Game developers are thinking seriously about how to connect citizens with their urban centers
Every Thursday evening, Tel Aviv’s city hall is transformed. The windows light up, each becoming a “pixel” on a giant screen measuring 3,000 square metres. A pair of 1.5 metre joysticks is installed outside in Rabin Square; whoever gets there first can play what is probably the world’s biggest game of Tetris.
The stunt is designed to draw attention to the upcoming DLD Tel Aviv Innovation Festival, which starts later this month. While admittedly fun, and a good advertisement for the innovation festival, the giant game – which also becomes Snake or Pong at different times – is (somewhat ironically) not particularly innovative. Back in 2001, Project Blinkenlights lit up Haus des Lehrers in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, allowing people to use their Nokia handsets to play Pong. Since them, students at Brown, MIT and Kiel have pulled similar stunts. You can even play Snake on the fountains in London’s Granary Square.
Nor, it must be said, does Tel Aviv’s Tetris intervention do much for the city. Turning city hall into a video game probably isn’t an effective way to get people interested in what happens within. And with room for only two players at a time, it hardly encourages broader interaction. Even 2004’s Pac-Manhattan (which was surely an inevitability, given the strength of that wordplay), which saw five players in a control room guide five players dressed as Pac-Man characters through the New York City streets, got more people and places involved.
So is there more to these stunts than PR?
Despite what this year’s Pokemania might suggest, games have long been central to public spaces. A few years after the first world war, the Italian town of Marostica hosted the first of what would become a biennial game of chess played with human pieces, reenacting the (potentially fictional) story of a medieval lord who ordered his daughter’s two suitors to play for her hand. Earlier this year, the Boris Johnson-endorsed Games London temporarily installed a giant Monopoly board in Trafalgar Square, with the familiar locations replaced with notable years in the history of UK video game development.
“It was a bit of a gimmick to get attention from some of the press and from passersby,” admits Michael French, Games London’s senior games programme executive. Similar to the Tetris tournament in Tel Aviv, Games London was part of the London Games festival, which aims to drive investment into games companies in the city.
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For Holly Gramazio, whose company Matheson Marcault (co-founded with Sophie Sampson) specialises in using game design “to engage people with places and ideas”, the chief problem here is lazy thinking: cities are whole new environments in which to game, and the possibilities extend far beyond rehashing Monopoly, Pac-Man and Tetris.
“Getting people to play Tetris is, from a game design perspective, a relatively straightforward thing,” she says. “What you do is: you put Tetris there. It’s not as interesting to me as a game design challenge.”
Matheson Marcault’s contribution to the London Games Festival was a three-day event called Now Play This. Two teams of children faced off across the river Thames in a game of Massive Battleships, making their moves by holding up signs at which their opponents, on the other side of the river, peered through binoculars. In the courtyard of Somerset House, meanwhile, Just Add People saw groups of players construct imaginative buildings out of sticks and balls.
“Building your own pretend building within the context of the real buildings that are sitting there imposingly and have been there for hundreds of years, for me made me feel like part of the city,” says Gramazio.
One event that really captures that feeling is GameCity, a yearly takeover of Nottingham that incorporates the history and geography of the city, from specially commissioned games playable in Old Market Square to the revival of the traditional Sheriff’s Gauntlet trials. Now that GameCity has opened the fun-filled National Videogame Arcade, Nottingham is a city of games all year round.
As well as encouraging people to pay more attention to the challenges facing their city, Gramazio thinks that games can get us to pay more attention to each other. Citizens of Hildesheim and Oberhausen, Germany, can play games with strangers on the opposite side of a pedestrian crossing via prototypes of a new kind of traffic-light button called ActiWait (though the promise to “convert boring waiting times into positive experiences” smacks of dystopian science fiction).
Big events like the yearly MP3 Experiments, for which thousands of people download an MP3 of instructions and gather for synchronised play, and 2012’s New Year Games, in which two teams competed in challenges such as throwing paper aeroplanes at invisible musicians and stealing ribbons from a man dressed as a minotaur, bring thousands of people together.
One morning in July 2010, outside the National Theatre, Londoners played a game called Pass the Impossibly Large Parcel. Each layer of the parcel, when unwrapped, revealed “prizes” in the form of costume items. Players wore them before they went about their day – a kind of tribal identification, marking you on the tube or the office as a member of a secret club. Those who took part in the early days of Pokemon Go phenomenon will recognise that feeling of camaraderie. The game’s sense of community has manifested in 9,000-strong gatherings, and charitable play such as dropping lures outside hospitals so that sick kids can catch Pokemon from their beds.
One of the most common complaints about cities is that the crowds can leave one feeling lost and lonely. Games counter that by connecting us to each other and the spaces in which we play. Tetris in Tel Aviv might be a bit of a damp squib, but only because it had a deeper potential. “Playing is a thing that we usually do in places that feel like they’re ours – like we’re safe there,” says Gramazio. “Having that happen in a city, where people are wandering through, can make me as a player feel more at home.”
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