Talking to Adriaan de Jongh about designing smartphone games that make you interact with real people—in real life.
Adriaan de Jongh designs games he hopes will deepen our relationships—by tricking people into having awkward interactions with each other, just for fun. The Creators Project met up with Adriaan two weeks ago at the Games for Change Festival, a massive gaming community event at the Tribeca Film Festival, where his smartphone game Bounden (for iOS and Android) took home the “Most Innovative” award. Even though Bounden is a dancing game, it has no animations of dancers and no pads to stomp on. Instead, music and a virtual sphere is enough to get two people gracefully dancing around each other or entangled on the floor, rolling around in a ball of glee.
Each person holds one end of a phone as the game guides you to twist and maneuver together. Each level is a dance choreographed by Ernst Meisner of the Dutch National Ballet, with the more advanced levels offering opportunities to refine your movements and timing. Bounden follows on the heels of the previous works of Game Oven, a recently disbanded Netherlands-based studio where Adriaan worked on games that escaped their medium and exploded into real life. Before Bounden, he made Fingle, a game that makes people rub fingers with each other, and Friendstrap, a millennial update to the classic icebreaker that is: the awkward conversation.
Adriaan is on a mission to transform traditional game mechanics. Instead of creating virtual worlds to explore, he’d rather find real-life interactions that let us learn about ourselves and each other in the playful context of a game. By honoring the experiences we have IRL, he thinks we can transform games into something more universal, more humanistic, and more fun. We talked to Adriaan about Bounden, awkward interactions, game mechanics, and why Tinder is weird.
The Creators Project: So I just played a game of Bounden upstairs with a guy working at the conference. One thing that’s so fun about the game is that I wouldn’t normally have danced with this man at a conference. I was looking curiously at the game and at him, and then he asked me, “Would you like to dance?,” which I thought you would appreciate.
Adrian de Jongh: Yeah, totally. It’s funny that one of the things with showing this game to other people, especially at conferences or festivals, is that most people if you approach them saying, “Would you like to dance?” they are like, “Ummm, I don’t know if I want to dance.”
Yeah, because a lot of nerds, so to speak, are very afraid of being that physically intimate, right? So, it’s funny that, being at these nerd conferences, I usually approach people saying, “Hey do you want to play this game?” and I kind of trick them into dancing, right, because it’s a dancing game. But nobody expects this mobile phone app to make you dance.
So, it’s a smartphone app, but it gets you out of your phone. I’m wondering if you really wanted to get people out of their phones, or if it was more of an embracing what phones can be in this context?
Well, that’s a funny question because a lot of people assume that that was my initial goal. To almost be a rebel towards what phones are doing to our lives these days—that wasn’t my intention at all. What I wanted to do is make people move together synchronously. For Fingle, that was also the case. There’s a screen, and you have to do all these things inside the game on the screen, but eventually you’re rubbing each other’s fingers. And the same goes for Friendstrap, the other one of our games that we made, where two people hold onto one phone, and when you let go, you lose. There’s awkward conversation topics on the screen, and then they change every two minutes, so you find yourself just talking about the most ridiculous stuff, like, I don’t know, dancing mothers, or hottest mutual friends, that kind of thing. It’s not about what’s happening on the screen at all—it’s about what happens around it. It’s a very conscious decision for me to basically make game mechanics. To make the core interaction of the game be outside in the world, rather than inside the game world on the screen or with a controller.
Do you plan on making more games that make people have these funny awkward interactions with each other?
Totally, yeah. If you read about philosophers, they always say they have a project. This is my project. Social interaction is deeply meaningful to me. It hurts me to think that this is where games stop. That this is where games are no longer able to deepen my relationship with my friends. I really don’t want that to happen.
So you said before that you make the game mechanics before you do anything else. Does that mean that you had everything all planned out for how people would be moving together, that they would both be holding the phone, before you wrote any of the code?
And is that your usual design process?
That’s my thing, yeah. Even though it’s not really backed up, I do think what makes games games is mainly the interactive part. Maybe I should say, video games. There’s this device, and there’s a relationship between the player and the device. Something happens in between, and that’s what I think the interaction part is. If games are really about that, why not just try and figure out what things I can do in that space, right? How Bounden started was a vision to make people dance. Fingle started with seeing some people be awkward about touching each others’ hands, and feel like, “Hey, that’s what I want to do.” Friendstrap started with, “I want to make people talk about awkward subjects, well here’s a way to do that, right? And yeah, I search for those mechanics. That’s what I mainly do. After that comes the game world, and the story, if you want to call it like that, and the visuals, the code, and the music.
That all comes after?
That all comes after, yeah. A couple talks today were about very narrative-heavy games, where it’s all about culture, but the game mechanics for the games are still platformer controls, or first-person shooters, which kind of blows my mind. What if we take a look at culture and try to find the essential interactions within that culture, and try to see if in those interactions we can kind of shove this technology right in there, and then use that as the core of the game? [Adriaan makes the "POOF—mind blown gesture] And then you get to experience the culture in a way that is interactive and meaningful. Man, we should be doing that, and yet nobody is.
You’re making games on smartphones, so what do you think people get from playing this game on their smartphone rather than you just telling them, “Take your friend’s hand and dance?”
That’s a good question. I think about that a lot. I think the example I gave about conferences, that it’s very easy to tell people, “Hey do you want to play this game?” and it’s very difficult to tell people, “Hey, do you want to dance?” I think there’s something in there. For some reason, the way we all think about games—I mean it’s not for some reason, that’s what everyone’s been doing—is that games are very safe. Like this thing. You go into it, and you go out of it. That’s cool. It’s done. And people don’t feel awkward about it. So here I am, naming my work games so it’s supposedly very safe, and it’s not going to be very strange, and then, poof, you find yourself dancing or rubbing each others’ fingers.
Have people had reactions to playing the game that surprised you?
So here’s the funny thing: because it’s such a social thing, it always depends on the person playing it, and their personality, or the two people together and their kind of common personality. Some people don’t have very good relationships, let’s just be honest about that. And when they enter the game and they can’t figure our the mechanics in like the first 20 seconds, they’ll be like, “I don’t understand this,” and it’s just going to feel frustrating to them and they’ll probably want to quit.
For Fingle, there are a lot people that gained relationships, or broke up their existing relationships because doing this [rubbing fingers] with someone that you’re not in a relationship with, I can imagine that some people feel very uncomfortable with that. Rami Ismail, a game developer, part of Vlambeer, he met a girl a couple years ago. He was on a plane from Boston to San Francisco. Took three hours. He and she played Fingle for three hours on that airplane, and that basically kickstarted their relationship. They’re in a relationship right now. They’re very happy, super fun. I have so many of these kinds of stories. The most bizarre story, I think, is that my lawyer calls his baby the Fingle baby. Because Fingle did more than just rubbing their fingers together. So it’s those kinds of stories that really happen to me and it’s amazing.
Wow. That’s incredible. That must mean a lot to you.
It does, and it’s by far my biggest achievement. And I actually always had a paper hanging up at the office that said “Fingle got me laid,” which was a direct quote from someone who wanted to say that on camera to me. Which is amazing. People are using Fingle and Friendstrap and Bounden to go to bars and just play these silly little games with people, and then actually take these people home, or start meaningful conversations.
That to me is a fun way to flip dating apps and other ways that people use phones to try to meet people that are actually alienating.
I’m wondering how you feel about apps like Tinder.
So let’s look at it as if Tinder’s a game. The mechanic of the game is swiping. You swipe, and you look at other people. Swiping is not really a real-life interaction that happens. You don’t swipe on girls or boys or whatever, right? That’s weird! That’s how I would look at it from a game design perspective. So yeah, I do think it’s alienating and it’s just one way to bring these thoughts to our mind. We get to see a lot of people, but it doesn’t really have to do anything with real life. And that’s really the kind of thing I’m looking for: where can I find these kinds of interactions that are in real life?
Tinder’s a good example of something that isn’t. And I think every dating site isn’t. Or every dating app. Like, speed dating is a very good thing, I think. So maybe there’s a way we can make a game with the interactions that are in speed dating, which would probably end up being Friendstrap. Putting two people together and here’s some topics, let’s just talk about them. And maybe those topics can be more driven by topics that in speed dating are very common, or that you really want to cover in speed dating. This is actually the reason I took Friendstrap off the stores: it was a very inferior product as it was on the store. I want to make a better version of that that is also applicable to these different kinds of situations.
So do you think you could make an app for finding a date, or finding a friend? Do you think you could make a better, more humanist app like that if you thought about it in terms of game mechanics?
Oh yeah, totally. And it would probably take place at the club, right? What other place is better? Or at the bar. Like, the game should be there because that’s where the interactions happen. So what if you can be in the bar, and facilitate that interaction? Don’t replace it with a different one. Don’t replace it with swiping, just make people actually look at each other, right? And then it becomes really interesting. And actually, I have an idea for a game that is truly about music. And I don’t necessarily want to spoil all of it, because it’s going to be tremendously fun. But basically, I found a way to facilitate interaction, for people to really interact with music. There is a way.