secret_identity_game.jpgDanah Boyd moderated a panel consisting of Irina Shklovski, Amanda Williams, and Liz Lawley (stepping in for Jane McGonigal, who was home sick with pneumonia) entitled Designing for Global and Local Social Play this afternoon at South by Southwest Interactive. The panel focused on why play is important and how new technology enables us to collapse the boundaries between local and global play.

Danah brought up the idea that the internet allows people from all over the world to talk to each other. However, those people are connecting to each other by using shared ties, be they geographical groups or on a more social level, such as sharing interests. She likes to modify her environment in a way that allows her to have more fun with it. The environment in which one plays can change the way one interacts with others.

The word “play” has multiple meanings – first is the obvious, recreation and fun-time. It can also mean slop or wiggle room. The two meanings are linked, according to Amanda Williams. You can’t have the first without the second. Recreational play requires the flexibility to push boundaries.

She also sees the importance of tangible playthings over virtual. An abacus is a good toy because it is functional, but it can also be used to do anything from making music to scratching backs. Her study of collaborative tangible interfaces was not originally focused on play, but she has learned that human existence is closely tied to play and therefore has ended up studying toys along with other more esoteric items.

Irina Shklovski studies residential mobility, or people moving house from one location to another. Moving is a process of renewal, where people throw away some items and discover others which have been boxed up since the last move. It mixes nostalgia for the old place with discovery of the new. To move requires discovery, on a physical local level, of the new neighborhood. This discovery is good, but meeting new people is universally hard. Play helps people connect as intimate friends in a way that is quicker and more intense than simply chatting.

The environment of World of Warcraft, says Liz Lawley, is a perfect example of how context between “global” and “local” is collapsing. She used to play games in order to escape from friends and family, but now finds that she’s playing online with her children more than she might in physical space. Disconcerting to her is having to deal with real life in terms of play and vice versa – for example, she might get an instant message while at work saying that her son is behaving inappropriately in the guild and could she please come deal with it. On the other hand, she’s also using the game in order to deal with real life, by communicating with her children online while she is out of town. This places the family dynamics into a different context. Her children have grownup avatars, and their characters have an equal social status to hers; this makes the interaction fundamentally different than it is in person.

As might be expected, the panel ended with a game. Each attendee chose a personal secret to tell another. Subsequently all the participants moved around the room and passed off secrets, replacing the one that the last person had told them with the next one they heard. After ten minutes, everyone wrote the last secret they had heard on a green sticker and put it on their backs. This served to create a network of strangers (on a global level) who shared intimacy and first impressions (on a local level). Not only did the exercise go beyond social norms, such as those who embellished the secrets that they heard when they passed them on to others, but it allowed people to discover commonalities – “Hey, my feet hurt, too!” As the panel ended, the audience shuffled out the door with their new secrets stuck to their backs, for all the outside world to see.

On a personal note, everyone at ARGN would like to extend their best wishes to Jane McGonigal for a speedy recovery.