Sophie Sampson visited Tokyo as part of the Playable City Tokyo Residency 2018.
Reframing public spaces as places to play
How lovely to get a call to say ‘you're going to Tokyo to make something, go and engage with the city’. Observing how people use public space is a core part of my practice, and much of my work involves reframing public spaces as places to play, both with the physical games I make as part of Matheson Marcault and designing the exhibition layout for Now Play This . So I spend a lot of time hanging back quietly, seeing how people treat a space and what they will commit to doing within it.
navigating the social context of a place
What I learn over and over again is that getting anyone over the age of five to actually play in public involves a great deal of navigating the social context of that space – understanding the rules by which people move through it and how they act towards each other while in groups. While play on screens is inherently ‘safe’ in this context – all the action takes place in the magic rectangle – more physical interaction depends on navigating shared rules and ideas of appropriateness and safety, and very few people will commit to play if it will disturb the other people around them.
In London, I know the rules intimately. Navigating rush hour, for example, would be unbearable if we didn't all agree on some basic rules of conduct. And so we have standards for where you should stand on a train platform (along the front if you're on getting the next train, line up along the back if you're waiting for the second or third); how to stand on an escalator (stand on the right, walk on the left in London, reversed in Tokyo); what's acceptable to do on the train (for Londoners: putting on makeup or hugging your partner fine, talking to strangers definitely not. In deep rush hour talking at all is frowned on.)
When you go to a new place those rules change – in Tokyo where to stand while waiting for a train is enforced by lines on the platforms rather than depending on consensus. There are women-only carriages for morning rush hour. The ultimate aim is the same – getting millions of people to work at about the same time and in the best possible mood – but the specifics of how that is facilitated are often very different.
And so I came to Tokyo curious about what the rules are about playing in public, and how people are framing spaces as ones where it is safe and acceptable to play. I found the city crammed full of playful design and people engaging in many different types of playful behaviours. I visited playgrounds and arcades, serious business areas and creative spaces. And over and over again I was reminded that big cities have room for all sorts of different ways of being within them, and the easy narratives about what Japan is like can never be applied universally. For example, there’s a narrative around being reserved in public, but during the world cup and at religious festival time the streets can turn into a glorious chaos. Festivals involve towering floats are dragged along by loud, excited people and the whole environment vibrates with noise and colour. There is a socially-sanctioned rule change and the setting of the street becomes different.
how does play fit into society?
And so I turned from simply looking out for examples of playful behaviour to asking how that play fits into society and how rule changes are supported. I visited a couple of 'adventure' or 'junk' playgrounds – spaces in the woods where children are encouraged to run free and build and destroy anything they like – there are tools, water and facilitators to quietly make sure nothing goes majorly wrong. But they are explicitly spaces where children are learning how manage their own risk together with their peers, rather than assume someone will stop them if they're doing something too dangerous. As they run around with hoses, jump off things, dig up bits of ground and hack together their own shelters, they're learning the building blocks of self reliance and deciding how far is too far to push themselves. It's a space carefully bounded from the regular parts of the park, with detailed signs to make clear the rules of this particular space.
Meanwhile in Akihabara we passed a stamp rally, where fans of a particular anime are getting together on the pretext of collecting stamps from all over the district so they can get a unique prize. It's not a deep or important act outside the context of fandom, but it's building real life community and deepening connections between fans who might otherwise only passively watch at home. Here there's no physical boundary, just an agreement between an entertainment company, local businesses and fans that here, for a certain period, fandom will spill out onto the street.
(And somewhere in an architects office someone must be constantly pitching variations on "why would we just have boring benches in this park when we could have benches shaped like giant fruit?" And I support this.)
an invitation to play
During the research trip I experimented with whether I could make a pop-up playspace for an afternoon, simply putting down a modified ken-ken-pa board (a Japanese analogue of hopscotch) in coloured tape on a pavement. It turned out that yes, I could get children and young adults to stop what they were doing and try it out, and walk away a little happier and gigglier than they were before, having had an experience rather than just passing through. And crucially, I could widen participation by making the invitation more explicit.
And so now I'm thinking about how to strengthen that permission to play in a public space. I'm going to try using some of the rule-modifiers I noticed on my journeys through the city in service of changing the feeling of a space, and see what works to nudge people into committing to play and increasing the amount of joy on the street.
Some photos recording my visit: