Experiments in pervasive gaming


[two of the actors from Journey to the Middle of the Night]

This weekend saw me at igfest in Bristol, the UK’s first major regional festival of pervasive or urban games. 

Video games are of course well known as a massive global industry with the UK being a particularly big player – indeed NESTA as an organisation has recently become quite active in this sector.  My particular interest however and what took mein Bristol is this question…what is the impact on gaming as the web becomes increasingly mobile? 

The traditional answer is that mobile gaming is console gaming made miniature – and there is plenty of evidence of phone-based game downloads and well-designed small console devices to support that.  However there is another answer which comes from a radically different angle…the future is to use the phone as a device in which you interact with the physical world around you.  And of course this is made only more powerful as GPS-enabled phones become increasingly widespread. Welcome to the world of pervasive gaming.

Pervasive games, also known as augmented reality games, city games or big games, are old forms of play fused with new technological possibilities. Most share these principles:

  • Integrating real-world play with digital technology
  • Engagement & social contact through game narratives
  • Using the city as your playground
  • Transforming urban spaces into cinematic & theatrical stage-sets

[thank you to Hide & Seek Sandpit for this definition]

Instinct, while certainly an excellent thing, is rarely enough and therefore I went to igfest keen to get first-hand experience of pervasive gaming, which can be a nebulous concept at the best of times.  What therefore may be helpful here is to describe three of the games I played:

Comfort of StrangersHi-tech.  Of a group of around 30, each player is equipped with a piece of kit which hosts Hewlett Packard’s exciting mscape GPS-enabled platform.  There are two teams, the Lovers and the Dancers but at the start of the game no-one knows which side they are on.  All players are dispersed in a crowded part of the city – a large public square works best – and once the game begins whenever another player enters into a pre-determined range of you (c.15 metres) a voice whispers in your ear…there is a dancer/lover nearby.  You are then told your life score and if it has gone up, you know that the person in range is in your team and if it goes down they are the enemy, thereby deducing if you are a lover or a dancer.  What follows is an exercise in exploration, teamwork and swarming with the goal to get the highest team score possible after an allotted time span. 

Bad Taste Party

Lo-tech.  Again around 30 people are playing and there are two teams – the Fashion Anarchists and the Bad Taste Police.  A zone is set up in a busy shopping area with mannequins placed in the centre.  The anarchists have a stash of terribly ugly clothes which they don at the edge of the zone and then walk amongst the shopping masses aiming to reach the mannequins to deposit their hideous clothes.  At the same time the police patrol the zone and apprehend anyone they suspect of smuggling ugly clothes and then confiscating said items.  The winning team is the one that has smuggled or confiscated the most items after a specific time span.  As you may imagine, much hilarity/offence can result if the police attempt to apprehend a member of the public who is not playing the game.


Hi-tech. A brave game designer donned a moose outfit and starting in the
forest of Dean 80 miles away, made his way to Bristol city centre of three days.  Players could text in to receive his GPS location and we then able to hunt the moose (with digital cameras).  A twist was that the moose would know when he was being tracked and from where so that he could change his route accordingly.  Players could also watch the chase via a map-based mashup.

Journey to the Middle of the Night


Lo-tech as player, high-coordination as organiser.  This for me was the highlight of my time and was essentially a city-wide chase game in which you have to make it to checkpoints by certain times across the city while co-called chasers attempt to track you down.  If you are tagged then you in turn become a chaser and therefore the game becomes increasingly difficult as time progresses.  What was exceptional about this version which originated in the US was the clear influence of Punchdrunk, the outstanding theatre company who have a short-term residence at the Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol.  This resulted in the checkpoints being in effect immersive theatrical scenes with the most dramatic being when we marched through the corridors of a disused police station and alarmingly locked into tiny cells in order to get clues for the next destination.  This game had over 200 players…quite intense.

[short video of London’s social games festival Hide & Seek in 2007]

Of my time at igfest, there were a few things that really struck me:

  • One was the sheer liberation of experiencing the city space as my playground.  One co-player described it as starring in your very own computer game and that summed it up perfectly. 
  • The ability of play to unite generations and backgrounds.  I was playing some of the games with children younger than ten but we were genuinely engaging as peers.
  • How the incentive of play is such a powerful way to support people in working collaboratively – fun is a universal language.
  • At no time in the playing of any of the games did I think I was doing something stupid, although it may have looked as such from an objective position.  For the duration of the games I was fully committed to them and that really surprised (and excited) me.

So what next for pervasive gaming?  My instinct remains that while it this new interpretation of play is currently a fringe activity, both commercially and socially, the fact that the core demographic is geeks and hipsters (and combinations of the two) deserves attention.  This is a demographic that one should not underestimate… just ask Steve Jobs.

Image credit: flickr user | edmittance

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