Playful Reflections (pt.2): Future Design Ideas

This is part 2 of my personal reflection on the DC Storytelling System and the AU Humanities Truck. If you have not read part 1 about my insights on designing playful community experiences, you can do so here.

In my previous post, I shared some of my insights from working on the DC Storytelling System. Now I want to share some of our playful ideas that build on our previous experience and take advantage of the affordances of Hive Mechanic, the AU Humanities Truck, and our existing system. Some of these ideas are ones we are working on now or planning to implement in the future, while others could serve as inspiration for others who want to pursue similar playful projects.

Concept 1: Oral History Audio Tour

Our current hotline does a pretty good job sharing interesting audio stories, but could be more effective at tying the stories to physical locations. Thankfully, the Humanities Truck provides a great anchor to embed the stories within their communities of origin. We could park the Humanities Truck in a central location in the community and use it as a starting point to direct participants to notable places in the area. When participants arrived at those locations, they could call/text the hotline and hear original recordings about those locations.

Our postcard map for the Adams Morgan Day Scavenger Hunt, as well as a sample historical image sent by the system.
Photo credit: Benjamin Stokes

This is similar to what we’ve done before with the Adams Morgan Day Scavenger Hunt, except it takes full advantage of the audio capabilities of Hive Mechanic. Alternatively, you could also use a platform like ARIS to help strengthen the connection between story and place. If participants ever get lost, or if they want to learn more, they could return to the Humanities Truck and expert guides could provide them with more information. Multiple audio tours could be created for multiple communities across DC, and the Humanities Truck could drive to those various locations to help initiate and facilitate their interactive audio tours.

Concept 2: Community Photo Sharing

Recently I worked on a project in collaboration with the Playful City Lab and El Studio called Alley Hoppin’. Alley Hoppin’ is an exhibition designed to change the way we think about alleyways and showcase interesting ways that alleys are being used in DC. One of the notable features of the exhibition is its interactive alley collage. Participants take photographs of their alleys on their phones and text them in to a system we built in Hive Mechanic. That photo is then automatically printed out from a wireless printer and then added to the growing physical collage of DC alleyways.

Our wireless printer from the Alley Hoppin’ exhibition set to automatically print out user-submitted photos of alleyways.
Photo credit: Benjamin Stokes

We could easily implement a similar system designed specifically for the Humanities Truck. During public events featuring the truck, we could encourage participants to share photos with us that fit a given theme. As the photos are texted in, we could print them out automatically using a wireless printer connected to the Humanities Truck’s wi-fi. Once printed, we could then mount the photos (either on the inside or the outside of the truck) so that everyone could see the collage we’ve created together.

Concept 3: Hello Humanities Truck

Similar to the existing project Hello Lamp Post and our current “Talk to a Statue” project, what if people could strike up a conversation with the Humanities Truck itself? Using a tool like Hive Mechanic, we could create an interactive chat bot using SMS. Players could send text messages to the Humanities Truck (possibly initialized with the phrase “Hello Humanities Truck”), and then have a conversation with it. We could give the truck a personality (i.e. maybe it’s friendly? Funny? Sarcastic?), use it as a way to share content (such as by sending pictures, videos, audio files, or links through text messages), or more use it to share more information about the truck and its ongoing projects.

Concept 4: Hive Mechanic Game Jam

During Global Game Jam 2020, the Playful City Lab hosted a short jam session focused on building games in Hive Mechanic. While this was a fun and informative experience, it showed us that there is plenty of room to expand it into a full event. What if we invited coders, hackers, designers, and community organizers to come together and create playful community experiences in Hive Mechanic? We could either focus the jam on a specific problem or theme (e.g. what games could we design for the Humanities Truck?) or leave it open for people to focus on their own local communities.

Concept 5: Arcade Mounts

Our mounts have already gone through numerous iterations to become more professional and engaging. But what if they were even more playful? Currently our team is experimenting adding various new ways to interact with the mounts beyond just the phones. Some of the ideas we are testing include using embedded touch screens, arcade buttons using Makey Makey, interactive LEDs, and raspberry pis. This could offer many more ways to create games that could utilize our mounts…

Concept 6: Arcade Truck

…But why stop at just making the mounts more interactive? What if we turned the Humanities Truck itself into a game controller?!? We could set up buttons on the inside and the outside of the truck and then use the interior and exterior screens to display feedback and instructions. Maybe players inside the truck have to relay information to players outside the truck so that they can push the correct buttons on the exterior of the truck? Maybe the truck could serve as a command center that sends instructions out to players within the community using Hive Mechanic? By changing or creating new ways to interact and play, we can create a wide variety of novel games that capitalize on the affordances of the Humanities Truck.

This post was contributed by Mitchell Loewen, a Game Design graduate student at American University, with feedback from the team at The Playful City Lab.

Playful Reflections (pt.1): Personal Insights

Over the past year, I’ve been iterating on the interactivity of the DC Storytelling System. Primarily, I’ve worked on updating the hotline, deploying installations at DC Public Libraries, and sharing our system at a variety of community events with the AU Humanities Truck (such as Adams Morgan Day, DCPS Development Day, and Busboys & Poets’ Saving DC’s History & Culture). I’ve learned a lot from working on these projects, and I want to share some of my personal insights on designing playful community experiences. While this won’t be an exhaustive list of all of our lessons and findings, I hope that my insights are helpful to others who want to create their own playful experiences.

Insight 1: Use physical objects and staging to spark curiosity

When people initially encounter our system at events featuring the Humanities Truck or our desk payphone, their first question is often “what is this?” While at first blush this question might seem negative, it’s precisely the question you want to provoke. Curiosity can be powerful, especially when it drives us to explore and engage with things we don’t understand. So when someone asks “what is this?”, we see it as a solid signal that they are willing to engage.

Our mobile payphone (using a cellular data plan) at a Chinatown event for the A Right to the City exhibition
Photo credit: Benjamin Stokes

One way I’ve found to consistently pique curiosity is by using physical objects in unexpected places. Payphones today are becoming rare, so seeing one at an event immediately makes people wonder why it’s there. Similarly, a large, bright red truck parked in an unusual locations (i.e., the AU Humanities Truck) makes people want to know what’s inside. Both of these are examples of how staging physical objects in unusual contexts can help attract people to your system that normally may have been overlooked.

Insight 2: Continuous systems need a sense of urgency

The DC Storytelling System was intentionally designed to be as accessible as possible. It can be accessed in person from the “A Right to the City” exhibition at the Anacostia Community Museum, and at several installations at DC Public Libraries, or from anywhere in the world using your personal mobile device. But while the system is technically accessible from anywhere at any time, a significant proportion of our recordings have specifically come from community events. This is due in part to the number of people at these events, but I also think it’s at least partially due to the urgency and interpersonal connection that events can bring.

A collection of some of the locations where you can access our system.
Photo credits: Benjamin Stokes

Technically speaking, our system can be accessible long after an event is complete. For some people, calling later on their own phone might be much more convenient. But when people feel like they can do something at any time, many will put it off and forget about it. But because the event itself is only happening for a limited time, people feel a sense of urgency to use the system immediately. This sense of urgency can be extremely effective at boosting engagement for a continuous system.

Insight 3: You always need to compete for attention

Just because you have a booth or a tent at a community event does not mean people are going to pay attention to you. Often there will be many other exciting things happening at the same time that are also fighting for attention. If you want people to notice you, you’ll need something that helps you stand out. For us this was often the Humanities Truck, but as mentioned before anything that sparks curiosity can be very effective for this.

However, it’s very important to remember that the fight for attention never ends. Even after you’ve managed to convince someone to try your system, you need to hook them and keep them engaged. Otherwise, they’ll just move on to something else that feels more exciting. Through repeated iteration we’ve managed to make our system more engaging in a few ways:

  • Polished Mounts: Our mounts have gone through numerous iterations to look more visually appealing and professional. This is especially helpful for initially drawing people in.
  • Radio-Style Introduction: We’ve stitched together clips from various stories on the hotline and put it as the first thing you hear when you pick up the phone. This does a much better job of setting the stage and hooking the audience than immediately launching into a dry navigation menu.
  • Random User-Submitted Stories: We’re curated a selection of user-submitted stories and hosted them on the hotline for people to listen to. The user-submitted story you get to listen to is random so that there’s a reason to return to the hotline multiple times.

We’re still trying out new ideas for how to make our system more engaging (some of those ideas are outlined in part 2), but these are a few tested ideas you could try out in your own playful systems.

Insight 4: Your system doesn’t exist in a vacuum

Sometimes it’s easy to think that your system is working in a vacuum. But often, your system exists at the intersection of several other community partners and projects that are working towards similar goals. If you don’t reach out to these potential collaborators, you could be missing out on opportunities to enrich and inspire each other.

One of our proudest inspirations to come out our collaboration is the Brookland Oral History Project. Created by the Brookland Civic Association and students of Brookland Middle School, it is a collective, inter-generational conversation between youth and elders in the Brookland community to break barriers and build better collaboration. It is intended to document and share Brookland’s community stories of history and civic engagement. The people behind this project were directly inspired by our project after Woodridge Library’s Eric White and the President of the Brookland Civic Association Dan Schramm visited our satellite exhibit at the library. Dan recorded an excellent story on the phone. We were thrilled to see how the project then evolved with the students at Brookland Middle School with Smithsonian Chief Curator Samir Meghelli to learn more about oral history, including a visit to the library. The AU Humanities Truck was going to be the perfect platform for the students to share their work and engage the public at Porch Fest 2020.

Unfortunately, due to the situation with COVID-19, the project’s community debut had to be delayed. But we are so excited to see how this project has grown and can’t wait for them to show off their work.

This was part 1 of my personal reflection on the DC Storytelling System and the AU Humanities Truck. If you want to read part 2 about our future design plans, you can do so here.

This post was contributed by Mitchell Loewen, a Game Design graduate student at American University, with feedback from the team at The Playful City Lab.

Save the Date! Adams Morgan Day 2019 (Sept. 8, 12-6pm)

The AU Humanities Truck last year at Adams Morgan Day. (Photo credit: Playful City Lab)

We will be returning to Adams Morgan Day for a second year to anchor the “Community History” section of the Festival with the Humanities Truck, an experimental recording and exhibition space on wheels. The truck will feature stories about historic Adams Morgan from the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum’s “A Right to the City” exhibition, in partnership with the DC Public Library.

We will be featuring several interactive and digital elements of our DC Storytelling System, including a raffle that sends historic photos of Adams Morgan from the event. In addition to everything happening around the truck, we plan to station a couple of our “Classic Phones” at select local businesses for the day so that more community members will be able to participate in the storytelling system.

For the history section, DC Public Library is sponsoring the performance stage of music and dance with an international flair reflective of the diversity of the neighborhood. Stop by the library booth to get a library card, check out books, and learn about neighborhood history resources in Washingtoniana!

This community history section will be at the intersection of 18th and Belmont Streets NW from noon-6pm on September 8, 2019.

For general information on Adams Morgan Day, visit

Here is the official press release from the event organizers:

Continue reading Save the Date! Adams Morgan Day 2019 (Sept. 8, 12-6pm)

Reflecting on our event in Adams Morgan: Connecting neighbors to their history

By Olivia Williams, PhD student at American University in the School of Communication

The second weekend of September 2018 saw a throng of people excitedly visiting the Adams Morgan Day event in that culturally diverse and artistic area of Washington D.C. Even the rain couldn’t dampen spirits as families, couples, friends and visitors to the city, wandered from stall to stall and booth to booth.

The Humanities Truck and visitors to the neighbourhood on Adams Morgan Day 2018. Credit Benjamin Stokes

Musicians, artists, poets, chefs, jewelers, dancers, creators of all varieties lined the main street, and there was a celebratory atmosphere which epitomized the well-known creative ‘AdMo’ community. Our Humanities Truck caught the attention of many passersby and the promise of a walk down AdMo memory lane inside encouraged visitors to step inside! The Humanities Truck is one node of a larger project funded by the Smithsonian: a storytelling system that brings the exhibit ‘A Right to the City’ back onto the streets, as  well as recruiting voices from within the community. (See our vision.)

Two Adams Morgan Day visitors step inside the Humanities Truck to look at Nancy Shia’s photographs. Credit Humanities Truck, Flickr

The project combines the digital and the physical to connect stories across places and people. In documenting the project and studying its impact, I began by filming voxpops and interviews with several of the project partners who have successfully brought insights, creativity, energy and knowledge to the projects surrounding the event. Dan Kerr, Director of the Public History program at American University and instigator of the Humanities Truck commented that he hoped the design of the Truck would create a place for community documentation and a community exhibition space, which it certainly did during ADMo Day!

Nancy Shia, Photographer & Activist. Image credit: Olivia Williams

On this occasion, the Truck was used in a variety of ways and visitors to AdMo Day enjoyed watching a slideshow of photographs on a flatscreen embedded into the side of the Truck, musicians performing on the adjacent people’s stage using the truck’s power sockets to electrify instruments and vocals over the speakers and to showcase the photography of Nancy Shia, a local activist and artist who has photographed the Adams Morgan Day Festival since it began in 1978. When I interviewed her she was quick to highlight what doing this kind of work has taught her ‘to be respectful of everyone, regardless of where they came from and who they are’, and she’s noticed a particular interest in her photographs of late as people become more interested in trying to understand how communities evolve and what community means to people.

Michele Casto from the D.C. Public Library. Credit Olivia Williams

Project partners were keen to talk about their motivations for getting involved and share observations from the event itself. Michele Casto from the D.C. Public Library discussed how much change there has been to Adams Morgan in recent decades and yet how, compared with other neighbourhoods, there is so much that has stayed the same and how this balance of old and new allows continuity with the past to remain.

Dr. Samir Meghelli, Chief Curator at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum in Washington D.C. Credit Olivia Williams

Dr. Samir Meghelli, Chief Curator at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, D.C., stated how excited he was to continue the work they’d done at the community museum. In tandem with the community, the museum had been able to document much of the community’s history over the past seven decades showing the energy of the activists living in the neighbourhood and how the community had changes and stayed the same.  With AdMo Day unfolding in front of him, Dr. Meghelli was very pleased to be able to play a role in bringing the stories back out into the streets, in honour of the rich and incredible history of the neighbourhood.