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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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