What the heck is Playful Media?

Fantastic question. I’m so glad you asked.

The Short Answer

Playful Media is all objects, spaces, and technology that create, invite, or facilitate a playful experience for its participants.

The Long Answer

First of all, let me explain what I mean by media. One definition of the word refers to our means of mass communication (e.g. radio, newspapers, television, the Internet). Another speaks of the material through which information reaches our senses. When I speak of media I lean toward the latter of these two definitions albeit with something of a twist.

I think of media as a conduit to create or recreate experiences. A printed news story aims to create the experience of local or world events for its readers — in the mind’s eye, as it were. Similarly, novels, movies, and television are forms of media. But so too are video games, software, and architecture in that they all conjure experiences for their audiences. Further, I think of media as participatory. Whether it’s reading words triggering your imagination or physically interacting with a user interface, media implicitly involves you.

When I say Playful Media, then, I’m referring to anything that creates or facilitates a playful experience for its participants. The medium brings about that experience may be board games, toys, jungle gyms, video games, theme parks, etc. (That said, I’m most apt to be thinking and talking in terms of advanced interactive technologies for creating these experiences.)

If we’re talking about play, then we must be careful to distinguish what is meant by playful. Board games and video games, for example, are certainly forms of play. However, they may not necessarily be playful — first person shooters aren’t known for their playfulness. The larger, less explored sorts of playful media are those embodying a sort of unstructured play (e.g. horsing around, pretend / fantasy play, stacking blocks with no specific structure in mind, etc.). How do we create playful, unstructured, emergent experiences with our inherently structured technologies? How do we use technology — but eliminate it as a focal point — so that play and the creativity, learning, and relational intimacy it generates become center stage? If high technology has brought millennia-old game interactions lightyears forward in the form of video games, what can high technology do for “ungames”? These are the sorts of questions I’m most interested in exploring.

background image © bill bertram 2006, cc-by-2.5 — attribution