dConstruct 2012: Making Friends

23 April 2012

Big news: I’m talking at this year’s dConstruct. I gone to dConstruct for many times over the years, so it’s a real privilege to speak.

More to the point, it’s a privilege to speak as part of that line-up. Especially, you know, James Burke. It should be a great day out.

I thought I’d finally try to draw a line through a section of my interests and practice over the past few years, and pull them together – all the bots, jokes, games, strange pieces of code that don’t do very much, stranger pieces of code that do – into a single thread. Which is how I came to the topic, something I care a great deal about:

Making Friends: on toys and toy making

Toys are not idle knick-knacks: they allow us to explore otherwise impossible terrain; fire the imagination; provide sparks for structured play. They do not just entertain and delight; they stimulate and inspire. And always, they remind us of the value – and values – to be found in abstract play.

Toymaking is not an idle habit. Toys are a fertile ground for creators to work in. They offer a playful space to experiment and explore. They are a safe ground to experiment with new techniques, skills, or ideas. Though they emerge from no particular purpose, they expose purpose and meaning through their making. Toymaking ranges from making realistic simulations of life to producing highly abstract playthings. And everyone who makes things – out of paper, wood, metal, plastic, or code – has something to gain from making them.

Trying to draw a thread through what, it turns out, has been a lifetime first shaped by toymaking, and then spent making toys in idle moments, Tom will take in (amongst other things) woodwork, Markov chains, state-machines and fiddle-sticks, to examine the values of toys and toymaking to 21st-century creators.

It should be good. I’m already a bit nervous. See you in Brighton in September.

Play is a serious business

22 April 2012

I had the great pleasure to get to Galy Tots at Kemistry last week: a lovely, tiny retrospective of Ken Garland Associates’ work for Galt Toys. It was lovely: lots of nice examples of graphic design and photography, as well as lots of items on display, including a prototype of knock-down furniture for playgroups, that was just beautiful.

There were several particularly lovely touches: firstly, that all the toys and games on display were set up to be played with – indeed, that they were set up so that children as well as adults could play.

And secondly: all the exhibition copy was written by Garland himself, which gave it a tone that was both very honest but also charming and subtle.

There were two quotation I took down, because they made an impact, and I wanted to share them.

Garland wrote about Edward Newmark, who had been manager of Paul and Marjorie Abbatt’s toyshop before he went to Galt.

Edward brought with him the conviction that play is a serious business, and toys are the tools of the child.

Talking about their time working for Galt, Garland said:

Most especially, it is rare for designers to have the experience of their work being enjoyed before their very eyes. I have had the greatest delight in seeing children playing our most successful game, Connect, in many parts of the world.

Watching something being enjoyed before your eyes is one of the great pleasures of designing things to be played or interacted with.

(And, by corollary, nothing hurts more, or reminds you to up your game, than watching somebody not have fun with something assumed they would enjoy).

Spring Clean

20 April 2012

I’ve had a new version of my site template kicking around for years now; today, I finally bit the bullet and pushed it love. The main additions are a slightly different talks page, which tries to catalogue everything in some for or other. Some talks have the full text available; others are there as video or PDF. I’m going to keep working on this over time, and try and get some of the more recent ones up.

Similarly, the projects page collates things I’d call projects: stuff I’ve made, with links to code or relevant blogposts where appropriate.

I’ve also moved to a slightly more responsive layout, because I end up using this site for reference from my mobile phone. The whole thing is deployed – and has been for a while now – using my Capistrano for WordPress configuration. It’s 2012, and you shouldn’t be drag-and-dropping in an FTP client if you can help it.

And, finally, I’ve turned comments off. I’m really not convinced of the value of them any more; I enjoyed the days when everybody wrote responses on their own sites. I might re-enable them, but for now, there are no comments. I’m still displaying old comments, and trackbacks and pingbacks will still show up.

That’s it for now, but the whole thing is in a better shape for the future: there’s finer-grained modelling of top-level objects going on, which makes my domain-driven brain much happier. And it’s a bit wider, and the text can breathe some more.

Better write some things to go on here, then.

  • "There’s still a smell of bullshit to almost every videogame story I read, even as it’s advanced to a very high level being in The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. To me it derives from this politeness about the thing that’s experienced. In literary criticism there are really cutting deconstructions of things that are inadequate—Nabokov talking about what a fraud and charlatan Faulkner was—but there’s this really intelligent, but painfully milquetoast, quality to the way we appreciate games. It’s a reflection of how partially engaged we are with each one. We consider games primarily as ideas, rather than actual evolving relationships that we’ve had over time." Yeah, that. I enjoyed this discussion: I'm pretty sure you don't have to finish games to review them. Then again: I also think writing about games six months after they came out is way more interesting than trying to hammer through something to fit into a review cycle.
  • Oooh, the Shruthi got an upgrade: not just white PCBs, but an interesting new filter board. Seriously tempted by one of these.
  • "If most of the value is now in the initial creative act, there’s little benefit to traditional hierarchical organization that’s designed to deliver the same thing over and over, making only incremental changes over time. What matters is being first and bootstrapping your product into a positive feedback spiral with a constant stream of creative innovation." (Michael Abrash is scary smart, at Valve, investigating wearable computing, but this line – about the value of being first and being innovative – was the most important here for me.)

Links & notes for this month