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Ambiguity (of Play)

With great astonishment I recognised, that what I used to consider "bad" or "wrong" design is in some projects actually intended and is then called ambiguous design or ambiguity. It took me months to recognise this. As a designer you try to make the access to the information as easy as possible and the interface rather transparent, its functions and use evident and clear.

In this process i realised that ambiguity not necessarily as a “wrong” or “bad” design, yet to be the result of intentional design. It also became clear that i'm not involved with “alternative input devices” but in “computer mediated communication”. Both where important steps in the genesis.

William Gaver writes “Product designers work to eliminate ambiguity: their main effort goes into balancing clarity of use (making it intuitive) with the richness of semiotic suggestion making you like what it stands for. Both aspects of the design attempt to control the users interpretation of the product – that is, to reduce ambiguity.” (Source: 'Ambiguity as a resource for design')

Gaver formulated three different dimensions of ambiguity:
“Ambiguity of information finds its source in the artefact itself, ambiguity of context in the sociocultural discourses that are used to interpret it, and ambiguity of relationship in the interpretative and evaluative stance of the individual.”

Example: An Aeolian Harp as a webpage counter activated by a silent vent upon a hit on the webpage. The ambiguity of information would lie in the uncertainty that one can never be sure if the sound is generated by an authentic “hit” or by natural cause within the room.

This method was considered but not selected, it just did not fit. It remains documented for providing a research narrative and historical reasons.

Figure: “The Seven Rhetoric’s of Play” by Brian Sutton-Smith


The “7 rhetoric’s of play” from Brian Sutton-Smith may serve as foundation for explanation to which sense of play an environment is applying and what the underlying sociological mechanisms may be. This allows us assumptions over its success and effects upon participants that are difficult to explain without the regard of rhetoric’s of play.
Sutton-Smith rhetoric’s enclose “progress” (e.g. children’s play) – fate (e.g. gambling) – power (e.g. sports) – identity (e.g. community celebrations) – imaginary (e.g. improvisation in literary, imaginary) – self (e.g. hobbies, aesthetic satisfaction) – frivolous (e.g. the idle or foolish). Each of these categories has a history, a function, a form, players, a discipline and scholars.

With the example of the researchers project “Bits'n People” we may say, that it includes some dimensions of the rhetoric’s of “identity”, “imaginary” and “self”.
Identity: “Bits’n People” as a living sculpture is the result of many peoples actions and thus establishes a community spirit and lets people bond, to each other and the surrounding environment, that turns from an abstract institution into a sociable place.
Its historical dimension would be tradition, and its function cooperation or communitas. Its form may be compared to that of Festivals, Parties or new games.
The imaginary rhetoric’s is the encouragement of improvisation and imagination with its History in Romanticism. Its functions are creativity and flexibility its form Fantasy and Tropes.
Aspects of the rhetoric of “self” are encouraged as well, as participants may want to explore the system and get satisfaction by discovering their contribution within the audio-visual environment, that may remind of the satisfaction of a musician playing in an orchestra. They may discover their value and contribution within this organism of aesthetic pleasure. Its history is individualism and its function a peak experience. Its form is discovered in leisure and solitary.

last update: 3/28/02018 10:31

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