Every Thursday night, Tel Aviv's city hall takes a break from bureaucracy and undergoes a peculiar transformation. The windows light up, each becoming a block (or space) on a gaming 'screen' of 3,000 square meters. Outside in Rabin Square, a pair of 1.5 meter tall joysticks await the lucky passers-by who can go head-to-head in the world's largest game of Tetris. This giant game also becomes Pong or Snake at times, and is actually a publicity stunt designed to get people excited for the upcoming DLD Tel Aviv Innovation Festival, which starts later this month.
Fun as it is, a really big version of an ancient game can hardly be called innovation, especially when similar stunts have been pulled since the year 2000. Tel Aviv isn't the first city to try and engage its citizens (and investors) via gaming. This year's London Games Festival transformed Trafalgar Square into a giant Monolopy board. Pac-Manhattan saw five people dressed as Pac-Man characters race through New York, being directed by players in a control room. Large scale game stunts might be impressive (I'd definitely kill some time on giant Tetris), and I'm all for retro-gaming, but surely if gaming's going to really make a mark on public space, we can do something better than this? New versions of Tetris or Snake doesn't exactly scream 'here comes the future!' What's more, they're too tied to a particular place and limited to just two players. Citizens are mobile, and they carry the technology of the future around with them.
From Basement to Boulevard
Gaming is typically seen as something that belonged to a very specific kind of place. Arcades were a popular social space in the 80s but advances in PC and home console technology regulated gaming to the home to the extent that the stereotype of the basement-dwelling isolated, socially awkward teenager became the go-to pop culture image of the medium.
But the advent of the internet, the formation of online fan communities, and the popularity of MMOs did a lot to change that. People were connecting, but for the most part, solidly in virtual worlds for the comfort of their own home. There were always somewhat awkward attempts to give games more kinetic oomph and get people moving, like the Nintendo Wii, but it stayed limited to the home. The biggest game changer has been the rapid evolution of mobile technology and augmented reality, which made its biggest impact with Pokémon Go.
Pokémon Go Gets Games Out On The Streets
Augmented reality games where you use your mobile device aren't exactly brand new. Using your phone, you can hunt ghosts, engage in magical battles or fend off alien invaders using the landscape of the city you live in. Pokémon Go made people get up and take notice because it tapped into a large reservoir of older fans nostalgic for their childhood but also because it was so popular it actually started transforming the environment around public spaces.
This was a positive in many ways - people were going out, getting exercise, and making friends. But it also had some negative consequences...some people saw their backyards crowded by a horde of uninvited guests questing for that rare Pokémon. Public and private space started to clash. People don't play the game, or even games in general, are starting to be affected and be part of the conversation. Here's my take on what will happen next:
The 'Next Pokémon Go' Needs to Get People Excited Past Nostalg
Pokémon Go has given augmented reality a foot in the door to the mainstream. While that crack is open, the industry needs to find new titles that push this kind of mobile gaming to the next level. RPGs, puzzlers, and FPS genres all have great potential for interaction on the streets and physical activity. Could apps like RealStrike become the Counter-Strike of the mobile generation? Will popular LARPs like Vampire:The Masquerade find a revival of their fandom once augmented reality is brought into the equation. It seems like a perfect storm for a revival of urban fantasy.
Gamers, Corporations and City Hall are Going to Battle Over Public Space
Sure, Tel Aviv City Hall, the Mayor of London and other authorities are fine to let games into a popular public place in a controlled and limited way, but gamers are famous for finding ways to break the rules and push games to the limit.
When we're out in public space playing together, inevitably there's going to be competition, winners and losers, and that can lead to some sore tempers. Our own social awareness will prevent anyone from acting out in real life the gruesome retributions sometimes described by sore losers on multiplayer game chat channels, but we're all going to have to reach back into our childhoods and remember some playground rules for when we're all in the same physical space.
What players will want to do, what companies will want them to do, and what municipal authorities will allow them to do, can probably exist in a happy medium but there'll definitely be some controversy and conflict before we reach it. Neighbors, city councils and governments are all going to have to have a pretty serious conversations about gaming. It's a fine thing for gaming to be an art form, but the authorities often frown on graffiti.
The Gamer Closet Will Disappear Utterly
The cool thing about this conversation, though, will be final nail in the coffin of the asocial gamer stereotype. There are a lot of gamers out there in public life, but not everyone is wearing a game branded t-shirt. But when there are more popular augmented reality games out there and we all become part-time cyborgs on our daily commute to work or weekend outings to the park, the gamers out there, casual or not, will be more visible.
Pokémon Go made gaming part of public conversation, water-cooler chat, and even flirtation in an unprecedented way and definitely broke the ice over gaming, making it something that you can enjoy just like movies or books, without anyone making snap judgements about you. I'm definitely looking forward to this future and the potential for fun it'll bring. To all you budding virtuanauts outs there who cut your teeth on Pokémon Go, I urge you to see what else is out there and reach out to the other gamers around you. Play safe, and play nice. There aren't any respawns on this level.