Notes on the Playful City

I’ve spent the last three days in Amsterdam as a guest of the Asia-Europe Minister Network (ASEM) talking with a group of game designers & artists about what a Playful City might be. The team at Watershed have been successfully exploring this idea of playable cities for a couple of years now and it’s an idea that appeals to me. This post isn’t really any kind of statement or manifesto – more a quick documentation of some impressions of the time spent here.

1.  Coming out of a very staid presentation at the introductory dinner and seeing a parade of protesting ravers, coming out against expensive ticket prices at the Amsterdam Dance Event and creating their own free rave on an island. We stood there with our lanyards and felt the energy pouring off the crowd in waves. It seemed a bit silly at that moment to try to institutionally organise playful cities.

2. “Play is the gun”. A phrase from Irwan Ahmett, who told us about a project he made with undocumented Indonesian migrant workers in The Hague. Together they explored tunnels under the city and yelled into the echo; “You have to hear our voices”. Irwan walked into the Indonesian embassy with an iPod and a PA and played the recording. It sparked a dialogue which led to conditions changing for those workers, and an international debate. Play *is* the gun when it’s deployed so effectively – cutting through layers of permission-powered bureaucracy and opening up a space where new things can happen.

3. Listening to Fei Jun and Eric Siu talk about the playfulness that’s necessary to negotiate their practice in societies where repression of new or challenging ideas is the norm. The elegant uses of language and double meaning, the subtlety and fluidity required, the need to ask permission without asking permission. Eric’s friends, on the streets of Hong Kong, right now.

“Use cunning and deception as weapons, for in the circumstances deceit is no more then prudence”

Pope Innocent III to Arnold Amaury, head of Cistercian order of monks

4. The deep sense of frustration I felt at the end of a series of barbed challenges from Rob van Kranenburg about the limitations of our playful culture as it is today – operating as a garnish for an institutional & political framework that allows for no prospect that we might one day be the main event. Rob’s oppositional positioning to the smart city not being the playful one, but an ‘internet of neighbourhoods’ joining up open hardware, software, data and knowledge.

5. Playing around with the idea of ‘institutional slums’ – parallel organisations that attach themselves to the host, mimicking their aims but inventing rapid, cheap processes for accomplishing them.  Thinking about True Riches, the fake season of live art at the ICA, and the Hack The Art World protests in this context. Wondering if we should occupy The Space.

6. Admiring Sebastian Quack’s confidence in himself and his place in the world – an artist and festival curator, making playful festivals in cities with support from funders like the Goethe Institut. Wondering what it must be like to live in a society where the idea of cultural spaces separated from any requirement to adhere to the values of the market is desirable.

7. Markus Montola’s questioning of whether pervasive games have had their moment. They haven’t taken off, gone viral, built into a movement comparable with teaching young people to code. Should we let them pass?

8. “This is the hand”… You had to be there for this one. But I don’t want to forget it.

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