WordPlay: An Interactive Story Creation Artwork for Public Spaces

Jonah Brucker-Cohen, Journalism and Media Studies, Lehman College / City University of New York, USA, jonah.bruckercohen@lehman.cuny.edu

Figure 1
Figure 1: WordPlay installed at the New York Hall of Science, 1/14/23

This paper details the project, WordPlay, an interactive story creation platform meant for installation in public spaces. Using a similar method of the popular children's game "Mad Libs", WordPlay invites the public to choose from a selection of "nouns", "verbs", "adjectives", and "adverbs" printed on RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) cards and add them to the system. WordPlay collects and visualizes each word by remixing a selection of text-based scientific facts and quotes from prominent scientists. Once completed, the final story or passage is displayed on the screen, allowing the public to read their stories. The resulting text is time-stamped, printed locally, encoded into a unique URL, and uploaded to the project's website, where the public can read online what was created inside the exhibition space in real time. 

CCS Concepts: interactivity, networks, play, art, design, linguistics

Additional Keywords and Phrases: Words, Interactive, Networked, Real time, Digital, Play, Public Space, Remix

ACM Reference Format:
Jonah Brucker-Cohen. 2023. WordPlay: An Interactive Story Creation Artwork for Public Spaces. In The 16th International Symposium on Visual Information Communication and Interaction (VINCI 2023), September 22-24, 2023, Guangzhou, China. ACM, New York, NY, USA, 5 Pages. https://doi.org/10.1145/3615522.3615565


WordPlay is an interactive installation that allows the public to create and publish novel stories by selecting individual words from a combination of word types. The concept for the project was derived from the popular children's game “MadLibs,” which was invented in 1953 by Leonard Stern and Roger Price and went on to sell over 110 million copies of the game since it debuted. Relying on the simple concept of eliciting the public to replace words in text documents, the game was immediately understood by first time players and this quick learning curve helped to propel its rapid adoption around the world. In 1993, Mad Libs was sold to publisher Penguin Random House becoming a staple of public and private gatherings.


Figure 2
Figure 2: WordPlay Installation View.

WordPlay is written in JavaScript. A Node.js app running on a local computer listens for user input from a connected Arduino device, and renders graphics in a web browser using the p5.js library. When a user finishes their session, their result is sent to a remote Node.js backend and saved to a SQLite database, allowing users to find their stories later on the WordPlay website (written in React). The P5.js programming language handles animations and graphics running in a Chrome or Firefox browser. The goal of the project was to create a dynamic artwork that engaged visitors both inside the museum and allowed online participants to follow their activities. In order to better maintain the project over time, a networked environment was chosen for the project which allowed it to be deployed directly from Github and rendered in real time in a browser window. The hardware component of the project consists of 400 individually programmed

MIFARE Classic 1K RFID Smart Cards. RFID, or Radio Frequency Identification, is a common technology that has gained mainstream adoption since the 1970s for railway monitoring and it's become ubiquitous, and is typically integrated into small size credit cards or entry key FOBs due to their passive nature, not requiring any direct power themselves but rather gaining recognition by a powered reader device.

When prompted by the system, users place a “noun”, “verb”, “adjective”, or “adverb” card onto the platform which is then recognized and inserted into the playfield on the screen. After all words are added to the system the resulting story is revealed as each sentence moves onto the screen. In addition, the entire story with color coded words is uploaded to the project's website with a unique URL and sent to the project's Twitter account (@wordplayexhibit) as well. Overall the project allows for real time interaction inside the exhibition space as well as engagement from the public around the world who can follow the project as it broadcasts stories created online.


Word and linguistic based games have been a staple of everyday life since their beginnings in the 1500s. It was not until the early 1910s when journalist Arthur Wynn created the first “crossword” puzzle for the newspaper, “New York World”. Since then the game grew in popularity and morphed from a simple diamond based configuration to one with multiple shapes, black out squares, and longer phrase inclusion. Another word game such as the popular “Word Search” that presents a grid of jumbled letters where players find words and draw an oval around each found word, is an example of a puzzle based game that not only engages players in search tactics but also teaches them skills on how to identify words. First developed as the game “Criss Cross” in 1931, “Scrabble” which was commercialized in 1948, is an example of a board game with physical tiles for each letter that allows players to build a word using individual letters. WordPlay also employs this form of physical tile based system allowing for a tangible connection between players and the screen-based and networked environment of it's main interface. WordPlay draws from elements of these precedents to better maintain a stronger physical connection between players and the main output and interface of the system.

Figure 3
Figure 3: Placing a card on the WordPlay platform.


WordPlay was first installed at the New York Hall of Science in Queens, New York from December 15, 2022 to March 15, 2023. During this time period the installation generated 2335 total stories. The physical installation consisted of four main elements. 1.) A platform with 4 colored (red, blue, yellow, green) bins to hold the cards. The idea for color coding the cards enables the installation greater and simpler use by people of all ages, from young children to adults. Feedback from the installation from parents of small children was positive in that the project engaged kids who did not yet know how to read. 2.) The second component of the project is the circular platform where users placed their chosen cards. The shape of a circle was chosen to encourage more people to gather around the platform and play as a group. This was seen repeatably while the project was installed in the museum. Inside the circular platform, the RFID reader was placed as well as two rings of LEDs around the edges of the inside of the platform with a translucent plexiglass top. As a card is played on the platform the LEDs change to the color of the placed card while the stored text generates on the large display. 3.) A large display stood in front of both platforms and displayed the interface for the project, giving users feedback on the words they chose and how those words fit into the larger story or passage. 4.) Two stereo speakers that gave users direct sound feedback when new cards were placed on the platform and when the words were added to the system. Content from the original installation consisted of 18 quotes from famous scientists including Carl Sagan, Marie Curie, Stephen Hawking and more as well as several scientific facts. All of the content was remixed live using the installation and published live. The project was later installed at NYC Resistor, a Brooklyn-based membership funded hacker space and had over 200 entries during a four hour install.


WordPlay proved to be a successful project because of its ability to engage audiences across diverse age groups. The project's combination of physical inputs using color coded RFID cards, LED output that verified each input, and direct screen-based feedback to users made the experience of using it stand out among other installations in the museum. In addition, WordPlay was one of the only fully networked installations inside the museum that allowed people from beyond the physical building to interact with content created in real time.


I would like to acknowledge the designer-in-residence program at the new york hall of science for support in helping to realize this project. i would also like to thank everyone who helped work on the project including software development by Andrew Dempsey, Lia, Sam Beller, hardware support by Estefany Gomez and Deqing Sun, and Liz Slagus for her initial and continued backing of the project.


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VINCI 2023, September 22–24, 2023, Guangzhou, China

© 2023 Copyright held by the owner/author(s).
ACM ISBN 979-8-4007-0751-3/23/09.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1145/3615522.3615565