Back view of a child watching an adult jump along a hopscotch pattern drawn on the ground

Jon Aitken

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.

Human Figures

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. 

Artist working on laptop computer to adjust how a pictorial image of a person playing hopscotch is displayed on a LED matrix sign
Images of digital avatars flash up on a LED matrix sign inviting people to play ©

British Council Photo by Kenichi Aikawa 

Triangular patterns on the ground and a small LED screen displaying text next to it
The name of a well-known local game "KenKenPa" flashes up on the LED matrix screen ©

Sophie Sampson

Portrait image of artist sitting next to prototype LED matrix sign displaying digital avatar playing hopscotch
Artist Sophie Sampson ©

British Council Photo by Kenichi Aikawa 

What I found out

What I found on my playtests was a mix of expected results and surprising ones. It was true in Tokyo, as in the UK, that lone people on the street never play physically unless they feel entirely unobserved. You need a group of two or more who agree to do something silly together and form a self-reinforcing group.  Children are the most easily persuadable to play, but adults will too. I was surprised that adults are more willing to play on a weekend. And most surprising to me, though maybe not to local designers, was that something far more effective than my digital person inviting you to play was simply the name of the game flashing up on the LED screen. Perhaps because then there was no ambiguity about what this was for - this is KenKenPa, and both adults and children committed to play. 

Coming to a deep understanding of how invitations to play work in different places requires a longer trial, with more playtest locations, but this is the start of something interesting. We don’t talk enough about how to issue invitations to play which feel safe and supportive for the widest range of people, and we need to be better at understanding who plays and who doesn’t feel able to in different situations. 

The end point of this work will be a strong methodology for determining where people are most inclined to play, and thus where playful installations can be most successful and reach the widest number of people. I’d love to find partners to help continue the work. For now, rather than having fully tested answers I feel like I have better, sharper and more accurate questions to ask when taking play to new places.

While researching play in Japan and thinking about what the most important questions are, I wrote about nine questions we should all be asking ourselves when we design or commission play in public spaces, which is available for download from the link below.

See also

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