Several months before starting my PhD I bought 432 smiley face badges off the Internet. This was not an entirely random decision. A few weeks prior to this purchase I had bought a dozen of the badges while browsing a discount shop, on the hunt for props to use in a game that I was helping to design. We needed a small, subtle signifier that participants could wear to identify themselves as players amidst a non-playing festival crowd. I knew the badges weren’t right for this particular game, but I grabbed them anyway. Like the marbles, matchboxes and other items I was in the habit of collecting from dollar shops and newsagents, they might be right for something else. They shared a certain quality that some objects possess, an invitation to be appropriated or amplified beyond the everyday.
By the time I got home from the shop I had an idea. The badges could be rabbit holes; invitations to play the perception-shifting urban game that I was planning to create. And the badges themselves would be a game: I planned to scatter them around the city, in places where they might be noticed by a drifting gaze. If enough people found the badges and started wearing them in public, would those people begin to take notice of each other? What effect might that have?
The invitational affordances of the badge itself (pick me up, put me on) suggested that it might make for a good rabbit hole. But the true potential of these badges, I believed, was in the semiotics of their specific design. The smiley face, in its ubiquity and ambiguity, belongs to nobody — and therefore to everybody. It has been appropriated by such disparate interests as the acid house music scene, Alan Moore’s gritty graphic novel The Watchmen and the innocuous narrative of Forrest Gump, and can no longer be reduced to any single inflection of meaning. It is the Mona Lisa of pop culture. As soon as I bought the first lot of badges, I started seeing smiley faces everywhere.
When I placed my order for the second lot I had no idea how the badges would lead players into my larger game, or what exactly that game might be. I felt like I needed to have all 454 of them in front of me to intuit my next move. That the multitude of their presence would somehow impart a clue.
The badges arrived, and I was excited, but when I unpacked them and laid them out before me I found that they had not come with instructions. My map was simply 454 mute faces staring up at me. A month later they went back into their box; my whole life went into boxes, as I left another life behind.