I went looking for a few recent examples of games that deal with architectural themes in some way. I pulled these mostly from a few of the major street games festivals that are out there, such as Come Out & Play, Hide & Seek, Igfest and You Are GO!
Just from this small sample size it is apparent that there are many ways to deal with a city and buildings in a game. You can use the physical layout of a space, or the stories clinging to a place. You can use games to discuss urban processes, or map not only physical but also psychological geography.
Anyway, here’s six games that I found.
Physical space as plaything
Photo © Lia Bulaong
Cross my Heart + Hope to Die is interesting first of all for the profiles of its creators. Eric Zimmerman is well know for being the co-author of the seminal Rules of Play, as well as for having created a number of interesting games such as SiSSYFiGHT 2000. For Cross My Heart + Hope to Die, which premiered at the 2010 Come Out & Play Festival in NYC, he collaborated with architect Nathalie Pozzi. The result is a game in which the physical layout of space plays a major role. Players rearrange the walls of the life-sized labyrinth in which the game takes place. Even though these walls are in fact not much more than semi-transparent drapes, and as such wouldn’t obstruct movement, they are enough to signal partitioning of space. They also prevent players from seeing all that is going on, while still giving them a hint of what is close by.
Urban processes as subject
Photo (cc) Kate Raynes-Goldie
Gentrification: The Game! by Atmosphere Industries attempts to emulate the social process of wealthier people moving into low-income neighborhoods. The game pits players against each other in the roles of locals and developers. Developers imagine ways in which they would redevelop existing buildings. Locals take action to halt the process of gentrification through various means, such as protests. Players track their process using a mobile app which feeds back the changes to the buildings — the imaginary gentrified cityscape. This is very close to what I imagined a real-life version of Golfstromen’s Gentrification Battlefield would be like.
Rulespace versus meatspace
Visible Cities, by Holly Gramazio and Kevan Davies, is a relatively straightforward checkpoint chase game but with an interesting twist. Although checkpoints are all physically in the same area, the game rules group them in various “universes”. Players and chasers can only interact with each other if they are in the same universe, even though they can physically perceive those that aren’t. In this way, the game elegantly shows how our experience of physical reality is not only governed by the atoms it is made up of, but also to a large extent by the principles of governance we socially agree upon. This reminds me of China Miéville’s lovely book The City & The City.
Photo (cc) Aaron Brashear
Necropolis Family Tree, by Coney, makes great use of the meaning of a specific place by challenging players to tell stories inspired by a memorial site. More specifically, by exploring a graveyard in search of imaginary long-lost relatives. Although the connection between the space, the game’s theme and player actions is quite literal, I prefer this over the location-based games that can be played anywhere and in fact have no real interplay with the place a player is in.
Mapping sentiment on the streets
Photo © Present Attempt
Walking Smiles, by Present Attempt, is all about map-making, which isn’t anything new for urban games per se, but the map created by players wandering the city in this case records smiles received from strangers. Thus it isn’t a literal mapping of physical space that emerges from the game, but a map of sentiment, of emotional space if you will. It looks like the game’s runners go out of their way to map the data received from players in as many interesting ways as possible. For instance, they build a chart of smiles per minute as the game progresses.
The image of the city as puzzle
Photo © Invisible Playground
Pieces of Berlin by Erik Burke & Lynn Maharas is about looking at the cityscape and comparing what is seen to drawings of buildings on transparencies. I guess a game like this will only work in cities with a high imageability ranking. I have seen quite a few urban games that incorporate clues in the form of city photographs. But the use of drawings here appeals to me for their ambiguity. It emphasizes general shape as opposed to details. It also allows for some more freedom on the game designer’s part with regards to which parts of the city to show and hide.
Now, I would kill for a chance to bring these games together, and play them all in the same space. It might be worthwhile to collate player experiences and see how these games allow for alternative entry points into the experience of a city’s fabric or how they enable people to shape their city.