What makes a place fun?


Last month I have the privileged to speak before an audience of 1,400 people at TEDx Boulder. My topic was, “What makes a place fun?”

Whether or not I answered that question, you can decide for yourself:

This question of fun is central to my dissertation research which, among other things, proposes to offer a method for talking about fun in the American home.

Toward a Ludic Architecture



Today etc press released Steffen Walz’s “Toward a Ludic Archtiecture”
You can download the text or leap straight into purchasing a printed copy here:

As I continue to work through my dissertation on “What makes a place fun?’, I am excited to see Steffen’s work in print. Not only does it help push forward some important concepts about games and architectures–for me his archeology of ludic architectures is the perfect way to get architects thinking about games–but he also dignifies the subject by merging architectural concepts and language with game studies and design thought in a way that respects both disciplines.
The entire “ludology versus narratology” debate spun on the concern that people versed in lit theory would just tear apart games without ever bothering to play them. As time has gone on, game playing narratologists have contributed all kinds of useful research (I am thinking of Alex Galloway, for example).
The same thing is happening in other disciplines as well–economics, sociology, computer science, art, etc. And now we can safely add architecture to that list.

Understanding Place: Game Studies as a System of Knowing


Below is the full text of a conference proposal I submitted to the upcoming DiGRA conference . Unfortunately, the proposal was rejected, at least in part for being confusing. Fair enough. But I am posting it here is the interest of gaining additional comments and feedback, either public or private. I think the epistemological underpinnings of game studies is something I'd like to keep exploring, confusing or not!

Games can teach, but what can we learn from game studies beyond their application to games?

Much has been said about the mimetic potential of games to represent reality. The Serious Games movement models an ontological approach that sees games as a mirror creating a reflection of real world phenomenon and constructions. The presence of a game’s sense of reality to a player borrows categorically from real world phenomenon giving it a “half-reality”, to borrow Juul’s conception. Thus, a game object or action has a being tied, to some degree, to a transferable experience between the real and the virtual and allowing for a systematic criticism and exploration of these linkages.  This critical dialog may be considered the heart of what we call, “game studies”

In this view, games can speak about the world because properties of the world are embedded inside game systems and game content. Further, games allow us to generate ideas inside the virtual space of the game system and narrative open to judgement by real world criteria.

Taken together, these perspectives may best be considered games-as-model approaches, where the virtuality of the game is constantly held in strict ontological relationship to the real world.

However, a converse proposition receives less attention—the idea that knowledge about games, rather than knowledge of games provides a framework for talking about things outside of games. The body of knowledge described as game studies has a use beyond talking about games. Following the same ontological bridge that links games to the real world, we can traverse it in the opposite direction using game studies as a method for talking about specific non-game, non-virtual reality.

This paper considers the broad notion of games as epistemic systems capable of generating knowledge and understanding of the world, or at least, cultural views of worldly phenomenon. Game studies, in this mode, turns from its internally focused critical practice, here framed as an ontological practice concerned with the nature of being in a game, into a method for understanding things outside of games. The specific goal of this paper is to illustrate the potential for using games as a system of understanding through the application of the game studies concepts of “ludology versus narratology” and Caillois’ distinction between paidea and  ludus as means for understanding real world places. The first case maps the notions of a strong a ludological notion and a narratological notion to the environment of the children’s playground. This case illustrates how strengths and weaknesses in playground design can be clarified by a discussion of the inherent contestation and productive tension found in the narratology versus ludology debate (or non-debate) inside of game studies.  The second case maps the concepts of ludus and paidea to two natural places, Carlsbad Caverns National Park  and White Sands National Monument, in the United States, arguing that the management of leisure space mirrors the division proposed by Caillois and further elaborated in game studies literature. Using these cases as an initial foray into the method, this paper demonstrates the feasibility of applying game study concepts to the understanding of non-game, real world environments.

Partial Bibliography
1. Ang, S.C. Rules, gameplay, and narratives in video games. Simulation and Gaming, 37. 306-325.
2. Bogost, I. Persuasive games : the expressive power of videogames. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2007.
3. Bogost, I. Unit operations : an approach to videogame criticism. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2006.
4. Borries, F.v., Walz, S.P. and Böttger, M. (eds.). Space time play : computer games, architecture and urbanism: the next level. Birkhauser Verlag AG, Boston, MA, 2007.
5. Caillois, R. Man, play, and games. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 2001.
6. Frasca, G. Ludologists love stories, too: notes from a debate that never took place Level Up Conference Proceedings, University of Utrecht, Utrecht, 2003.
7. Frasca, G. Ludology Meets Narratology: Similitude and Differences Between (Video)Games and Narrative, 1999.
8. Gee, J.P. What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2003.
9. Newman, J. Videogames. Routledge, London New York, 2004.
10. Nitsche, M. Video game spaces : image, play, and structure in 3D worlds. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2008.
11. Pearce, C. Theory Wars: An Argument Against Arguments in the so-called Ludology/Narratology Debate Changing Views: Worlds in Play, University of Vancouver, Vancouver, 2005.

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The Theory of Alcoholic Architecture


London now sports what it's owners have described as the world's first walk-in cocktail.

Don the sort of coverall you see in science labs and walk into a misty room. The room is the "bar" and the mist is gin and tonic.
Presumably, chilling in this cocktail and breathing deeply long enough is equivalent to actually having a drink.
It's weird and enticing. And from an architectural design perspective, it does some funny things by materializing the genus loci of a bar as alcohol and turning the usual voids into semi-present alcoholic solids. Theorists, have stiff drink and ponder this one.

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Defining the Fun House


As a part of my, "What makes a place fun?" research, I have postulated the idea of the "fun house" as an actual home anchored in fun as much as much as some homes are designed to be beautiful.

The question always is, "What is a fun house?"

And while I am still working out a good theoretical definition to that question, here's a good practical answer:

Yes, a house built around a skateboard ramp.

Interesting (to me at least), is how people talk about this particular "fun house"

  • "The result of the client’s request is a curved form interior, which “set the whole house as well as the inhabitant’s life, into motion”. — Architectural Review 
  • "Converting your house into a 'skateable habitat' is one strangely cool move." — Gizmowatch 
  • "As a kid, I was obsessed with Pee-wee's Playhouse. As an adult (at least according to my pricey movie stubs), my refined tastes would prefer The Ramp House, a 'skateable habitat.'" — Gizmodo 
  • "Speaking of things I would have wanted as a kid, take a look at this house: it's built around a gigantic indoor skateboard ramp. I absolutely love this guy's priorities. " — Dvice 

What I notice here is a strong push and pull around the notion of fun. The Architecture Review comment, perhaps predictably, stressed some sort of formal design purpose or insight. But nowhere is fun allowed. Gizmowatch recognizes the latent playfulness of the space, but feels the need to praise it while marginalizing it as a "strangely cool move." Meanwhile, Gizmodo and Dvice make the most common move, by suggesting that while the place grabs the author's imagination, he must quickly put it into the category of childhood. The common theme, fun = foolish, naive and childish.

And, perhaps most useful, were select comments about the house from Boing Boing readers. While many readers saw the house as a gimmick, an ostentatious display of trust fund excess or simply dangerous, a few other readers rose to the defense of the space :

"Haha, I knew a bunch of boingers would be big downers on this. This just in: Boingboing readers have decided that having fun is irresponsible."

"Dude, this is totally killer!! That's a frickin dream-house right there. Closing my eyes and ears to all of the bummer comments… ignorance is bliss."

Conclusion of the moment, a fun house is a battleground around the concept of fun!

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