Ludic Design and Rights Management: Reflecting on a Making Process

Posted by on Jul 26, 2013 in making | 2 Comments

My second Critical Making project, Ark of the Covenant, also drew upon Gaver’s concept of  overstatement. This project was designed in response to a prompt to produce a physical rights management system. To that end I built  an object that exaggeratedly reproduced the rigidity, hierarchy and frustration built into all rights managements systems.

image-3Although discussions around rights management are often focused on media, like music and movies, I decided to focus my system on maganing access to a document–a very old, but still very pressing library-type concern. My Ark  required the cooperation of three people to make the controlled content available. Yet, at the same time, it always prevented two of the three participants from actually viewing the material contained within.  The Ark works by having two participants close a circuit, which in turn illuminates a series of LEDs attached to a breadboard. When the LEDs are turned on, a third participant can peer through a small peephole on the top of the box, and view the protected material. When the LEDs are off, nothing is visible inside the box. The Ark cannot be illuminated by a single person, and the two people closing the circuit a kept so far away from the peep hole they cannot lean over and access the document.

image-2When I initially conceived of this design I thought that this project may engage with Gaver’s strategy of self-effacement. I thought that introducing elements of cooperation and play into rights management might create the kinds of ‘mindful ambiguities’ that I found so interesting, yet so challenging to conceptualize. I designed the Ark to require multiple participants, in the hope that it would create a system characterized by distributed agency and collaboration.

Despite these efforts, however, I did not succeed in building a ludic rights management system. After seeing users interact with our Ark I noted that this object seemed likelier to induce elements of hierarchy and rigidity than the generative cooperation I was after. One of the reasons why I believe the Ark resisted the playful experiences I imagined it producing, has to do with the fact that my working model of rights management too rigidly followed the accessible/inaccessible binary logic traditionally built into such systems.  I approached rights management from an already-interpellated position, beginning with the unstated assumption that things can be owned and controlled, and that access is absolute—either you have it, or you do not. My Ark was, from its inception, far too overcoded to actually “say too little,” a key requirement of Gaver’s strategy of self-effacement. Moreover, for this project I did not let my design methods or higher-level theorization inform my selection of materials. Rather, I selected materials that would enable the production of a rights management system. In the end, the lack of attention paid to the things constituting the Ark led my work to exceed Gaver’s methods of self-effacement and overstatement, and instead slip into a hylomorphic approach. While it is disappointing that I could not successfully build a ludic rights management system, I believe the Ark remains an interesting project because it demonstrates how the uses and meanings attached to technological objects can shift when materiality is overlooked within the design process. In addition, it serves as a reminder that technologies are always ‘more’ than the task they were delegated to perform.


Althusser, Louis. Essays on Ideology. Verso, 1984.

Gaver, William. “Designing for Homo Ludens, Still.” In (Re) Searching the Digital Bauhaus, edited by T. Binder, J. Lowgren, and L. Malmborg, 163–178. London: Springer-Verlag London Limited, 2008.

Ingold, Tim. “The Textility of Making.” Cambridge Journal of Economics 34, no. 1 (2010): 91–102.

Johnson, J. “Mixing Humans and Nonhumans Together: The Sociology of a Door-closer.” Social Problems (1988): 298–310.


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