Playful 2012: physical, concrete, super-real

It feels like a long time since Playful. It’s not, it’s less than a couple of weeks, but since then we’ve run a fairly difficult live game and then done a lot of real-world catching up. The day’s been percolating quietly in the back of my head, though, and I think it’s time to muse it out.

This year, live games – play in physical space, actual make-believe, play with physical objects – have started to Happen as a Thing. Not sure where we are on the Gartner hype cycle with this, but a long way from where we were this time last year, that’s for sure. Playful’s talks illustrated that beautifully, but tended to skim the surface of what’s gone before, focusing more on what’s going to be. There were exceptions, of course – Holly Gramazio on forms of clapping game brought a huge amount of detail and history to a highly specific area – but much of the day was focused on the fantastic future.

And that observation is definitely not a complaint. At the moment especially the world needs some lightness, some excitement about what the future offers, and Playful is a great space for that. At times the event felt like an explicit reaction against last year’s conference, where a nostalgic plea for a future that never happened failed to ring true with me, at least. This year the future was impossibly exciting, full of the invisible made concrete, creativity gone viral and vital, incomprehensible technology powering us into a far more exciting world. Anab Jain’s talk felt integral – she talked about imagining different futures, astonishing possibilities contained in the flesh of the present, prised free by imagination and given tantalising, half-realised forms. Glimpses of a world made wonderful by playfulness. This was the event at its best.

I wished, at times, that there was more context. Don’t get me wrong: these were all excellent talks, good introductions to the places where digital play and creativity overlap with tonnes of other stuff. Mark Sorrell’s talk on games in physical space was a plea for game designers to get people looking at each other, not screens; a manifesto for personal connections. It was a fantastic primer for people not already immersed in live play, but there wasn’t much time to acknowledge that those games are happening already. Outside the digital, in playgrounds and parks and city streets: it is digital that’s the newcomer in this playful space, not physical play. I suspect conceptual art people would have similar thoughts about Einar Sneve Martinussen‘s concrete depictions of invisible things – while for people like me with no awareness of that world it was fascinating and eye-opening. I am wary of this peculiar type of skeuomorphism, using tech to emulate physical forms of play, because I think tech can do so much more. I hope, as I’ve said before, digital play learns from other forms of play and builds on these elements to make better awesome amazing things.

This is a necessary stage along that road – and it’s superb to see it celebrated and debated. Playful this year was a big move in a good direction, because it opened up play to all sorts of interesting places I loved Simon Cutts’s talk precisely because it didn’t deal in the space between two disciplines, but sat firmly where it was; Holly’s talk, the Mint Digital graduates with their sourdough toy, and Bennett Foddy’s take on pain and suffering in games, too. Hannah Donovan on crafting talked us through a personal evolution of her pastimes that mirrors a wider shift in the world, from physical to digital – but without discounting the importance of either. Somehow, the whole day held both in the balance, and pointed up the possibilities of technology taken for granted, in meatspace, augmenting and supporting who we are and our very human, creative, curious lives.

Excellent day.