The theory and practice of urban game design

A few weeks ago NLGD asked me to help out with an urban games ‘sem­i­nar’ that they had com­mis­sioned in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Dutch Game Gar­den. A group of around 50 stu­dents from two game design cours­es at the Utrecht School of the Arts1 were asked to design a game for the upcom­ing Fes­ti­val of Games in Utrecht. The work­shop last­ed a week. My involve­ment con­sist­ed of a short lec­ture, fol­lowed by sev­er­al design exer­cis­es designed to help the stu­dents get start­ed on Mon­day. On Fri­day, I was part of the jury that deter­mined which game will be played at the fes­ti­val.

Lec­ture

In the lec­ture I briefly intro­duced some thinkers in urban­ism that I find of inter­est to urban game design­ers. I talked about Jane Jacobs’ view of the city as a liv­ing organ­ism that is grown from the bot­tom up. I also men­tioned Kevin Lynch’s work around wayfind­ing and the ele­ments that make up people’s men­tal maps of cities. I touched upon the need to have a good grasp of social inter­ac­tion pat­terns2. Final­ly, I advised the stu­dents to be fru­gal when it comes to the inclu­sion of tech­nol­o­gy in the stu­dents’ game designs. A good ques­tion to always ask your­self is: can I have as much fun with­out this gad­get?

I wrapped up the lec­ture by look­ing at 5 games, some well-known, oth­ers less so: Big Urban Game, Con­Qwest, Pac-Man­hat­tan, The Soho Project and The Com­fort of Strangers. There are many more good exam­ples, of course, but each of these helped in high­light­ing a spe­cif­ic aspect of urban games design.

Work­shop

Next, I ran a work­shop of around 3 hours with the stu­dents, con­sist­ing of two exer­cis­es (plus one they could com­plete after­wards in their own time). The first one is the most inter­est­ing to dis­cuss here. It’s a game-like elic­i­ta­tion tech­nique called VNA3, which derives its name from the card types in the deck it is made up of: verbs, nouns and adjec­tives.

Students doing a VNA exercise

The way it works is that you take turns draw­ing a card from the deck and make up a one-sen­tence idea involv­ing the term. The first per­son to go draws a verb, the sec­ond per­son a noun and the third an adjec­tive. Each per­son builds on the idea of his or her pre­cur­sor. The con­cept that results from the three-card sequence is writ­ten down, and the next per­son draws a verb card again.4 The exer­cise resem­bles cadavre exquis, the biggest dif­fer­ence being that here, the terms are pre­de­ter­mined.

VNA is a great ice-break­er. The stu­dents were divid­ed into teams of five and, because a side-goal of the sem­i­nar was to encour­age col­lab­o­ra­tion between stu­dents from the dif­fer­ent cours­es, they often did not know each oth­er. Thanks to this exer­cise they became acquaint­ed, but with­in a cre­ative con­text. The exer­cise also priv­i­leges vol­ume of ideas over their qual­i­ty, which is per­fect in the ear­ly stages of con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion. Last but not least, it is a lot of fun; many stu­dents asked where they could get the deck of cards.

Jury­ing

On Fri­day, I (togeth­er with the oth­er jury mem­bers) was treat­ed to ten pre­sen­ta­tions by the stu­dents. Each had pre­pared a video con­tain­ing footage of pro­to­typ­ing and play-test­ing ses­sions, as well as an ele­va­tor pitch. A lot of them were quite good, espe­cial­ly con­sid­er­ing the fact that many stu­dents had not cre­at­ed an urban game before, or hadn’t even played one. But one game real­ly stood out for me. It employed a sim­ple mechan­ic: mak­ing chains of peo­ple by hold­ing hands. A chain was start­ed by play­ers, but required the help of passers-by to com­plete. Watch­ing the videos of chains being com­plet­ed evoked a strong pos­i­tive emo­tion­al response, not only with myself, but also my fel­low jurors. What’s more impor­tant though, is that the game clear­ly engen­dered hap­pi­ness in its par­tic­i­pants, includ­ing the peo­ple who joined in as it was being played.

An urban game being played

In one video sequence, we see a near-com­plet­ed chain of peo­ple in a mall, shout­ing requests at peo­ple to join in. A lone man has been observ­ing the spec­ta­cle from a dis­tance for some time. Sud­den­ly, he steps for­ward, and joins hands with the oth­ers. The chain is com­plet­ed. A huge cheer emerges from the group, hands are raised in the air and applause fol­lows, the man join­ing in. Then he walks off towards the cam­era, grin­ning, two thumbs up. I could not help but grin back.5

Happy urban game participant

  1. Game Design and Devel­op­ment and Design for Vir­tu­al The­atre and Games []
  2. point­ing to this resource, that was dis­cussed at length on the IGDA ARG SIG []
  3. devel­oped by Annakaisa Kul­ti­ma []
  4. An inter­est­ing aside is that the deck was orig­i­nal­ly designed to be used for the cre­ation of casu­al mobile games. The words were cho­sen accord­ing­ly. Despite this, or per­haps because of this, they are quite suit­able to the design of urban games. []
  5. To clar­i­fy, this was not the game that got select­ed for the Fes­ti­val of Games. There were some issues with the game as a whole. It was short-list­ed though. Anoth­er excel­lent game, involv­ing mechan­ics inspired by pho­to safari, was the win­ner. []

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Kars Alfrink

Kars is a designer, researcher and educator focused on emerging technologies, social progress and the built environment.

7 thoughts on “The theory and practice of urban game design”

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  3. Gosh, all these bits of urban games pop­ping up in uni­ver­si­ty cours­es is very excit­ing. The sem­i­nar sounds great.

    If the stu­dents are inter­est­ed in see­ing their games played else­where, per­haps they might like to put them up under a Cre­ative Com­mons licence on Ludoc­i­ty? It’s a wiki of urban games and new sports, with games from Hide and Seek, Come Out and Play, Igfest, SF0 and a heap of unaf­fil­i­at­ed design­ers. It’s star­tling­ly sat­is­fy­ing to put a game up, and then a cou­ple of months lat­er get a play report from some­one who’s tried it out on the oth­er side of the world.

  4. I’ve passed on your ques­tion to the stu­dents Hol­ly. We’ll see what hap­pens (it would be a nice expe­ri­ence for them, I think). And you’re right, stuff like this mak­ing its way into edu­ca­tion is excit­ing. I’m envi­ous of these stu­dents.

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