Project Proposal: Playful Computing

In the papers we have read for class, the concept of playful design has been limited primarily to the teaching of architectural design.  The exercises presented have been visual, emphasizing the spatial relations so important to that field.  However, the general concept of playful design, that is of using problems with defined limits conducive to the play instinct, should be applicable across most intellectual endeavors.  For my project, I propose to apply this concept to the realm of computer science, investigating activities which will encourage students, and even professionals, to explore and create more using the rigid structure of a programming language.  The ultimate goal is to move the student from asking “what can this do?” to “what can I do with this?”; it is this second state in which play and creativity occur.

There exist a number of programming activities that approximate the goals of playful design.  When I was in elementary school we used LOGO to create graphics and learn the basics of computer programming.  It had an instruction set simple enough for a child to understand, yet robust enough to allow for complex visual creation.  Just Another Perl Hacker (JAPH), and indeed code obfuscation activities in general, are means of pushing programming languages to their limits.  For such exercises the individual is decidedly asking “what can I do with this?” as they consider novel ways of programming typically mundane algorithms.

Playful design for computer programming does not even have to be confined to traditional programming languages.  Siftables are micro-computers that can be programmed to perform simple tasks and which can interact with each other to accomplish more complex goals.  The appeal of such devices is that they are physically manipulated, allowing the user to explore different combinations to quickly determine their effects.  In this way, the student can learn about such computing concepts as piping and objects without even having to learn a programming language.

For my project, I expect to learn more about such computer programming activities that would encourage the student to engage in playful design.  Not just more obvious applications, but also ones which are not readily apparent.  I also expect to determine the impact such exercises have on the student’s willingness to explore the programming language construct.  Finally, I wish to investigate how such activities may be used in an academic setting, to engage students learning a new programming language and keep them interested in learning more about it.

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