Hack #1: Play

For my hack, I used the Makey Makey to create an interactive photo display. Like many college students, I have decorated my dorm room walls with photo displays that contain some of my favorite pictures of my friends and me. At the beginning of each year, I go through my camera roll and painstakingly pick out which photos I’ll print out: I don’t want them to all be of the same person or pose, but I want them to look unified. The display becomes something I meditate on when I’m taking a break or need inspiration, or it serves as a conversation topic when friends come over. It is a reminder of happier times when I am stressed, and it’s a reminder of all of the people that I love.

I wanted to take the emotional investment I have in my photo display a step further by personalizing it even more and making it interactive. To do so, I framed pictures with conductive tape and hooked them up to various keys on the Makey Makey. Next, I asked the friends in the photos to send me a brief voice message that could play when I touched the photos. After a bit of explaining and a lot of amazement about Makey Makeys, I had collected a few audio messages. I then used Scratch to link the audio messages to Makey Makey commands, thus bringing the photos to life with the voices of their inhabitants.

final version

The personalization and interactivity of the photos increase their sentimentality, but also the playfulness of the display. It is a form of mimicry where I can pretend that the photos are the people themselves – they look like them, and now they sound like them, too. To someone who doesn’t know that the framing is conductive, they’ll be playfully surprised when the photos speak to them.

In Critical Play: Radical Game Design, Mary Flanagan argues that “games exist for entertainment, for passing the time, for fun. They are a diversionary activity, meant for relaxation or distraction…” (2009). Before my hack, the photo display appeared to already fulfill these qualities, but in a very passive way. The Makey Makey, however, transformed the board into something that I (and others) could enjoy in a more active way. The photos are now an exploratory game or instrument, where touching different locations or parts will produce different sounds. In a sense, I have created a piano of my friendships, each picture acting as a key. Play them all at once, and they won’t be harmonious (much like trying to make time for all of your friends at the same time), but play them one at a time they’ll produce beautiful sounds capable of eliciting strong emotions.

Although it wasn’t my original intention to try and answer this question, I think my hack still sheds some light on it: what if a photo was worth a few words? Photos are emotional artifacts that we seem to believe can stand in for the people, places, and ideas contained within them. Much like a dollhouse shrinks down everyday life and essentializes it to femininity, domesticity, and idealization of societal rules, pictures too can boil down complex ideas into a single moment (Flanagan). It is the photos’ strength and their weakness.

Many of the pictures on my walls are close-in shots of me and a few other people. We are smiling, hugging, and looking at the camera (candids don’t tend to catch my best angles). To a stranger, they may be pleasant to look at but not interesting. But to me, the photos bring back memories of the context they were taken in: where I was, how I felt, what I’d eaten, etc. But even so, a picture doesn’t show the whole picture. The audio messages in my hack are a way of coming closer to this “whole picture” by fleshing out the person in them. I didn’t ask my friends to say anything specific in their messages and so I was delighted at how individualized they were. A photo may be worth a million words, but a few words from a loved one are worth even more.

This hack took a lot of trial and error that I considered playing as well. At first, I just had to familiarize myself with the Makey Makey technology. I made a few different pianos, and even played one of my favorite games, 2048, using the wires.

playing 2048 using Makey Makey

At first, I wanted to turn ordinarily sedentary computer games into something more active (I was inspired by Wii technology). I created foot controls using graphite that I used to play the piano.

playing the piano with my feet

However, I quickly realized that this would result in some pretty messy feet, so I had to rethink my hack…

I looked into what other people were doing with Makey Makey, and I found examples where people used them (along with Scratch) to create spoken word poetry. The English major in me loved the idea of integrating words, visual art, and technology. This is how the idea for my hack was born. I was staring at my photo display for inspiration and I realized it would be a great way to create something playful, meaningful, and aesthetically pleasing. After exploring with Scratch for a bit, the technology made sense and I was able to start soliciting audio messages for my friends.

The process through which I came to my final hack was longwinded and full of “failures,” but I think that is what also makes the process playful. Inside the Magic Circle where play happens, ordinary rules and pressures don’t exist. It’s okay to fail because it’s all just fun and games. I didn’t mind having to give up an idea and move on to the next because I was excited about it and competing against myself to draw out my best idea. Of course, I was doing it for a class, so it wasn’t entirely voluntary, but I think I was enjoying myself plenty (especially when I got to play 2048).

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