Gaming on the streets of Manhattan

"Come Out and Play" to bring together designers, technophilosophers, utopian free spirits and gamers. Photos: Playing Pac-Manhattan

NEW YORK--This weekend in Manhattan, there will be minigolfers trying to putt their way from Tompkins Square Park to Union Square, vintage arcade games projected on the side of a Chelsea high-rise, and a pack of several dozen people flickering flashlights on and off in Central Park.

And that's not even the start of it.

New Yorkers are used to expecting the unexpected, but heads are certainly going to turn in response to the inaugural Come Out and Play Festival, which runs from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon and aims to bring the world of games out of the living room and into the streets.

The 400-plus players will be partaking in activities ranging from "Snagu," a camera phone-based scavenger hunt, to "Body Pong," a life-size version of the classic video arcade game.


"There's something in the idea of playing in public, in the social interaction and the novel use of technology that really appeals to people," said Greg Trefry, the event's director.

Depending on whom you ask, this growing phenomenon is known as street gaming, big gaming, urban gaming, public gaming or pervasive gaming. There's no real consensus yet, though "street gaming" is the term of choice for the organizers of Come Out and Play.

Street gaming can be considered a friendly exercise in communal cooperation, an edgy way of sticking it to convention, a technology-driven look into the future of social interaction or a major case of nostalgia. Or, as is the case with many of the masterminds behind Come Out and Play, street gaming can be all of those things.

"What I see these games doing is taking the sense of empowerment, accomplishment and motivation that people have in the (video and online) game world, and mapping it back into real life and everyday spaces," said game designer Jane McGonigal of 42 Entertainment and Avant Game.

"It's not that traditional online and computer games aren't social enough," she said. "What I believe is that the real spaces aren't virtual enough."

The thinking behind street games can get pretty theoretical. But under all the technophilosophy, postmodern social analysis and intricate game design is a simple concept: People like to get together to have fun.

"You don't have to be a coder. You don't have to be a game master. All you have to do is say, 'I want to play.'"
--Jane McGonigal, game designer

It's hard to say when and where all of this started, but numerous signs point to a final project in a class taught by Frank Lantz in New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), a master's degree track in the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts that walks the line between high technology and experimental art.

Lantz's class, called "Big Games," deals primarily with the art and science of street games. In 2004, a group of his students--one of whom was Trefry--teamed up for something that they called "Pac-Manhattan," in which a set of players dressed up as Pac-Man and the pastel-colored ghosts who torment him, and played a live-action version of the classic arcade game with New York's Washington Square Park as a grid. Controllers equipped with cell phones monitor the game, keeping tabs on important details like whether the ghosts are supposed to eat Pac-Man or vice versa.

Pac-Manhattan hit it big. According to Amos Bloomberg, one of Lantz's former students who collaborated on the street game, Pac-Manhattan-like games have sprung up everywhere from Seoul, South Korea, to Montpellier, France. "We've been toying with the idea of a 'Pac-World' championship next year," Bloomberg added.

But there was more to Pac-Manhattan than novelty appeal. The creators had come from an impressive range of backgrounds--"finance, filmmaking, graphic design, neuroscience, interaction design, mobile software" and others, according to Bloomberg.

After all, it's a game: It brings people together.

A chance to misbehave
There won't be any live-action "Pac-Man" games at the Come Out and Play Festival this weekend. "Pac-Manhattan will be there in spirit," said Bloomberg, pointing out that a member of the ITP project's team, Mattia Romero, is one of the chief organizers of the festival.

Lantz is expected to be there as well. Along with Kevin Slavin, he's one of the co-founders of Area/code, a company devoted entirely to the design and playing of street games (though they prefer the term "big games")--including several Come Out and Play events, like the technobuccaneer adventure "Plundr."

A street game is "an opportunity to misbehave in public," Lantz explained. "It gives you license to do crazy stuff in a public place. (And it's) a return to the roots of games in social interaction. This is about hanging out with other people, running around and having an experience, not just sitting in front of a television set or computer screen."

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