Look beyond the
crowded city streets
and you’ll see and hear its codes […]
connecting you to the city’s
cloud of algorithms.
Location-based AR games
At the latest since Pokémon Go came out in summer 2016, location-based AR (augmented reality) games have entered the realm of popular culture, reaching massive audiences across age groups and achieving high visibility in public spaces and in the media. Typically, these games use digital technology, such as smartphones, to superimpose everyday spaces with the secondary layer of a virtual gameworld, pointing to an imaginary universe populated by fictional characters and fantastical creatures. Users engaging in location-based play are seen roaming the cityscape in search of a clue, a treasure, or a particularly rare Pokémon. As the more (absurdly) funny reports would have it, there are even cases of police stations being overrun by people seeking entry to a Pokéstop.
Entertainment value aside, what these stories also point to is a transgressive drive inherent to urban play, posing a challenge to the rules and boundaries governing the spaces of adult life under neoliberal capitalism. Surely, some of the amusement with which we tend to look at the pet- or treasure-hunting masses stems from the deeply-rooted assumption that grown-ups are not supposed to engage in the unproductive and non-serious activity of free play, especially if this involves elements of make-believe. And if they absolutely must do so, they are to confine their activities to the private sphere, or seek socially sanctioned vents for their playful drives, such as the more structured rule-based table-top and sports games. By contrast, many location-based games pay little heed to the restrictions imposed by expectations linked to particular spaces, social roles, or age-appropriate behaviour. Rather, they support playful engagement with the lived space of the city, encouraging players to connect to their surroundings in new ways and reappropriate elements of the cityscape to suit new and unexpected purposes.
Wayfinder Live: Welcome to Ludea
When you begin
to look beyond
the city as it is
and imagine new
ways it could be,
world of Ludea.
Wayfinder Live is a location-based game designed by artist and academic Troy Innocent in 2016. The game combines the mechanics of the scavenger hunt with concepts of urban play, street-art and fantastical world-building.
Having downloaded a free-to-play app, players of Wayfinder are introduced to the world of Ludea, a micronation built around the logics and practices of play, whose citizens “work outside existing codes and rules making their own cities from within” (Wayfinder). However, there is unrest in the world of Ludea: The nation is split into three factions competing for influence over the cityspace. Each of the factions (revert, renew, remake) is associated with a philosophy of urban transformation.
Participants are assigned to a faction based on their answers to test questions. Alternatively they can choose which factions they wish to belong to. As a wayfinder, the player’s task is to discover so-called urban codes: laser-cut objects with distinctive geometrical shapes and colours (Fig.1). Codes are hidden in specific and often lesser-known locations across an area of the city before the start of the game. Scanning them with a smartphone furthers the influence of the user’s faction. Players managing to find all 16 codes can become citizens of Ludea.
After it was first played in Melbourne in 2017, versions of Wayfinder have been offered in several cities such as Istanbul, Bristol, or Hong Kong. Unlike most AR games, Wayfinder does not simply overlay the map of the city with a digital coating. Rather, the realms of the physical, the digital, and the fantastic are intertwined in intricate ways to the point of becoming inseparable. Scanning the codes, for instance, will cause the geometrical shapes to expand, change shape, and form new patterns on the digital display (Fig.2). Unless players put down their phones to look at the ‘actual world’ exclusively, it becomes almost impossible to discern where the material object ends and its digital representation starts.
Combining the official city map, material architecture, lived space, artworks, and digital technology, Wayfinder’s artistic concept blurs the boundaries between the material city and its countless alternative versions (real and imagined). It thus, indeed, turns the city into a multidimensional playground.
Interested in my personal adventures playing Wayfinder? Go here.
Seriously playful: The real impact of urban (game)play
Encouraging its participants to explore lesser-known places and hidden locations of the city, Wayfinder connects to a recent trend in urban practice that can also be seen, for instance, in the rising interest in lost places, street art tours, or solitary backpacking tours. At the same time, Wayfinder of course takes place in the public, everyday space of a living city and is thus very visible as ‘unproductive’ counter-practice disrupting the routines of busy everyday patterns of life and work. As a playful activity for adults, the game dispenses with expectations connected to social adult roles in capitalist society and playfully subverts the purposes of city architecture. It is no longer the fastest, or shortest, route that leads to satisfactory results, but the one full of unproductive digressions which may or may not lead to unexpected discoveries: A side alley becomes a path of major importance, a brick wall incites thoughtful contemplation, and a drain pipe turns into an object of aesthetic appreciation.
Urban players reappropriate cityspaces, they form new perspectives of their surroundings and may thus encourage citizen engagement with the cities they live in. However, the impact of location-based AR games is limited by at least two factors: digital literacy/access to technology, and the fact that the audience of most location-based AR games is limited to a small minority of (typically highly educated) citizens. These limitations to access and reach of urban play remain a major drawback, as bottom-up agency is of particular importance to disenfranchised and marginalised groups in the city, including for instance the elderly, or those lacking financial means or access to education. This is partly remedied by the audience effect: Passers-by notice players engaging with the game, they may discover markers and perceive them as artistic objects, as markers of significant locations, or conversely as vandalism. Either way, noticing elements of the game may even change the perspective of the uninitiated. The democratic and transformative potential of location-based games and urban play for realising “new ways [the city] could be” (Wayfinder), however, has yet to be tapped.
 Quotes from the Wayfinder Live App are cited as “Wayfinder”
Sources/ Further Reading:
Innocent, Troy. Wayfinder Live. Version 3.0.4. Android. Last updated 2 April 2019.
Innocent, Troy, and Dale Leorke. “Heigtened intensity: Reflecting on player experiences in Wayfinder Live!” Convergence 25.1 (2019): 18-39.
Troy Innocent: http://troyinnocent.net/
Wayfinder Live: http://ludea.net/wayfinderlive/