Designing Interactive Installations to Support Open-Ended Play Experiences in Adulthood
Hello people of the internet, my name is Erin and I am a PhD researcher with iGGi (Intelligent Games and Games Intelligence) at the University of York. My research explores the design of interactive installations to support playful experiences in adulthood, inspired by existing research in interactive technologies, video games and open-ended play initiatives for children. This blog post will detail my experience in reaching my research topic, why I think it’s important, and my plans moving forward with it. Happy reading!
Before I was a PhD student, I was a music teacher in the London borough of Newham. While it wasn’t the job that I wanted to do forever, I do credit it for inspiring what would become my PhD research. I worked on an initiative named Invitations to Play, which encouraged a more free-form approach to music education in the EYFS (Early Years Foundation Settings), swapping out the teaching of nursery rhymes that give children little access to creativity in music, for more experimental and exploratory approaches to music-making. These free-form approaches, which included child-initiated songwriting, free exploration around certain groups of instruments and movement to recorded music, had fantastic effects on the children and allowed me to see the benefit of these initiatives first-hand. There has been an abundance of research showing the benefits of open-ended play in childhood but seeing it in action was something really inspiring. I began to think about these fantastic initiatives for youth and it led me to think about the lack of play provisions for adults. Sure, video games exist, but free form activities in which adults have the agency to create freely for the purpose of pleasure without the need for a predefined skill, are rare.
In the other half of my life, which always felt slightly disjointed from my teaching work, I was a freelance artist, specialising in interactive installations and experimental music. By this time, I had already shown work at various festivals and galleries and had written music and performed with a number of groups, including a mental health themed burlesque and cabaret group Invisible Cabaret, and my wonderful experimental music ensemble, SubPhonics. I started to think about how I could combine the experiences from the Invitations to Play initiative and embed these in my creative practice to support playful interactions and creative expression for adult
In thinking about how I would implement these same concepts in my artwork, I looked towards existing installations and receptions of these works in the public eye. I found, as I had previously suspected, that there was a decent amount of criticism for installations being vapid in their interaction methods, using one-to-one mapping to create works that looked cool, but didn’t really do much.
Additionally, interactive installations have yet to be fully accepted in cultural institutions alongside practices such as sculpture and painting, with the medium being ostracised for its frequent use in media and advertising campaigns, with companies monopolising on their frequent use of bright visual systems and large screens as shareable social media advertising fodder.
Saying that, in my opinion, interactive installations are a fantastic medium to support playful experiences, thanks to their integral elements of physicality, social interactions within a space, and interactions with interfaces that can engage audience members’ entire bodies instead of just their fingers and hands. In my past practice, and moving forward with my research, one-to-one mapping and commercialisation are two things I have tried and want to continually avoid as much as possible. It is my ethos to create works that generate meaningful experiences, and are not used to generate profit for companies, but to benefit the public and communities in which they are shown.
In order to generate meaningful and playful experiences, I have been exploring the use of open-ended systems, allowing audience members to really get creative with the installations. For example, in one piece shown at Simple Things Festival, audience members were prompted to type a word into a laptop, which generated a haiku based on recent tweets including that word. The word was also used to download four related sound files and gifs, which the audience members could manipulate using intuitive interfaces in the space to create their own audio-visual artwork. It was an amazing experience watching people play for hours in some cases with the work and the feedback that I received was that the space allowed for audience members to create and play with agency, but not so much agency that the need for a particular skill got in the way.
Moving forwards, I am particularly interested in the ideas of deeper text generation, and the building of intuitive musical interfaces to allow people to explore music and poetry in collaboration with playful technologies. In my own practice, I have been using GPT-3 to write poetry in collaboration with the machine and have found it a useful tool in redefining my own ideas and flow in written works, and aim to build a poetry generation tool to implement into spatial installations in the coming year.
For musical expression, I plan to embed the works of my experimental ensemble SubPhonics (you can listen to us here!), into interactive installations which feature built instruments that don’t require any musical ability to play, to allow players to explore creatively with music.