click to toggle flash on or off

we bleep this city!

Christian McCrea writes about location based games.

S'avatars, Scoot Game 2006
S'avatars, Scoot Game 2006

Remember the Rules

Chalk is a game technology. For hundreds of years, it has been used to draw the magic circles of tennis and hopscotch courts, to powder hands before a game of billiards or bowls and to turn simple walls into new pieces for our cultural and semiotic chess.

The word itself, 'chalk', is a linguistic technology that now only means all of these funs and freedoms. In reality, the 'chalk' of a classroom or street art is compounded gypsum (itself a complex technological process), the edges of a tennis court are 'chalked' with titanium dioxide and we 'chalk' our hands and cues with magnesium carbonate. When you realise how little chalk is actually chalk, it becomes a type of meta-material: 'chalk' means our ability to set the rules, to draw the line, to lift the weight. It is our permission to play - the rules we make are limited only by the amount we have and the number of times it snaps off in our hands.

So if a mobile phone can have all the attributes of other permission-giving technologies such as a telephone, music player, a computer, a fax machine, a global positioning device, a camera, a camcorder and so on, it is reasonable to assume that it could also simulate a piece of chalk. Yet it is in this sort of use that phones have taken the longest to develop. Beyond the little cut-down computer games that we use to slice away any idle time we have left, the mobile phone is slowly letting us get the hands properly dusted, letting us draw the court and set out the elaborate hopscotch game.

Make a Mark

In fact, it need not be a mobile phone; an entire array of complex technologies are at our disposal with weird combinations of arcane technologies to decipher: GPS, WiFi, WAP, WAN, 3G and so on. These are passwords we use to commune with the spirits: little superstitions we have to negotiate in order to make the magic happen. They are, after all, massively complex versions of the same compounds and materials - magnesium carbonate, titanium dioxide and gypsum are all found in mobile phones, PDAs and portable game devices.

If we ask where precisely Location-Based Games are to be found, it would be in this precarious and weird combination of pasts and futures. We have always played tag, chasey, found the X on the map and decoded the symbols. Only recently have we had the technology to know precisely where we are in terms of geostationary orbit, or send images to each other through the ether. Location-Based Games are not necessarily high-tech, but they make higher uses of technology.

For the games made with everybody in mind, everything we have and hold is part of the game, as every technology leaves a chalky trace on the hand. When a Location-Based Game uses what we already have, we suddenly realise that beneath the web of data flows and blue teeth, we can draw any court or circle we like. Soon after the ability to leave a trace on your environment is a natural progression. Why not begin to make a mark on those devices and systems that flow through our bodies and brains daily? It is absurd to think of a mobile phone as only something we pay a corporation to use; why not also a magical compass for a hidden forest or the key to some sinister hidden plot?

Follow the Trace

In one of these games, you can find yourself interacting with something as complex as a computer or as simple as a cylinder of coloured gypsum; what matters is that your physical position in the world changes. As your location changes the game evolves. Some have been incredibly detailed and high-tech, such as the Ludic Society's Tagged City Play. In this hyper-technological game, players had to plant and scan RFID (radio frequency identification) tags all over the town of Plymouth, England in a complex system of writing and over-writing. All while driving classic Plymouth cars, of course. The tags emit a very low frequency electrical pulse; by attaching them to objects around the city, those objects became playable. In the second phase, players went around deleting the information being emitted by the tags, making them useless. What better way to play a game in a city battered by several waves of industrial and technological obsolescence?

In a massive reproduction of the Taito/Midway game, Pac-Manhattan had players communicate their position via mobile phone to a central system which relayed back a version of the game so they could devour all the dots and avoid all the ghosts. Even in such a simple concept, the nature of New York was imprinted in the type of fun that the game encouraged. Play soon evolved into pure street chases - one of the city's most enduring cultural tropes.

So what types of traces does Melbourne leave on technology? Can we think of cities as being based in technology at all? We assume that stone and mortar determines the character of a place more than its radio frequency emissions or its WiFi network status. Yet we are slowly discovering that the idiosyncratic nature of each city means that some types of play are impossible elsewhere and that sometimes these gadgets are more than handy trinkets to natter loudly into. With the technology at our collective disposal, each city, each country town, each barren desert highway could have a game particular to its time and place. For each playground, a piece of chalk.

Melbourne's graffiti and stencil art scenes are some of the most active in the world and our city alleyways have begun to burst at the seams with weird imagery. We've thankfully evolved from treating art drawn on street corners as aberrations and generally concluded that if it's good, it's a public service. In a sense, Location-Based Games can be thought of as a connected phenomenon. The cities we play in have had to adapt to a culture of play and public participation, right down to the stone and concrete that makes up the buildings we revere as institutions.

scoot game 2006
Scoot Game 2006

Memorise the City

The Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) had the difficult job of arriving in a city which had already begun to move its own images around in a multitude of ways. Rather than become the city's art appendix, ACMI is a movable feast of cultural technologies and technology's culture. Melbournians have come to except that if something genuinely cultural occurs through and because of the media, ACMI will curate it, fund it and make it accessible. In many senses, the institution acts as a permission-giving technology to explain and make real what can so often be locked away in ethereality and vague technological metaphors. Few cities have such an institution to negotiate the information age and fewer still have found such a broad range of uses for them. ACMI's Games Lab and focus on digital art has developed Melbourne's technology culture and invited us to leave our traces with the chalk it offers.

So it was with Scoot. The traces popped up here and there, the clues were followed until the call to action was made. The weird wheeled S'avatars of Scoot asked for our help; their world and ours were collapsing and the Carnival had broken loose. Mikhail Bahktin would have been proud. We used our machines and our minds to unravel the mystery and peel back the curtain between their spaces and our own. In the process we developed new understandings of our city and environment. Players had to follow a treasure hunt through the city's major cultural sites - ACMI, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne Museum, the Arts Centre, National Gallery of Victoria - turning the streets into an interactive map with treasures and clues that leave an indelible trace on players' understanding of the city.

Scoot's play is a social act with relationships between characters and players left intentionally murky. Their world after all, is under threat of collapse by its closeness to ours. To save theirs, we must know ours better. Learning about the sites and histories of our cultural institutions by sifting through fragments both real and ephemeral leant the game a peculiarly Melbournian air. This city, above all else, is a conversation between pasts and futures; legacies and grand plans. So above all the Melbourne game has to take us to extremes and throw us down the secret passages and alleyways that all our best laid plans leave unsaid and uncovered.

The simplicity of the technology is the most important element of Location-Based Games; new enough to be interesting for a generation brought up to revere technological progress but simple enough to work for almost everybody. Scoot's great strength has been its mix of technologies: from paper and screen to SMS and laptops. The brainchild of Debra Polson and a group of passionate characters from the different worlds of Queensland University of Technology and ACMI, the development of a game that suited a city of secret worlds and barriers so keenly has left us with chalky hands and a taste for more.

Scoot explored the potential for location-based games to work across Melbourne's key cultural sites: the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Museum, State Library of Victoria and the Arts Centre.

Created by the artist Debra Polson, it was produced and presented by ACMI in collaboration with the five cultural organisations.

Scoot's intention was to use the application of location based technologies - facilitated through the broadband infrastructure of the CV initiative - to increase participation in the five key cultural organisations.

Through play, it encouraged players to embrace fragments of site history and identity and to discover through the game paths the resources and offerings of each of the participating organisations. Scoot took players to places that they may not have found otherwise, using a ubiquitous form of technology to help foster a sense of belonging and ownership of the venues.

Christian McCrea is a games writer and Lecturer in Games and Interactivity at Swinburne University.

Facebook icon   Twitter icon   Contact Us Terms of Use Privacy Site Map   Share and Print   Victorian Government Website