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“Street Games” article in Sydney Morning Herald, Nov. 24, 2005

“Street Games” Sydney Morning Herald

By Fran Molloy
November 24, 2005

You’re moving through the streets of Melbourne stalking your quarry. A phone call on your GPS mobile phone tells you your target is only a few streets away. A direct kill means boosting your team’s score. And in this game, winning is everything.

Welcome to the world of “real-life” games that blur the boundary between gaming and reality.

Last year the classic arcade game Pacman came to life on the streets of New York. A player dressed as Pacman ran around Manhattan collecting virtual “dots” while trying to evade four players dressed as ghosts. Each player had a human controller back at base who monitored their progress online and phoned through strategy and advice.

A few months later, a lab at Singapore National University had developed a version of the same game using GPS and motion sensors to track players through the city’s streets. This time, players could see the game overlaid on the real world through special goggles called augmented-reality headsets.

A lab at the the University of South Australia is also working on moving gaming from the couch and on to the streets by projecting games into the real world.

“Our work is designed to be as realistic as possible and the user carries quite a bit of equipment,” Dr Wayne Piekarski, assistant director of the Wearable Computing Lab, says.

“The user walks outside wearing a head-mounted display and can see virtual monsters overlaid onto the landscape.”

The work by Dr Piekarski’s lab is part of a bigger move in recent years that has seen gaming companies getting physical, including the development of vibrating game controllers, Sony’s eye-toy games – which follow body movements – and arcade dancing games such as Dance Dance Revolution.

But it hasn’t been enough, and gamers are finding all sorts of ways to hit the streets as artists join the push to move gamers off the couch.

Last month, British art collective Blast Theory ran a version of its chase game Can You See Me Now? at the Cardiff Festival. In an extraordinary blend of cyberspace and reality, players on the streets using hand-held computers hunted down online players.

“We ran a ridiculous number of kilometres,” Blast Theory developer and artist Ju Row Farr says.

“We weren’t fit enough for the online players and had to develop strategies on the ground to go after people.”

The Blast Theory collective is working with the European Project on Pervasive Gaming, a consortium of universities in Sweden, Britain, Germany and Finland, to extend gaming into the real world.

Thanks to portable GPS units, mobile phones, public wi-fi hotspots and the internet, gamers worldwide are now roaming cities in the guise of their gaming personas, which can range from spies and assassins to poker players, detectives, ghosts and even characters from the wild west.

At the same time as people are diving into game worlds, the games are starting to invade the real world.

“I remember vividly the first time the game reached out to me,” says Tom Bridge, a 27-year old computer engineer from Washington, recalling how he got involved in one of the first big real-life games to emerge in 2001, The Beast.

“There my little Nokia was, ringing in the middle of McPherson Square park. It was ‘Teddy’, a character from The Beast. I was so shocked I stopped stock-still and listened to the entirety of the phone call, all the while harassed by the homeless in the park.”

Mr Bridge hadn’t banked on receiving unsettling calls with mysterious messages when he entered his mobile number at a game website, thinking they were after marketing information.

But now, he confesses, he’s hooked.

Mr Bridge was one of the first players to join The Beast, which has attracted more than a million players worldwide – many through large online groups.

Player interaction and co-oper-ation are essential. The Beast was made up of 30 in-game websites in a complex story produced by a team from Microsoft and Dreamworks called The Puppetmasters.

Although participation in most real-life games is free, many are clever vehicles to promote products.

The Beast began with a mysterious credit in the movie trailers for the 2001 Steven Spielberg movie Artificial Intelligence: AI.

“Online marketing has never been this smart,” noted Write The Web contributing editor and critic Giles Turnbull.

Often participants begin by playing the game online. Then events from within the game “reach out” into the players’ lives throwing participants together, usually while completing tasks or receiving information about part of the story.

Some games reach out in low-tech ways, such as calling a certain public telephone at a pre-arranged time, mailing a letter or by advertising a clue on a billboard or in a newspaper. Sometimes SMS, instant messaging or email are used.

Other games need GPS to find a clue at a map co-ordinate or might require wireless networks, hand-held computers and mobile web cams.

Some games include actors interacting with players at real-world events while online players wait for clues.

Most of these types of games involve a complicated storyline often involving several websites that are not obviously connected, various fictional characters and a mystery requiring the co-operation of many players to be solved.

“Being dragged into that world was kind of neat, but it can be addictive,” Mr Bridge says. “You’re always wanting that next chapter, that next development. And, unlike books or scheduled TV shows, you never know when it’s going to come so that anticipation grows stronger and stronger with a sense of urgency as the pace picks up.”

Melbourne engineering student Colin Gehrig stumbled into real-life games in 2003 with the release of DeltaOneZero, which was sponsored by Telstra.

More than 20,000 people played the game and received clues and messages by SMS and email.

“There’s an element of trust with these live events,” says Mr Gehrig, who went to Docklands to hunt for a secret message.

He met about 20 other people there, all looking for a package.

“We found a bottle which had a code inside it that unlocked a briefcase – also hidden in the area,” Mr Gehrig says.

The latest real-life game to hit the internet is the British-based Perplex City, which began in February. It promises a reward of $230,000 to the first person to crack the mystery of a missing cube, and is partly funded through the sale of playing cards that contain clues.

When The Beast was in full swing, some players barely slept.

“The game called players at home, faxed them at work, interrupted their favourite television shows with cryptic messages and eventually even mailed them packages full of game-world props and artefacts via the US postal system,” wrote academic Jane McGonigal, of the University of California.

“The Beast recognised no game boundaries; the players were always playing, so long as they were connected to one of their many everyday networks.”

Far from being socially isolating, players say the games can significantly enhance their lives.

“These games encourage interaction in real life,” says Jackie Kerr, a 26-year-old US science researcher from Baltimore.

Ms Kerr now travels around the country to visit her gaming friends.

“You spend so much time with these people and get to know them so well within the time frame of a game that they become like family. People go to each other’s weddings,” she says.

Ms Kerr, who is completing a PhD in cardiovascular physiology, says the intricate stories and the need to understand a variety of topics makes the discussion between players fascinating.

“Playing these games is almost like sitting at a knowledge buffet that’s all-you-can-eat – you can just sit down and learn from others all day,” she says.

It was while playing The Beast that Tom Bridge met his partner, Tiffany. They will marry next year.

“It sounds like some sort of crazy internet dating scheme gone horribly awry,” he says.

“But there’s no way I would have met Tiffany had it not been for my accidental involvement in The Beast.”

Keeping it real

Human Pacman

A wearable-computing version of an arcade classic, this is held in the streets of Singapore in a real-life version of ’80s game Pacman.


This is an augmented-reality version of the popular first-person shooter game Quake. Not for the fashion-conscious. Uber-geek head-gear projects the gameplay monsters onto the real world.

I Like Frank

Unfit gamers need not apply. When British artists collective Blast Theory came to the Adelaide Fringe Festival last year, players with 3G mobile phones interacted with online players who helped them search for the elusive Frank in “hybrid space”.

Last Call Poker

An alternative-reality game where players take on the persona of long-dead wild west characters. The game’s many facets include rounds of Graveyard Poker, live events held in cemeteries across the US where tombstones represent playing cards.

Jamie Kane

www.jamiekane.co.uk and www.jamierules.co.uk

What was the mystery behind the death of fictional British pop star Jamie Kane? The BBC took a stroll on the alternative-reality gaming side in 2004. Game now over.

Alter Ego

One of the original alternative-reality games, created in the early ’80s. You have seven life-stages and answer multiple-choice questions through a lifetime. Critics called it a virtual, never-ending Reagan era.

The Go Game

The Go sellers spruik it as the future of corporate play, while critics call it urban Survivor with mobile phones. Whatever, it’s a fun day at the office when wireless technology and odd-ball treasure hunts are the focus of team-building events.

Thu, December 1 2005 » Future Cinema, augmented reality, games