Wednesday, March 08, 2006

my so-called ubiquitous gaming

One of the challenges I've faced while working on my dissertation is how to identify and classify the particular kinds of play and games that I want to write about. It would be easy to claim "pervasive games" or "alternate reality games" as my topic, but the problem is I'm really only interested in a few pervasive games and a few alternate reality games... plus a few other things, like flash mobs, that don't fit in either category. The other problem is that I really believe those few pervasive games, and few ARGs, and few other things, actually belong together and not (at least not primarily) in the categories in which they are usually classified.

The portion of my dissertation that I am now working on is the section where I stake out what exactly I intend to study and what makes it a unified set of things. I have come to very much like the term ubiquitous gaming, for the purposes of my dissertation, although I fully hope and expect that the industry for this kind of experience will come up with a much better name. (Anyone who has heard Bruce Sterling talk about the dangers of settling on a name too soon, especially in the field of ubiquitous computing, knows what I mean here.) The reason why I like ubiquitous gaming over pervasive gaming is that I believe the original master vision statements for ubicomp are actually in fact extremely evocative game design manifestos. (I bet you didn't know that!) At least, they can be read that way, and we can find evidence of such designed game experiences in the group of objects I plan to study. Also, most people in the field who ever used the phrase "ubiquitous gaming" to describe the stuff I don't want to look at (augmented reality, mixed reality, performance games-slash-tech demos, etc.) have abandoned it in favor of "pervasive gaming"... so I can try reworking the phrase without having to fight everyone else who is using it in a standard way.

So, I have been sitting here waiting for American Idol to come on and relieve my brain from thinking so hard for a little while, and making idle notes to myself about what defining qualities these games will take from ubicomp into ubigaming. As it turns out, these idle notes actually say exactly what I need to say, and I now am starting to feel very good about having defined the thing I am writing about in This Might Be a Game: Ubiquitous Play and Performance at the Turn of the 21st Century. I think, as it turns out, I am writing about a group of things that share a design philosophy, if not a genre, or platform, or audience.

Here are those idle notes.

The characteristics of ubiquitous gaming are as follows:

-It is a designed experience.
-It is embedded at least partially in everyday contexts and/or environments.
-It has a significant physical and material component.
-It is a distributed experience: distributed across multiple media, multiple platforms, multiple spaces.
-Distributed elements are not clearly marked as part of the experience. Thus active investigation of, and live interaction with, both in-game and out-of-game media, objects, people and spaces will be a significant component of the experience.
-It establishes a network of players who are in the know; it will also involve or engage others who are in the dark.
-It has the effect of sensitizing participants to affordances, real or imagined. That is to say, it increases the perception of opportunities for interaction.
-It has the effect of making things seem connected, or at least the choice to believe that things are connected seem quite plausible.
-It is an engine for both pattern recognition and pattern misrecognition. Each of which is equally rewarded, and rewarding, in the context of the experience.
-It make surfaces less convincing. Underlying structure are what matters.
-It creates a community capable of defining alternate modes of engaging reality.


Anonymous said...

not to harsh your mellow, but there's a sense in which this is the dual of ubiquitous - instead of putting the interaction machinery (computational or not) into the background, it almost seems to be defined as heightening awareness of the background!

i am struck by the way in which many of the listed characteristics seem de-situating (that may not be the best word) - like a mashup of breaching experiments...

Anonymous said...

"Ubiquitous gaming" makes me think of something like tag, which can be played almost anywhere at almost any time. Actually I guess that mostly fits within your described framework, with the exception of having a significant material component.

Good luck.

Jane said...

Anonymous #1, why would that harsh my mellow? Of course I am working precisely with that statement by Weiser and others (Rich Gold in particular) as the design manifestos to which I refer in the original post. And heightening awareness of the world around us-- of course that is an aim of my own games and the games that I am writing about! That's something I've always said. I'm not sure I understand your use of the term "de-situating" or "breaching", if you feel like clarifying, that would be helpful.

Anonymous #2, ah, but can tag be played anywhere anytime? I would suggest that you would need some kind of designed infrastructure to enable a game of tag on a public train, or in a supermarket, or in a movie theater before the show starts. There are all kinds of social norms and permissions to deal with and obtain... not to mention a modified rule set to take advantage of the great affordances of each unique space. And that's precisely something I am interested in the ability of ubicomp to do-- to provide the structure that allows you to play in possibly familiar ways in striking new contexts.

Anonymous said...

New anonymous here,

This might be my fault since I didn't track down and read your proposed thesis statement, but--

Are you pretty much just extending Wittgenstein's work on language games to other, non-verbal (or at least less exclusively verbal) human behaviour? I mean, are you providing a new explaination for a group of phenomena, or more applying an old theory to a previously unrecognized group of phemonema?

It seems, if the latter, then one implication of your study would be being enabled to use a 'games' metaphor to describe clique behaviour of middle-school girls, but I'd like to hear more about what it would add to games theory.

Jane said...

I'm sorry, now I just have to ask -- who is reading my blog?? I thought it was people who, like, basically know me. But some of the comments on this post have really confused the heck out of me! :) So, I'm actually a game designer and actually writing about games, and so, no, I'm not extending or working with Wittgenstein's metaphor of the language game, I'm writing about games. And I actually don't find Wittgenstein's use of the term "game" particularly interesting to the study of play or games anyway... blech. No offense meant if that's your critical framework of choice! Gosh, I hope someone doesnt' show up and ask if I'm basically just reworking Derrida's notion of play... aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.

So I am now suggesting no more anonymous comments. Please at least sign a name! It is weird getting a bunch of anonymous comments about my work from folks who don't seem to like, know anything about what I do. It's confusing me... and I'm thinking hard enough as it is just writing the damn dissertation!

Anonymous said...

I made the "tag" comment above. I only hoped it would be helpful in some way and didn't mean any offense. I discovered your site when the Latchkey Project was picked up by some gaming news sites, and read through all your various projects with great interest. Again, I meant no disrespect and wish you the best.


Jane said...

Hi Bruce! No worries, tag is definitely in the ballpark-- gamey, physical, social... and thanks for introducing yourself! It's nice to meet you. :) At the very least, a stream of new anonymous comments is a good reminder to maybe contextualize some of what I say better.

D Fisher said...


I would propose that you call these "spimes", and enter an implicit competition with Bruce Sterling. This would be a designed environment, and--to the extent that either of you (or your favorite search engine) are embedded in the real world (or that your dissertation and the talks you give count as material), you would be able to even assert that your spime was, itself, a ubiquitous ga--er, spime.

Yes, I'm proposing a competitive Googlewhack.

Great to play Werewolf with you--even if we never were sure you were a Seer.


Jane said...

ROFL-- Danyel, that is an excellent idea. By the way, Googlewhacking... have you read Dave Gorman's Googlewhacking adventure? I couldn't recommend a more fun book!

Paul M. Aoki said...

hello, anonymous #1 here. actually i do know you, i just dislike blog sign-ins (for reasons i won't get into...).

if this is old-hat to you, feel free to ignore it - i'm just amplifying on what i said earlier.

"breaching experiments" is a term associated with the sociologist harold garfinkel. in a nutshell, you grossly "violate" some common-sense "norm" and see what happens. act like a boarder with the people in your own home. spend a day standing an inch away from people when you talk to them. it's a way of getting at how the "doing" of being a member of society is tied up in these kinds of (in)actions - though, of course, breaching experiments are much more notorious for the reactions they provoke in the "subjects," which arise because the "subjects" are the ones for whom the reality of these violated norms is intensely and unexpectedly highlighted.

it's this latter aspect that i mentally associate with (some) ARGs. an extreme example: there's context associated with answering the phone on your desk. who calls you? your friends, your co-workers, the occasional telemarketer - when you pick up, you have some set of implicit expectations about what will happen based on the fact that your life is relatively boring and it's your desk phone. but in (say) majestic, the next phone call you receive may involve a strange voice saying something threatening. the normal operation of "plans and situated action" (to invoke lucy suchman) is thrown off. that's what i was trying to get at with "de-situating" (which, again, may not be a very good term)... the game makes the familiar, strange.

the weiser/brown notion of "invisibility" in ubicomp has to do with the technology becoming part of the background, "fading into" tasks at hand. it may be completely visible in the literal sense, but it is unremarkable in its integration with what you're doing. that's why i see a dualism between (some) ARGs and ubicomp. the characterization of ARGs in your posting - "in the dark," "sensitizing," "misrecognition," "less convincing" - seem to be about heightening awareness of the background. yes, the foreground (technological intervention) and background (mundane experience) merge, but through the background being raised into the foreground instead of the foreground fading into the background!

anyway, i fully acknowledge that i may have NO idea what i'm talking about (including the things i have been "explaining" above) but i thought i ought to be a bit clearer.

"harsh your mellow" was just an acknowledgement that posting feedback that night might get in the way of the American Idol veg state mentioned in the posting :-)

btw, i admire your disciplined approach to dissertation-writing - wish i had been that good about it!

Jane said...

Hi Paul! Thanks so much for the clarification... I'll shoot you an email to to expound on the references you suggested. :) By the way, having finished up that chapter "A ubiquitous computing approach to play and performance", I should say that I've actually opted to work primarily with Rich Gold's more fanciful and playful design statements and presentations in terms of articulating a particular vision of ubicomp. Weiser's work, I have no doubt, is infinitely richer for framing and understanding a much greater range of technological projects and goals. But Gold's is so profoundly suited to the game space--especially inasmuch as he was an interactive toy/computer game designer before heading to PARC--that I have chosen to work with Gold/Weiser texts at about a 4:1 ratio. :)

Sir Quady said...

I'd just like to take the time to say that, no, i don't know you far as you know, no? Seriously though, i know OF you (via my obsession with Alternate Reality Games (Whoisbenjaminstove is my current one)), so i found your blog, and i thought it was pretty sweet. So i keep reading it. Good work!

Oh, and i'm waiting until i'm nice and awake before i attempt to read (or more specifically, understand) all of this post and it's comments.

Brian said...

Hi Jane, Firstly I hope you get better soon with that rib injury. It's very difficult because all you can do really is wait it out there's no magic pills/therapy to fix it. Secondly I'd like some advice. I'm posting it on this thread because of your definitions of gaming and American Idol. I have a 12 year old daughter who, as age appropiate, loves everything cool i.e. angst, anything pink, American Idol, and looking down at intelligence. She's very smart but it's not en vogue. Through playing Perplex City I discovered your Latchkeys and am waiting it's delivery for her birthday. My question is how can I make this appealing to her or guide her on some of the puzzles without looking like, "the geeky dad". Any input would be great. Thanks and get better! Brian

Anonymous said...