Designing Playful Systems

Investigate the nature of play through (systems) theory and practice.

Play is a fascinating, cross-disciplinary topic of research that has been studied by various academic fields like psychology, sociology and ethology. Recently it has been gaining interest through the emerging field of game studies. Different perspectives have resulted in conflicting, paradoxical observations, contributing to the "ambiguity of play" (Brian Sutton-Smith).

In my project I aim to contribute to the studies of games and play in three interconnected ways: My main goal is to present a systems-theoretic approach to play. I argue that a theory capable of describing a multi-faceted phenomenon like play must be sufficiently abstract, complex, and universal. These qualities can be found in general systems theories. Therefore I apply a distinction-based approach to play, building on constructivist and second-order cybernetic foundations - Spencer-Brown's calculus of distinctions, Maturana and Varela's autopoiesis and in particular Niklas Luhmann's theory of social systems.

The second contribution is the construction of a bridge between theory and practice. To this end, I am following the speculative question "Can machines play?", echoing Alan Turing's question "Can machines think?". Machines, including mechanical entities, robots and computer programs, presumably do not have an intrinsic concept of play. Yet we accept artificial and virtual entities as play objects and partners. This raises the question in what sense a machine can or cannot play. Furthermore, how does one design playful interactions not only with a machine but for machines and humans alike – a speculative approach that I call anthroponeutral play? I critically examine previous attempts at modelling play and propose a set of principles for designing playful systems, relocating established system boundaries between machines, games and humans.

The practical side of my project is a reference implementation of a playful system. Its design incorporates the principles derived from my theoretical approach. The reference implementation includes virtual entities that are interacting with human players in mixed reality. It is designed for what I call anthroponeutral play, emergence and meta-gaming. During the iterative process of theory-construction, design, implementation and critical evaluation, practice and theory inform each other. 


Kin Design, UK (Design and develop a mixed reality app)

Research Ethics:

Link to Research Ethics documentation.


Research Fellow
Michael Straeubig

John Matthias, Jane Grant, Mike Phillips (i-DAT), James Brocklehurst, Matt Wade.

Further Reading
  • Burghardt, G. M. (2005) The Genesis of Animal Play: Testing the Limits. MIT Press.
  • Luhmann, N. (1987) Soziale Systeme: Grundriss einer allgemeinen Theorie. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
  • Mnih, V., Kavukcuoglu, K., Silver, D., Graves, A., Antonoglou, I., Wierstra, D. and Riedmiller, M. (2013) ‘Playing Atari with deep reinforcement learning’, arXiv preprint arXiv:1312.5602.
  • Sicart, M. (2014) Play matters. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press (Playful thinking).
  • Stenros, J. (2015) Playfulness, Play, and Games - A Constructionist Ludology Approach. Tampere University.
  • Sutton-Smith, B. (1997) The ambiguity of play. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Turing, A. (1951) ‘Can digital computers think?’ BBC  Third Programme. Available at:
  • Zook, A., Magerko, B. and Riedl, M. (2011) ‘Formally modeling pretend object play’, in Proceedings of the 8th ACM conference on Creativity and cognition. ACM, pp. 147–156.