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Interview with Scott Garner

As part of our research project for the King’s College London Arts and Humanities Festival, we’ve been interviewing different curators, designers, artists and architects about playful work for public space. Our first interview was with Scott Garner, an artist with a fascinating and wide-ranging practice whose work tends to the interactive and playful – sometimes purely digital, sometimes physical as well.

We started by asking him about his installation Reach, a beautiful stylised sky with moon and stars – where you can make noises by touching the moon and a star at the same time.

US: I was interested in Reach in particular (which seems like such a gorgeous piece). In the documentation online, it doesn’t seem like there’s visible instructions – is that the case? If so I’d love to hear about whether you had to do anything to encourage people to engage with it, how they understand that it’s touchable and what they can do to get it to respond, etc. Is it just the dotted lines, and people work it out from there?

SCOTT: Reach was created for the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, an environment where kids generally know they’re allowed to run around and touch everything. Part of the challenge, however, was managing different levels of engagement. I wanted to accommodate both the impatient kids running through the space and banging on everything, as well as more thoughtful children that wanted to puzzle out how something worked in a deeper way. I also wanted Reach to work at different scales—from a single child up to a group of twenty school children.

One Easy Step: Research Phase

Are people more likely to hop along a red hopscotch course, or a blue one?

Would they prefer to follow a straight set of footprints or one with a big loop-the-loop?

If you put a telescope on a swivelling stand, how many people will stop to peer through it? If you stick an arrow to the ground, will people look to see what it’s pointing at? If they do look, how many of them will stop and follow it?

Matheson Marcault is really interested in cultivating play in public space – but we don’t often get a chance to dig into why some interventions work and others don’t, to watch how people behave in response to different installations and see how tiny changes affect their participation. So we’re really excited to be working on a research project that starts to investigate exactly this: what minimal interventions can really make people play in public space? What subtle changes can increase or decrease the level of their engagement?

We’re doing this at King’s College London, as research for One Easy Step, an installation we’ll be making for the upcoming Arts and Humanities Festival in October.

We’ll be trying out different theories and different super-simple installations in the Quad at the Strand campus for the rest of the month, and watching and writing down exactly what happens each time we change something, add something new, take something away. And then we’ll be writing up everything we find out, and creating a report to share the things we’ve found out.

So far we’ve found out strange little things like:

    • 95% of the people who play are in pairs or groups. Usually the whole group doesn’t play – it’s just one person – but that one person won’t play if they’re on their own.
    • People on their own will, however, do a weird half-play walk – following the line of a hopscotch course but not jumping, for example, or stepping firmly and deliberately in the squares in a way that could be coincidence, but clearly isn’t.
    • The same hopping-and-jumping course laid out as hopscotch boxes or as footprint shapes gets many, many more people engaging with the hopscotch than the footprints.
    • Nobody cares what colour a trail of footprints is – except for smaller kids, who really really do.

…and as we continue to change the setup we hope to find out a lot more.

Alongside our practical research, we’re talking to playground designers, installation artists, curators, architects and other people with an interest in the nitty-gritty of playful public space – finding out what they’ve discovered about getting people to play – and putting some of those interviews online. We’ll also be doing a quick survey of the academic literature in this area – there’s a lot out there, but for practitioners it’s often inaccessible (either literally or metaphorically).

We’ll be summarising everything we find out through the process – interviews, reading and watching from our sinister observation tower – into a report at the end. And we’ll be trying our best to make the things we discover useful not just for us but for other people making playful interventions and installations in public space – so if you have a project that you’ve collected interesting stats on, or observations that you’ve written down or even just noticed, and you like to share them, do please drop us a line.

Talks, Workshops and Consultancy

We speak at events, run workshops, and consult on playful projects.

Our workshops can introduce the essentials of game design, get people experimenting with physical game design, help participants understand how to evaluate game ideas and commission games, or address the processes of developing games through iterative playtesting. We also develop and run custom workshops, including a workshop for Historic Royal Palaces on understanding the potential for narrative physical games, a workshop for Discover Story Centre around the role game design can play in encouraging play and storytelling, and workshops for young people at NFTS and Wellcome Collection.

We consult on other people’s projects, whether that means helping to formulate a brief, working on game design and writing across a project’s lifespan, providing feedback and advice on an active project or helping to provide a wider context for a games project. This has recently included working with Chromatrope on a prototype for a digital game for the BBC, and for Sesame Workshop on design for physical games with learning outcomes.

We often speak at events, dealing in particular with physical play and site-specific game design. We’ve spoken at the V&A, Digital Week Bordeaux, Nordic Game, Videobrains, Digital Shoreditch, Nicer Tuesdays, GDC, Playful, Boring and many other events.