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Gaming, tech and physical worlds collide on New York streets

The Come Out & Play festival lets game developers try out new ideas on hundreds of eager participants.

Samantha Rhodes/CNET

Come Out & Play, an annual street games festival, lets tech lovers and other New Yorkers battle in "selfie death matches" and play in collaborative puzzle games.

Samantha Rhodes/CNET

It's a balmy, pleasant Friday evening in Brooklyn as bohemian New Yorkers and video game lovers huddle around picnic benches under one massive arch of the Manhattan Bridge, learning the rules to "#WeAreDanceFace."

Enthusiastic festival-goers wait in line to strap on virtual reality headsets and rock their heads in tune with an electronic soundtrack and directions that pop up on their displays. Four people at a time stand next to each other, their heads moving in unison as the music thumps. The result: a performance that draws a growing audience with a song burned into my brain.

DanceFace was one of the central attractions at Come Out & Play, an annual festival of street and physical games that gives people different ways to play, taking popular apps like Angry Birds and bringing them to the streets. The Friday night portion of the event, called After Dark, offered anyone stumbling into the Dumbo neighborhood of New York a taste of experimental gaming that blends technology and the physical world.

"#WeAreDanceFace" coordinates players to bop (only with their heads) in sync to electronic dance music. This foursome looks significantly less silly than it did moments later.

Samantha Rhodes/CNET

The free festival has made stops in places such as San Francisco and Amsterdam, but New York is Come Out & Play's flagship city. The event included more athletic events during "Field Day" and "Family Day" at nearby Governors Island on Saturday.

"It's really a grassroots festival," said Greg Trefry, one of the five founders of Come Out & Play. "It's taken on a life of its own."

Since the first festival in 2006, Come Out & Play has grown in the number of designers and the complexity of the games, incorporating virtual reality and phone apps. The event hosts roughly the same number of attendees (over a thousand) each year, even as the number of games increases. The crowd that shows up to the festival has transformed through the years, expanding from techies to the general New York population, Trefry said.

Some die-hard fans come back every year even as the audience shifts. "[I've talked] to people who have been coming to the festival for 10 years and now come with their families, with their 5- or 6-year-olds," he added.

The festival attracts game architects and attendees from around the world. Designers from Italy and Canada, as well as all across the US, journeyed to New York this year to show off their creations. In the past the festival has hosted or showcased designers from countries like Finland and England.

"The festival combines digital, social and physical gaming," said Debra Everett-Lane, a game designer, who co-created a game for Come Out & Play called Ghosts of Dumbo, which lets you wander around the neighborhood with an Android phone that pings you with mini games and historical facts when you happen upon a designated location.

The organizers and game designers who put on the festival don't generate a profit. Many of those heavily involved have game design backgrounds, so they use the two days as a way to fiddle with some of their ideas and try out new projects.

"We'd never be able to re-create this outside of Come Out & Play," said Jon Murray, 27, an ESI Design intern and developer for the festival. The game "really requires participation from a whole community."

Under Manhattan Bridge

The first day of Come Out & Play took place under the Manhattan Bridge in a neighborhood called Dumbo.

Samantha Rhodes/CNET