Game on!

December 29, 2010

– interview with game designer Ola Janson (OJ) by Björn Ehrlemark (BE) from CONDITIONS

“A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.”

BE: Can you consider architectural competitions to be games?

OJ: There are lots of definitions of games, with not one being all-encompassing or universally recognized. But many games of course include an element of competition. In a design competition, a problem is presented to you and you are, as a competitor, autonomous in solving it. That freedom and a reward at the end is something lots of games include as well. If we remove the autonomy to do what you like, it is often considered as not being a game at all. If we, on the other hand, remove the reward, that’s another story. More and more game systems actually tend to exclude the reward to some degree. Just look at World of Warcraft: it’s not about winning, it’s a much more complex social phenomena than that. So the short answer is: “Yes, [an architecture competition] can be observed as such.”

BE: Are there examples of other situations that share some similarities with design competitions that architectural competitions could learn from?

OJ: We talked earlier today about a website for crowd funding. You put out an idea, present it, and let the general public show their interest with how much they’re willing to spend on it to be realised. If the idea, before a set date, attracts a certain amount of money, it gets the funding. The mechanisms are very clear; there’s measurability, and maybe not necessarily a singled winner, but every idea that draws enough attention becomes a winner. The world becomes the jury. We can look at several contemporary competition formats and see that we have – thanks to, well, “Internet” in general terms – the theoretical possibility to reach everyone with a relevant opinion. The effects of having a small jury, as in the case of a traditional architectural competitions, is, to be frank, more of the elitist way of thinking in comparison.

BE: But since the main “mechanism” in the game of architectural competitions is the actions and decisions of the jury, the main aspect shaping that system would then be the composition of the jury, regardless of its size?

OJ: Exactly. And when that’s done you have very limited possibilities of affecting the outcome. If you, for example, know who the jury is, I assume it would be considered as cheating to, half-way through the project, invite the jury to see what they think. On the other hand, that would have been considered professional if it would’ve been a regular client. I was told never to present a sketch to a client when I started working in the advertising business. But that’s 1970’s thinking! Move in with the client! Start working with the client sitting in your lap! From that perspective, the word “cheating” should be thrown in the garbage – if the purpose of the competition is to deliver as good an outcome as possible.

BE: So what would your advice be to the creators of architectural competitions?

OJ: [starts writing on the whiteboard] Look here; this is my favorite definition of a game:

“A game is a system of players, involved in an artificial conflict which leads to a quantifiable outcome.”

There are a few powerful words at work here. A “system” means that there is a set of rules to follow – number of players, what they’re allowed to do, etc. It’s a point included in all game definitions. In a game we submit ourselves to a set of limitations. “Players” is also always included. “An artificial conflict”, that is, you pretend to be opponents. You can even say that when the conflict moves from being artificial and turns into a real conflict, the game is dissolved. It does not have to be a conflict between players. It can be like Tetris, where I don’t play against someone, but against the conditions and the procedures of the game. It’s a conflict in itself, and it’s the same thing with the competition.

And then we have “quantifiable outcome”. It’s possible to determine something. Games are great at measuring performance, and it’s the system that does it. Was it a goal or not? We know, because we drew a line between two goal posts and the ball passed it. You don’t need a jury to decide whether it’s “checkmate” or not, it just is. And if someone disagrees, well, then we’re not playing the same game. If you remove that systemic element, and say that it’s up to a jury to agree, according to some criteria that we do not know, then… it might be a game – but it’s not a very good game.

If I would design an architectural competition based on this game definition, I would present a number of challenges, or limitations. The most common, I assume, is regarding what site is concerned. The time you have at your disposal is another one of the challenges, and finally, “resources”. A limitation in time and resources; what’s that? It’s the definition of a “project”. With unlimited time and money, there is no project.

Then here comes the tricky part: in a game, and also in a project, you want to be able to answer the question, “How am I doing?” In a game you can say, “I have fifty thousand points and two bonus lives – it’s looking good”. You have quantifiable data to lead you to an answer. And in a good project you can say, “I have 25% left of the project, and 50 % left of the time – it’s looking good”.

BE: Then an integral part of the project, or game, must be to evaluate your own preconditions?

OJ: Yes, and as soon we start talking about language and quantification, it gets hard. Is this nice? Does it feel good? Is it working well? Is it want they want? For some reason, artists have been put on one end of an imaginary scale, and engineers at the other. They very much want to find the quantifiable and find a formula for quality. While the guys at the other end says “The moment we try to define it, it ceases to be true.” That would never be accepted in a game context. The game leans towards the engineering side of the scale, where you can make a “perfect strike”.)

BE: So the big question here is the “quantifiable outcome”. In one way, it could be considered a way of avoiding a biased opinion of a jury or the human error, but you could also argue that if you know what criteria to set up, what questions to ask, you already know the answer. So are game systems applicable, or even suitable, for situations where you’re looking for “questions not yet asked”?

OJ: I’m very interested in something called agile methodology, which are project methods used in developing game designs and software. But it’s also moving more and more into other fields. I’m actually working with an architect at the moment on how agile methods could be used in architectural contexts. It’s all about being very receptive to changes during a project. For the architect it would mean working much closer to the client. And why I mention it is because of the terms “quality” and the term “delivery”. You try to keep the artistic approach, and at the same time pinpoint when something is done, when it is good, when it is acceptable. And that forces you to talk about the notion of quality, long before anything is finished.

If it would’ve been simple, it wouldn’t have been the subject of a competition in the first place, right? But we’re faced with a reality today where both customers and service providers are talking about solutions and never defining problems. That’s why we always end up inside that boring box all the time. You don’t do that in games, you don’t tell people how to always win – that game wouldn’t be any fun.

To translate that into the architectural competition, I would put up a number of criteria, that are indeed hard to solve, but are tied to the user.

BE: But it’s the occasions when there’s a conflict between one or the other, where you have to choose; that is the core of the issue here. That’s why we have the jury there; because the human brain is the most advanced thing we have available to solve those conflicts. Since, in one proposal one criterion is more relevant, while in another a different criterion is more important, due to the nature of the proposal itself. So the question is: are there examples of games or game mechanism that take that in consideration?

OJ: Yes, But if it’s between a game system and a jury then, well, game systems are awfully bad at making subtle judgements. And they’re awfully bad at taking non-measurable stuff into consideration, and they’re extremely bad at acknowledging people´s feelings. But the concept of a jury introduces the risk of a situation where the competitors and the jury are part of the same social context and social habitat. There is a risk of introverted feedback loops where you award what you yourself consider to be “fresh”, and thereby create a fantasy world. But it’s the same thing with letting competitors judge other competitors. They might not award the best result, but the best competition entry in the closed environment of the competition. So I guess you have to ask yourself, why is that stupid?

So let’s say we have a system where the jury is the problem. We can then remove the jury by introducing another kind of evaluation system. The important thing is that it is people doing the evaluation. We talked earlier about crowd funding. If, for example, every participant would vote for the other proposals, you’d then make benefit of a different kind of competence and knowledge.

BE: For this issue of Conditions we invited architects to design, not a building or a space, but a competition. How do you think the outcome would have differed if we would’ve asked game designers instead?

OJ: Game designers would not have focused on the result, but the activities. What are you doing while you’re competing? Personally, I would’ve divided it into smaller phases in which you can identify who’s in the lead, who’s second, who’s third. It doesn’t really matter if there’s a jury or not, but I would prefer if there was a feeling of continuous progress throughout the competition.

Say that you end up with a thousand proposals. Then you’re in a situation where the jury can’t even say they look forward to going to work. It’s an impossible undertaking. I would prefer a system where you screen out competitors early if they don’t live up to the criteria. You could even evaluate more general things before you reach the final level, which I assume would be the design of the building itself.

Looking to games, there’s also the motivation aspect. How do you know you’re good at what you’re doing? In a game it’s simple – you can go back and play it again and show a better result; there’s an inherent “replayability”.

Our parent’s generation grew up in a society where external factors were the only motivators: rewards, pay-raises, etc. According to motivation research, nowadays we are driven to a larger and larger degree by internal motivators, where greater importance is placed on purpose, mastery and autonomy. And those aspects are very clear in all games. If you have no measurability of the outcome, whatsoever, the motivation disappears. Why compete? You don’t even know if what you’re doing is any good? You must therefore have the vocabulary to talk about quality and methods.

BE: In a game system, you assume it is the award the game offers that you’re after. But you might as well participate in a game that is seemingly meaningless to reach something else, for example, the publicity you get for winning. How do you deal with that?

OJ: Then you’re observing the social aspects of the competitions, you have to separate the two. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s fancy villa has really nothing to do with football, but with the social context in which you find the game. If you look at what’s going on inside the frame, when you say “the game is on”, you find another central keyword: meaningful decisions. If you, as a player, don’t have the possibility to make meaningful choices, you will most probably stop playing. A competition that would be based on designing a building anywhere, with unlimited time at your disposal and endless resources, wouldn’t be meaningful. Total freedom creates meaninglessness – the decisions would simply be too many. And the same thing goes for the opposite; too few choices create meaninglessness as well.

To evaluate the quality of the competition is very much about looking at what happens along the way, but of course also at what happens when we reach the goal. As a game designer, I need to focus on both. Say that you design an architectural competition where you make sure that the competitors, through the system and competition format you created, would be able to go back and do the exact same thing all over again, with the same fellow competitors. In the end, they would not only feel that they learned something and improved, but had at least as much fun as they did the first time as well. Can you imagine that?

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