Playing with Complexity: An approach to exploratory data visualisation

Ben Ennis Butler, Sam Hinton and Mitchell Whitelaw
2011 Conference

This paper looks at how ideas of play might be usefully employed as a method to engage with complex data sets, and as a way to enhance interactive data visualisations. Developing ideas through our own practice of visualising cultural heritage collections, we argue that finding order within complexity is a pleasurable experience, and that there are strong associations between the goals of exploratory data visualisation and the underlying mechanics of many computer games. Following this, we suggest there are good reasons to acknowledge play in the design of interactive interfaces.

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About the author

Ben Ennis-Butler is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Arts and Design at the University of Canberra. His research is in the area of data visualisation of large data sets in cultural institutions. He completed his Honours degree in 2010 and is currently a teaching fellow at the University of Canberra.


Sam Hinton is an Assistant Professor in Media Arts and Design at the University of Canberra, Australia. He has recently published chapters on digital games in two books and is presently engaged in practice-led research concerning the visualisation of cultural heritage data. Sam has previously collaborated with Mitchell Whitelaw on the Flickr Commons Explorer project, which implements an interactive exploratory visualisation of thousands of images available on the Flickr Commons.


Mitchell Whitelaw is an academic, writer and artist with interests in new media art and culture, especially generative systems and data-aesthetics. His work has appeared in journals including Leonardo, Digital Creativity, Fibreculture, and Senses and Society. In 2004 his work on a-life art was published in the book Metacreation: Art and Artificial Life (MIT Press, 2004). His current work spans generative art and design, digital materiality, and data visualisation. He is currently an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Arts and Design at the University of Canberra, where he leads the Master of Digital Design.