How Urban Gaming Works

By: Ed Grabianowski
An urban gamer playing "Uncle Roy All Around You"
Photo courtesy Blast Theory

As new technologies evolve and mature, they infiltrate our lives in ways we don't necessarily expect. Cell phones and Global Position Systems (GPS) have their obvious uses -- you can make and receive calls when away from home, and you can easily find places or people, including yourself if you get lost.

People around the world have been putting these technologies to innovative use, creating "experiences" in public settings that are part game, part performance art, and part sociology experiment. Dubbed urban gaming, these activities can range from recreating the 80s video game "Pac-Man" on a human scale in New York City to hiding "treasures" in state parks for people to find via GPS.


In this article, we'll see what urban gaming is all about, find out how it works, and explore the potential of games and technology. We'll also take a look at some recently-played urban games.

A New Kind of Game

An urban gamer playing "Can You See Me Now?"
Photo courtesy Blast Theory

Urban gaming is such a new phenomenon that a strict definition is hard to come by. All urban games have a few things in common, however. They all take place in public spaces. Often this is a city, or a defined area within a city, but some games take place in wilderness areas, such as state parks and other publicly accessible places. The play space is always much larger in scale than traditional games -- in fact, it could be said that they occur at "human scale," rather than a miniature scale on a tabletop, or as an abstraction in a computer game. Finally, all urban games incorporate communication technology, such as cell phones, GPS receivers, digital cameras, and the Internet.

The organizers of urban games, also called "location-based games," often have more lofty goals in mind than enjoying new technology. Blast Theory, an artists' collective responsible for European games like "Can You See Me Now?" and "Uncle Roy All Around You," has a lot to say about the ramifications of technology and public gaming on their Web site:


Blast Theory [is] looking to identify the wider repercussions of this communication infrastructure. When games, the internet and mobile phones converge, what new possibilities arise? These social forces have dramatic repercussions for the city. As the previously discrete zones of private and public space (the home, the office, etc.) have become blurred, it has become commonplace to hear intimate conversations on the bus, in the park, and in the workplace. And these conversations are altered by the audience that accompanies them: we are conscious of being overheard and our private conversations become three way: the speaker, the listener and the inadvertent audience.

These games can take almost any form. Usually, they revolve around finding someone or something, or avoiding being found. Sometimes there isn't really a point to the game other than the experience itself. Some early urban games evolved out of performance art pieces. One of Blast Theory's first projects to incorporate non-artists in the experience was called "Kidnap." Ten people -- who registered their desire to participate ahead of time -- were placed under surveillance. Two of them were literally kidnapped and held captive for 48 hours. The entire process was broadcast live on the Internet.

An urban gamer running while playing "Can You See Me Now?"
Photo courtesy Blast Theory

In many cases, people who view the game online can also participate. The locations of street players are tracked via satellite and relayed to a virtual map, and online players can text message other participants with instructions. In "Can You See Me Now?" a live audio stream was broadcast from the street players so the online players could hear them as they ran around the city.

Some games allow more passive participation. Cell phones or handheld computers use GPS positioning to find virtual objects or other players who happen to be nearby. For example, a Japanese game called "Mogi" is based on virtual objects whose locations have been programmed into the mobile phone system. Players can find out which items are close to them and then pass over the proper coordinates to "collect" the item. People can also trade items and find new ones in different parts of the country.

Next, we'll find out how urban gaming got started.


Where did Urban Gaming Come From?

One of the "Vampire: The Masquerade" rule books
Photo courtesy HowStuffWorks Consumer Products

While many urban games evolved out of performance art projects over the last decade or so, the ideas used in such games come from a variety of sources. Taking a game off of the tabletop and playing it in a public space was first done on a large scale by fans of LARP, or live-action role-playing. In a LARP, each participant takes on the role of a character within the game, and the players interact with each other "in-character." Different LARPs have different rules governing interactions. For example, if two characters resort to combat with each other, the fight may be resolved with rock-paper-scissors, or by rolling dice. There's really no way to win at LARP -- the point is simply to advance the ongoing storyline of the game, although each character will have specific motivations and goals. There are likely LARPs going on today that incorporate GPS or mobile phone technology, making them true urban games.

Perhaps the most popular LARP was White Wolf's "Vampire: The Masquerade." In this game, ancient vampire clans exist in the modern world, infiltrating human society and secretly plotting, while hiding their true nature from most of the world. Players took on the roles of powerful vampire lords and their minions.


The most widespread precursor to urban gaming is geocaching. A geocache is a small box with a few items and a logbook hidden in a publicly accessible place. The GPS coordinates of the cache are posted on a Web site. Geocachers use their handheld GPS devices to hike to the cache's location, where they take an item from the box and replace it with something small and family-friendly. Then they sign the logbook, and later report their find on the website.

Some geocaches have multiple parts, requiring cachers to decipher clues and puzzles to lead them to the next cache. In urban settings, caches are sometimes hidden in small film canisters -- these are known as microcaches. Geocaching is probably the easiest urban game for someone to get involved with, because it is ongoing and there are caches all over the world. A handheld GPS device, the only requirement for playing, can be purchased for about $100.

Fantasy flower person art illustration.
Photo courtesy HowStuffWorks Consumer Products

In one instance, an urban game began spontaneously when several online communities began sharing information in the hunt for some very valuable treasures. Author Michael Stadther's book "A Treasure's Trove" contained difficult clues that led to the locations of twelve tokens he had hidden in state and federal parks across the United States. Each token was redeemable for a jewel worth about $50,000. The use of technology to coordinate search efforts led to all twelve tokens being found much more quickly than the author anticipated.

In the next section, we'll learn about some specific urban games.


Games All Around You

Inky chases Pac-Man in an April 2004 "Pac-Manhattan" game
Photo courtesy Amos Bloomburg

The majority of urban games take place in Europe. However, one popular game is played around New York City's Washington Square Park. In "Pac-Manhattan," players wear costumes representing characters from Pac-Man, the classic arcade game. The Pac-Man player must run around the city streets, "gobbling" virtual dots while avoiding the ghosts who are trying to eat him.

"Pac-Manhattan" is a phone-based game. Each player on the street has a "general" who sits in a control room looking at a map. Whenever a player reaches an intersection, he or she reports the location to the general, who can then track the player's position on the map. Pac-Man eats the dots (which don't actually exist) by simply traversing an entire city block. Some intersections have power pellets that make Pac-Man invincible and allow him to eat ghosts for two minutes. All of this information is relayed between the players and generals, so everyone knows what's going on.


One of the online player screens in "Uncle Roy All Around You"
Photo courtesy Blast Theory

"Uncle Roy All Around You" is a somewhat more complicated game in which the player must find and meet with the mysterious Uncle Roy within the 60 minute time limit. Uncle Roy sends messages and instructions to the player, and there is interaction between the street player and online players. At the end of the game, "Uncle Roy" asks players a strange series of questions, including, "When can you begin to trust a stranger?" The creators of the game state that their purpose was to explore the boundaries between strangers.

A player's view in the Gizmondo game "Colors"
Photo courtesy Gizmondo Europe Ltd.

Portable gaming console Gizmondo has announced plans for "Colors," a game in which players win credits and items in a videogame that they then use to buy real world turf. The Gizmondo's built-in GPS can detect when you're on your own team's turf, or if you're in another gang's territory, which can affect the play within the videogame.

ConQwest Minneapolis 2004: Team Big Horn Challenges Team Bear
Photo courtesy Frank Lantz

"Conqwest" is a game in which teams roam city streets holding giant inflatable mascots while searching for semacodes, images similar to bar codes that they can photograph with special camera phones. Each semacode is worth a certain number of points, and the first team to find 5,000 points wins a $5,000 scholarship [ref].

ConQwest Phoenix: semacode billboard
Photo courtesy Frank Lantz

Wireless service providers are unveiling a range of new games based on phones and handheld computers with GPS. You can find a list of them here.

In the next section, we'll explore the future of urban gaming.


The Future of Urban Gaming

ConQwest 2005: Live animated map of Tucson game on the web
Photo courtesy Frank Lantz

As GPS-enabled devices become commonplace, urban games are bound to increase in popularity. Already communications companies are using urban games (or location-based games), to lure consumers into subscriptions or as marketing campaigns to attract the youth market.

However, all this gaming innovation is not moving forward unimpeded. GPS systems need a line of sight to a satellite to work. This means they don't work indoors or in urban settings surrounded by tall buildings. There are also problems with the resolution of current GPS systems -- they're not always capable of finding exact locations, usually getting within tens of feet at best. This is in part due to limitations of current technology including built-in limitations put in place by the United States military, which built and operates the global positioning satellites used by GPS systems.


Technology leads to another problem: this kind of gaming can be very expensive. Real-time audio or video streams, mobile Internet connections, and cell phone minutes can cost a bundle, even in a game that only lasts an hour. Networks aren't always perfect, either. A slow or dropped connection can bring the entire game to a screeching halt.

Other problems involve playing in public spaces. There will be people around who are not aware that there is a game going on around them, and they can become confused or angry at players. It is also possible for games to lead players into unsafe areas. Some of these factors can be monitored by "referees" who oversee the game.

One of the strangest problems with urban gaming comes from pervasive games. These are games that are ongoing, with no clear boundaries between the player's regular life and the game. Phone calls, e-mails, and people they meet could all be part of the game -- or not. This can lead to an unsettling feeling of paranoia, with the player never knowing for sure if a given situation is part of the game or not.

One of the twelve "Treasure's Trove" tokens
Photo courtesy David C. Somers, Ph.D.

However, the potential benefits of urban gaming are numerous. The social interaction and feelings of adventure when out exploring new settings or working to solve puzzles can be very rewarding. As events like the "Treasure's Trove" hunt illustrate, companies are willing to offer extravagant prizes as a way to generate publicity. Western New York radio station WEDG and Atlanta radio station WWWQ both held contests called "The $10,000 Fugitive" and "The Free Money Fugitive." A person was selected to be the fugitive, and that person roamed the city (and also went about her daily life), calling the station to give on-air clues about her identity and location. The first person to find the fugitive won the prize. Online communities sprang up immediately, pooling clues and theories to track down the fugitive. In both cases it took several weeks to finally track her down. It seems likely that similar "official" urban games will be showing up in the near future.

For more information on urban gaming and related topics, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • How Geocaching Works
  • How Cell Phones Work
  • How GPS Receivers Work
  • How Digital Cameras Work
  • How Satellites Work
  • How Video Games Work
  • How E-mail Works
  • How Skyscrapers Work

More Great Links


  • "Can You See Me?" Blast Theory.
  • Chandler, Rita. "High-tech game of hide and seek fascinates." USA Today, June 29, 2004.
  • "Colors." Gizmondo.
  • "Conqwest" Web site.
  • Geocaching: The Official Global GPS Cache Hunt Site.
  • Girardin, Fabien. "Pervasive Game Development Today." March, 2005.
  • Graham-Rowe, Duncan. "Gamers turn cities into a battleground." New Scientist, June 12, 2005.
  • "Kidnap." Blast Theory.
  • "Let's Go Geocaching!" Geocaching University. PDF.
  • Pac-Manhattan.
  • Rowan, David. "Trendsurfing: Urban Gaming." July 23, 2005.
  • "A Treasure's Trove." Official Web site.
  • "Uncle Roy All Around You." Blast Theory.