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⏰ Time flies when you’re designing fun.
Web3 innovation for fans and spectators, linking Gen Z to AI and wellbeing, and the enduring power of LEGO.
Hi there! Paul here. Welcome to the last installment of “Status” season.
I’m honored to introduce you to my new friend Keren this week, who will share with us how quickly our statuses can change, especially in today’s tech landscape.
Speaking of… have you been to one of our Digital Playgrounds yet? It’s our monthly virtual event co-hosted with All Tech Is Human, and it’s always a feel-good time.
If you liked what Bhavik Singh had to say about plant-based coding in the video above, you’re going to love the next one with Ziarekenya Smith and Kathryn Young from Inpathy. Don’t miss it. —PM
Also, if you’re trying to remember which version of GPT we’re on now and what your child’s English teacher has to say about it, because those things seem to change every day—I’m with you.
Back in March, between the news of the Silicon Valley Bank run and the general hub-bub of festival life (including eating way too many tacos), it was an emotional whirlwind. And somehow the pace of change has only seemed to since pick up.
I’m here this week at New_ Public to share some of the experiences from SXSW that have stuck with me, what’s changed since then, and how it’s all combining to shape my observations about today’s playful innovation landscape.
What does it look like to play together in the future?
Entertain me with a quick thought experiment: Imagine yourself at a baseball game. What pops into your mind?
My hunch is that your imagination didn’t jump to standing on the pitcher’s mound or hitting the home run—or maybe it did, but at least it didn’t for me. (Not-so-secret secret: I was that student in P.E. class in the outfield in made-up positions like backup-fourth-base-person.)
Instead, I’ll wager most of you imagined the smell of peanuts or eating a hot dog, the sight of crowds doing the wave, the din of cheers and high-fiving your seatmates during an exciting play. For a lucky few, you imagined the thrill of watching the ball hurtle towards your section in the stands, diving and (gasp!) catching a home-run ball.
Re-imagining the role of the spectator in community design.
Though expressed in different ways, you probably imagined yourself as a spectator. And the beauty of live sporting events is that, even as a spectator, you contribute to the magic of the game.
In fact, we know that spectators can serve just as key a role as players. Thinking back to the early days of the pandemic: remember those empty stadium seats with cute stuffed animals in an attempt to quell the eerie silence? Moreover, the rise of esports has further demonstrated the move toward transcending the traditional boundaries of physical arenas and redefining the concept of active engagement. League of Legends Worlds at Chase Center last November, our favorite Twitch streamers and Discord server chatter show us that spectating means much more than passively consuming.
Paul Bettner, creator of Words with Friends, shared at SXSW’s Future of Play panel that Wildcard Alliance’s upcoming game was designed in part to reimagine the spectator experience. Though he claimed that blockchain was not his starting point in developing the gameplay—in fact, he was rather doubtful—Bettner offered a provocation on what it means to be together, enabled by web3. Emphasizing capabilities beyond NFTs, he asked us to imagine an online game between our favorite streamers and catching the equivalent of that home-run ball, or actively connecting with other fans and feeling the energy of the songs and cheers.
Throughout my time at the festival, I met other entrepreneurs driven by desires similar to Wildcard, both in and outside of gaming. They are reimagining the flatness of virtual concerts or bringing to life stories about communities typically unseen, including war-related events in Kharkiv, Ukraine or the role-defying work of Mrs Benz.
Designing for roles beyond Player One and Player Two
While some (or probably most) of us reading are not actively designing for web3 platforms or XR headsets, I believe that we can all learn how Bettner and these other designers are approaching experience design. Whether that’s a daily standup over Zoom, a client presentation or your child’s birthday party, we can all consider how we might design for roles beyond the binary of presenter and listener.
In centering the role of the spectator, how might we design for accessibility and safety in a way that available experiences currently don’t support? And for those of us experimenting with newer platforms, how might we design for the joy of human togetherness that extends beyond where online gaming and IRL communities are today?
Much has changed since March, including the launch of Wildcard—if you’ve played it, let me know how it’s landing. In addition, with Apple’s announcement of the Vision Pro and, as usual, leaving it to developers to figure out how to actually use it, I’m eager to see how the renewed buzz and upgraded tech can create active roles beyond Player One and Player Two.
When game culture is culture
Another theme that emerged throughout the festival was the increasing fluidity between our online and offline lives. Panelists from the Future of Play session commented on the trend of transmedia—how for a growing population, game culture is simply culture. Who would’ve thought that the first streaming series to win an Animated Program Emmy would be Arcane, a show based on a video game world? Or that since SXSW, Fortnite would be named as part of the Olympic Esports as a shooting sport?
Though of course no one could’ve predicted these exact discussions, I am reminded of Steven Johnson’s Wonderland thesis: “You will find the future wherever people are having the most fun.” We’ll need to further unpack how these shifts fit into a capitalist structure, but there’s no doubt that whether it’s our inside jokes or the speed of our microchip developments, the need and desire to play are major driving forces. Based on how these insights are coming together, I’m eager to keep an eye out to see how gaming culture and properties continue to spin up content flywheels.
What are the kids doing these days?
At a festival rooted in film, art and music, the conversation around the future of creativity in the age of generative AI felt slightly meta, and frankly uncomfortable.
So here’s my pro SXSW tip: if you want to decompress from the conference frenzy, build some ducks out of LEGO bricks.
Rebuilding our humanity, brick by brick
After dutifully following the instructions set out in the LEGO Creativity Lounge to build the classic duck, our table challenged ourselves to build ducks or other creatures that were all different from each other. There was something grounding about playing with the small bricks with new friends. After hours of abstract thinking, it felt good to build something that we could feel with our hands, and it opened us up to new conversations about the nature of play and our inner children.
One theme that arose in our discussion was our human inevitability to make mistakes and the freedom to build as a way to think. Particularly in my conversations with educators and parents, I heard about the very fine threshold between protecting our young ones from harm and smothering away their agency. Responding with creative confidence to a challenge, be it a LEGO building one or a fight with a best friend, requires an understanding that it may take a few tries. Staring at our new collection of LEGO pets, we realized that honoring and accepting different approaches was, even if one of the hardest things to do, another part of the human experience that we weren’t quite ready to part with.
We seemed to be honing in on the difference between knowledge and wisdom, wondering where machines would be a suitable support if we didn’t want to sacrifice the latter.
Tools by youth, for youth
In our Designing for Digital Thriving (DDT) panel session, Michelle Lee, IDEO Play Lab’s Managing Director, moderated a panel of our partners at Riot Games, Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, and Fair Play Alliance. We shared our learnings from designing digital spaces within the context of thriving as a human, as a community, and as a society.
It was such a rush to see our team together on stage discussing topics such as mental health and talk to so many audience members committed to designing healthy spaces. Michael Preston of the Cooney Center presented winners from the Designing for Digital Thriving Open Innovation challenge and the spaces and tools they created to respond to youth developmental needs.
One of my favorite examples of the Challenge winners was Plot Twisters. Designed by young adults for young adults, Plot Twister provides a game-like environment for users to practice life skills for the “twists” in life, including mindfulness, self-regulation, self-acceptance, and mutual respect. I’m heartened to see young designers breaking the stigmas around asking for help and creating the tools they want to see.
Designing infrastructure for digital and mental wellbeing
At the same time, since SXSW, the U.S. Surgeon General’s office has doubled down on their advisory around the youth mental health crisis, this time explicitly naming social media’s risk and harms as a major contributor to the crisis. It’s why I’m grateful for the learnings from a panel session moderated by Common Sense Media founder Jim Steyer, who put the onus back on adults and infrastructure builders to support our youth.
Also speaking on the panel, Dr. Dawn Bounds shared her medical perspective about our compulsive consumption habits, or addiction to virtually anything, including the dopamine hits we experience while scrolling social media. But rather than wholesale demonizing screen time as a growth blocker for young adult minds, Dr. Bounds encouraged us to consider what a healthy and balanced diet would look like.
If that language sounds familiar, it’s because there might be parallels to consider with how we design for eating and preparing meals. I was struck by how we might look at nutritional and ingredient labels as examples for designing for transparency and choice-making. First initiated as a federal regulatory move in the 1960s, this move signaled a response to a landscape makeover in the world of prepackaged food: new production trends, distribution channels and consumer needs. I believe we’re long overdue on a shift on how we choose to nourish ourselves within our digital ecosystem.
How ready is Gen Z to embrace Gen AI?
What role might GenAI play in promoting creativity and connection among young people? Since my conversations at SXSW, my colleagues at IDEO have delved into human-centered AI design through co-design sessions with youth and young adults, a generation relentlessly in touch with and vocal about what makes us unfiltered humans.
I encourage you to check out the whole series, but I’ll also highlight one design principle that has surfaced, which is around the importance of any technologies elevating our human intuition and the experiences that shape it, be it an AI-powered career coach or a friend group chat organizer. I’m struck by this insight and how consistent it feels with the conversations I had at SXSW and, more importantly, wondering if designers and developers are listening. According to recent news on Snapchat’s response to feedback on their AI Companion, I’m not quite sure.
So as we experiment and evangelize, I invite you to consider: How might these tools encourage stakeholders across the ecosystem to live a more flourishing human life? How might the core loops of these experiences reflect the core values we want to embody? How might we name and augment the abilities and characteristics that define us as human?
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Keep calm and play on.
By the time the ice in your soy matcha latte has melted (it’s getting warm here in SF!), we might be on GPT-5. Maybe 6?
I’m often tempted to give into the current vibe of fast-paced scrolling that spins out into existential panic. But as I reflect on how the last few months have played out, I try to return to my LEGO duck-building, backup-fourth-base self.
Amidst the conference swirl, I come back to that self that is still present and open. It builds with generous intention, creating spaces to ask for and share bricks. It sparks curiosity and optimism to imagine a different future. It also gently reminds me that as quickly as our tools change, our need for joy, connection, and belonging persevere.
So the next time you find yourself wondering what just happened, it might be a sign that it’s time to pause and play. 🌳
Community Corkboard: Podcast Edition
In other news, the New_ Public team’s been listening to a lot of podcasts lately! Here are three episodes that are top of mind for us.
If you’ve got a podcast episode you’d like to recommend, leave a comment on this post.
We’ll be taking a break for the 4th of July weekend, but we’ll be back on Sunday July 9 to kick off our next theme, and discuss our “Options.”
Savoring a seventh-inning stretch,