Playable Cities

A few years ago as my immersive VR/XR production work started, I wrote a volumetric XR mystery where Jack London and the ghosts of the Oakland port and pier areas came to life and shared their stories to warn us about the coming changes ahead with rising seas and climate shifts. The Port Mystery or #SeaChange, is a escape-the-future game written but not yet played — an immersive location-based AR game designed to be triggered by groups of people through interactive play in public places.

Games like this can be played anywhere, by anyone, using any number of physical and digital devices in tandem with an intelligent city environment. I started experimenting with ARGs, wearables and sensors in city-based gameplay around Boston back in 2000 to stretch our capacity for play in public together — today new games in Playable Cities employ a wide variety of sensors and interactive strategies to connect people in any number of ways, from counting participants in a park to using sensors in infrastructure like Hello Lamppost, a new story-interactive initiative coming soon to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

Until a few years ago, storytelling in the public commons happened primarily through static places. Stages, statues, museums and most physical story elements like public art are passive, stoic and not participatory or interactive. We are now seeing a massive rise in INTERACTIVE STORYTELLING in the public commons, not only through VR, AR and XR applications but also through mobile gameplay and IoT smart cities initiatives embedded into our transit, recreation and public service systems.

Shared stories are coming to life in every arena and medium.

Kiosks help us find the next tourist destination, trolley or cafe.

AR apps give us turn by turn directions for multimodal transit.

Together we interface with millions of machines in the city every day.

Any interface for public engagement is also a playable space, creating a game board of opportunity spaces across a city that can be played much like a board game. Together we make the currency, the cards, the personas and the spaces into playable places for possibilities.

Challenges can appear that are solo or multiplayer to encourage new types of connection. Puzzles can open up new worlds for kids. Anything from civic engagement to education is possible with a wider lens toward play in the public commons.

How do VR/AR/XR fit into this landscape, and what’s the difference between these approaches for city-based stories and games?

Immersion = a change in perspective. VR does this. XR does this. AR usually does not change our environment, it only adds a layer of play to the existing world or environment around us, making it ideal for play in parks such as the PokemonGO juggernaut of city play.

Interactivity = a change in agency, transmitting power to players to make choices or shift the potential of a story. In collective sensemaking and placemaking, interactivity bonds people to a place and builds a stronger relationship between people and the information shared. VR, AR, XR and interactive theatre all employ similar dynamics of engaging people in play by asking and inviting exchanges, either by an application or through an interaction in public.

Impact = a change in associated value or meaning, purpose and associated well-being. Social impact initiatives often use engagement strategies like gamification to make complex ideas easier to comprehend and collaborate around, giving agency and perspective a root to society. From climate action simulations to disaster response logistics, games successfully use elements of play to directly impact our futures.

Immersion in the city through historic or future-planning placemaking allows people of all ages to change their relationship to their neighbors, the places they share and the choices needed to thrive in times of rapid change. We are not yet prepared for wild futures, rising seas and energy challenges and these playful dynamics may give us the collaboration tools necessary to surf rough seas ahead.

Engagement strategy looks different whether we’re discussing VR, AR, XR or other types of interactive media in public arenas.

VR or Virtual Reality play is typically viewed in a headset but in some cases can also be played in domes and other public arenas like Esports hotels now emerging. Domes attached to museums are likely future venues for immersive play with young educational audiences.

AR or Augmented Reality play happens through games like PokemonGO or recent Harry Potter location based gaming where a layer is added to the existing world in order to play the game everywhere you go. These mechanics translate well to civic play if well designed with safety and privacy considerations for all ages and accessibility levels. AR games are typically apps, and while many are visual and available via mobile phone or smartglasses there are also sound-based AR games.

XR or Extended or Expanded Reality play can include headsets at times (Magic Leap or other pass-through VR headsets) but frequently are embodied and physical games that are played in spatial web environments uniquely situated with wearables, sensors or displays. The spatial web maps objects, players and other assets into the existing world and can completely overlay data and other maps, creating a hybrid approach to collaboration that can help scientists approach data action in new ways. XR for enterprise frequently uses collaborative design techniques for sensemaking between countries or facilities to improve engagement and reduce time/risk.

In our consulting work connecting cities with immersive & interactive strategies, I personally use a process of REALITYCRAFT that starts from the massive purpose that drives the initiative. Designing Playable Cities requires a deep understanding of the needs of the city, the stakeholders, the place and the capabilities ready to be unlocked through play. If this process is interesting for you or your team, get in touch with us at Playable Agency. We consult at all levels, from edu/NGO to Fortune 500 and major venues and celebrity agencies worldwide and we’re happy to help create new worlds with you, in public or anywhere.

CEO @PlayableAgency ✩ Founder @LightLodges ✩ Producer ✩ Advisor ✩ Artist ✩ Speaker ✩ Media Design ✩ Interactive Mixed Reality ✩ Strategist ✩ Consultant

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