XXIV.1 January - February 2017
Page: 50
Digital Citation

Wearables to support interdependent play

Katherine Isbister

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How do we create wearable computing that truly augments everyday in-person social interaction? In my research group, we are using playful prototypes to tackle this question. Why are we studying games and play? Playgrounds have long been a place for social pleasures and also for working out conflicts among children through rich social encounters [1]. Play advocates and designers such as Bernie DeKoven have demonstrated that we can engineer social experiences between grownups through play, bringing them closer and encouraging collaboration and connection [2]. DeKoven has an extensive list of “othergames” on his website that are designed to create what he calls “deep fun” [3]. Consider for example the Lap Game: Players form a circle, each turning so they are all facing the same way. Then they take hold of each other’s hips and slowly sit down so that each person is resting on the knees of the person behind them (see Figure 1). Players become physically interdependent as they get into the target shape, requiring both coordination and trust. The activity is designed to move players from independent physical entities to a collective, interdependent set of bodies. It is helpful to use the well-known MDA (mechanics, dynamics, aesthetics) framework from game studies to analyze what is happening [4]. The end aim or aesthetic for this playful activity is to create a feeling of interdependence, happiness, and deep social fun among participants. The mechanics of the activity are the movement from free-standing circle of people to an unbroken ring of people seated upon one another’s laps. The dynamics that arise are laughter, many small adjustments as people lean themselves back, and then collective pleasure and humor when participants see that they’ve succeeded. This activity is an elegant example of design to evoke social connection through collocated play.


There are deep physiological reasons for the aesthetic response of players to these particular game mechanics. Researchers who study human action have shown that inducing close physical coordination can increase compassion, empathy, and social connection [5,6]. And researchers who study interpersonal distance have noted that how close people stand together is a strong indicator of their degree of connection [7,8], so manipulating this distance through game mechanics naturally impacts and can shift the tenor of these connections [9].

How does all of this relate to wearable design and digital games? Increasingly, digital gameplay incorporates physical interaction among people in the same place. Consider for example Pokémon GO, last summer’s breakaway augmented reality game that had people of all ages wandering parks and public spaces looking for collectible creatures with their mobile phones. One of the distinct pleasures of the game was social interaction around Pokéstops and Gyms—noticing other people playing the game and helping one another to progress (or engaging in some friendly competition) [10].

Pokémon GO piggybacked upon the fact that today most people carry smartphones on their person. Smartphones have a host of capabilities (cameras, location and movement detection, the capacity to overlay graphics onto a video stream) that can be leveraged to create such playful collocated social experiences. We are on the cusp of an era in which most people will also likely be using wearable technologies. These technologies, if thoughtfully designed, could powerfully augment collocated social interaction, whether for play or other purposes. But we need to have desirable end-use qualities in mind in order to make the right decisions about the affordances of these devices. Now is the moment to explore directions for best supporting collocated social interactions.

Independent (indie) game developers have been experimenting with playful wearable technologies that can drive interesting in-person social interactions. For example, Kaho Abe’s Hit Me! (Figure 2). Abe built custom wearables—construction helmets with cameras mounted on them, topped with doorbell-style push buttons. Each player tries to literally push the other’s button, resulting in comical and vigorous physical competitions, and creating an entertaining spectacle for those who watch. Hit Me! has been shown in many festivals and was a rousing success in the indie gaming world.

In the case of Hit Me!, the aesthetic goal was to produce a comical and entertaining competition, rather than interdependence. I worked with the game’s creator to explore what it might mean to design interdependence into wearables for social play. Abe and I received funds from Eyebeam, a cultural organization in New York City, as an artist/researcher pair within a project titled Computational Fashion. Our mission was to investigate using costumes as game controllers. Abe designed and built a game called Hotaru, which was driven by two interdependent wearable controllers. She crafted these two wearables using our lab’s 3D printer, soft materials, and embedded Android phones that drove the lights and sound. One player wears a backpack and gloves; the other wears a gauntlet and glove. The first player uses a gesture to “collect” energy into their backpack. The second player watches to see when the backpack is fully illuminated, indicating that it is full of energy. Then the players must join hands to transfer the energy. This causes the lights in the gauntlet on the second player to slowly illuminate. Once the gauntlet is fully illuminated, the second player can raise this hand into the air, causing a firing noise. The backstory for the game is that the two players are the last lightning bugs, fighting off a dark, evil smog with their light. Gathering energy and firing it off clears the smog.

Like Hit Me!, Hotaru has been a success in the indie world—it has appeared at IndieCade and other prestigious festivals. We’ve also shown Hotaru at TEI [11] and at CHI [12]. My part of the collaboration was taking a close look at what worked about Hotaru for players and why, and working to articulate this for designers and researchers. We conducted playtests of the game with many people, during which we collected recordings of play sessions and also asked people afterward about the experience. We compared what people said and did to Abe’s design aims for the project. We found evidence that players truly enjoyed and valued the interdependent interactions that were enabled through the wearables. For example, one player said, “The connected, cooperative energy of playing the game created an isolated moment where working together was the apex of expression. We have now done something together, where holding hands was the only way to connect.”

We see Hotaru as an example of the potential of wearable technology to support collocated social interaction by motivating people to engage in physically interdependent behavior. The wearables (and game mechanics) for Hotaru were custom designed to foster this sort of interdependence. The tank and gauntlet demand close attention from both players to one another, as well as close physical coordination, and holding hands to transfer energy means players must move into one another’s “personal space.” Thinking back to research results about coordinated movement, interpersonal space, and connection, the design of Hotaru‘s wearables encourages positive social benefits such as increased empathy and connection. The mechanics engendered by the wearables lead to interpersonal dynamics that drive a fundamentally interconnected and interdependent aesthetic experience.

My lab group is currently working to extend these insights through building further custom-built wearables to support collocated social play. We’re excited about the potential of these designs to influence future directions of wearables to better support social interaction outside the realm of play, as well. Given current cultural concerns about the isolating impact of individual technologies, it seems vital to consider ways to shape future technology to cultivate playful, engaged, and trusting interaction in everyday life.

back to top  References

1. Butler, C.W. Talk and Social Interaction in the Playground, New edition edition. Routledge, Aldershot, UK; Burlington, VT, 2016.

2. DeKoven, B. The Well-Played Game: A Player’s Philosophy. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2013.

3. DeKoven, B. The OtherGames. DeepFUN website; http://www.deepfun.com/othergames/

4. Hunicke, R., LeBlanc, M., and Zubek, R. MDA: A formal approach to game design and game research. Proc. of AAAI Workshop on Challenges in Games. 2004.

5. Valdesolo, P. and DeSteno, D. Synchrony and the social tuning of compassion. Emotion 11, 2 (2011), 262–266.

6. Marsh, K.L., Richardson, M.J., and Schmidt, R.C. Social connection through joint action and interpersonal coordination. Top. Cogn. Sci. 1, 2 (Apr. 2009), 320–339.

7. Hall, E.T. Proxemics. Curr. Anthropol. 9, 2-3 (1968), 83–108.

8. Knapp, M.L., Hall, J.A., and Horgan, T.G. Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction, 8th edition. Cengage Learning, Boston, MA, 2013.

9. Mueller, F., Stellmach, S. Greenberg, S., Dippon, A., Boll, S., Garner, J., Khot, R., Naseem, A., and Altimira, D. Proxemics play: Understanding proxemics for designing digital play experiences. Proc. of DIS 2014. ACM, New York, 533–542.

10. Isbister, K. Why Pokemon Go became an instant phenomenon. The Conversation. Jul. 15, 2016; http://theconversation.com/why-pokemon-go-became-an-instant-phenomenon-62412

11. Isbister, K. and Abe, K. Costumes as game controllers: An exploration of wearables to suit social play. Proc. of TEI 2015. ACM, New York, 691–696.

12. Abe, K. and Isbister, K. Hotaru: The Lightning Bug Game. Proc. of CHI EA 2016. ACM, New York, 277–280.

back to top  Author

Katherine Isbister (www.katherineinterface.com) is professor of computational media at UC Santa Cruz and part of the core faculty in the Center for Games and Playable Media. Her research is at the intersection of games and HCI. She is author of How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design, from MIT Press. katherine.isbister@ucsc.edu

back to top  Figures

F1Figure 1. Bernie DeKoven’s Lap Game, played here at the DigRA conference in 2011.

F2Figure 2. Kaho Abe’s Hit Me!, in which players try to press the button atop the other’s hard hat.

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2017 ACM, Inc.

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