Some notes on the design of pervasive games

How do you design gaming experiences in the city? What is the role of locative and mobile media in urban games? What is the relation between computer games and the city? Those three questions were addressed at two meetings in Amsterdam a few weeks ago, in which The Mobile City participated. What follows is a combination of my notes from both events. I will try to look at some design approaches of what for the sake of  briefness I will call here ‘pervasive games’ – games in which gameplay and real life are intertwined – usually with the help of digital and mobile technology. (See for instance this article if you want to delve into more precise definitions and subgenres)

(For the record, these were the two events: I was one of the co-hosts of the ‘Best Scene in Town‘ workshop organized by Waag Society. In this workshop participants were challenged to design an urban game with the help of the 7scenes locative platform. Kars Alfrink of Hubbub (a design studio specialized in physical social games for public space) and I were asked to give a brief introduction. Incidentally, one week earlier Kars Alfrink and The Mobile City’s Michiel de Lange as well as James Burke of Vurb were part of a panel on Visual Cities #03, that took place in De Verdieping.)

Pervasive Games as Games
The first and most apparent approach of pervasive games is to use traditional games as a metaphor. This means to think of the city as a playing board, and to translate or vary upon the gameplay and rules of existing games, be they traditional urban games (treasure hunt, tag), traditional games (trading games, strategy games, role playing games, rock-paper-scissors etc.) or console games (e.g. pacman). This approach fits in a broader development in which gaming is becoming a more physical activity, for instance through new interfaces such as the Wii. As Kars Alfring said:

Games are about doing stuff. You don’t read a game, you don’t listen to a game, you don’t watch a game (although you can do all of these), you DO a game (you play it). So at the core of any good game is an interesting activity.

Many now classic examples or urban gaming fall (partly) in this category, examples are Geogcaching, Botfighters, Pacmanhattan, Can you see me now?

Kars Alfrink talked about a street game he designed in Rotterdam called Changed your World.  Participants had to run around the city with giant flags. Alfrink said that the use of physical artifacts is good idea in the design of urban games. First of all they make clear to passers-by and regular urbanites that something special is going on. Moreover:

We had a lot of benefit from the flags we employed. Being physical artifacts, they had a lot of affordances that were readily available to us. This you don’t get in software, where you need to build every property of an object yourself.

Change Your World from Hubbub on Vimeo.

Pervasive Games as Performative Arts

Another  – and perhaps counterintuitive – metaphor to approach pervasive games is as theater, rather than as games. Many pervasive games are event based, staged performances and often include actors. The main difference between these game performances and more traditional theater is that the public has an active role in the performances, and that instead of a script or screen play, there is a set of rules that actors and audience have to follow. These rule sets make up a story engine, that drives the performance. This can be an exploratory event, or it may be incorporated in narrative structures. (For instance, last year we wrote about Michael Epstein’s (Founder of Untravel Media) take on ‘storytelling with  locative media‘, in which he discussed the role of gameplay in location based storytelling.)

Much of the work of Blast Theory (who produced classics such as Can You See Me Know,  Uncle Roy All Around You and Rider Spoke) falls into this category. While they presented earlier work as ‘games that happen simultaneously online and on the streets’, they have included direct references to theater in some of their more recent projects. Rider Spoke for instance is framed as a ‘work for cyclists combining theatre with game play and state of the art technology. The project continues Blast Theory’s enquiry into performance in the age of personal communication.’

Alfrink’s company Hubbub was involved in designing an opera staged in a Dutch town called Monster. The goal was to involve the audience as players,

One of the biggest challenges was to come up with a concept that would accommodate both a compelling story and a game-like participatory aspect. For this we sought inspiration in martial arts movies and ultimately arrived at an Enter the Dragon-like setup, which features a storyline mixed with fighting set pieces. The fights would be improvised on the basis of game rules. (We also took cues from games like Street Fighter and Pokémon for both story and character design.)

Much of the subsequent work for us went into prototyping and playtesting the ruleset. For each session we brought in a ruleset and played several matches, figuring out a balance between fun-to-play and fun-to-watch. All the matches were recorded and analyzed afterwards for improvements.

Pervasive Games as an extension of Urban Culture

In my own presentation at the 7scenes workshop I urged designers to approach pervasive games from the perspective of urban culture, rather than from the perspective of games. How can we add a certain playfullness to everyday urban situations, in order to enhance urban culture? I gave three examples of elements of urban culture that perhaps could be made more interesting by adding some playful touches to them.

  • The city as a public space for deliberation, and democratic debate, as examplified by the Acropolis. I presented the example of the Climate on the Wall-project (see here for a more extensive description) designed  by the Danish Center for Digital Urban Living. This project is an interactive mediafacade where passers-by can arrange words in a certain order. This project was made playful by its allusion to  ‘magnetic poetry’ – the little magnets with single words that you can rearrange on your fridge door to create ‘poetry’.
  • The City as a stage on which we ‘perform’ our identities. This is an idea that builds upon symbolic interactionism as well as on theories of ‘performativity’ by people like Erving Goffman and Jane Jacobs. These theories conceive of our daily lives as performances in which we continuously act out different social roles (we shift from being an office worker, a dad, a manager, a friend, a museum visitor, etc.). At the same time through the numerous small interactions in the city streets, over time trust is build between citizens. We could argue that social networks and especially location based ones (Foursquare, Gowalla) are stages on which we perform our identities in our times, and some of these have indeed added gameplay elements (For instance the  badges one  can earn through Forusquare).
  • The City as an operating system. This approach departs from the idea that our cities of today generate numerous datastreams. We can aggregate these datastreams and build services on top of them. Think for instance of the ‘cabsense‘ app for the iPhone that collects gps-data generated by cabs, and uses that data to recommend the best corner nearby the user’s current locations to catch a cab. Can we now use these datastreams as input for playful interactions in the city? At the Visual Cities-event James Burke of Vurb presented their new Urbannode project that is partially based on this premise:The Urbanode Project from VURB on Vimeo.

    We are now entering an era where technology begins to weave together the desires of citizens and the services available to them in their environment in realtime. But what does the use of these new systems look like? It is quite clear that the first step to unlocking these possibilities is the mobile terminal, or ‘smartphone’. Users of such mobile devices have already become accustomed to the access to information that urban-oriented webservices available in the mobile browser provide: maps, transit times, weather information, etc. Even tasks like calling a cab or reserving a table at a restaurant have become like buttons on a remote control for the city. But what about more active uses of service made available in the environment? Applications, supported by new network hardware, more like airTunes, where anyone running iTunes can ‘discover’ nearby speakers and stream music to them wirelessly.

  • The City as a community. This approach came up in Alfrinks talk, when he discussed Koppelkiek – a social photo collecting game he designed for a neighborhood in Utrecht. The goal was to ‘create a meeting place for diverse individuals in a troubled neighborhood. The game provided an excuse and a framework for strangers to have brief interactions with each other.’ In this game, the designers game up with changing ‘assignments’ for the players such as “Take a photo of yourself with someone else in front of his or her front door.” The game was a success because the designers took an effort to engage citizens in the game. They approached key figures in the neighborhood and set up a small shop as well. They also thought of a way to make a pervasive game as this physically visible in the neighborhood. This was done by exhibiting the photo’s in an old shop window.

Pervasive Games as Applied ‘Game Theory’ (Political & economic game theory that is, not a ludic one)

Although the idea of enhancing urban culture by adding game play elements to all sorts of urban situations can be an interesting one, there is also the risk (or opportunity, depending on whose perspective you take) of turning everyday life in a series of disciplining events or strategy games (hence the reference to game theory). Government agencies or insurance companies might want to promote certain behaviors and discourage others and hope to seduce citizens to comply with their wishes by adding gameplay elements and awarding points for all sorts of situations. A dystopian scenario that builds on this trend was recently described by Jessie Schell, who imagined a future in which amongst others your wifi enabled toothbrush would award you a number of points each time you brush your teeth. These points can then be redeemed at your insurance company to get a discount on your dental insurance. Schell calls this scenario the Gamepocalypse.

Urban Games and Architecture and Planning

During these sessions The Mobile City’s Michiel de Lange also addressed the relation between architecture and urban games. He discerned five levels to understand urban games (1) the city is often used as a model to construct an architecture of computer and video games; (2) the city itself has historically been understood in multiple ways as a game or playground; (3) pervasive games take digital games out to the streets and bridge the digital-physical distinction; (4) (serious) games are used in the process of (re)building actual cities; (5) urban games are a metaphorical lens through which to look at utopian and dystopian futures of cities. His presentation was based on an a (highly recommended) article he wrote in Second Nature.

Martijn de Waal

Martijn de Waal (1972) is a writer, researcher and strategist, working in the field of digital media and (urban) culture. He is currently a senior researcher at the Play & Civic Media group at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences.

He has worked with and for various clients and organizations such as The Netherlands Architecture Institute, Open Society Foundation, The Architectural League of New York, Lift@Home, Kitchen Budapest, The Mondriaan Foundation and Dutch Public Broadcasting.

Formerly he was part of the New Media, Public Sphere and Urban Culture research group at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Groningen, and connected to the department of mediastudies at the University of Amsterdam. In 2009 he was a visiting scholar at MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media.

His most recent book are The City as Interface. How Digital Media Are Changing the City (NAi010 Publishers, 2014) and De Platformsamenleving (The Platform Society), co-authored with Jose van Dijck en Thomas Poell (Amsterdam University Press, 2016)