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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."

To Lantz and Slavin, it's important to stress the nostalgia component of street games. Until about the 1970s, "games were for interaction, meaningful playful interaction between people," Slavin pointed out, "and that started to go away with the advent of video games." But even that development couldn't hide the need for social recreation.

"The biggest video games right now are like 'World of Warcraft,' and they're bringing people together," Slavin added. It's a bit of a paradox: Street gaming is a sort of "next step" beyond social video games like "WoW" and "Second Life," but at the same time, it evokes the days when face-to-face was the only way to play.

On the flip side, Lantz and Slavin nevertheless speak of street gaming in terms that are distinctly of the Information Age.

"We say that this is building software for cities," Slavin said. "Architects have built this amazing platform--all these neighborhoods and streets and avenues. We're thinking of those in terms of a platform you can run software on, and that platform is entertainment software."

If the city is a software platform, and street games are the programs run on it, the Come Out and Play Festival can be thought of as a sort of beta test. Street gaming, after all, has never been tried on this large of a scale and consequently has some hurdles to overcome.

The festival is being hosted by the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center, a Manhattan nonprofit that specializes in activities and exhibits that blur the line between the art studio and the data center.

For many of the game designers, like McGonigal, this weekend's festival marks the first run of their latest projects. Her addition to Come Out and Play is "Cruel 2 B Kind," a takeoff on "Assassin" or "Mafia" games where players stealthily eliminate each other through predetermined buzzwords and actions.

McGonigal, who co-created "Cruel" with Ian Bogost of Persuasive Games, considers this to be a test run of not only their own game but of the street game concept in general.

"We have approached the games from this festival as a design, research and sort of experimental project because we both have a lot of questions about how public gaming can be more socially sustainable," she said. "It creates a scene, or disruption, or disturbance. You wouldn't be able to sustain it over time."

Security is a more serious matter. In these times of heightened sensitivity toward terrorist threats, the antics associated with street games--people chasing one another through city streets, stealthily using laptops on sidewalks, taking pictures of strange objects with camera phones--sometimes don't float too well with local law enforcement.

McGonigal said a touring game called "Street Wars," in which players hunt each other down with water pistols, got a hostile response from the British government when it made a stop in London.

Still, despite the difficulties street games will inevitably encounter, this weekend and in the future, McGonigal remains optimistic. "We're hoping that this will kick off a frenzy of public gaming," she said. "It's completely open to the public. 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.'"