Pieces on the Urban Gameboard: Is urban gaming a revolution or just a mindless exercise?

By Mike Drench

“The first time I played here, it was the most terrifying experience of my life,” says Matt Collins as he stalks through a forest in Toronto’s sprawling High Park. “I immediately ran into the woods and couldn’t figure out how to get out. Every sound I heard, I was sure was the one raccoon that has the taste for the blood.”

Matt, 27, is playing a game of Manhunt, a simplistic schoolyard game of group tag with an element of hide-and-seek. It’s pitch black outside, relentlessly cold, and, owing to the proximity of Halloween, Collins is menacingly brandishing a dollar-store Freddy Krueger glove.

Collins, an art store employee and member of several local bands, started Manhunt with his friends in 2004 as a spontaneous reaction to being bored in Guelph. He enjoyed it so much, he eventually started coordinating games online, attracting dozens of curious players to his weekly outings. Each took place in a different urban setting. Soon enough, it had sparked a nationwide trend.

There are now Manhunt squads in Montreal, Vancouver and Edmonton. There was a Manhunt Nationals in Ottawa last February. But hunting Man is really just one small, if influential, footnote in a worldwide movement, bringing childhood games to metropolitan settings. These have been called variously “street games,” “urban regressive games” or simply “big games.” In downtowns across the globe, people are coming out to play in unexpectedly high numbers.

The rise of urban gaming has been attributed to a movement towards infantilization among Gen Xers–Toys ‘R’ Us kids in no hurry to grow up. But big games aren’t necessarily that new.

“If you look at the running of the bulls, or the Palio in Siena, this has been part of our culture for a long, long time,” says Mattia Romeo, a game designer for New York’s gameLab. “Soccer is kind of a big game–the original version involves people trying to run a ball from one village to the next. This is not a new phenomenon; we’re just re-tapping into it recently.”

But advances in technology like cell phones, GPS and the internet have made it possible to organize larger, more complex and thematic games. “Urban games” first caught the public’s attention with 2004’s Pac-Manhattan, a creation of Romeo’s and his fellow students in New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications program. A live version of the ’80s video game, it used the grid-like streets of New York as its bleeping, cigarette-stained console.

Romeo, 33, also has the distinction of being one of few urban gamers to make any profit from it. Along with Frank Lantz, founder of game developer area/code, he helped design a big game for U.S. telecom giant Qwest Communications.

Called ConQwest, it was a strange amalgam of public art installation and guerilla marketing: a US$3.2 million scavenger hunt that earned the company numerous accolades in the advertising world.

But for Romeo, who cruised though five U.S. cities looking for places to hide 3×3″ stickers called semacodes, it was something of a mind-expanding look at the urban spaces we often take for granted.

“It all collapsed,” he says. “I didn’t see storefronts anymore; I saw little corners, nooks and crannies, little interstices of spaces I would normally ignore that suddenly became meaningful. For me, that was a very powerful experience.”

It’s an experience echoed by other urban gaming participants, who often consider themselves playful proponents of a growing public space advocacy movement.

“I think the vast majority of people are disconnected from their city on a basic level,” says Amy Luft, a writer and organizer of Manhunt Montreal. “We’re blinded to the everyday wonders of our urban setting, in all its grit and grime and beauty. Manhunt has absolutely has changed the way I see Montreal. I’ve always loved Montreal, but I live and breathe it now.”

Romeo, who worked on New York’s city-wide, three-day Come Out and Play festival, says the best urban games can create the kind of surreal experience usually achieved only with tabs of LSD: a constant state of flitting in and out between normality and fantasy.

“That flickering state of mind, that’s an amazing thing to experience,” says Romeo excitedly. “Where it’s kind of real life, but not — that vague space in between, that slice, is where games happen, and that’s a strange place to be.”

You could call it a “new mind space.” Kevin Bracken and Lori Kufner do. After the couple played Manhunt in Toronto in 2004, they were inspired to form their own micro-movement combining urban beautification efforts with flash-mob gaming. Calling their collective “newmindspace,” the young pair won accolades and audiences with their public pillow fights and spontaneous subway soirées.

Bracken and Kufner, 19 and 20 respectively, became instant media darlings for their public space populism. But then, they really are darling; everything about them is adorable, from their appearance (cherubic) to their site design (pink-hued 2.0 tweeness) to their beliefs (they wrote a Broken Pencil piece called “How to Transform Your City.” Rule #1: “Be cute”).

So it’s strange to see them so stressed out this Friday night, when you’ve previously only known them as a succession of smiley emoticons. Newmindspace’s “Night Lights” event, held on the University of Toronto campus, is supposed to create a new starscape using hundreds of balloons, LEDs and twinkling art installations. Despite the solid attendance of 250, it’s not going too well. The ground is muddy, most of the balloons have merely floated away, and a bunch of LEDs have gone missing. The highlight of the night seems to be huffing on helium and chattering chipmunk-style.

Kufner tries to keep her spirits up. Wearing glow-in-the-dark fairy wings (she owns about 15 pairs), she chuckles nervously as she talks to a couple of reporters.

 

“It’s a reclaim public space sort of ideology,” she says of her events. “We’re essentially reclaiming space that has been misused, or public places that nobody ever uses.”

Harmless enough. But behind all the fairy wings and glowsticks, some critics can’t help but see an enormous waste of potential.

“Hipster activism, at its worst, is a gentrification of activism,” says Deborah Cowen, a member of the more radical Planning Action. “Hipsters sometimes occupy the space of activism, but transform the very act of political mobilization into middleclass claims for better aesthetics and more comfortable consumption. In the process, they manage to depoliticize politics.”

Cowen recently took some jabs at the mainstream public space movement in Relay, a publication of the Socialist Project. Hipster urbanists say they’re reclaiming the streets–but for whom exactly? White middle-class art-school students? Cowen suggests that, given the size, energy and goodwill of the movement, it could be mobilized to make meaningful changes that would truly change our cities.

“What if gaming could be radicalized?” she asks, citing the European plane-spotters who last year helped uncover the existence of secret CIA detention facilities. “Could gamers become eyes on the street against police violence? Could they make the challenge of their game something really challenging, like building bridges between groups and communities? I think the potential is there, but the answers need to come from the folks who think and play that way.”

But Matt Collins does see something subversive in Manhunt, a game requiring no special equipment, which can be played in any neighbourhood, yuppified or otherwise. He sees it as something of an anti-capitalist statement, a Situationist-style anti-spectacle.

“Most of the criticism we get is people asking, ‘Don’t you think you’re too old for this?’ But it’s only because we’re not spending any money,” he says. “Even in comparison to indie rock, they can see how indie rockers could make their own fortunes off it, but clearly there’s no money to be made from Manhunt at all. That’s not the point.”

When it comes to gaming, money usually is the point. Gen Xers camp outside toy stores just to preorder the latest Nintendo system, and subscribe by the millions to massive multiplayer online games meant to keep you playing until you’re sporting a wrist brace and a bedpan. And in cities across North America, condo ads promise you the same agreeable troika of urbanity: “Live. Work. Play.” But we all know what they mean by “play”: hitting the third-floor StairMaster, or the local bar.

So what’s the point of Manhunt?

“I think most people would like to see an end,” says Collins, forming it like a question. “Like, a conclusion to something? And at the end of a game of Manhunt, it’s pretty clear where you stand.”

On this night, however, it’s not so cut and dried. The newbies in the crowd, mostly teenage death-metallers who bussed it from the suburbs, couldn’t tell who they were supposed to be running from. “This game totally sucked!” one exclaims. Collins looks a bit bemused. “But…you had fun chasing people around, right?”

The newmindspace event, for its part, was also a bit of a bust. Someone clearly took the “public property” thing too far and made off with $500 worth of LEDs. And their floating constellation display was a limp, sad mess. The next day, the group’s normally cheery mailing list took an apologetic tone: “Night Lights: A Big Disappointment,” it read. At the same time: “It’s only up from here!”

It’s hard to say where the urban gaming movement is headed. There’s an artistic side, a commercial side and a political side, sometimes diverging and sometimes intertwining. Newmindspace has the art thing almost down. And recently, they’ve managed to find the commercial potential in their work, signing a deal with Cundari Integrated Advertising to provide event planning services to clients. I ask Kufner if there will ever be a more radically politicized dimension to what they do.

“We’re not a protest group,” she says, with a quick giggle. “And that’s what it comes down to. There are certain issues we feel are more relevant than others for our community, but we don’t want to pressure anyone–into doing anything–ever. Not in an anarchist sense, but…”

Her eyes dart to the undulating mass of wires and blinking lights hovering overhead and she shrugs. “We just like to have fun.”

And then I think: of course. Isn’t that what games are for?

 

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