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A few predictions for the future of urban games

Best Scene in Town

On Wednesday 14 April I co-hosted the first Best Scene in Town workshop on invitation of Waag Society’s Ronald Lenz. The other co-host was The Mobile City‘s Martijn de Waal. Best Scene in Town is a design contest wherein participants are asked to create an urban game, narrative experience or tour using 7scenes; Waag Society’s “mobile storytelling platform”. The winning entries will be playable at this year’s Nuit Blanche in Amsterdam. As part of the contest, several workshops are offered to inspire and assist those interested in participating.

This first workshop was focused on games and architecture. Both Martijn and I were asked to give a short presentation on the main values of architecture and game design respectively, and then go into a few future scenarios. I’ve posted the full presentation I gave to SlideShare but here’s an excerpt of the scenarios, because I think that’s the most fun part.

Scenario 1: “Would you like points with that?”

The first scenario is about what happens when all mundane activities are turned into games.

It’s an extrapolation of things we are seeing now, such as Foursquare (which attaches points to visits to the pub) and car dashboards like the one found in the Ford Fusion Hybrid, which attaches a score of sorts to your driving behavior.

Getting points for brushing your teeth

The way this future would feel is that you are constantly given points for things you do. Those points are most likely awarded by businesses and governments, to manipulate your behavior. For instance, an electrical toothbrush might award you points for loyal brushing behavior. Those points could result in a discount on your health insurance…

This future works thanks to the proliferation of cheap sensors and networking. These are barely games. The sensing makes your everyday activities measurable. Then, simple game mechanics like collecting and rankings are stacked on top. It’s not about make-believe, it’s about improving who you are and what you do.

Scenario 2: “Be who you aren’t.”

The second scenario I’d like to share with you is about where I think digital games as an entertainment medium are headed. It’s about the player as performer, augmented by a large range of personal technologies.

This scenario is an extrapolation of the social physical games we’ve seen emerge on consoles, such as Guitar Hero. These games are a social activity, you can be a player but you can also be a spectator. They’re performative. And the tech makes you feel awesome, if only just for a minute. It lets your pretend you’re a rockstar. Pretending is at the core of these games and I think that when they collide with lifestyles such as goths (who pretend to be Victorians, essentially) we’ll be in for a surprise… (As another example, you could say parkour players are pretending to be superheroes, or Super Mario, at least.)

Fixie Hero

So imagine you could embody your ambitions, the things you aspire to, without actually having to become them. If you fancy yourself a bicycle courier you can play the Fixie Hero game and show off to all your friends. There’ll be tech that lets you pretend to ride a bike really fast and dangerous without actually, you know, going fast and being in danger. But you’ll feel like it, and you’ll look awesome doing it. Or you can pretend to be a pilot, a fireman, an artist, a head of state, you name it.

So this future is mostly facilitated by progress in post-GUI technologies. It’ll be brought about by all kinds of wearable, portable, personal tech that’ll amplify various senses and capacities. They’ll be stylish, fashionable and fit in with your lifestyle. (Not like these MIT geeks, in other words.)

Scenario 3: “Warning: alternate reality in progress!”

The third and last scenario is about games as tools for proposing and effecting change.

It takes as its starting points a recent trend in the design world, called design fiction. It’s about telling stories about possible futures and making artifacts that represent said future. Here’s a photo from the Lyddle End 2050 project, which was a collaborative effort to build a model of an English village as it might look in the future. On the other hand we have things like alternate reality games that employ a range of media to create the illusion of a coherent mirror world. Zona Incerta, for instance, was a Brazilian ARG about a big corporation buying up the Amazon, which caused quite a stir.

Wading through alternate realities

This future has you stumbling across other people’s realities constantly. You might have some way of filtering them out, or there might be legislation that forces people to warn you about them. Conversely, you yourself might construct and play in realities that you would like to see happen (or would like to prevent). It’s culture jamming gone mainstream, in other words.

This future functions mainly thanks to our overlapping media landscape and the fact that our experience of reality is already fully mediated. Cheap tools and platforms for media production make it possible for individuals and small groups of people to produce and run these games.

Like I said, the whole presentation is on SlideShare.

The teams in the middle of developing their concepts

The teams in the middle of developing their concepts

After our presentations, the workshop kicked off in full. Seven teams worked on concepts ranging from a tour of local markets where the goal was to learn about and collect ingredients for recipes representative of the many cultures that make up the Bijlmer, to a game where you’re awarded points for starting street parties.

I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by the atmosphere and the output of this workshop. I’m curious to see what will result from next editions, since those will continue to collide contrasting fields such as museums versus advertising and film & theater versus interaction design.

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