Social trends and game play: pervasive gaming – the next techno bubble or just an emerging snowball from the 1980s?

Social trends and game play: pervasive gaming – the next techno bubble or just an emerging snowball from the 1980s?

Language evolves and with it the meaning of certain words and phrases.  Around the mid-noughties a number of techno boffins were alluding to the concept of pervasive gaming.

Pervasive gaming is one where the participant is within their normal environment but also within the game; it’s an overlap of fantasy and reality, the former sitting as a layer above the latter.

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The boffins talk from the point of view of game-play that is enabled and augmented by digital devices, wireless networks, GPS location, image capture to allow re-rendering of reality.  They categorise pervasive games in terms of “acting out classic computer games” or “stimulating social interaction and role-play between real people”.  More recently with the explosive growth in mobile-apps and augmented reality, there is a new frontier for getting people to run around…whilst looking at some kind of screen.

So that’s pervasive gaming.  But I feel there’s a significant omission from this description, and it’s an interesting one because I wonder (and hope) that it signifies a backlash against the rising tide of overwhelmingly smart technology that wants to batter our nascent imaginations into submission, making us nothing more than passive “zombies” hooked into primal responses of our reptilian brainstem.

Jane McGonigal makes an interesting point in her thesis, “The Performance of Belief in Pervasive Play“.

Ubiquitous computing and mobile network technologies have fueled a recent
proliferation of opportunities for digitally-enabled play in everyday spaces. In this
paper, I examine how players negotiate the boundary between these pervasive
games and real life. I trace the emergence of what I call “the Pinocchio effect” –
the desire for a game to be transformed into real life, or conversely, for everyday
life to be transformed into a “real little game.” Focusing on two examples of
pervasive play – the 2001 immersive game known as the Beast, and the Go Game,
an ongoing urban superhero game — I argue that gamers maximize their play
experience by performing belief, rather than actually believing, in the permeability of
the game-reality boundary.

– Jane McGonigal

The key statements here are “the desire for a game [to transfer] into real life” and “maximise their […] experience by [acting that they believe] rather than actually believing”.

I can relate to both of these in respect to thirty years experience with tabletop RPG and some poignant personal moments in the kind of games some people call live-action, but I think should be included within the fold of  “pervasive gaming”.

RPG dice used in role-playing games pyramids, dodecahedrons, decahedrons

Role-playing dice

With tabletop RPG, when you get a good GM, every player experiences a state of detached hyper-reality.  It’s more than the suspension of disbelief.  It’s an overlay, built by your imagination as it feeds off the narrative descriptions and hooks provided by the GM.  In reality you might all be sitting around a table in a cold and draughty house, with sheets of paper, stacks of pencils and a boxes of fantastically shaped dice (pyramids, dodecahedrons, decahedrons), but in your mind… you’re wherever the GM is describing. And more than that, you experience vivid visuals, heightened emotional states of trauma, stress, horror and exhilaration.  To the point that the fictional experience can embed itself in your memory as deeply as a real-life episode.  This is highlighted when old gamers get together and start recollecting scenarios they played together, five, ten or even twenty or more years  ago, and the quality of recall is identical to talking about any profound incident that has occurred in life.  When was the last time you were able to talk about a session on an X-box or PS3 with much clarity, especially a decade or more after the event?

The imagination is king.  When fused with a heightened emotional context and the willingness to surrender to the fantasy fiction, there is no greater game playing experience.

Tabletop RPG’s include the classics such as Dungeons & Dragons, Call of Cthulhu, Cyberpunk, Shadowrun, Gamma World, Bushido, Warhammer, and Delta Green, followed by a cascading series of spin-offs and “Hollywood style” genres.  It’s a fantastic realm to get involved in but this isn’t what I consider to be part of the pervasive gaming revolution (or evolution).

A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed by a producer for a German-French TV show called Tracks.  A lot of the conversation was focussed on the exciting, and still rather new, street-based game called 2.8 Hours Later.  I’d taken part in the one run in May 2011, in Bristol:  a whole night of  joining 300 or so people running around the city trying to reach safe-zones, whilst avoiding the scores of zombies that were lurking around the place.  It was an utterly mind-boggling experience.  The city was the game board.  And going back to the key points stated by Jane McGonigal, all of the players were willing to believe in the altered version of reality described to them.  Not presented visually through some fancy techno gimmick.  Just some written words and some very good acting by the folks enforcing the narrative backdrop.  It didn’t matter that Jo Public was walking around unaware and unresponsive to the zombie threat.  It didn’t ruin the fictional reality that queues of late-night weekend revellers were standing around watching us running past as if our lives depended on moving as fast as possible: which inside of our heads, that was the truth.

You can see photos and videos of my encounter with 2.8 Hours Later here.

During the interview the producer referred to this as pervasive gaming.  And it struck a chord with me.   Yes, it is pervasive.

Killer the game of assassination by Steve Jackson first published in 1982 and the forefather of pervasive gaming

The forefather of pervasive gaming

I was also intrigued that she didn’t know anything about the game that sowed the seeds for all of this: Killer, by Steve Jackson, first published in 1982.

I ran my first session of Killer in 1987 whilst at 6th-form college, doing my A’Levels.  It was fun.  Teenagers in cars staking out houses or carrying out executions with water pistols. Things went a bit serious and wrong in 1989 when I decided to expand the game by advertising for players.  I ended up with about sixty people taking part, most of whom I didn’t know.  1989 there were no widely available mobile phones (reserved for yuppies), there was no Internet (at least not on the global mass-communication level we recognise today).  I had Polaroid photos of players stuck to sheets of paper that contained details of where a person lived, where they worked and other facts required by any would-be assassin.  Come Saturday morning these players received a package in the post, containing one such sheet of paper with the identity of somebody they had to go out and “kill”.  Typically, because of the wide spectrum of players, most people didn’t know each other.  This wasn’t a college game with familiar faces.  This was stranger on stranger.

The first sign that things were going awry was when I saw a breaking story on the local  news about a young man being abducted on a high street by masked men who bundled him into a car at gunpoint, and reportedly shot him point-blank before driving off with him inside the car screaming.

The “Killers” rang me that night, delighted with what they’d done.  The young man was perfectly alright.  In fact, they’d all gone for drinks afterwards.  But I wasn’t so sure about the members of public who maybe thought they’d witnessed a murder.

There was an almost movie-like moment as I looked at the phone in my hand and then at the TV running the news report and I thought: Oh My God, What Have I Done?

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Things went from bad to worse, including a part of Newcastle’s city centre being closed down whilst armed police laid siege to a building containing a bunch of players who the police thought were shooters for the East End drug gangs.

Luckily, nobody got shot (for real).

I never ran another game of Killer in Newcastle.

Looking back now I can see that all of those players had willingly surrendered to the fictional reality.  They stopped living by the rules of normal society and instead became assassins.  They carried concealed weapons in public places; they broke into strangers houses and set traps (alarm clocks in cardboard boxes) or set people on fire (wrapped a victim in orange crepe paper whilst he slept in his bed).

Pervasive in the extreme.

This kind of game simply couldn’t (and shouldn’t) happen in today’s surveillance society; or at least the rules should be more robustly defined: weapons are things with bright colours that look like toys.  Scaring the heck out of the public is not allowed.

So the fact that something like 2.8 Hours Later has emerged onto the scene and is rapidly becoming a phenomenon says several things:

  • SlingShot, who produce the 2.8 Hour Later events have done a remarkable job at organising and liaising with the powers that be.
  • A growing number of people are becoming interested in the act of play, without technology imposing itself.

Perhaps I’m being naive but I’d love to see a resurgence in the playing of board games, maybe even a renaissance in the realm of tabletop RPG (vested interest as I’ve published one).

Another strand of gaming that fits neatly into the pervasive fold is Alternate Reality.  This concept is wonderfully demonstrated in the 1997 movie “The Game” with Michael Douglas and Sean Penn.  Nine Inch Nails used AR to promote a series of music releases and art/society concepts during the late noughties (clues leading to a rendezvous where people were abducted by “fake” police in riot gear and finally desposited at a secret location for a private gig with NIN in front of them).  Check out the antics of Entertainment 42 for more info.

And even if these street-based games as run by SlingShot and IGFest do start to insert technology into the fabric of play, the concept of pervasive gaming is definitely growing and projecting an exciting facade of being something new, despite having roots stretching back decades.

David J Rodger at sci-fi and dark fantasy literature and games convention stormtrooper

David J Rodger

David J. Rodger (born 1970 in Newcastle Upon Tyne) is a British science fiction & fantasy author and game designer best known for his novels set in a near-future world of corporate and political intrigue. So far he has published five novels; four that are set in the same world: God Seed; Dante’s Fool; Iron Man Project and Edge, and one, Dog Eat Dog, set within the world of Yellow Dawn.

Rodger’s novels often combine high-tech intrigue and political/corporate machinations with elements of the Cthulhu Mythos, as created by H.P. Lovecraft. Rodger’s contributions to the Mythos include the creation of a new Great Old One in his novel Edge, and the use of the Outer God Nyarlathotep in the novel God Seed.

Rodger spent 8 years working for a non-departmental government agency, developing a virtual communications service within the IT Division, before moving into commercial project management for a UK media company. In 2000 Rodger’s presence on the Internet got him a place in the BBC documentary Through The Eyes of the Young, directed by Chris Terrill. Rodger now lives in Bristol, England, with a Braun coffee-maker, writing from a house on a hill with a view of Earth’s curve.

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Relevant Links:

  • IGFEST: A festival of interesting games you play in the street – click
  • Wikipedia page for Killer type gaming (Assassin) – click
  • Wikepedia page for Role-playing game – click
  • Official webpage for Yellow Dawn – The Age of Hastur: a post-apocalyptic RPG that blends the cosmic horror of H.P.Lovecraft’s Mythos and the near future action-adventure of the Cyberpunk genre – click
  • Cubicle 7 – an independent source of new RPGs and collateral – click
  • UK Role Players – website with excellent online community – click

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See more posts like this – click

David J Rodger – DATA

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