I believe play shouldn’t be confined to playgrounds. Biologists, psychologists and urban designers all have a lot to say about the benefits of play, both for developing more flexible thought patterns and making pleasant, liveable cities. To quote Danish architect and urban designer Jan Gehl, “A good city is like a good party – people stay longer than really necessary.”
Getting all kinds of people to play together - whether they’d naturally talk to each other or not - is one of the most vital ways play can improve our lived experience of cities. This is why I love to make work designed to be discovered by passersby rather than shut away in buildings.
‘Appropriateness’ and feeling safe to play
However, streets are complex environments, full of variables. The moment you take something out to test in the real world, things happen which would never come up in a controlled testing environment. And apart from seeing how a design works, people’s responses show you a lot about how they feel in that particular space. When you test the same thing in different places, you start to understand how people read the social norms of different spaces. They show you, in ways they’d never be able to articulate, what they consider as possible or impossible there.
There is a prime directive in public life to ‘fit in’, whatever that means in that space, and people who don’t follow it are perceived as threatening or childish. Deep play - the kind where people are not just trying something out but have become involved with a game - is a fragile state. In order for people to relax into it, they need to have a sense that this is appropriate here and they will be safe doing so.
Coming halfway across the world to make play in new public spaces, the one thing I knew is that my instincts about ‘appropriate’ would be askew here in Tokyo. Once you start to unpack the word in English it reveals so many assumptions about what a space is for, who is going to be welcome there and who should not be there.
And so, rather than prototyping a new game for public play, I decided to find a way of understanding appropriateness in different contexts. I wanted to discover what’s a universal truth about play in public spaces and what is simply a local norm.
Japan has a strong, clear instructional culture which has developed on different paths to those I’m used to, and I became fascinated by how the use of human and cartoon avatars is so much more developed in public life in Japan than in Europe.
Roadworks became my canonical example - the use of a person waving a flag as a focus of the warning signage is simply not something we have in the UK, where we rely on coloured lights and graphic signage. In Japan when there is not a physical person conducting the warning they are replaced by a digital avatar - elegant dot matrix animations of a person waving a flag, or flat representations of a figure with a moving arm.
Cute mascots representing everything from particular towns to products welcome people into conversations and act as a human focus for joyful interaction. Humanoid robots with a caring and welcoming function are more advanced in Japan than anywhere else.
This has interesting implications for ushering people over that threshold between bystander and player and I wanted to see if I could make that work for this investigation.
Playing local games
I also trawled Japanese culture for a simple game that everyone would already know how to play, so understanding rules of interaction would not be a barrier. KenKenPa (a hopscotch analogue) fit the bill, and I used it as a base to design a floor-piece game board that I could set up in various spots around the city. I worked with David Haylock at Pervasive Media Studio to make my own LED matrix sign with a little internal game engine on a Raspberry Pi I could use to display various messages and avatars playing. Its purpose would be to see what might reassure the widest number of people that play is appropriate here, and this is for them.
And so, in a particularly wet week in late September I arrived in Tokyo and, based at 3331 Arts Chiyoda, began to run as many playtests as I could. And when it was too wet to playtest (often), I trawled the city looking for the markers that tell you a space is an appropriate one for play, both for children and adults.