Designing for Fun

While in the Netherlands, I had the opportunity to make an informal, after lunch presentation to participants in the University of Delft's Studiolab. Since they were all involved in industrial design, I thought that they would enjoy talking about the design-fun connection. It turned out more fun and more relevant to their immediate concerns as designers and researchers than I had imagined possible.

Here's how I described my presentation:

The aspects of consumer products that make them "fun" are becoming increasingly significant determining factors in their success. Even such a utilitarian device as a cell phone, with all its increasingly varied features (call forwarding, memory, voice dialing, conferencing) can’t compete with a cell phone that also has a library of downloadable ring tones, the ability to take and send photos, and, of course, play games.

This observation leads to some significant (if not "serious") design questions, like:
~ What is fun?
~ What makes something fun?
~ What keeps it that way?

In this talk Bernie will be discussing some of the theory behind his explorations of fun. In particular, he'll be expounding on Csikszentmihaly’s concept of "flow" and its relevance to our understanding of the social, as well as the psychological dynamics of the experience of fun. Bernie will introduce the concept of "coliberation," his extension of Csikszentmihalyi's model which can be used to describe the social, or relational components of the experience of fun.

Semi-Psychic Fun, Paradigms, the Internet, and you

It's a game. It's a game that you could reasonably call the "ESP Game." It's a research project. It's a way to get you help label images throughout the Internet.

You and someone you never get to meet are looking at an image from somewhere on the web. Simultaneously, you both type any word that you can possibly associate with it at all. You keep typing until you type a word that your anonymous partner has also typed. Then you score and get to see the next image.

It's one of those slighly weird fun experiences. You never get to meet your partner. There really are no right answers. And, if you're in to keeping score, you can get significantly amazed and abashed at how some people are apparently getting really high scores, somehow sensing, so to speak, what their partners are thinking.

This game comes to us courtesy of the Carnegie-Mellon institute. Which right away makes you think that there's even something more going on. And in deed, there is.

While you're so merrily trying to psychically align, your answers (words) are helping to give names to the images.

"Labeling an image," they explain, "means associating word descriptions to it, as shown below. Computer programs can't yet determine the contents of arbitrary images, but the ESP game provides a novel method of labeling them: players get to have fun as they help us determine their contents. If the ESP game is played as much as other popular online games, we estimate that all the images on the Web can be labeled in a matter of weeks!


Having proper labels associated to each image on the Internet would allow for very accurate image search, would improve the accessibility of the Web (by providing word descriptions of all images to visually impaired individuals), and would help users block inappropriate (e.g., pornographic) images from their computers."

What you have here may be a new paradigm for how to use the Internet as a research tool: make it a game that's fun enough, and people will beat your door into a mousetrap, as it were.

Thanks for this link go to the brilliant Ianus Keller, of Delft University Studiolabs, the very university from which my son just received his Ph. D.

Internationalizing the Sacky Sack

Imagine my chagrin - go ahead, take a minute - when I learned that the plastic bags most frequently available to Netherlanders are either too thin or too thick for Sacky Sack-building. The too-thin variety, distributed in most grocery stores for fruit- and veggie-bagging, requires maybe three times as many sacks per Sacky Sack. And the resultant Sacky Sack is dense and hard, almost like a super ball without the bounce. The too-thick variety, available everywhere else except grocery stores (where you have to bring your own), are almost too stiff to stuff, so to speak. By the time you've managed to create something roughly spherical out of one sack, you're left with something too hefty for harmlessness and too bunchy for bounce, as it were.

Does this mean that we, for the sake of world play, need to be exporting our used plastic shopping bags to those countries who suffer different thickness? Is there some greater purpose here becaouse of the superior Sacky Sackness of our shopping bags? Is this then our mission - to have, to make, and to send to Holland?


Repurposing for fun

You know those Teflonish plastic casters that people use to make their carpet-inhabiting furniture easier to move around? Like the kind made by the appropriately named "EZ Moves" company?

Think you could make something fun out of them? How about shoe-bottoms with the soles of a carpet-caster? Then you'd get something like, you know, Carpet Skates, that you could attach to your shoes, so you could, for all intents and purposes and stuff, skate, on the carpet.

And if you got a lot of them - say, enough for a couple hockey teams - you could play something very hockeyish, right in the house. Of couse, you'd need some puckish thing that would slide harmlessly and impressively across the carpet. Something like, o, I don't know, a Carpet Puck?

One can only say "bravo" to the Simtec company, manufacturers of furniture slides and official Carpet Hockey equipment. Repurposing for fun. What commercial venture could be more worthy of massive encouragement? Again, I say "bravo."


Skelly, Junk Stories, and Junkyard Sports

Reading Bernie DeKoven’s book Junkyard Sports brought back fond memories of childhood games. My two favorites consisted of things which adults would normally discard and my friends and I would get hours, sometimes even days or weeks, of enjoyment out of them. One was the bottle caps from soda pop. The other was old cardboard shoeboxes.

The game we played with the soda pop caps was, as I recall, named “Skelley.” I never figured out why, but that was its name. We would draw a chalk diagram on the sidewalk consisting of a series of numbers. Using our thumb and forefinger, we would then proceed to shoot the bottle tops from one number to another. Sometimes we would fill the caps with candle wax to make it heavier and supposedly easier to get into the numbered boxes, but I was never convinced this helped.

In the springtime, the other game became a major event in my neighbor. In fact, you could tell when spring had arrived because half of the kids lined the edge of the sidewalk with their shoeboxes cut with progressively smaller holes. And the other half, were across the street rolling their marbles in the gutter hoping it would enter the smallest hole in the shoe box and get the biggest reward.

Fast forward fifty years, or so —

I now teach humor workshops. One of the components of the longer programs is about how play can help us solve problems, be more creative, and have more fun.

In one exercise, I ask members of the audience to get into small groups and agree upon something that stresses the group out. I then give each group a bag of what might be considered “junkyard” stuff— a clothespin, the front half of a greeting card, a post-office label, an old comb, a piece of a ribbon, etc. Then I instruct them to write a story using the props in the bag.

What they come up with amazes me. It is original, it is playful and it frequently is laugh provoking. In a simple, fun way, using household “junk”, they reframe their stress and laugh about it.

So, over the years, I have known the value of play. But it wasn’t until I encountered the work and writings of Bernie DeKoven did I realize how simple and how marvelous it can be.

I think DeKoven is a modern day alchemist. In this book, he magically shows readers how to turn a junkyard into gold mine. What a joyful world this would be if we all read this book and followed his advice.

Allen Klein,
author of The Healing Power of Humor
and The Courage to Laugh.


Fixing Kids' Sports

The publishers of Junkyard Sports have more or less finalized the book cover, which is what you are seeing here. This is a significant step for any book. Speaking of covers and significance, there was a cover story on the June 7th issue of US News & World Reports titled "Fixing Kids' Sports." It's a long article. Here's a short quote:

"A survey last summer at the National PTA Convention in Charlotte, N.C., found 44 percent of parents saying that their child had dropped out of a sport because it made him or her unhappy. These parents were not wimps. In fact, 92 percent of the respondents said sports were either important or very important to the overall development of their children. But 56 percent said that youth sports were too competitive, nearly half said that organized youth sports need to be completely revamped, and half said if they could change one thing, they would want their coach to be less focused on winning. Many surveys support this conclusion: Most kids would prefer to play a lot on a team that loses than sit on the bench of a team that wins."

The significance of such a story, from my very narrowed perspective as author of a book called "Junkyard Sports," is that it presages what in deed might become my relatively immediate future. It's kind of deliciously ironic, is what it is, that pudgy, non-athletic I, whose favorite sport consists of walking on the beach, should find himself becoming a recognized authority on kids' sports. I had thought I was writing about a larger, more universal cause - about inclusion and adaptability and community. But if my fun little book can be a pathway to play for those who are trying to make sports worthy of kids, well, then, maybe that's purpose enough.

My son, the doctor

Elyon, my son, just finished his doctorate. Ph. D., that is. Formal defense with tux and tail and robes and gavels and things. At the University of Delft. Hollandly-speaking.

It was about collaboration. With intelligent products.

He was brilliant.

Need I say less?

And all the world's a play structure

Le Parkour is what they call it in France. It seems to have a lot to do with risking your life for no discernible reason. Hence, the "extreme" classification, sport-wise.

The Le Parkour website describes the sport as an art: "...a new way of apprehending the environment which surrounds us, with, for only things, the human body" (The website is in French, the translation is courtesy of someone who is probably not an English speaker. I'm thinking that the gist is that no equipment is used. But, I must go on.) "To be able to face all the obstacles which are presented, whether they are in natural environment, or on various structures, all that things in the research for a movement combining aesthetics and control."

The fun part is in the opportunity for creativity as well as mastery. Viewing the city as a gymnasium is as reality transforming as any sport or game. Knowing that your life depends on your performance is a great incentive for skill-building. The fact that Le Parkour is viewed as much an art as it is a sport says a lot for both.

Thanks for this link go to Christopher Noxon.

Losing for Fun and Other Fun Insights with the Presurfer

I had one of those rare opportunities yesterday. I got to spend two hours with one of my favorite bloggers - one of the few whose sense of fun is as refined as it is eclectic.

The Presurfer blogs for the fun of it. Really. He spends his early mornings on the web, searching for fun, sharing his hard-won discoveries with anyone who clicks in his direction, because he has fun doing it. He has fun finding fun. Because of the web, he can share that fun. Which makes it all that much more uniquely fun for him. And for 1500 unique visitors a day.

The Presurfer, as any one who visits his remarkable website can attest to, is a private man. What I learned, having met him in person, is that he a man whose very life is focused on fun.

And there we were, two very different men from different parts of the world and walks of life and also runs of life, differently, and yet as completely focused on fun.

The Presurfer is an athlete. My athleticism is limited to long walks. Competitive runner, former national table tennis champion, skydiver, he has learned to do it all for fun. Of the many gentle and profound insights we shared, the one that struck clearest for me began when he talked about how being national champion stopped being fun for him because he "really didn't like losing."

So he taught himself to lose. A little. Just little enough to relax. To stand back. To let it go by, if it had to. To enjoy the game again.

And his game better! His whole game. More fun. More, and more meaningful victories.

In order to have fun, he had to learn to lose. Think maybe that's what competition is all about? Not so much getting to win a lot, but also about learning to lose a little?


Yesterday, I had an opportunity to present a bit about Flow and fun and junk and stuff to some professors and students at the Studiolab of the University of Delft in the Netherlands. I was talking, naturally, about competition, and, of course, about Junkyard Sports and the connections between.

Someone asked me if I knew about Panna. I didn't. I've seen it played, apparently, a lot. All over that large green expanse called "Museumplein" - you know, the one in front of the Stedelijk Museum. It's that soccer-like thing that people do, usually without an actual soccer goal around, kinda kicking the ball at each other and bouncing it on various bodily extremities.

Turns out that Nike, of course, has a major Panna-like campaign.

But I didn't really understand the competition-junkyard connection until I came across this blog - "When people think of football (not soccer) they think of a field of green grass with white stripes. Or maybe a dusty pitch in the barrios of Brazil. But there is one kind of terrain that has always stayed in the shadows. The city squares. There, many great players started their career, from Johan Cruijff to Edgar Davids. The game they play there has now got an official name; Panna. Panna is slang for playing the ball through your opponents' legs. This is the most humiliating way of passing your opponent. Panna is all about skills and tricks. Streetplayers traditionally have a very good technique. Because the ground is perfectly flat, you can have great control over the ball. In street football, there are no clubs. You play with whoever is there. This means it's about you and your reputation. And you get that reputation through showing off. The guy with the best tricks gets the most respect. And the really good ones develop their own tricks. That's why this game is fun to watch."

Played in the street. Competitive, but informal. Play with whomever. Yup. Most junkyardly in deed.


Happy Birthday Shael!

My daughter, my first child, my endless delight, mother of my sweet, sweet Lily, wife of the continually amazing "Dinosphere Tom" - happy birthday to you!

Reagan on "fun"

FY actual I, here are some words from Ron Reagan, about, yes, fun:

"...But when you think about it, the word "fun" really is is a word not very popular in our century. Especially those who preach the supremacy of the state, who think they can remake man and society in the image of a brave new world. For these serious people, earthly paradise is always just around the corner, and evenings like these are bourgeois distractions. Laughter itself is suspect; and even fun is an act of subversion. It is purportedly why Lenin refused to listen to music.

"...It really is an acknowledgment that God means for us — at least sometimes — to take life as it comes: to woo, to laugh, to love, and to make room...for fun."

Bicycle Tire Quoits

If you click on this image it'll get large enough to actually see. Upon careful observation, you'll eventually discover that the stuff on the top of the telephone pole is a pile of bicycle tires. This is fairly incontrovertible evidence of the international presence of a bicycle-tire toss sport, similar in structure to a game of Quoits, but clearly of junkly intent.

My son, the almost-doctor, alerted me to the sport of Bicycle Tire Quoits as a typically Dutch junkyard-style pastime. Looking for record of this activity on the web, I came across this photo, which, it turns out, is of the sport as played in Egypt.

Similar in spirit and affect to the international sport of Hang the Shoes on the Wire, Bicycle Tire Quoits represents a class of junkyard sports that are neither ecologically sensitive nor socially sanctioned, and yet are clearly fun. The closest parallel I've been able to draw is to the "extreme" junkyard sports as found in the Junkyard Sports Hall of Fame.

This leaves much to ponder.

Another ponderable: I know I said that I'd not be doing any more daily blogging until I came back from the Netherlands. And yet, here I am, in the Netherlands, in my son's office at the University of Delft, having access to high speed bandwidth, at last, and, well, I just couldn't let this opportunity be taken unadvantage of. Thus, I blog on.

Time off for bad behavior

I seem to be somewhere in the Netherlands. Well, actually, I'm neither there nor here. I mean, here isn't actually there, because I'm still in Redondo Beach writing this as a "future post." If you know what I mean.

Which doesn't explain why I'm thinking about taking the next coupla weeks off. Absenting myself from blogging, as it were.

At this particular juncture, when I am neither there nor actually here, I contemplate being with my son the Doctor (Ph.D., actually, which he's getting after five years) and his delicious family (including a significantly loving wife, two of my actual granddaughters, and a cat) who happen to be living in the aformentioned lands, Netherly speaking. I find myself thinking that maybe after two years of pretty much daily bloggage, a few weeks break wouldn't be so bad. Just so we can be reminded, you know, what it feels like without it.

I'm also hoping to meet up with my collaboration-torch-bearing friend Gerrit Visser and maybe even the inimitable Presurfer of blogging fame.

I most definitely plan to be having a lot of Netherland-specific fun with my son and his evermore delightful et ceteras.

So I'm thinking a little time off from blogging for me, and for you a little time off from that all-encompassing search for fun via the Internet, wouldn't be so all together bad. There could be things out there that are even more hi-res than our flat panels, Horatio.

Let me know what you find.

Leading into Play

Whenever I'm given the chance, I like to talk to business people about the idea of "leading with fun." It's a simple enough idea. If you're having fun, people will follow you. Really. And you don't have to incentivize or threaten or even explain. Of course, it's not easy. Maybe it's too simple to be easy. It works. And it's definitely fun. But you have to practice. If I were getting political here, I'd say you have to practice because it's such a radically different approach to leadership, because businesses tend to create fear-driven cultures, well, anyway, something clearly not fun-driven.

Oddly enough, learning how to lead games, especially what are still called "New Games," is one of the fastest, most efficient, most thoroughly enjoyable ways to develop the skills and awareness needed to Lead with Fun. It has a lot to do with the nature of the games themselves - open-structured, trust-building, inclusive. And a lot more to do with the people who teach New Games leadership.

Bill Michaelis has been teaching New Games for, what, 30 years? As a professor at San Francisco State University he has instilled the New Games method into the lives of probably thousands of recreation leaders. He is a brilliant teacher. He is my friend. He and a colleague are now giving New Games Leadership Workshops to basically the world.

If you can't make it to a workshop, he and another friend, former Foundation co-director John O'Connel, have written the next best thing - The Game and Playleaders Handbook. It's practical. It's comprehensive. And it's more about business leadership than you'd think.

Slow Food

According to its very own Manifesto, Slow Food is "a movement for the protection of the right to taste."

Slow Food. Get it? Slow, like the opposite of the very kind of food that helped America make the world fat!

More manifestage: "If we wish to enjoy the pleasure which this world can give us, we have to give of our all to strike the right balance of respect and exchange with nature and the environment. This is why we like to define ourselves as ‘eco-gastronomes.’ The fact is that our pleasure cannot be disconnected from the pleasure of others, but it is likewise connected to the equilibrium we manage to preserve (and in many cases revive) with the environment we live in."

Eco-gastronomes. Not such a catchy name. But an idea that is at least as subtle, complex, and full-bodied as a Finnish Kalakukko.

One of the many book projects I have lying in wait for the next available publisher is called "Eating for Fun." It takes the DeepFUN approach to dieting. Which means, of course, that a person on a DeepFUN might not lose weight. But will definitely have fun. A kind of fun that is, well, deep. Satisfying. Deeply satisfying. Which means, as the Slow Food people have so brilliantly described, a pleasure that in not only derived from the food itself, but also from the people you eat with, and places you eat in.

By the way, I found the Finnish Kalakukko by way of yet another Slow Food project. This one called: "Ark of Taste."

Are these guys fun, or what?

The Mezoamerican Ballgame

This reenactment of the "Mezoamerican Ballgame" - also known as "Juego de Pelota" - shows people using only their hips to hit the ball! I wouldn't've believed it possible until I saw it actual re-en-action. What remarkable skill! What a profoundly skill-demanding principle for a hip-based junkly soccer game! What a good reason to wear many, many layers of underpants!

The clip came to us courtesy of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Mint Museum of Art. It is on a site meant for children, which probably explains why it's so fun. It doesn't explain, however, why it is also fun for the adult-labeled amongst us. My guess is that one of the designers had a remarkable understanding of kids and adults and the transcendence of fun.

So we have two noteworthy moments here: one, the fascinating re-creation of an ancient, culture-shaping sport, and two, a paradigm for the design of educational experiences on the Internet.


Belt Loops and Ponies and Sacky Sack Bats

You may or may not recall the all-but-passing mention of the Sacky Sack with Belt Loop. Or perhaps you do recall, and it is I who may or may not. In either event, one can only be remiss at the shortness of the shrift given to this remarkable break through in Sacky Sack envisionment. Sacky Sack with Belt Loop in deed. But why?

Just today I found myself crafting such a Sacky Sack, only not with three sacks, as described in the aforelinked, but with eight. Somehow, I wound up, as it were, with a compactly hefty Sacky Sack bearing a significantly extended loop. And, for one reason as another, as reason goes during such investigations, I found myself with a finger in that loop, twirling the sturdy little sacky with notable force, when suddenly I chose to slam it into another Sacky Sack of the famous Softball-Sized girth. And both behold and lo, said Sacky, when whacked by the aforesaid Sacky Sack with Belt Loop, did launch itself clear out of the door almost to the actual porch.

You may recall my various, but clearly semi-satisfactory soft bat-making attempts, that led to bizarre uses of the Hoseball as well as the seriously questionable Limp Stick. Well, it wasn't until much later and much deeper investigation of the properties of the Sacky Sack with Belt Loop that I discovered the nature of the Length vs Accuracy Phenomenon: the shorter the handle, the easier it is to control.

And suddenly I beheld in my very hand not what I had thought to be the referred-in-passing-to belt-looped Sacky Sack, but what can only be called the veritable inspiration for such soon-to-be-ubiquitous sports as Sacky Sack Croquet, Sack Bat Beach Hockey, and, of course, Ponyless Polo.