Urban Games

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Sreeju Sreevatsan

Palash Somani

Maja Buljan


Urban gaming is a quite new in the market kind of phenomenon that takes gaming to a way larger, more realistic and much more engaging level. All urban games have a few things in common but the most common thing is they all take place in public spaces. Often this space is a city, or a defined area within a city, but some games take place in wilderness areas, such as state parks and other publicly accessible places. The play space is always much larger in scale than traditional games -- in fact, it could be said that they occur at "human scale," rather than a miniature scale on a tabletop, or as an abstraction in a computer game. Finally, all urban games incorporate communication technology, such as cell phones, GPS receivers, digital cameras, and the Internet. So if we were to summarize this we could say that urban Games comprise of 3 main elements: 1.Public Space 2.Technology 3.A Game Idea/Concept

The idea of merging digital and urban playspaces was inspired by development of technology, especially locative technologies which resulted with creation of new games. Game space extrapolated the mobile phone screens and turned them into interfaces to navigate physical spaces. That combination of digital and physical results with communication, collaboration and social interaction between players. Montola (2005) defines these type of games as games that expand the borders of the magic circle spatially, temporally and socially.

Pervasive Games

Pervasive games combine real and virtual world elements and expand the boundaries of magic circle temporally - they do not have a game time. The game world never stops, even when the player is not playing the game. They use diverse communication media as part of the gameplay. Game story is merged with the players ordinary life. (MAJESTIC, BOTFIGHTERS, MOGI)

- tend to take the game outside of the magic circle

- are based on ubiquitous computing which turns computers into everyday objects

- they incorporate real world objects into gameplay

Urban Games (UGs)

Games that use city space as the game board. They are often multiplayer games. They do not necessarily use location aware technology. Some of them have predetermined playtime, but some don't. Examples include BIG URBAN GAME B.U.G. (United States), Proboscis’ URBAN TAPESTRIES (United Kingdom), and INP URBAN VIBE (South Korea), BOTFIGHTERS, CONQWEST, SHOOT ME IF YOU CAN, ASPHALT GAMES.

Location-Based Mobile Games (LMBGs)

They also use physical space as play space. They may have a specific play time. Characteristic that make them special is that they use mobile phones with GPS and Internet connection. Players can interact with each other using their mobile phones. Examples: BOTFIGTHERS, GEOCACHING, CITITAG, and ALIEN REVOLT.

Hybrid Reality Games (HRGs)

Hybrid Reality Games (HRGs): like UGs they use the city as a game board and like LBMGs players interact using internet and location system. Additionally, they take place both in physical and digital spaces simultaneously - they create hybrid reality. Players are distributed in physical and digital spaces and they are connected through social actions. Examples: CAN YOU SEE ME NOW?, UNCLE ROY ALL AROUND YOU, PACMANHATTAN and MOGI.

Types of Urban Games as per time of play

You just read about the types of location based games or urban games according to the gameplay. Now, regardless of the type of gameplay, there are two main types of Urban Games according to the time of play:

Synchronous urban games:

Geo Caching - A Location-Based Mobile Game

These games are designed for all players to play at the same time and can be single player or multiplayer. Organizers create different teams, each one has a mission assigned and normally must to collaborate or compete, in real time, with the other teams of the game to achieve it. An example of this kind of urban games could be:

Pac-Manhattan: Pac-Manhattan is a large-scale urban game that utilizes the New York City grid to recreate the 1980’s video game sensation Pac-Man. One player is Pac-Man and the others become the phantoms that have to catch him using the GPS technology and running through the streets. A player dressed as Pac-man will run around the Washington square park area of Manhattan while attempting to collect all of the virtual "dots" that run the length of the streets. Four players dressed as the ghosts Inky, Blinky, Pinky and Clyde will attempt to catch Pac-man before all of the dots are collected. Using cell-phone contact, Wi-Fi internet connections, and custom software designed by the Pac-Manhattan team, Pac-man and the ghosts will be tracked from a central location and their progress will be broadcast over the internet for viewers from around the world.

Asynchronous urban games: These games are played in the same places and spaces but they are designed to be played without real time interaction between players. These kind of urban games allow more passive participation. Smartphones, tablets or handheld computers use GPS positioning to find virtual objects or other players who happen to be nearby. An example of this kind of games could be:

Geocaching: Geocaching is the real-world treasure hunt that’s happening right now, all around the world. Participants navigate to a specific set of GPS coordinates and then attempt to find the geocache (container) hidden at that location.

Where did this idea came from?

Urban spaces have been used as game boards long before mobile technologies existed. There are three historical tropes of urbanity that influenced the advent of UGs:

  1. The formation of Baudelaire's flâneur into Robert Luke's (2006) phoneur
  2. The idea of dérive used by situationist Guy Debord
  3. The wall subculture called parkour

Beyond entertainment

Serious Games

Play the City uses gaming to engage multiple stakeholders in resolving complex urban challenges, both in contexts of urban development and organizational realignment. They design games as a method for collaborative decision making and problem solving. In the environment of games, players are motivated to engage with a problem and with each other, facilitating collaborative outcomes.

Educational Uses

Games have been recognized as potential learning tools long ago. They create environments that motivate and engage people. They also encourage participants into innovative and complex thinking in order to develop or improve critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. Students attitude and experiance gained while playing games help them store learned material into long term memory. Games challenge participants (students) to experience world in a new, exciting way and enhance their collaboration skills. Mobile devices have some unique advantages in context of use for educational purpose:

  • they are personal and always accessible.
  • they have (context aware) technology build into them.
  • technology is cheaper than laptops and desktop computers.

Design of Urban Games

Urban games as a part of design can be perceived in different ways. Here, we can perceive urban games in 4 ways:

Urban Games as Games The first and most apparent approach of urban games is to use traditional games as a metaphor. This means to think of the city as a playing board, and to translate or vary upon the gameplay and rules of existing games, be they traditional urban games (treasure hunt, tag), traditional games (trading games, strategy games, role playing games, rock-paper-scissors etc.) or console games (e.g. pacman). This approach fits in a broader development in which gaming is becoming a more physical activity, for instance through new interfaces such as the Wii.

Urban Games as Performing Arts Another metaphor to approach urban games is as theater, rather than as games. Many urban games are event based, staged performances and often include actors. The main difference between these game performances and more traditional theater is that the public has an active role in the performances, and that instead of a script or screenplay, there is a set of rules that actors and audience have to follow. These rule sets make up a story engine, that drives the performance. This can be an exploratory event, or it may be incorporated in narrative structures.

A player participating in 'Can you see me now?'

Urban Games as an extension of Urban Culture This approach to urban games from the perspective of urban culture, rather than from the perspective of games is to add a certain playfulness to everyday urban situations, in order to enhance urban culture. The aspects in terms of urban culture are derivatives of: 1.The city as a public space for deliberation, and democratic debate 2.The City as a stage on which we ‘perform’ our identities. 3.The City as an operating system. 4.The City as a community.

Urban Games as Applied ‘Game Theory’ Although the idea of enhancing urban culture by adding game play elements to all sorts of urban situations can be an interesting one, there is also the risk or opportunity, of turning everyday life in a series of disciplining events or strategy games. Government agencies or insurance companies might want to promote certain behaviors and discourage others and hope to seduce citizens to comply with their wishes by adding gameplay elements and awarding points for all sorts of situations. A dystopian scenario that builds on this trend was recently described by Jessie Schell, who imagined a future in which amongst others your wifi enabled toothbrush would award you a number of points each time you brush your teeth. These points can then be redeemed at your insurance company to get a discount on your dental insurance. Schell calls this scenario the Gamepocalypse.

Urban Games at present

Today the term 'Urban Games' is only used seldom. The only type of urban game which is popular among the masses is the location-based mobile games. The sheer advancement of the hardware manufacturing technology and the scaling down of the hardware components has made the mobile phones cheaper and more available to people. Almost all the phones today have internet assisted GPS navigation capabilities and this has lead to the development of lots of location-aware applications in the market. It is only during this window, the location-based mobile games became popular even though they were around since 2006. Location-based mobile games or location-enabled mobile games which use player's location for gameplay progression. Ingress and Pokémon Go are two prime examples of location-based mobile games which are popular among the masses.


An in-game screenshot of the game. Source: Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Ingress is a free, location-based, augmented-reality mobile game developed by Niantic. Ingress was initially developed by Niantic as the proof of concept for AR game built on Google Maps data. Also a location-based exergame.

Gameplay and Game Mechanics

Game Play involves two opposing factions competing against each other rather than individually, capturing portals spanned in the real world and linking them together to form virtual triangles "control fields" over a geographical area. Apart from capturing portals players don't suffer any damage other running out of 'XM' temporarily, that fuels all actions except player's movement. Progress in the gameplay is measured by the amount of AP(Access Points) a player has accumulated, where APs are awarded for performing in-game actions/tasks like destroying or damaging an enemy portal, capturing, linking, or recharging a portal, creating a control field, and other actions. The portals are found at places of public interests or cultural significance like monuments, places of worship, public art and other landmarks. Players may also request for creation of new portals which will, in turn, would help Google to generate data for their location-based services. In 2015, Niantic announced that they are splitting from Google and became a new independent company.

What made the game a huge Success?

A science fiction backstory with a continuous open narrative with the idea of moving around the real world helping the game progression could be the main reason. Niantic is supported by ads basically but once the game became popular, Niantic used a clever business model allowed companies to pay for their locations to be made into a pilgrimage site of the Ingress players to help them increase their sales.

Pokémon GO

An in-game screenshot of the game. Source: Wikipedia

Again a free to play, location-based, augmented-reality mobile game developed by Niantic collaborating with Nintendo, the company behind Pokémon. Initially, the game received mixed reviews with praises from critics for the game's concept and the idea of promoting physical activity while others criticized frequent technical issued around the time of release. Pokémon GO managed to become the most used and profitable mobile by the end of 2016 with more than 500 million downloads worldwide.

Gameplay and Game Mechanics

Players create an avatar which is then displayed on the map with respect to the player's geographical location. The map displays the locations of 'PokéStops' which are equipped with items to lure or attract other wild Pokémons and 'Pokémon Gyms' which are battle locations for team-based matches. Players go around the city or locality in search of these wild Pokémons and when they come across one, they catch the Pokémon by throwing a Poké Ball at them. On successfully catching a Pokémon, players are awarded rewards.


A variable sign board asking drivers not to play Pokémon Go while driving. Source: Wikipedia

PokéStops and Gyms are basically repurposed portal locations from Ingress, the previous AR game from Niantic. This led to PokéStops and Pokémon Gyms location appearing at strange, sensitive and inconvenient locations. For example, one such now deleted Pokémon Gym was located in the Korean Demilitarized Zone. There have been numerous other cases complaints ranging from over littering, noise, traffic and even accidents resulting from a large number of people being on foot and playing the game.

What made the game a huge Success?

The huge fan base for the Pokémon franchise could be the only major factor but also Niantic through its previous game found that the idea using the world as the play space and making the players was the key to success of Ingress and Niantic pretty much applied the same formula with the Pokémon Go.

Other noteworthy urban games we have now

Tutorial Screens from the game Zombies,Run


Started as a crowd-funded project on Indiegogo, Father.IO is the world's first real-life AR first-person shooter. Father.IO is basically a huge real-world scale laser tagging game with the help of 'Inceptor' a portable keychain-sized device with infrared projection and sensing capabilities.

Zombies, Run

Another location-based mobile game which was started as a crowd-funded Kickstarter project. The game is set in a post-zombie apocalyptic world where the runner(player) in and out of one of humanity's last remaining outposts. During the run, the player gathers supplies, rescue survivors and other tasks supporting his outpost.

The game's slogan. “Run in the Real World. Become a Hero in Another.”

In simple terms the game is just a simple yet clever way to motivate you to keep running.

How could Urban Games shape up in the future?

With the recent developments in the field of AR and companies like Microsoft, Google backing the AR technology with their huge investments, this could be the direction urban games could take in the future.

Ca$h Run - Watch Dogs

A mini-game AR game from the game watch Dogs where the player runs around to collect augmented coins around the city avoiding obstacles. Not too much into the future as developers have started to develop these kinds of games with the technological advancements in AR.

Super Mario Bros in AR!

Developer Abhishek Singh puts on a Hololens to demo his AR recreation of Super Mario Bros in Central Park (NYC). Though it looks very exciting if you are an ardent Mario fan, vision obscurity will be a major problem with games like this played in public spaces like parks where you can bump into any oncoming walkers. While hardware supporting this genre of games is still not mainstream or available to the masses yet, developers should be aware all the possible problems AR can have and develop games in a way that the game avoids them and made sure that no harm is done to anyone.




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