imomus (imomus) wrote,

Pervasive urban gaming: count me out, and in

1. While the less fortunate were working in offices yesterday, Hisae and I were shopping for antler plushie hats and giant koalas:

Our ludic credentials and annoying privilege established, I can now proceed with today's serious business.

2. A message from someone called Alex Fleetwood appeared on Click Opera yesterday: "Hi Momus, I run a festival of mixed reality games in London. We would like you to come and play something with us in June. You can read a bit about the festival and see a film we shot last year at"

3. So I watched the Hide and Seek Festival documentary, which is an introduction to this thing we're going to call PUG, or pervasive urban gaming. What is PUG? According to the Sandpit site, "pervasive games transform the city into a playground, make your heart race, change the way you see the world, get you playing nicely with others".

4. Hide and Seek isn't the only PUG festival; there's one called Come Out and Play in Amsterdam. "Turn Amsterdam into a playground!" is its slogan. "When you play a computer game, you interact with what is on your monitor, even if you're outside playing on a mobile phone. You don't interact with your physical environment. Now, computer scientists from Fraunhofer FIT want you to play outside, sharing the outdoor experience offered by children's games".

5. So this has to do with taking computer gaming experiences and attitudes into the real world. Immediately, the phrase "the digitisation of everyday life" starts crackling between my plushie stag horns. It isn't necessarily a positive thought; in rapid succession I get visions of MTV's Jackass show, of campus shootings by kids who grew up with Resident Evil, of HUD masks and Second Life, of Peter Sellers in "Being There"...

6. What happens when you turn a city into a playground? Well, one thing that happens -- or did in the Middle Ages -- is Mob Football, "played between neighbouring towns and villages, involving an unlimited number of players on opposing teams, who would clash in a heaving mass of people, struggling to move an item such as an inflated pig's bladder to particular geographical points, such as their opponents' church". Count me out!

7. And yet... count me in! Because isn't this everything cool about the future as well as everything appalling about the past? Isn't this Flash Mobs and Situationism and Certeau and Homo Ludens and the thing we do when we've scaled the very pinnacle of Maslow's hierarchy of needs: replacing the Work Ethic with the Play Ethic?

8. And yet... and yet... isn't this everything terrible about the present, too? Isn't this the compulsory fun of management training weekends that "break the ice" and "get you out of your shell" to "bond as a team"? Isn't this enforced audience participation, repressive desublimation, a Butlins redcoat holiday organised by Nathan Barley and his huge team of kidult assistants?

9. What happens when fun and games become values you can't question? That's the question I asked in Sweden when I gave my Down with Fun lecture at the Krets Gallery. What happens when even straights who collect stamps talk about "getting my stamp collection fix" or when a design website asserts dogmatically that "if it’s not fun, it’s not design!”? Fun and games, at that point, become orb and sceptre, ball and chains. Liberation, at that point, becomes difficulty and differential calculus. It becomes emotion, idealism, seriousness, quietness, dignity.

10. How much "hide" is allowed to reside in a festival called Hide and Seek? In other words, when your aim is to get people out of themselves, are you forcing extraversion on introverts? What about people who dislike the weekend, and dislike what alcohol does to humans, and dislike what's happened to districts like the Lower East Side and Friedrichshain, districts which were once quiet and liveable but are now full of galumphing players bellowing at the tops of their desublimated lungs?

11. And how "pervasive" does Pervasive Urban Gaming have to become? So pervasive that it not only invades the city but penetrates and pervades the shields we all raise in the city to protect ourselves and our different ways of living, our precious, precarious cultural ecosystems which can co-exist only if they -- precisely -- don't pervade? What, in other words, does PUG do to multiculturalism and diversity? Because, just as every microculture in the city has its own gender relations, so every microculture in the city has a different sense of personal space, a different way of playing. We won't all necessarily get on, even after the application of alcohol. Some of us don't even drink alcohol.

12. Hisae and I, when we're alone, put on silly voices, call each other silly names, have in-jokes and references nobody else would understand. When other people are around, though, we don't do that. It would exclude, baffle and embarrass them. It would be rude of us.

13. This unethical exclusion, this flagrant rudeness, is something Charlie Booker and Chris Morris rammed home time after time in Nathan Barley, the story of an infuriatingly ludic prankster / media node who constantly flaunts his freedom and disinhibition in front of unfree and inhibited people. Here he is playing Online Tramp Racing from Russia ("Totally dereg, yeah?"):

14. Nathan's utter callousness is soon apparent. It's the callousness of someone talking loudly and happily into a cellphone while others around him suffer in silence. It's a normal, everyday callousness, one societies geared to competition and the inevitability of inequality tolerate much better than societies geared to collectivity and equality. If you can't beat them, join them; shout happily into your phone too, or pretend to. Play Scum Vegas.

15. But there's something wrong with you if you don't feel just a little bit guilty for playing while others work. I mean, it's a pleasure too, like being the only one awake, or being king, or the only man in a huge group of fit women, or the only consumer in a world of producers. But it's a bit evil, and you should remember that. Look, look, here:

That's people from the Soho Project making fun of road diggers by saying they're playing Tetris. People playing while others work, and pretending that other people working are really playing.

16. What's the Soho Project? It's a make-your-own-reality game from a London media company created by the same people who're running the Hide and Seek Festival. The company was called Fictional Media -- a sort of Endemol of the streets. "Players signed up via a Facebook app, created a fictional identity, did missions around Soho, filmed them and uploaded them to YouTube," Alex tells me.

17. Look, here they are telling us that real Soho people are actually not real:

"All of these people are fake and they're actually controlled by one person in Germany... Soho Second Life."

18. And here they are, most damningly, most Nathan Barleyishly of all, talking about a homeless person and saying "This tragic case of this guy lying down -- he's doing very badly at strip poker -- he's already lost both of his shoes and is feeling quite depressed about it." And it's a real homeless guy, stretched out on the pavement:

19. But -- and it's a big but -- the people telling us real people aren't real people... aren't real people. What's more, Fictional Media has made another group of not-real people who are their rivals, their antithesis. "Once you started playing in Soho, you became aware that there was a Resistance who believed that Fictional Media were disrespecting the history and culture of Soho," Alex explains. "The resistance operated out of a tent just off Brewer Street and were dedicated to doing zero-tech beautiful things, infecting mission videos and overthrowing the company". They're mostly very cute girls, these resistance kids. Here's their "training video":

20. Like God or Endemol, Alex from Fictional Media has already anticipated my objections and populated his world with people embodying them. People much more telegenic than I am, too. "We were trying to dramatise a choice for players," he says, "between a forward-thinking, ludic, technologically enhanced, corporate, sanitised Soho, and a culturally embedded, historically sensitive, luddite, anti-global Soho. Also between selling out and getting on, and keeping it real, poor, artist in garret etc." He's even got the dialectic going much more neatly than I have: "The truth is that both sides couldn't help but embody the other - the evil corporation generated numerous instances of viral happiness and creativity, and the Resistance ended up hacking the website in order to triumph."

21. Whether I or you like it or not, Pervasive Urban Gaming is the future. That's why I, personally, want in. And out. It's not just Alex and Endemol who are working and thinking and playing this way. It's British Telecom, pouring millions into the TARA engine (Total Abstract Rendering Architecture) and MARI (messaging architecture for real-time interaction), which they tested in Encounter, "an urban-based, pervasive game that combined both virtual play in conjunction with physical, on-the-street action". And it's reality TV. And it's ubicomp. And it's the future of the internet, and of meatspace, and how they're all merging in one huge, utterly real, unreal game.

22. It's also Tate Modern, where a performance piece by Tania Bruguera recently saw actors playing equestrian policemen controlling the crowds from high up on horses. The crowds obeyed -- what else could they do? A real policeman on horseback looks pretty much like someone just playing the role. The spectacle and the reality merge; one can control us just as easily as the other.

23. And isn't that what the Situationists were always saying, anyway? "All that was once directly lived has become mere representation," said Guy Debord in The Society of the Spectacle. "The spectacle is not a collection of images, rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images." So all this play-acting is the problem. But it's also the solution, which, Debord says, is "radical action in the form of the construction of situations". And what's that if not play, play at the scale of 1:1, play that pervades the whole city?

24. So, when it comes to Pervasive Urban Gaming, it's a no-brainer. I have no choice. Count me out and count me in.

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