In 2012, the Network Architecture Lab1 was invited to participate in the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) “Uneven Growth: Tactical Urbanisms for Expanding Megacities”2 exhibition, curated by Pedro Gadanho and set to open in November of 2014. The exhibition is the third installment in the “Issues in Contemporary Architecture Series,” which includes “Rising Currents,” a contemplation on future sea level rise in New York City, and “Foreclosed,” a study of the architectural responses to the foreclosure crisis. “Uneven Growth” focuses on six megacities–Istanbul, Hong Kong, Lagos, Mumbai, New York, and Rio de Janeiro—to investigate the role of architecture in addressing high degrees of social inequality. The show organized participants into Urban Case Study teams, pairing architects and researchers from each city with a group from abroad.
Network Architecture Lab, an experimental think-tank at the Columbia GSAPP directed by Kazys Varnelis, and MAP Office3 were tasked with examining new architectural possibilities for Hong Kong, and asked to consider a future scenario of Hong Kong in the year 2047. Our immediate response was to question the brief: Can architecture “solve” uneven growth? What are the precedents? Various workshops and arranged marriages around the world presented a situation not unlike the uneven growth we were charged with investigating. Rather than searching for a solution, we were interested in developing an interactive experiment—providing a format that was reflexive, iterative, agile, and adaptive to changing conditions in real time. We decided to be tactical, and produce a machine that would keep hunting until the last possible moment. This machine was a publication, a special issue of the New City Reader, first developed by Kazys Varnelis and Joseph Grima in 2010.
The centerfold of the New City Reader is SYMTACTICS. As a physical board game, SYMTACTICS is at once a highly designed environment with specific protocols and territories, and an analog to the endless search for understanding in contemporary megacities. The creation of SYMTACTICS was itself a lesson in tactical design, a story that echoes the process of participation that unfolded over the course of two years. The iterative nature of game design worked well alongside the tactical imperatives of the exhibition and our international collaboration.
The process of designing a game is necessarily iterative. You are designing a new world–one with its own laws and its own gravity. The properties of a game are only revealed once you enter its space and try to move around. SYMTACTICS first took shape as a simple card game that used photographs from a series of locations in Hong Kong identified by MAP Office. It was our means of adapting to this blind date, taking content from our partner and putting it into a format that leveraged the expertise of our own team.
Once back in New York City, the second version was developed as an effort to digest the visit to Hong Kong from afar. We migrated between physical space and game space to test the theoretical hypotheses put forward by Varnelis and Netlab collaborator Robert Sumrell. The card game allowed us to “construct” new site territories by combining cards with matching entrance and exit points. Once three cards were matched, a “site” was created in which players could complete tactical interventions. An issue that emerged in the development of this system was the idea of “formalization”, the crystallization of tactical interventions for market gain, such as gentrification, which effectively close down certain sites from further tactical development. However simple, the game already began to exhibit the core issues at stake with tactical urbanism.
As the game began to display complexities, it needed to become more spatialized. We needed to design a territory. The third version of the game evolved into a board game that could be played out over a map. By the fourth iteration, we created a pattern of hexagonal tiles to evoke war games played out in the 1980s, which favored these grids for maximal unidirectional movement. As we dug deeper into game design, and the inherent contradictions of designing for tactical urbanism, war became a recurring referent. From Risk to World of Warcraft to Guy Debord’s Le Jeu de la Guerre, war serves as the premise for gaming. War also has a deep roots in urbanism. Even Palladio sketched battle formations, as Guido Beltramini has recently shown4 . And, while recent attention has shifted focus from physical games to their digital counterparts, we stayed staunchly analog, slowly plugging away to create iterations of a physical game while using a workflow more akin to digital design.
According to Jim Dunnigan, pioneer game designer and theorist, SYMTACTICS is a design exercise in “mushware.” Dunnigan was a missile technician who became one of the most prolific war-game designers in the history of the genre. During his time studying history at Columbia University, Dunnigan published “Up against the Wall, Motherfucker”, in the Columbia Spectator. In a simulation of the 1968 campus protests, the board game pitted students against the police. Mushware, a term coined by Dunnigan in the 1990s, refers to the processes that are run in the human brain rather than, say, in the inaccessible recesses of a computer. He coined this term to separate physical war-games from their digital counterparts. Unlike mushware, digital games bury the complex logic of the game inside algorithmic black boxes. Given that SYMTACTICS was an experiment to better understand tactical urbanism, all processes needed to be in plain view. Analog exposes the hidden logic behind the scenes–the simulation–and provides the necessary conditions for an iterative, open-source version of development.
Once SYMTACTICS became a map, the resultant iterative cycle was to play, test, document, and refine. We used the findings from various play-tests and replayed them in a neutral context to see what worked and what didn’t. In this way it became possible to experiment with different mechanics and degrees of complexity, fine tuning the playing experience, and introducing new opportunities for discovery and refinement.
During a workshop organized by MoMA at the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) in Vienna, an “uneven growth meter” was added to the game to represent the constant and growing threat that players would need to combat together—inserting the premise of the exhibition into the very objective of the game. However, at this point the game had become bloated. Its rule set was twenty-two pages long. We had created a monster that exceeded the capacity of mushware, both in complexity and interest. It needed to be tamed, if only to retain its key dynamics.
We conducted “meta” scenarios to simulate various player mentalities across different groups. We inserted different wildcards and perturbations into the game, like a strain of SARS and a “rogue drone” that moved semi-randomly across the board. We oscillated between moves that would advance our design benchmarks and experiments that could introduce mutations to the terrain. The latter revealed hidden contours in the game: the necessity to design places that could provide cover or wormholes to allow instant movement from one location to another.
The fundamental difference between designing a game and designing architecture is precisely this iterative process. Game design produces iterations not just of the design itself but of the entire experience. The process is akin to the methodology of test-driven development (TDD) in computer programming. In a TDD workflow, the developer starts not by designing software but by designing a series of tests that the software must perform according to any number of expectations. Because the software doesn’t exist initially, these tests will always fail. As the system evolves, the software will eventually pass the tests in a verifiable way.
We were able to engage the necessarily fuzzy logic of SYMTACTICS by assigning a series of tests. One of the most important rules in game design is to create something “fun.” However, an accurate hedonometer is hard to come by. This became our ultimate test case, the driving telos of the project. As we broke our experimentation down to sub-tests measuring happiness, our scope extended beyond rules and system, and into the physical design of the apparatus—right down to the dice. In order to tune up the complexity in the game, we had to tune down the friction in the interface. To keep the game moving quickly and to achieve a sustained state of “active entertainment,” we had to design for an intuitive game play.
The most recent version of SYMTACTICS, version 12, is included in the latest New City Reader. Printed in an edition of 30,000 for the exhibition, the game is stamped in time by its means of distribution. The MoMA catalogue operated on a different timeline, going to print while we were still on the eighth version, stamping that iteration into history in archival form. For Dunnigan, “a wargame is a combination of ‘game,’ history, and science. It is a paper time-machine.”5 As the prompt for the game “Uneven Growth” comes to a close, we will continue to iterate. We will continue to develop the science of tactical urbanism through game play, and continue to extract intelligence from our attempts. The present text serves not only as a chronicle of the development of these two archived versions, but is itself open.
To be continued.
- 1. Network Architecture Lab ^
- 2. “Uneven Growth: Tactical Urbanisms for Expanding Megacities” ^
- 3. MAP Office ^
- 4. Guido Beltramini, “Guido Beltramini: Palladio’s Art of War Mellon Lecture” at Canadian Centre for Architecture, October 28, 2011. link ^
- 5. James Dunnigan, Wargames Handbook, Third Edition: How to Play and Design Commercial and Professional Wargames (New York: Writers Club Press), 1 ^
Jochen Hartmann is a hybrid designer/software engineer working at the Spatial Information Design Lab, a research unit of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, where he is currently designing a large scale permanent installation for the Jerome L Greene Science Center in Manhattan. His background encompasses fine art, architecture, software engineering and game design. For the past 4 years, Jochen has also been working with the Network Architecture Lab on various projects.