Is it happy? Which way does it want to go? Does it have a name, and if so, what is it? Holding the bundle makes you feel like these are your decisions to make, even when you know perfectly well that the vibrations are random and you’re interpreting them pretty much as you like. It invests you with power.

Please go and read the whole thing!

Colony prototyping #1

I’ve been developing a project that investigates taking the phenomena I use to generate work such as Uncertain Eastside and 19,264 seconds of qualitative and quantitative data (Curzon Street, 2010) and turning it into a real-time experience as you move through the landscape.

The early stages of this are supported by Fierce’s Platinum development programme and yesterday was a sharing event to which guests were invited to sample the nascent work from the 6 artists taking part and offer constructive criticism and feedback.

Many thanks to all those who walked the streets of Digbeth with me and my bubblewrap-encased GPS receivers and vibration motors sharing ideas and exploring possibilities. Here are a few photos from the day:

Testing, testing…

Please ensure the gate is bolted after entry and exit.

I’m test-driving a few ideas and approaches in preparation for a week in residence at New Walk Gallery as part of their Play Ground exhibition programme:

What rules do we follow in galleries? What rules would you most like to break? What new rules would you write?

The Ministry of Rules (MoR) is a fictional organisation that will be based in the Play Ground exhibition. The MoR needs your help to research, observe, explore, enforce and re-write the rules people may or may not be following in the art gallery and museum.

As part of this I want to check having a Flickr account that people can post to. Would you help me out, please?

I’m looking for examples of signs and notices with some sort of imperative about them. The theme is rules, so the sorts of things that tell you to do this, or not do that or that such-and-such is forbidden.

I suspect road signs and other massively mass-produced signage might get a little dull, but there are loads of examples out there that are custom-made or more interesting because of their context. Can you help me hunt them down and then email them to ?

Just add the photo as an attachment and, if you want, put a title as the email’s subject. The photos will get posted to this photostream:

I’ll leave it running for about a week to see how it shapes up. Get noticing!

Things we have learned #1:

You can add descriptions for the photos in the main text of the email. If your email automatically adds a signature with your contact details etc, you may wish to remove it…

Things we have learned #2:

If you don’t add a title via the subject line, Flickr will use the file name of the image.

We are the experts. Who are we?

An open sketchbook post in preparation for 5 days residency-style alongside Play Ground. See this initial post for more background. Open to influence, rather than just on display: all constructive conversations and contributions welcomed. All posts in this series can be found under the Play Ground tag.

In this post I ask for suggestions for the name we will work under. Probably some sort of government ministry, but we don’t know yet. What do you think?


We work closely with professionals from affiliated departments.

We are the experts in how the public behave in cultural institutions. We work with theory, observation and practical experimentation. We work in large groups and small teams. We work alone. We sometimes go undercover. We make the decisions about what is proper behaviour within museums and art galleries. We enforce those decisions.

Who are we?

Please add your suggestions for the name of this group to the comments, or tweet @genzaichi

Getting stuck into The Participatory Museum (part 2)

An open sketchbook post in preparation for 5 days residency-style alongside Play Ground. See this initial post for more background. Open to influence, rather than just on display: all constructive conversations and contributions welcomed. All posts in this series can be found under the Play Ground tag.

In this post I continue reading The Participatory Museum to get a critical foundation in different approaches to… participation in museums.

As before, below are fragments from the book that seem particularly pertinent. I’ve copied and pasted them across to here as a sort of scrap book as I’ve come across them. Sometimes I’ve added notes, sometimes I’ve added italics, sometimes I’ve added nothing. In an attempt at making things easier to find again later, I’ve organised the cuttings under links to the sections of Nina’s book that they came from.


This technique, like all audience-centric initiatives, requires staff members to trust that visitors can and will find the content that is most useful to them. When staff members put their confidence in visitors in this way, it signals that visitors’ preconceptions, interests, and choices are good and valid in the world of the museum. And that makes visitors feel like the owners of their experiences.

Reminds me a little of the saying “the pictures are better on radio”. Leave space for people to make their own meaning etc etc

Cultural institutions are often terrible at this, especially when it comes to visitors. Even at museums where I’m a member, I am rarely welcomed as anything but another body through the gate. This lack of personalization at entry sets an expectation that I am not valued as an individual by the institution. I am just a faceless visitor.

To some extent, ameliorating that facelessness is a simple matter of providing good guest service. Vishnu Ramcharan manages the front-line staff (called “hosts”) at the Ontario Science Centre. He trains hosts with a simple principle: hosts should make every visitor feel wanted. As Ramcharan put it: “The hosts shouldn’t just be excited generally that visitors are there, but that you specifically showed up today. They should make you feel that you are someone they are thrilled to see at the Science Centre.” This may sound trite, but when you see Ramcharan’s smile, you feel as you do in the hands of any accomplished party host—desired, special, and ready to engage.

Magic vest! Can I wear a magic vest?!

The small presentation of self-expression becomes a kind of beacon that links me to others in a loose social network of affinity.

Aspirational stickers :)
Which behaviour do you secretly most harbour a desire to do when faced with a staid gallery setting?

These kinds of profiles are only useful if the institution can deliver an enhanced experience based on them. In Heroes, the enhancement was the opportunity to find and explore hero-specific content threads throughout the exhibition, and to connect with other people about their different identities.

hmmmmm. What enhanced experience? Link aspirations to the exhibits?
Will people chant together at Sculpture for Football Songs if they’re all wearing stickers saying they want to be noisy in galleries?

Rather than focusing on extending single visits with a pre- and post-visit, it can be more valuable to link multiple visits with offsite experiences.

Starting to sound very transmedia!
(I also think I’ve started reading this through the lens of other projects, since a lot of this chapter is way beyond the scope of my 5 days in the corner of a room. Will be good to see what I can apply, though.)

There’s no “delete” button for the postal service


establish an expectation that you might visit multiple times

See you in a day or two for the next chapter!

Getting stuck into The Participatory Museum (part 1)

An open sketchbook post in preparation for 5 days residency-style alongside Play Ground. See this initial post for more background. Open to influence, rather than just on display: all constructive conversations and contributions welcomed. All posts in this series can be found under the Play Ground tag.

In this post I do some research to get a critical foundation in different approaches to participation in museums.


Nina Simon‘s writing on the subject of participation in museums – and the communities that I have been linked to from it – have been a stimulating influence on my work involving games, schools and more for a few years. Now I’m actually responsible for participatory activities in a museum it seems like a very good prod to get on and read her book The Participatory Museum.

Below are fragments from the book that seem particularly pertinent. I’ve copied and pasted them across to here as a sort of scrap book as I’ve come across them. Sometimes I’ve added notes, sometimes I’ve added italics, sometimes I’ve added nothing. In an attempt at making things easier to find again later, I’ve organised the cuttings under links to the sections of Nina’s book that they came from.

I define a participatory cultural institution as a place where visitors can create, share, and connect with each other around content. Create means that visitors contribute their own ideas[1], objects, and creative expression to the institution and to each other[2]. Share means that people discuss, take home, remix, and redistribute both what they see and what they make during their visit[3]. Connect[4] means that visitors socialize with other people—staff and visitors—who share their particular interests. Around content means that visitors’ conversations and creations focus on the evidence, objects, and ideas most important to the institution in question.

[1] Another reason to do a signtific brainstorm at the start of the residency? (see previous post). Preferably leave it up for the duration, too, so it can keep evolving.
[2] Make exchanges with spaces! 2 way exchange. (Ref Counsel for the Artist.)
[3] Seeing, making… different modes of engagement – provide different ways in.
[4] Makes me think of the “sense of community when it snows” example (see previous post)

visitor co-produced experiences.

Need to do prep-work and have a few ideas in back-up, but mostly focus on providing the platforms that enable the visitors to be creative.

Like schools work! “It’s not your job to be creative”!

This may sound messy. It may sound tremendously exciting. The key is to harness the mess in support of the excitement.

How much mess can we get away with?

But people who create content represent a narrow slice of the participatory landscape, which also includes people who consume user-generated content, comment on it, organize it, remix it, and redistribute it to other consumers.

creators are a small part of the landscape. You are far more likely to join a social network, watch a video on YouTube, make a collection of things you’d like on a shopping site, or review a book than you are to produce a movie, write a blog, or post photos online.

When designing participatory components to exhibitions, I always ask myself: how can we use this? What can visitors provide that staff can’t? How can they do some meaningful work that supports the institution overall?

What happens to the results? What’s the point? How does this translate to 5 days straight in and straight out? Might be about making it relevant to my practice?

If you focus solely on participation as a “fun activity,” you will do a disservice both to yourself as a professional and to visitors as participants.

As Geoff Godbey, professor of leisure studies at Pennsylvania State University, commented in a Wall Street Journal article: “To be most satisfying, leisure should resemble the best aspects of work: challenges, skills and important relationships.”

Games researcher Jane McGonigal has stated that people need four things to be happy: “satisfying work to do, the experience of being good at something, time spent with people we like, and the chance to be part of something bigger.”

Make them just tricky/taxing enough. How to make the museum activities just taxing enough? (esp for all age ranges!)

to collaborate confidently with strangers, participants need to engage through personal, not social, entry points.

Starting Points

An open sketchbook post in preparation for 5 days residency-style alongside Play Ground. See this initial post for more background. Open to influence, rather than just on display: all constructive conversations and contributions welcomed. All posts in this series can be found under the Play Ground tag.

In this post I unpick the exhibition blurb, looking for a way in.


The Learning Officer for the exhibition is giving me free rein on this project. My brief, such that it is, is to instigate activities that encourage people to work together whilst having a sense of fun. This could be in the form of competing against each other within a game, but the example she’s used a few times is like the feeling of community after it’s snowed.

The expected audience is predominantly families: “some with large quantities of kids, some a mum and a pushchair”. The activities therefore need to be interesting and accessible for potentially very young children getting involved for, say 20 minutes. My games-based work has mostly been with adults though, so I’ll be wanting to provide more challenging things for that sort of audience – say hello, let me know if you’re interested in visiting, so I can cater for you too!

So that’s it then. Blank piece of paper.

I started by dissecting the listings blurb:

At an art gallery we usually have to follow a series of rules. Don’t touch the work, don’t run, don’t shout, don’t play. Don’t, in short, have fun. We thought it would be good to try something else – this exhibition shows contemporary artists that treat the gallery like a fairground rather than a church.

What follows is a reproduced version of a list from my paper sketchbook, tidied up a bit and with more added as I think about it again now. I’d have preferred to have mind-mapped this stage, but was out and about without a large surface to work across. Oh for a large portable whiteboard!

Trying to capture the thoughts as fast as they pop into my head

A series of rules.

  • What rules do artists have to follow when making work for galleries?
  • Can we make a piece of work that, in being experienced, requires you to break all the rules?
  • Series? The sum of a sequence of rules?
    • To me implies one after the other, in a particular order.
    • How many rules in a row in the sequence?
    • How many rules in a row before you give up?
    • Who writes the rules?
    • Who teaches us the rules?
    • Are the rules the same everywhere?
    • What rules, Nineteen Eighty Four style, would stop you from having fun outside the gallery?
    • Panopticon gallery design to ensure rules are enforced.

Don’t touch the work,

  • Is remote touching an option? How would that work?
  • Can you have a member of gallery staff who is an authorised toucher? They then relate the sensations back to you…
  • What about work we’re allowed to touch, but don’t want to?
    • Electrified work?
    • Sharp work?
    • Fleshy work?
    • Work that smells?
    • Work that stains

don’t run,

  • Can we slob around then?
  • Take a nap?
  • How fast can you go?
  • Is there a lower limit on speed?

don’t shout,

  • Would people notice if there was absolute silence?
  • What would you like to shout?
  • Do we actually do much shouting elsewhere?
  • Gallery Tourettes

don’t play.

  • Is it not already an elaborate type of game?
  • There’s a particular article I’m thinking of, trying to find the reference…

Don’t, in short, have fun.

  • What constitutes fun?
  • Do we go to the gallery looking for fun?
  • If we were offered fun, would we be comfortable accepting it in those surroundings
  • Consensual? Same thing fun for all? Does everyone want to have fun?
  • Can you accommodate fun and not-fun in the space at the same time?
  • Covert fun vs overt fun.

We thought it would be good to try something else

  • I like the empirical approach! What can we get away with?

this exhibition shows contemporary artists that treat the gallery like a fairground rather than a church.

  • Imagining the artists themselves on display. A rogues gallery or police line up of people who flout the rules!
  • The artists may treat the gallery as a fairground, but what happens when the gallery re-appropriates the work and displays it under its own rules? Still can’t touch etc
  • Fairgrounds: Thrills, entertainment, paying for the ride, going on the ride again and again, sensory overload, eating candy until you are sick…

So, lots of questions – which is a good start for a residency!

I think taking the theme of “rules” would be a good starting point: from here we can link to the exhibition text, rulesets for games and also a lot of my work where I use rules as frameworks for exploration.

I also think it would be good to start off with a brainstorm in the space at the beginning of the residency. I’ll use the signtific approach which is a really nice way of getting away from your initial (predictable?) ideas and into new territory. I wrote about the process when I first came across it, and have used it in schools since then with some nice results. It’s also a nice way to plaster a wall or floor with post-it notes and get away from the scary empty space we start off with!

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