Communication Currents

Cities as Digital Playgrounds

December 1, 2008
Digital Communication & Gaming

Cell phones, when equipped with Internet access and location awareness through GPS, have the potential to create multiplayer game spaces that occur simultaneously in physical, digital, and represented spaces. These types of games are called hybrid reality games (HRGs). Games such as I like Frank and Day of the Figurines demonstrate the inseparable connection of our physical spaces and daily lives. Because these games represent interconnections between play/ordinary life, game community, and player identity, they help us rethink our ideas about surveillance, community, and anonymity in city spaces. 

Traditionally, games and playful spaces have been distinguished from spaces of ordinary life. One example of this separation is recess time for school children. However, we argue that play is essentially part of all life, and that HRGs foreground our naturally playful human nature.   

I Like Frank was simultaneously played in 2004 in the city of Adelaide, Australia, and in a digital 3D mockup of the same city. The game lasted 60 minutes and involved street players and online players. Street players used a mobile phone to play the game and to navigate the physical city of Adelaide through a 2D map. Online players used their home computers and could see the position of the street players in the 3D virtual space; they also used audio and text messages to communicate with them. The goal of the game was to find the fictional character, Frank, who had a real office location in the city. The game required both types of players. The street players who had the ability to physically find Frank's office did not have access to online information. Meanwhile the online players had access to information about where the office was located, but were not physically in the space. With access to different types of information, both types of players needed to collaborate to complete the game.

Day of the Figurines begins when a player creates and registers an avatar, or game token, at the game board location. The game board represents the urban space of the city where the player is. The player plays the game by sending simple text messages to a person who moves the player's avatar on the game board. The player also receives status updates via text messages. The game takes place over a period of 24 days; each day corresponds to one hour within the unfolding game story. Day of the Figurines has no goals, no real winners, and no final objectives. The game unfolds as social interactions with other characters and the game space(es), which simulate much of our ordinary life experiences.

Both games reveal new ways of thinking about communication, community, and space. HRGs combine play and life in two ways: experientially and spatially. From an experiential perspective, HRGs merge ordinary life with play, and play emerges from our daily life activities. Play is thus best understood as an experienced and lived activity that intertwines with our ordinary daily experiences. However, it is not just the space itself, but the relationships between people that create this playful space. Playfulness is also facilitated by the social interactions between people.  

Turning to a spatial perspective, we can see how HRGs go a step further than other games by merging and complementing physical and digital space. For example, in I Like Frank, actions are necessary in all spaces (the 3D world, the mobile 2D map, the urban space of Adelaide, and the physical surroundings of the online players) in order to succeed in the game. Likewise, the playful activities of Day of the Figurines are embedded in daily life routines, as the game is played through SMS or text messages, which are also used for ordinary everyday activities.

Community creation in both games occurs only to the degree to which it is safe to trust strangers. For example, in I Like Frank, the success of the game depends on anonymous trust and interactions between players, and between players and bystanders. However, we typically don't share information with strangers. Meanwhile, in Day of the Figurines, players are interacting only through their avatars and their actions have no possible effect on a player's immediate physical space. Therefore, the players have the opportunity to trust people more than they would otherwise. Therefore, this game shows how community can emerge in an environment where trust comes cheaply, but rules are nonexistent.

The safety of anonymity is both challenged and ensured by the public play of HRGs and through the culture of surveillance in which they are embedded. In both games, players are under surveillance. Street players in I Like Frank are surveyed by bystanders in the street and online players. Day of the Figurine players can be surveyed when someone physically visits the game board and sees an avatar's moves or all of the text messages exchanged on a large projection screen.

Though it is difficult to predict the long-term impacts HRGs will bring to our daily lives, two broader spatial and social consequences can be suggested. First, HRGs may impact perceptions of space by transforming how people move through urban spaces; and they may increasingly encourage a mix of playful/ordinary and public/private spaces. Additionally, HRGs challenge the notion that mobile technologies promote isolation. In these games, cell phones create dynamic social networks that blur public/private and leisure/work spaces. Socially, HRGs shift our interactions with other people by bridging online and offline communities.

So, while HRGs are fun and connect people socially and spatially, we can see that there are positive and negative consequences to such connections. Opening up more spaces for trusting people, HRGs can also abuse that trust, especially given the surveillance-oriented nature of these games. However, these games can also teach us more about how surveillance operates, therefore making us aware of the surveillance in everyday life.