Ben’s CHI & DiGRA Reflection – Part 1

A Spring of contrasts for me this year, as I was fortunate to be able to attend both the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing (CHI), and the Conference of the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA) within a few weeks of each other.

CHI was in Seoul, in the Republic of Korea – whose 25 million inhabitants make it the second largest city in the world. DiGRA was in Lüneburg, Germany, whose somewhat more modest 71 thousand inhabitants means it doesn’t even make the list of the 20 most populous towns in Lower Saxony.

The contrasts continue with the scale of the conferences – the relative spectacle of CHI and its corporate sponsors and thousands of attendees in the cavernous COEX convention centre, versus the cosy DiGRA with its few hundred delegates, comfortably housed in a sleepy parkland university. I thought this proved a good opportunity to contrast a little between the conferences and communities, so this is the first of a couple of posts that reflect on these trips.


This is my seventh visit to CHI, and, still I’m blown away by the scale and variety of work within the community. With up to 15 parallel tracks, the programme is bursting with incredible work from around the world, and it makes it impossible to see everything. The size becomes a bit of a downside – I lost count of the conversations with fellow delegates that started with “did you see X? No? You would have loved it…”. Indeed, on one of the days there were three separate and parallel sessions on games that guaranteed everyone at these sessions missed two-thirds of the presentations that they wanted to see.

Bongeunsa Temple, across the road from the COEX and CHI

Seoul itself was a fantastic host city. This is the first time that CHI has been held in Asia, and I really hope not the last. The huge number of Asian delegates who are normally excluded from CHI due to cost completely changed the atmosphere for the better, and it was also great to see that several tracks were translated into Korean, Chinese and Japanese for the benefit of this new audience. The utterly exotic nature of Seoul is a world away from the clean cut western convention centres that CHI usually inhabits, and for me it brought the conference to life. Each evening, the excitement of trying to navigate the city and experience the wonderful food and nightlife with other colleagues added a magical energy to the whole trip. It is a great shame that CHI is going to Silicon Valley for 2016, with its air conditioning and chain restaurants.

Serious networking with noodles and dumplings at Gwangjang Market


LiSC had a great showing at CHI this year. For a relatively small group we managed a range of contributions across the conference. First up for me was the Workshop on Embarrassing Interactions. I was greatly looking forward to this workshop since it was hosted by an all-star team of my favourite researchers (Sebastian Deterding, Andrés Lucero, Jussi Holopainen, Chulhong Min, Adrian Cheok, Annika Waern and Steffen Walz). I was not disappointed – it probably takes the prize for my favourite workshop ever.

First, it gave us a great excuse to collaborate with some of our favourite game designers to write a paper on their provocative mobile game Cunt Touch This. We were introduced to this game at the recent AHRC Network on Performance in Games workshop in Nottingham. The game had been on my mind and was something I felt deserved more exploration. What started as a paper analysing the concepts and mechanics behind the game ended up as a unique conversational paper about intimacy and embarrassment.

Ben Kirman, Sabine Harrer, Andrea Hasselager, Conor Linehan, Ida Toft and Raimund Schumacher (2015) Cunt Touch This: A Conversation on Intimate Design and Embarrassment. In Proceedings of the Workshop on Embarrassing Interactions, ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Seoul, Republic of Korea

The workshop itself was fantastic fun. The first activity was a performative body mapping exercise about intimacy organised by the irrepressible Matt Wood and Madeline Balaam from Newcastle University’s Culture Club Open Lab, where participants were invited to decorate a “landscape of sexuality” using paint, props and pens on a group of gender neutral blow-up dolls.

Decorating our agendered blow up doll. Those red balls are its nipples. It has four of them.

This was followed by a series of frank and illuminating discussions around various aspects of embarrassment in technology, leading to the development of a series of interventions and prototypes that were leaked into the conference at large. The blow up dolls later got into various mischief between the student volunteers and the conference chairs.


LiSC has always had a strong interest in the emerging field of Animal Computer Interaction (ACI). Shaun co-organised the first ACI workshop at CHI 2012, and our project on anthropomorphising cats on the Internet (Tagpuss) got a lot of public attention, most excitingly a centerfold feature in a glossy magazine for cat fanciers. Over the past couple of years we have been increasingly concerned with the emergence of slick “quantified self” technology (e.g. Fitbit) that is aimed at pet owners to track and monitor their companions. Devices such as Whistle and Fitbark make slick promises about their value, surrounded by well lit photos of happy animals. However, the scientific basis for their efficacy is doubtful at best – this kind of tech a good example of what Evgeny Morozov calls “solutionism” in that they usually aim to solve problems that don’t exist.

The CAT-A-LOG microchip tracking system

We were interested in the human aspect of this. Obviously this kind of technology is massively appealing to pet owners, so we created an unusual study to explore the attitudes of both pet owners and animal behaviour experts to potential technology of this type. Our study is very unusual in that we used speculative design to create a collection of prototypes about near-future quantified pet technology. We presented these following typical aesthetic values of tech startups – please do explore them at The designs and prototypes all exist (they are on the shelf in front of me) but their function is purely fictional. This is a very exciting approach since it allows us to do more formal qualitative analysis about attitudes to near-future (“upstream”) technology, five years before that technology exists. Overwhelmingly we found that while the pet owners were excited by the promise of this kind of technology, the veterinary experts were horrified by the potential harm such devices could cause to the human-animal relationship. Most shockingly, we found that pet owners would more readily trust the opinions of such quantified pet technology over the opinion of a qualified veterinarian. This project provides a vivid example of the issues surrounding the ethics of solutionist approaches to technology designs. Although we focussed on pets, the same applies to any unproven technology that claims it has any kind of benefit to your health or wellbeing. Essentially, you are often placing an enormous degree of trust in the developer without any knowledge of how they are qualified to make those judgements. We were very pleased to have this paper accepted at CHI, and humbled to be awarded an honourable mention (top 5% paper) for our work.

Shaun Lawson, Ben Kirman, Conor Linehan, Tom Feltwell, and Lisa Hopkins (2015) Problematising upstream technology through speculative design: the case of quantified cats and dogs. Proceedings of ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computer Systems. Seoul, Republic of Korea

ACI had a good showing this year, with an excellent paper from Clara Mancini on “Re-Centering Multispecies Practices: A Canine Interface for Cancer Detection Dogs“. It is gratifying that both ACI and speculative design approaches are gaining wider acceptance within the community, since only a few years ago this kind of work would have been seen as too weird for the main track. That isn’t to say there still isn’t problems at CHI. This year there was an extremely problematic game in the student design competition, where real live cats were used as props in a kinect game. It looks like there is still work to be done in terms of interspecies ethics within the community.


Although I hadn’t intended to be involved with the provocative alt.CHI track this year, Conor, Sabine Harrer and Marcus Carter had this vicious idea for a paper that was too exciting to pass up. The focus is on the contemporary games research trend of talking about “Games for Health”, where researchers try to justify the value in games research in terms of their potential to improve player health. I can’t think of an “Exergame” paper that doesn’t begin with a sentence about obesity or other health issues, before awkwardly cramming games in as the miracle solution to all those problems. This is an offensive position for a number of reasons (can’t games just be fun?), and the gang had chosen to tackle this by proposing the exact opposite – a need for Games Against Health.

The central argument is that many game players have already shown a preference for games that “disimprove” health through long sedentary play sessions. Rather than correcting this, designers should embrace this and design games that explicitly harm the health of the player. Most cleverly, it appropriates and subverts all the exact same arguments that support Games for Health. Naturally, this paper was presented as an angry “Manifesto”:

Conor Linehan, Sabine Harrer, Ben Kirman, Shaun Lawson, and Marcus Carter (2015) Games against health: a player-centered design philosophy. Extended Abstracts of ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computer Systems. Seoul, Republic of Korea

Given our propensity for theatrics, Conor naturally hatched a scheme for another unusual delivery. During the talk we had volunteers competing in an eating competition, where they had to eat a pot noodle and a beer (at 9:30am) while expending as little energy as possible to maximise the calorie intake. The winner (who harmed their health the most) earned a pack of cigarettes.

Eating Competition during the talk on Games Against Health

It was also good to see more presenters making the most of the theatrical opportunities afforded by the format of presentations at CHI. In particular Matthew Aylett and Aaron Quigley’s excellent talk about “The Broken Dream of Pervasive Sentient Ambient Calm Invisible Ubiquitous Computing” which featured a violent physical confrontation between the authors, plus some costumes, props and even some poetry one might describe as “Vogonic“.

Aaron Quigley and Matthew Aylett in a violent face-off over Ubicomp


2014 saw the creation of a new games-orientated conference from members of the CHI community – CHI PLAY – so I was curious to see how that new venue affected the games community at the main CHI event. Pleasingly it seems to continue to grow stronger year on year, so hopefully both venues will continue to be popular destinations for great games HCI papers. In particular, the SIG meeting between members of the games community at CHI was uniquely productive, and “Games” will now become a formal community within CHI (previously games were lumped with “Design”). Indeed, there has been a massive recruitment in games-related ACs for CHI 2016 and beyond, which will hopefully mean higher quality games submissions getting more appropriate reviewers. Despite the scheduling issues mentioned previously (games papers were often scheduled in clashing sessions) it was fantastic to get together with a fantastic group of well known academics in this area and talk about the exciting future of games at CHI. As normal, CHI was full of fantastic games papers, such as Daniel Johnson’s cheekily-titled “All about that Base: Differing Player Experiences in Video Game Genres and the Unique Case of MOBA Games” and fellow LiSCateer Kathrin Gerling’s paper on “Long-Term Use of Motion-Based Video Games in Care Home Settings“.


Overall, a thoroughly enjoyable CHI – great papers, a fantastic city and a good craic with inspirational people. I could go on, talking about other brilliant work such as Mark Blythe’s inspirational paper “Solutionism, the Game: Design Fictions for Positive Aging“, or Andy Cockburn’s “Examining the Peak-End Effects of Subjective Experience“, Martin Flintham’s “Run Spot Run: Capturing and Tagging Footage of a Race by Crowds of Spectators“, the similar-but-different “Bootlegger: Turning Fans into Film Crew” from Guy Schofiled and Stuart Reeves’s cappuccino-stained “I’d Hide You: Performing Live Broadcasting in Public“… but this is far too long already.

What better way to celebrate a fantastic conference than a night out drinking Soju and fermented horse milk at an underground Korean CHI-raoke bar?


Stay tuned for part 2, in which we travel half way across the planet to visit a restaurant that serves “the largest schnitzels in Northern Germany” and the biggest miniature railway in the world…

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