When I try explaining to people my interest in pervasive games, I’ve found that my most common starting point has become “You know, like Pokémon Go, but…”
It’s fascinating how, since only last summer, Pokémon Go has effectively come to define a whole genre of games that merge the physical and in-game worlds – a genre that has existed for at least two decades. Digital technology has seen numerous transformations in this period, including the opening of GPS for civilian use in 2000, and the development of smartphones with high-speed mobile broadband from the end of the last decade. As these technologies have become more accessible, brought together in singular devices and now adopted to satisfy popular culture, pervasive games have evolved from niche, experimental art projects to a mainstream leisure activity.
I myself am a regular player of Pokémon Go, having continued playing after the initial surge of excitement in the summer. I still load up the game each day to catch Pokémon, obtain items from Pokéstops, and try to hatch Pokémon eggs as I walk. During this time I’ve had lots of opportunity to think about how Pokémon Go sits within this wider context of pervasive games.
Here, I want to focus particularly on what Pokémon Go does well and could do better with the current technology; and what we can learn about the potential of pervasive games from different examples of how digital technology has been used for playful purposes.
What are pervasive games?
Traditionally, playing games has entailed demarcating spaces, times and people to which the norms of everyday life are temporarily suspended, and the game rules dictate action. Participants enter these zones voluntarily, and agree on a range of activities – which may seem abnormal, socially unacceptable or pointless in real life – that are interpreted as playful and given new meaning in the context of the game. Johann Huizinga referred to this phenomenon as a magic circle – a separate world within the ‘real world’ that created new opportunities for imagination and stimulation through play, without being unnecessarily restricted by existing social norms and behaviours.
The distinctive quality of pervasive games is how they expand the magic circle to incorporate elements of real life. This expansion can be:
Spatial: Not geographically limited to spaces such as the playing field, the board or the games console. The game space can be very large (e.g. worldwide) or confined to a small area, and integrates the real-world environment in which people play.
Temporal: Not confined to certain times/time limits. The game can be ongoing – always in progress and with no envisaged end point – or can occur over long timescales such as weeks, months and years. Players often fit the game around other events in their lives.
Social: Not limited to a defined set of willing participants. Not only may players come and go from the game, but bystanders may be unwittingly implicated in the game’s activities. Players may be uncertain as to who is playing and who isn’t.
Pervasive games therefore embrace the real-world context (spaces, times and social life) in which the activity takes place, while also re-interpreting it through the rules of the game, giving everyday things new meaning or relevance. Rather than marking out a separate realm for imagination, then, pervasive games can enable players to engage with the already-existing world in a critical and creative way, re-enchanting ordinary aspects of everyday life.
Engaging with place
My main issue with Pokémon Go is that it misses out on much of this creative potential, because the gameplay’s interaction with the real world is largely superficial. When playing, I’m not engaging with the distinct and diverse features of the place I’m walking through. Instead, this complexity is flattened; reduced to cursory characteristics such as the presence of landmarks – notably, not their (hi)stories – distance walked, and locations where Pokémon spawn. I learn little about the qualities that make the places I visit unique and interesting. In fact I’m discouraged from looking up from my phone at all, in case I miss a Pokémon.
The result is that I have effectively the same level of engagement as when I play a Pokémon game on a games console, in which I can also visit landmarks, walk my eggs and find Pokémon. This is because I’m still mostly reliant on a world represented on-screen to be engaged. The only significant difference is that I can get exercise and fresh air as I walk around, which is positive for health purposes but not for creating innovative experiences.
One potential positive is that, by bringing me outside and encouraging me to walk around, the game gives me the option to explore places further if I want to. But this choice is largely independent of the game itself. Nothing about the game's design makes me want to look away from the screen and interact more mindfully with the environment. The desire to explore has to come totally from me.
An example of a pervasive game that provokes deeper interaction between the player and their physical environment is Geocaching. Geocaching is a GPS-led treasure-hunting game where players hide containers (‘caches’) in public places, sharing their coordinates and hints online so other players can look for them. Once found, players mark their discovery by signing logbooks located both inside the containers and online.
Here, the technology only takes players so far. Once players are in the vicinity of the cache, they must look away from their screens and use their senses to investigate the smallest details of the site; physically interacting with the environment to uncover the hidden container. Meanwhile, each cache has an online description that describes interesting details about its location, often including historical context, wildlife, things to see and do nearby, or personal stories that the cache owner wants to share about the place. On the same webpage, geocachers can share their own experiences of the location during the search for the cache. The virtual and physical components of the game together enable participants to interact with places in an insightful and exciting way.
So while the technology in Geocaching is used to reveal what is remarkable about the place, the opposite is true in Pokémon Go, where basic details about the place are crudely extracted and mapped onto the player’s smartphone screen to coordinate the gameplay.
The limits of technology
Indeed, the technology is everything in Pokémon Go. When that fails or isn’t running, the game fails – it is unplayable. Yet in Geocaching it is the unreliability of the GPS itself, which varies depending on the device and quality of the satellite connection, that makes the treasure hunt a more thorough, challenging and ultimately rewarding task. The game acknowledges the limits of the technology and uses them to foster a more mindful and sensual interaction with the physical environment.
Blast Theory’s work has taken the idea of addressing technology’s limitations a step further, using the medium of pervasive games to explore what digital media can and can’t offer us for interacting with places and other people. In Uncle Roy All Around You – one of the early examples of pervasive games back in 2003 – individual ‘street players’ are given handheld computers that show maps and instructions from Uncle Roy, which they must use to find his office located somewhere in the city. At the same time, online players at computer screens are shown a virtual representation of the street players’ surroundings, and can help to direct them to Uncle Roy’s office by sending them messages. Once the street player has found the office, both players are invited to participate in a further act of trust – would they be willing to make a year-long commitment to be there for a stranger in a moment of crisis? If a player agrees, they are paired with another consenting player and their contact details are shared.
The dual online and physical components of the gameplay juxtapose the immediate, detached characteristics of computer-based interaction with the complex, messy world of real-life places and relationships. Online players are unable to account for the range of obstacles and events that street players could encounter as they navigate the vibrant urban landscape, such as traffic and other pedestrians. Moreover, simply sending anonymous messages is a far cry from providing the emotional support needed to help someone in a crisis. Yet by interrogating these boundaries of interaction in the game, Blast Theory managed to enlist over 250 pairs of players to commit to being there for each other over the period of a whole year.
It was the hybridity of the experience in Uncle Roy – the uncertain attempts to traverse the real and the virtual through communication technology – that gave players the opportunity to think critically about trust, support, and the boundaries between reality and fiction in a society increasingly mediated by online relationships and digital representations of the self. Whereas in Pokémon Go, the experience is so subservient to the smartphone that thoughtful engagement with these boundaries is dwarfed by the absorbing on-screen gameplay.
Pokémon Go could learn from a variety of mixed-reality artworks produced in the last two decades, including audiowalks (e.g. The Missing Voice; LINKED) and oral history projects (e.g. [murmur]), which have demonstrated how careful balance between virtual and physical components enables each element to reveal something extraordinary about the other. The title of another Blast Theory work – A Machine to See With – encapsulates this idea of a widened perspective on social relationships and narratives, rather than a vision narrowed to the space of the smartphone screen.
Community building and innovation
To Pokémon Go’s credit, however, the format of the game has had some intriguing and mostly positive effects for building community. Many who have played the game will be familiar with the experience of spotting, and even making conversation with, other players of the game when in locations that host Pokéstops and Gyms. For a while in the summer it felt like the game had completely revolutionised public interactions, as an array of landmarks and spawn sites for rare Pokémon became hubs of player activity.
The more long-lasting impact, however, has been the establishment of online groups of Pokémon Go players within local areas. Although these groups are independent of the game, it is the game’s reliance on information sharing – to help players discover previously unfound Pokémon – that has encouraged players to talk to each other, share anecdotes and even meet up in real life to socialise. Being a member of one such group has taken me to places I wouldn’t have gone otherwise in search of rare Pokémon, leading to some memorable days out with my sister and five-year-old nephew. This certainly represents a social expansion of the magic circle; one that is creative of new relationships between people and the places they visit.
The game’s extensive social influence has meant that, unlike any other example, Pokémon Go has led to unprecedented awareness and interest in pervasive games. For me, this has been Pokémon Go’s most important intervention. The game’s popularity has hopefully enabled those in the creative industries to consider digital, mobile and locative technologies more seriously as tools for crafting innovative interactive experiences.
The reason why I’m particularly keen to draw attention to past examples of pervasive games is to enable prospective artists and developers to appreciate the creative potential of the medium, rather than just attempting to copy Pokémon Go’s formula or applying it to other franchises, which no doubt could also be lucrative. There is already talk about developing a Harry Potter Go game – a prospect that has excited many fans of the series, and will have left plenty in the games industry seeing dollar signs.
But as mobile digital technologies and our relationships with them continue to evolve, it would be more beneficial to see developers experimenting with pervasive games, exploring the range of human experiences they can and can’t offer. For playful art gives us unique opportunities to test different configurations of virtual and physical activity in an engaging way, as our everyday lives are increasingly distributed between the two.
Let’s use these lessons from Pokémon Go as a step forward in the pursuit of this ambition.
This very useful summary of what pervasive games are. If you look on the same blog, you’ll also find some interesting discussions on the design and safety of pervasive games.
An excellent academic paper about Geocaching and re-enchanting the city by Maja Klausen, which also talks about the expansion of the magic circle.
This insightful article written when Pokémon Go was first released by Professor Steve Benford (who has collaborated with Blast Theory on a number of projects) on the wider context and issues around pervasive games.