Amsterdam / Picnic ‘07 Conference

Monday, October 1, 2007

It’s night. Not late. About 10pm local time. I’m back at the apartment by myself. Christin left this morning. I’m leaving Amsterdam tomorrow morning.

It’s been good. Kind of exhausting. Yesterday was really the first day I’ve had in a while to just goof off. And the only sunny day we’ve had out here. Christin and I spent a lazy early morning and early afternoon around the apartment (watching lots of BBC World — the English channels we get are BBC World and MTV, uh, Europe (I guess), which is sort of like having a cupboard full of nothing but raw potatoes and blow). Anyway, we lingered about and then took a slow, meandering walk down to Centraal Station to rent a bike for me. She had rented once pretty much the entire week, but since I had been at Picnic most of the time, I hadn’t really needed one. Turned out quite nice. We got the bike around 5pm and cruised west out from Centraal Station down to Westerpark and Westergasfabriek (where Picnic had been held) and then just straight west along Haarlemerweg, a big highway that connects Amsterdam to, well, Haarlem. We didn’t get to Haarlem, but we did get far. About halfway to the North Sea, I estimate. It’s all very flat, so it’s quite easy to go long distances, even on a zero-gear bike like mine. We biked out about an hour. Got to see one of those tall, modern generator windmills up close — I thought that was cool. Otherwise that area is kind of a mix of scrubby natural areas with the occasional patches of trees and large, new industrial complexes scattered about. Plenty more spindly white windmills and the occasional smoke stack. And a constant rumble of aircraft flying, I guess, in and out of Schiphol. An historical marker we passed showed a map of the area from back several hundred years ago. Back then we would’ve been biking right along the coastline, more or less. (See here.) Today it’s landlocked. All below sea level, as well, I imagine.

After the bike ride we stopped in a small bar in the Jordaan district to refresh with coffee and some food and then caught our reservation for a canal cruise at 9pm. Pretty nice. They give us all the wine we could drink and we spend a couple of hours zipping around the various navigable canals in a dimly-lit boat with a bunch of people while our tour guide, a Polish guy who has lived in the Netherlands for nine years and appears to speak very fluent Dutch, English, German, French, and (I suppose) Polish. Whoa. He pointed out the usual sights and, I mean, you know how tourist guide things go — he had plenty of little tales about this or that location and answered questions about Amsterdam. I’ve been here a few times, so I kind of get the gist of it, but I did have a new experience in that we spent a good amount of time cruising out behind Centraal Station, in the wide waterway (IJhaven) that separates main Amsterdam from North (“Noord”) Amsterdam. My perception of Amsterdam (and most tourists’, I’m sure) is that there’s a kind of north wall on the city at Centraal. You can see stuff back there, but it’s kind of industrial and new and functional in a sort of non-interesting way. Like Amsterdam’s kitchen, or something. Or Amsterdam’s Jersey (as I described it to Christin). But there’s some neat stuff up there. For one, North Amsterdam seems like a relaxed little suburb of Amsterdam. Anyway, it’s not really crazy awesome compared to other parts of the city, but interesting, nevertheless. Moving on. Other sights: The houseboats! The canals are lined with houseboats when you’re out of the downtown areas. Apparently they first appeared during the post-World War II housing crisis (Amsterdam was mostly left alone but Rotterdam and other places in the Netherlands were bombed flat). Now they’re apparently quite luxury and, apart from having wine-sloshed tourists zipping past your windows all night, quite cozy. (The Dutch: not into pulling the curtains on their windows.) They looked mostly larger than the apartments and very nicely decorated on the insides — no different, really, than any normal apartment. Very nice. Expensive (though I bet my sense of “expensive” is all screwy thanks to living in New York — I bet I could get one for less than what I currently pay in Williamsburg). Yeah, so our tour lasted maybe two hours or so. Very nice. If you get to Amsterdam, I recommend it (especially as a nice intro to the city because you’ll see pretty much all of the landmarks outside of the Rijksmuseum and Museumplain area).

Another tourist trick: avoid the Stedelijk Museum at its temporary location out on the IJhaven near Centraal. Oh, gracious. Christin and I went down there on Wednesday. One: It’s a mess getting down there. The whole area is in the process of being built and is currently, thanks to all of the rain, a dumpy concrete mud-puddle. That takes a long hike to get to. And then none of the permanent exhibit stuff is up. Mondrian? Ha! Picasso? Whatever. Here, watch this mid-tier video art from eight years ago, instead. It’s edgy. Blah. They had one exhibit called “Frustrated Bonsai” (or something like that) which featured these colorful sort of melted-plastic crazy tree-like formations. That was okay. But everything else felt like warmed-over new media fine art crap which I feel fully justified in crabbing about because the stuff at your average ITP Spring/Fall Show could beat the shit out of it with one perf board tied behind its Zigbee.

So, okay. Today, then, I had the day to myself. I didn’t move too quickly. Did a few small work things at the apartment and then went out and biked around town for a while. Biked around Vondelpark. Biked down to Centraal to return the bike. Walked back to the apartment to check some stuff. And then I just went out to get some dinner. Found a very good Nepalese/Tibetan place called “Sherpa” right in the main nightlife district, whateveritscalled. The meals seemed surprisingly Italian — I had what basically amounted to angel hair spaghetti with tomato sauce, a few extra veggies (green beans, squash bits), and dough-covered meatballs. Very, very good. Recommended. I just quietly ate by myself (reading Harry Potter — I’m doing a straight read-through, all seven at once, and I’m on book five — but the post about that will come later). And now I’m back here.

So that’s my past couple of days.

Picnic ‘07.

Why am I in Amsterdam? Well, I’ve been steeped in game design lately. Designing unconventional big games and social games — not “video” games, exactly. So I submitted a variation of my thesis project to Come Out and Play, the big games conference, which happened to be in Amsterdam this year (New York last year) as a part of Amsterdam’s new annual Picnic digital media festival. And it got accepted: So I came to show my big phone-to-screen games which use the software I have now christened PhonePlay#. You call in and your phone turns into a game controller. Sweet. So I made a couple of games for Come out and Play. Okay.

The Come Out and Play event itself was really fun. I, unfortunately, didn’t get to do quite as much as I wanted due to technical issues with my game, but I played a round of Bocce Drift, a couple games of OMMRPG, and Safari. And watched some people play other games. A good selection. Go look at the website — I’m not going to describe them all here, except to say that Safari had us all running around at dusk in Westerpark with face make-up trying to tag one another and occasionally freaking out the locals who were just out for a jog or stroll with a baby carriage. I got all sweaty and make-up ink went everywhere. And OMMRPG was probably my favorite game of the conference. It was almost like laser-hockey: Two teams. Each with one person with a high-powered laser at the ends of the fields. The goal: run around with mirrors and try to get your laser light to reach a small goal on the other side — while making sure to block your opponent’s light. Really fun. Kind of futuristic, with the lasers, but also satisfyingly low-tech.

And if I had to peg one thing that I really appreciated at Come Out and Play is was the low-tech-ness. It’s the same reason I really enjoyed Frank Lantz’ Game Design class back my first semester at ITP. The kind of software design I do is all about interaction design — creating interesting, compelling, and fun new ways for people to do things using technology as the intermediary. But that so often gets bogged down in the technology (as my game did for this conference) that it can become difficult to explore the human interaction part of the equation. Which is way it’s nice to concentrate on designing fun games that involve just running around in the park or bopping people with balls: You get to sketch and explore how people enjoy interacting with each other and with things. Also. It’s nice to fantasize about what cultural impact these games might have and when games involve simple tools like balls and laser pointers, it’s easier to see how these interesting game designs could be absorbed by kids or whomever and really affect culture. Hide-and-seek. Tag. Red-light-green-light. These were all “invented” somehow and seeped out into mainstream culture and people love them. Maybe the same could eventually happen with some of these.

So my project took the exact opposite route. I’m interested in telephony and connecting voice telephony with the larger connected world of the internet and mobile devices to see what’s possible. Great. So I’m exploring different ways to get on to and off of the handset. So I designed some simple games — clones of familiar 80s computer games, essentially — that use this system I built for turning a phone into a game controller with a normal voice call. Just to see what’s possible with the tech, but also to explore what happens when people use a familiar device such as their own phone and can participate in a public game with it. Works great in the States. But I had a very difficult time getting the telephony stuff in the Netherlands sorted out. I won’t get into it, but it proved difficult to get the number of simultaneous calls connected for the games to be successful, and I found it very difficult to actually keep people on the line — their calls kept dropping. Argh. So I worked at it for quite a long period of time and made some very good progress and even would up making my codebase quite a bit more robust, but I just couldn’t get the stability issue solved and had to yank my game. We got about a total of maybe 15 minutes of gameplay in, so anyone interested got to see kind of what the whole thing was about (and I did get several very excited people hovering about, disappointed that I couldn’t get it up for a longer period of time). Blah. Oh, well. That failure sucked, but it actually felt like a relatively minor glitch.

On the whole, Come Out and Play was amazing. I believe there are plans to bring it back to New York in the Spring. And next year? Don’t know. Amsterdam’s nice but it would be nice, as well, if it would drift from city to city a bit.

So there’s more to say about the Amsterdam trip and Picnic. I’m not going to be able to get to it tonight — hopefully I’ll wrap up on the plane or when I’m back in Brooklyn.

I brought my camera but not — ugh — my battery charger. So no photos from me (though I did take some on Christin and Dennis Crowley’s cameras). You know what Amsterdam looks like. You can use Flickr to find photos tagged picnic07 and comeoutandplay or whatever you would like…