‘Every human is essentially playful’

Interview with media pioneer Hanne Marckmann

, Elja Looijestijn

The world is changing and the media is changing with it. Makers are using new technology and strategies to communicate their stories to the public. VPRO is a sponsor of this progress, which can most keenly be felt in the fields of technology, media and storytelling. This progress also creates new professions. VPRO Gids presents the forerunners of modern media in a series of interviews.

The second portrait in this series is Hanne Marckmann, playful interaction designer, who works with the future of media on a daily basis. VPRO Gids spoke to her at VPRO Medialab’s Conference for the Curious at STRP Biënnale in Eindhoven, where she was one of the speakers.

How do you describe your work?

‘I am a playful interaction designer. The things I make always have something to do with playful interaction. This could be apps, but also real life games, for example, in which you play a kind of role-play. I am currently working a lot with museums. Nowadays people expect much more than just an exhibition. Museums are looking for new ways to present their content, and games provide the perfect medium.’

Why is it important to encourage people to play?

‘Because it’s fun, that is an important reason. And I believe that playing really does something with your mind. It shows you different ways of doing things, opens up new areas, allows you to discover new behaviour in yourself. Lots of innovation is developed through play. A great deal of scientific research has been carried out into play, with children as well as adults. There is more and more evidence of the importance of play for all kinds of areas within society.

Furthermore, we all have an increasing amount of free time, which goes hand in hand with the emergence of computers and computer games. This in turn has heightened our awareness of the significance of play without computers. I think that very human is essentially playful. Many things in life are a kind of game, only they are not referred to as such. If you go along with the standard behavioural rules of society, you are playing. Take a fancy dress party like Sensation White, for example. It’s like a big game for adults.’

What are your favourite games?

‘I enjoy learning new games, also from a professional viewpoint. I play a lot of board games with my children and also lots of old games on the Playstation, like Zelda. I still have Wordfeud on my phone. I love social games, in which you play together. I also play real life games, which may make you think of elves and such, but there are also other kinds, like psychological scenarios.

I don’t like Monopoly, despite its popularity. You have to wait ages before it’s your turn and it takes a long time to make any progress. If you are far behind you lose all interest, because you can’t win anymore anyway. It’s actually not very well designed.’

How do you see your audience?

‘Without a player there is no game, it’s very simple. So I always try to involve my audience in the developments through extensive testing, in order to see if the players really do what I think they will do. The most difficult thing is to convince them to actually start the game. They are quick to think: I don't have time for this, or I don’t understand it. Once they have started playing, there are plenty of techniques you can use to make sure they keep playing. For example, by regularly showing their progression and by enabling them to undergo social interactions.’

A frequently used word is gamification: the application of gaming principles to other aspects of life, such as traffic or work. What do you think about it?

‘That was indeed a hype for a while. People were voluntarily spending hundreds of hours playing computer games. So the conclusion was: if we make something else in the form of a game, people will also invest a lot of time in it. But it doesn’t work like that. Games are very cleverly built, in order to make sure you want to keep on playing. There are underlying principles to this, concerning design and motivation. If you can earn points by doing your work, for example, it will have a very limited effect. Other principles behind games are then forgotten, such as the feeling that you are getting better at something, or the feeling of autonomy. I think that games are well-designed motivation machines and that these principles can also be applied to other areas. But you cannot automatically say: if it looks like a game, it will be fun.’

'A game includes pieces of a story, but it is the player who ultimately tells the whole story. Games are more like story making machines, not storytellers themselves.'

Hanne Marckmann

Can you tell a story with a game?

‘The relationship between games and stories is an interesting one, and the experts have different opinions about it. I am one of those who says: games are not stories. Games are ways of shaping behaviour and experiences. A game includes pieces of a story, but it is the player who ultimately tells the whole story. Games are more like story making machines, not storytellers themselves. Books and films are much better at telling stories. Stories in games are often clumsy, not very deep. A game is more about the player’s choices than about the story.’

You have made a game together with Arnon Grunberg, Hartenjager. What is it?

‘It is an app in which you correspond with a character from his book Huid en haar. You must try to win her heart by writing letters about subjects she is interested in. She also writes notes back and you can see on a gauge how much she loves you. I devised the concept together with Arnon Grunberg. He wanted to do something with letters in the literary form, and with love and dating. So we developed a kind of counterpart to Tinder. Very substantive. It will be available soon.’

Hartenjager is available to download from 12 June via hartenjager.nl