Pervasive Games

9 minute read

I recently gave a lecture on pervasive games. In preparing that lecture I took some notes that were almost an introduction to the subject itself. It seemed a pity not to use that text, so here is a short introduction to pervasive gaming.

Pervasive Games

Pervasive games are not an entirely new phenomenon, but the research done on them is quite new. We’ll define what pervasive games are in a minute. First, lets look at an example and see if it enlightens what type of games are in question.

I Love Bees is our first example. It was produced by 42 Entertainment, which has produced similar products for other games, movie The Dark Knight and the Nine Inch Nails album Year Zero. The website seemed to be about – not surprisingly – bees and beekeeping. But the person the page belonged to had a problem: a rogue AI seemed to have taken over her web page. She complained about the problems she was having on the blog that was reachable through the page. Some people looked deeper and helped her solve the problem with the AI. This was done mostly by following clues on the website, through the web in general and by answering certain payphones at certain times. All of this was figured out more or less collectively by the thousands of people participating. The plot was tied in with the plot of Halo 2. Those that followed the plot to the end received a chance to play Halo 2 in advance. And they got some stuff. It was an ARG (Alternative Reality Game); it was viral marketing; it was also pervasive gaming.

Magic Circle

We’ll define pervasive games by looking at what they are not. In order to do this, we need to introduce the concept of magic circle. Magic circle is where the game takes place. It is a theoretical construct, but often there are also concrete boundaries to games. Think of a hockey ring, a football arena, but also of the playground. The boundaries are not absolute, and they are not set – but they are there. You can test this out in practice: try going on the ice during an ice-hockey match.

The magic circle as a concept does not refer to just games. Johan Huizinga, a Dutch historian, writes that the ritual circle, the playground and the playing field are basically the same thing. They are all surrounded by boundaries that set them apart from the ordinary life, from the normal. Within these boundaries, the rules of reality are different. How are they different in games? Bernard Suits, a philosopher of games, calls it the lusory attitude. It’s basically like this: players accept the limitations of rules because of the pleasure a game can offer. They think that “it’s just a game so I can act like this and enjoy it”. It also means that players adopt worse rather than better means for reaching an end.

Suits uses golf as an example:

If I want to get a small ball into a hole in the ground, it is not very efficient to do it with a crooked metal stick from hundreds of meters away. And as if this is not enough, I make sure that there are lots of obstacles on my way when I start hitting the small ball. But it’s expected of you, if you want to play golf. No one would take you seriously, if you went on the golf field, took the ball into your hand and placed it in the hole. That’s not what you do in golf. That’s the lusory attitude. To say to yourself ”I’m playing a game, so what is normally idiotic becomes expected, and what is normally expected is idiotic”. We accept rules, because of the possibility of enjoying a game that those rules create.

Now that we know what the magic circle is, we know what pervasive games are not. Pervasive games are games that expand the magic circle. They don’t happen inside easily marked boundaries, but rather they spill over these boundaries and become part of the normal, of the ordinary. This makes them interesting, engaging and also potentially risky. They are games, but they can’t be neatly and safely summarised by saying that ”its just a game”. Next, we’re going to look at three different ways of how pervasive games expand the magic circle: spatially, temporally and socially.

Spatial Expansion

Spatial expansion is the simplest. It means that there are no distinct  boundaries between the area of play and the world in general. The game can happen anywhere, or at several places at the same time.

Pac-Manhattan is an example of this. As the name suggests, it is – or was – played in Manhattan. There are boundaries in the game, but the area of play is huge. There is one Pac-man running around the streets, with the Ghosts following. Each has a controller, sitting behind a computer screen, updating each runner of the position of the others. First, it was supposed to use GPS, but since that didn’t work very well in the city, they ended up using cell phones and verbally communicating about the positions. The game is delimited to a certain area, but that area is within the real world, with the streets of Manhattan as the playground.

Temporal Expansion

Temporal expansion means that there are no strict time limits for the game, or that the game may happen over a long period of time with periods of play and non-play overlapping each other.

The game Assassin – also known as Killer – has a start and an ending, but the time between these may be weeks. Within this time, the players are expected to live their lives as usual, but also to assassinate other players. Players may be assassinated on their way to work, during lunch or in a bar. The tools of the trade are water pistols, Tabasco sauce in your beer or props like a box with the word ”bomb” written on the bottom. An important part of why this game is exciting is that you never know when something is going to happen.

Social Expansion

Social expansion means that it is not entirely certain who is, and who is not playing. The players may not know each other. There may also be bystanders that affect how the game is played, even if they don’t know it. Outsiders may meet people playing the game without realizing it.

This is true in the case of Assassin – and it may lead to problems. Universities have banned Assassin from their campuses after incidents where water pistols have been mistaken for real guns and fake bombs with real explosives.

But next, we will look at Prosopopoeia Bardo 2: Momentum, for several reasons.

  1. it blurs the boundaries of game and real more intensely than other games.

  2. it was funded by the European Union, as part of the Integrated Project on Pervasive Gaming.

  3. while expanding the magic circle socially, it also expands the circle spatially and temporally.

Momentum _was a larp – live-action role-playing game – that went on for 36 days in and around Stockholm. During that time 30 players played in it. To make it possible, almost a hundred people worked to create it during that time. It was the second game of the _Prosopopeia series, the first prototype being Där vi föll. _Momentum _had an ending, but during the time it was played it was continuous, with some periods of more and some of less activity. The game also had a political message: ”we live in the world we perceive, and changing that perception changes the world”.

The beginning of the game is telling, so I’ll explain it shortly:

The game started when the game masters invited the players to a seminar. At the last-minute the players were told that the seminar was cancelled, were sent to a basement in central Stockholm and told that IPerG had cancelled the project. The game masters then told them that the system they were going to use in the game to contact the dead actually worked, and that the game was actually based on transmissions from the other side. The players were asked if they wanted to – instead of playing a game – participate in this project of bringing the dead spirits back through themselves. All of the players agreed.

In a sense, the players played themselves, but themselves possessed by dead revolutionaries. These people were chosen from real historical rebels, so players could find more about them by simply googling. This was also a way of keeping the game from disturbing their ordinary lives: the spirits tried to stay hidden, so they could act ”normal” whenever necessary. But still, once they had begun, the players were part of the game-world – not just as characters, but as themselves. There was a safeword for emergencies, but it was rarely used.

Incidentally, _ Momentum _also answers the age-old hysteria of ”can role-players get stuck in character?” The answer seems to be: no. _Momentum _used every trick in the book to get players inside the game world, and still the players had no trouble leaving it when the game ended.

The game happened in the real world, which in this case means Stockholm. It used indexicality as a design principle: everything represents itself. This had some consequences:

  1. The game used techno-occult devices. The technological limitations of these devices had to be explained within the game world, and if there was a problem with them, they had to be repaired within the game.

  2. There could be no violence within the game, as it would also be violence in the real world - with real consequences.

In a sense, everyone the players met was playing in the game. The game ended with a public demonstration, with police officers watching over dead revolutionaries without knowing it.

Ludic Society

But it is not only pervasive larps such as Momentum _that blur the lines between play and reality. Pervasive games of more everyday type are becoming common because of mobile phones. Games like _The Journey require that the user moves in real space in order to travel in the fictional space. In _Botfighters _the other players are enemies that can be combated through your mobile phone. Geocaching has been popular since GPS has been opened for personal and commercial use. These are all part of games that happen in public spaces, in the ordinary life and not just inside the magic circle.

Mobile games are not the only signs of playfulness escaping the limits of the magic circle usually surrounding gaming consoles and PCs tightly. Zombiewalks continue to draw crowds (even here in Finland). The streets are used as stages for gaming-inspired street-art, like with Mario Question Marks, an example that also shows how society can also react negatively to such attempts, with the innocent yellow boxes seen as a potential bomb threat.

Games are changing the society around us, but they have also been intentionally harnessed for this purpose. Evoke claims to be a “crash course in changing the world”. And even corporations have seen the implicit potential in this as is shown by Conspiracy for Good, a game by Nokia.

In a sense, we’re already living in a ludic society - a society of games. It remains to be seen what that will mean in the future.

More info

Most of the information in this text is from Pervasive Games (2009) by Montola, Stenros and Waern. For more information, see their blog.