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Archive for the category “Pervasive games”

Why is Pokemon Go such a hit?

Pokemon Go 2One more, and hopefully last, Pokemon Go post…

One of my favourite researchers Katherine Isbister recently wrote a great blog post  on the design features of Pokemon Go, explaining what makes it such a fun game to play. To briefly summarise, she notices that the game is simple to pick up and play, that it gets us moving, and that it lets us connect with other people in the real world, rather than just online. These are all great points, but she calls her summary ’Why Pokemon Go Became an Instant Phenomenon’ – and I don’t think her article answers that question.

Pokemon Go is not the first location-based game out there, nor is it the first mobile phone pervasive game or the first Augmented Reality game. (I even hesitate to call it an Alternate Reality game, more on that below.) Although Botfighter was too early and launched while the technology was not ready for it, GeoCaching was successful already from its launch (in the year of 2000) and has around 3 million users worldwide, and since the IPhone came out we have seen games and entertainment apps like Foursquare, Zombies, Run!, Shadow Cities, Turf, SpecTrek, AgentX come – and very often also go. Most of these were fun to use, had stable user bases, and some of them have been very good games. (Others not so much – despite the fact that there always is at least one or two on the market, the genre of location-based MMORPG seems to be doomed to fail.)

The success of Pokemon Go is similar of that of World of Warcraft (WoW) in 2004. Neither of these games was the first of their kind, but somehow they manage to take an established genre to the mass-market and do it fast – they are blockbuster games. So let’s see if there are some commonalities.

A known IP

The fact that Pokemon Go is based on Pokemon – a very well-known brand and game concept – is the most important reason for its success. It has often been argued that WoW was so immediately successful because it capitalised on the Warcraft brand. While this definitely mattered to attract a first player base, it can’t be the full explanation since the game so very quickly attracted more players than ever had played the previous Warcraft games. However, with Pokemon Go the importance of the IP cannot be understated. Firstly, there is a large number of people out there who have grown up playing Pokemon. Secondly, what you did in the virtual Pokemon games is essentially the exact same thing as you do in Pokemon Go: you walk around in the world searching for Pokemon, and you let Pokemon fight other Pokemon. Now you get to be a Pokemon trainer for real – something some people have dreamed about their whole life

Just as for blockbuster larp, a known IP doesn’t only help with attracting attention and hype, it helps players to know what to do in the game.

A Good Game

A blockbuster game is typically not all that innovative, but it must be reasonably bug-free, well designed, and accessible to players that haven’t played this particular genre of games before. This is true for Pokemon Go and it was true for WoW – although if I was to write a review (which I am not doing) I would say that this was truer for WoW than it is for Pokemon Go. Go back to Katherine’s blog post for the reasons why Pokemon Go is fun to play.

Rich content

One thing that sets Pokemon Go apart from its predecessors is that it is rich in content, and this was also a major ‘wow’ factor when WoW first came out. In Pokemon Go, there are two sources of content: the Pokemon themselves but also all the places – the Pokestops and Gyms – in the physical world that are meaningful to visit.

This is a very interesting aspect of Pokemon Go, since almost all previous games in this genre have been developed by startups and very small companies. No matter how good the games have been, the content has often been minimal at launch, often expected to be crowdsourced through play. In Pokemon Go, the Pokestops and Gyms have indeed been crowdsourced (they are geo-tagged locations of notable places and artwork), but this was done through Ingress, the previous game from the same company. While Ingress slowly and steadily has built up a large player base, it was not all that fun to play in the beginning when there were few players and even less content. If it had not been for Google funding the game, I doubt it would have lasted for three years.

Genre awareness

A blockbuster game can’t be the first of its kind. While a new and innovative game genre can attract a very dedicated and skilled player collective, it is bound to grow only slowly.

It is only when these games have been around for a while that a genre starts to exist in people’s minds. By now most people know of somebody who has played a location-based game. You know somebody who has been out GeoCaching, you may yourself have been an avid Foursquare-user once, you have friends who play Ingress. You sort of know what kind of experiences they offer, and while it seems fun there hasn’t been a game out there that were in your precise taste – until now. This is what Mattias Svahn calls category knowledge. You know what kind of product it is that you are buying and you are selecting this game in competition with other games you also could have been playing.

The hype helps, because it creates a need for the product. Now suddenly, you realise that not just are there games of this type out there – you also must play this one, since everyone else seems to be doing it.

What kind of game is Pokemon Go?

Above, I have used several different terms for the ‘type of game’ that Pokemon Go is, and the same happens in other articles. So let’s go through some of these terms to see which ones fit, and which ones fit less well.

Augmented Reality Game

This is primarily a technology term, describing a set of techniques to locate virtual content in the physical world so that it can be seen or heard by the user when coming close to the right location. When you come close to a Pokemon in Pokemon Go, you see it through your phone as if it was located in the physical world. Other solutions for Augmented Reality use locative sound, and creating Augmented Reality glasses is a long-standing technology dream with more or less good products coming out now and then (such as Google glasses).

This is the term that I see used for Pokemon Go the most, and there are probably several reasons for this. Firstly, while this is by far not the first mobile game that uses AR (we experimented with two such games in IPergG, in 2005 and 2007) it is not the most common technology in use in mobile gaming. Secondly, there has been a lot of recent hype about VR helmets, so this appears as an alternative but a bit similar technology. Journalists (especially game journalists) are often keen to attribute the success of any game to technology innovation, and since the AR function is the most innovative technology in this game it looks like it makes sense to call it an AR game.

But, while Pokemon Go does use Augmented Reality, it does so in a very weak way. The location technology is imprecise (Layar does a much better job of locating virtual content in the world) and the augmentation has no real function in gameplay. The function still plays a very important role: it allows players to take cool pictures of Pokemon and post them in social media, adding to the viral hype of the game.

Location-based Game

This is another technical term, meaning that the game is tied to real-world locations, or at the very least to real-world movement. (Some location-based games use relative rather than absolute positions.) Ever since phones started to come with location services, there have been location-based games launched over and over again. Pokemon Go is definitely a location-based game.

Pervasive Game

The concept of ‘pervasive games’ is a design-oriented term, highlighting specific aspects of how the game is designed and played. Pokemon go is a game that you play in the real, physical world as part of your everyday life. It has no clear boundaries in time or in space, and while playing it you mix with people who are not themselves playing and may not know that you are. This makes Pokemon Go a pervasive game, which creates some spectacular forms of fun and a whole batch of safety issues, as I discussed in my previous post.

Alternate Reality Game

Alternate reality games is also a design-oriented term, this time highlighting the narrative of the game. Alternate reality games are games that offer an alternative narrative about our everyday world: players may for example be hunting a secret conspiracy or solving a murder mystery or stopping an alien invasion or – as in this case – hunting fictional animals that can be hiding anywhere in the world. Just as with the (more widely scoped) concept of pervasive games, alternate reality games can be played in the real world and online. In a limited sense, Pokemon Go is also an alternate reality game.

I would still be hesitant to use the term ‘Alternate Reality’ to describe Pokemon Go. Alternate Reality games tend to be much more rich in content, and have often been transmedia productions and included web content, real-world events, and sometimes a film or a TV series. Very often they play out over limited time and present a single, timed, mystery that players collaborate to solve. Most have been produced as marketing campaigns. Hence, the term doesn’t quite fit – if any players sign up for Pokemon Go thinking it will be an alternate reality game, they will be rather disappointed.

Other terms

Pokemon Go is (of course) also a mobile game and a massively multiplayer persistent world game. It is furthermore a real-time (rather than turn-based) game and a host of other things related to specific design choices in the game. My prediction is that this game will create a genre of its own, tightly constrained by a host of specific design choices just like how WoW set a standard for how MMORPG games must look and function.

But I also predict that in contrary to WoW, it will not be the last successful game of its genre. There are so many design opportunities untapped by this game, that there are bound to be successful successors – or at least, I hope so!

You don’t have to catch them all

Pokemon Go 2So, there is finally a blockbuster pervasive game out there. You have probably heard of it by now: it’s called Pokemon Go and it is an extended and re-skinned version of Ingress (which is, in turn, is very similar to Shadow Cities, discussed here and here on this blog, but without its subtleties). Both Pokemon Go and Ingress are marketed by Niantic with heavy funding from Google and Nintendo. Pokemon Go was released in the U.S. and Australia on July 6th, and the player base exploded. In fact, it is already extensively played in many more countries (including Sweden) even though not released. Since this means that there suddenly are a lot of players out there who never played pervasive games before, I thought it could be a good idea to review some of the basic safety rules for this type of games.

Thing is, Pokemon Go is not a safe game. It’s not unsafe because the designers intended it to be so; in fact I am sure they made every effort to make it as safe as possible. It’s unsafe because all pervasive games are unsafe. A pervasive game is a game that you play in your everyday life and anywhere in the real, physical world. That world is not like that of a computer game: it contains real dangers, as well as a lot of people, places, and vehicles that are not part of the game. The reason that the game designers can’t keep you safe is that they have no idea what you will run into.

Whenever you play a pervasive game, it’s you, the player, who is responsible for your own safety as well as of the safety of those around you. With Pokemon Go, this boils down to one simple rule: you don’t have to catch them all.

There are places and times

Not all places are safe. Obviously, there’s the issue of physical safety: you aren’t gonna try to catch that Staryu on that steep cliff, are you? Good.

In the city and suburbs, social safety is a more pertinent issue. Entering private property to hunt Pokemon may sometimes be completely safe and sometimes extremely dangerous. Make sure you know what kind of place you are in, and make sure to gain the trust and permissions you need to enter. Some places are safe (or even accessible) only at certain times and not at others. To add, there is a small risk that popular meeting spots in the game could attract robbers prying on players, which creates additional reason to be careful with the place and time. If you are unsure, go with friends and fellow players.

Since you can be playing Pokemon go while doing other things at the same time, it matters what you are doing. Just as with texting, you have no business playing Pokemon while driving your car, and you should probably be a bit careful playing it while cycling as well (that was my experience at least). Pokemon Go doesn’t seem to ever make you run, but just to make it explicit: don’t run around in the city with your eyes fixated on the phone.

However, much of the thrill with playing pervasive games come from exploring places out of the ordinary, at out of the ordinary times. Make sure you know the difference between feeling safe and being safe! You might feel uncomfortable and scared hunting Pokemon in the forest at night, but this is most likely safer than hunting them in the middle of the day in a very busy intersection. Bring a friend and a flashlight to the forest – and leave that Pokemon waiting in the middle of the street alone.

Don’t play with people who have as their job to take things seriously

This is the golden safety rule of all pervasive gaming. There are people out there who have as their job to take things seriously. For Pokemon Go players, the most relevant professionals will be the police and various brands of guards and watchpeople. They are not there for your amusement. If those are around, make sure that they know and accept that you are playing a game – and if they don’t allow it, you’ll just have to leave that Pokemon uncaught.

Yes, I know. It could potentially be a fun game challenge to sneak into a guarded area, catch a Pokemon, and sneak out again before the guards find you. Don’t. Guards may be armed and scared, they can be angry and violent, and they will most likely fine you no matter how convinced they are that you are a Pokemon trainer. (And you will get absolutely NO sympathies from anyone: guards and policemen have much higher status than Pokemon trainers.)

From this perspective, right now is probably the most dangerous time to play Pokemon Go because the police and the guard companies haven’t learned to recognise the play activity. All they see are people in strange places acting weirdly. In time, they will learn to recognise both the popular places and the players’ behaviour, which will make it less dangerous to play. (And then, it may get more dangerous again, if criminals start to use the game as a coverup excuse.)

There are other groups too, that have as their job to take things seriously. Firemen, doctors, nurses, psychologists… You probably don’t have much reason to get in their way to catch Pokemon – but still don’t.

Don’t be dangerous or scary

Finally, you may yourself be a danger to others, players as well as non-players. Again, don’t play while driving your car!!

It is also dangerous to scare people, for their sake as well as yours. For example, if you are a big middle-aged man, you may think twice about playing in the close vicinity of schools and day-care centers. (This lession was learned already by Geocashers.) And don’t demand of that young girl who you befriended playing Pokemon, that she will follow you out on Pokemon-hunting in the forest at night. With or without flashlight.

Remember that it is also dangerous for you, the player, to scare others. As little as we like it, being a black man could be extremely dangerous for Pokemon players.

Playing for real

The situations above are just examples, and most likely the safety issues you encounter will look completely different. That’s where I started, right? You have to take care of your own safety because no one else can do it for you.

In pervasive games, the fun and excitement comes from doing things for real, from letting fictional adventure into your everyday life, and from meeting fellow players in person rather than just online. It’s awesome! It is nice to see that there finally is a game out there that everybody plays – and I am sure there are others to come. There are many exciting adventures waiting for us all – so bring your flashlight, have fun, play safe!


The recent Ph.D. Back

jon disputation

Jon was fated to defend his FAtE model… Photo by Sofia Stenler.

My (by now former) doctorate student Jon Back defended his Ph.D. thesis in February.The thesis is called ’Designing public play: Playful engagement, constructed activity, and player experience’.

This is a thesis is one of a range of recent dissertations that focus on play rather than games. It is not entirely easy to make this move. Play is typically seen as a broader category than gameplay, and is by that even more difficult to delimit and frame. What is play, to start with? To this, Jon adds the challenge that he is interested in designing for play, privileging the role of a designer in shaping the play activity. This is tricky. Whereas there are ways to make that distinction reasonably clear for game design, it becomes extremely problematic for play design, as so much of play is creative.

Jon’s been researching and designing public play for a long time now, both as an academic and as an active street performer.  A key feature of his work is that he wants to make it relevant for designers. This is not a philosophical thesis, it clearly belongs to the pragmatic approach to design research that characterises third wave HCI. The central contribution of the thesis is still rather abstract, and consists of two frameworks to help the designer  conceptualize of play in a way that foregrounds the rather loose relationship the play activity to the produced design. Based on several case studies including our joint project Codename Heroes, he is also able to provide some hands-on guidelines.

Jon and I think very much alike; and I am not sure if he has influenced me or vice versa. I am of course immensely proud of him at this time, and want everyone to read his thesis! But I cannot escape thinking that the relationship between designer and the designed play activity is even more complex than this thesis makes it – that it only begins to scratch the surface.

In the crucible of science

Early prototype for one of the technology-supported experiments.

Last year, my group ran a collaboration project with Tom Tits Experiment in Södertälje; a hands-on science center in the tradition of the Exploratorium in San Fransisco. The goal was to rebuild some of their experiments to become part of an overarching game. While the game definitely has the purpose of teaching science, it is not your typical learning game; instead, focus is placed entirely on increasing engagement with visiting families.

The first article from this project was published in November at ‘Advances in Computer Entertainment Technologies‘ and is now available from the ACM library. The article is focussed on the design choices, challenges and solutions, and only briefly describes the initial evaluations. (The full-scale evaluation was done last summer and we are still working through the data.)

The best part is that the science centre is seriously invested in the project. We did two public tests last year – first in February and then scaled-up in July-August – both open to the public. While the research project ended in August, Tom Tits has taken the game further and is now making it a permanent part of their exhibition. From what I have gleaned, the final version looks really cool; the ugly screens are gone and replaced by mechanical devices that show scores, and a fabulous end reward installation. I hope to be able to do some kind of study of the final installation as well.

The recent Ph.D. Svahn


This cool picture of Mattias was stolen from his Facebook page.

Mattias and I go way back; he even coordinated the EU project IPerG (integrated project on pervasive gaming) for six months while I was busy designing and staging Interference. Mattias has done his thesis in Economics at the Stockholm School of Economics, and I have been co-supervising the work since he started. Mattias has studied the persuasive effects of a range of pervasive games designed to spur awareness of electricity consumption. The games were developed at the Interactive Institute and Mattias’ role was to understand if the games managed to change people’s behaviour.

This is interesting work. Based on theories of dual process modelling and cognitive categorization, Mattias argues that the persuasive effect of pervasive games could be rather strong. The idea is that when you do something (such as switch off a lamp to conserve energy) you rationalize it to be consistent with your ‘cognitive heuristics’; your way of making rapid decisions without thinking too much about them. If it is not, you have to actively figure out how to describe what you did, and that will change your beliefs. You create new categories of actions and figure out new reasons for doing them. Even if the act originally was done to score points in a game, doing it may lead to changing your classifications and beliefs.

We know very little about if games have this type of persuasive effects. It is unlikely to be strong in computer games as you don’t do all that much – you sit in front of a computer and press buttons – and you must first re-interpret your actions as something else (such as switching off a lamp) before the aware thinking effect may kick in. But in pervasive games, most acts are done for real; you really DO switch off your kitchen lamp. This should make it more difficult to escape the persuasive effect.

So, did it work? Did Mattias find a persuasive effect? Mattias answers yes, but he brackets his answer. The effect was strongest for players that were positive towards energy saving from start and needed less persuasion. Some of the other participants didn’t really engage with the theme, but played the energy-saving games just to score points. What perhaps is most interesting is that Mattias also could document attitude changes also with the families of players, people who were not themselves playing the game but who got sucked into it second-hand as the task was to save energy in the household. The fact that the games were socially expanded created a secondary persuasive effect, a bit like passive smoking.

Mattias’ thesis is well-worth reading, even if the final part is a bit too heavy on statistical number acrobatics for my taste. There, Mattias tries to construct a theoretical model for the causes and effects of persuasion, which I do not completely trust. It is an interesting hypothesis, but at the very least it needs further verification.

A big congrats to Mattias! I am sure I will see more of your work in the future – not in the least since we are now in the process of applying for joint project funding.

Mattias’ thesis is called ‘pervasive persuasive games‘ and can be downloaded in full.

A bachelor thesis on Shadow Cities

Last fall, I supervised this bachelor thesis by Linnéa Nordlund and Alex Sjöberg Larsson. Their job was to investigate how players of a fairly hardcore pervasive game, Shadow Cities, felt about the fact that the game uses a freemium model of payment. Linnéa and Alex played the game, scrutinized forum discussions, and performed a small survey.

Their results are rather surprising. In the forum discussions, players either complain about the in-game purchases as they provide play advantages, or downplay their importance in the game. But in the (anonymous) survey, players agree that the in-game purchases provide play advantages and, at the same time, like to use them. There seems to be a difference between the public discourse around the game, and how players actually use the function and play the game.

Linnéa and Alex also made some attempts to find out which players are most positive towards in-game purchases. As they wanted a short survey, they did some shortcuts here and the player classification method they used did not fully work out. Still, they found that players that classified themselves as hard-core players were more accepting towards in-game purchases, something that again contradicts the usual perception of the hard-core player as someone who wants to win by skill alone.

I find their results intriguing and plausible, and it is also a very well written bachelor thesis. Hence, I have asked Linnéa and Alex if I can make it available here. Due to the small size of the survey it has no chance of getting accepted into an academic venue, and my hope is that there might be a scholar out there who’d like to take this work further.

And thanks to you, Alex and Linnéa! You were awesome students!


Followup: Will the ruffled props matter?

Gender-Aware Pervasive Game Design

I haven’t written much about pervasive games lately, which is a bit strange since we have spent quite a lot of time during the spring with both designing and testing our most recent design experiment, Codename Heroes. As our first public tests with the game are approaching, I would like to write a bit about its design and how we plan to test it.

This game was designed to be a low-entry longterm multiplayer game directed towards a teenage audience. Most importantly, it has been designed to appeal to young women, girls.

Why would we do that in the first place? Wouldn’t girls play the same pervasive games as everyone else? Our reason could have been as simple as trying to provide a counter example. Now that pervasive games are starting to come to the market, we can note that they are pretty much designed and marketed by the same game companies that make computer and mobile games, a very male-dominated scene. But our main reason was that girls and boys live rather different lives – young girls face a set of challenges that are unique to their gender and that affect how and when they spend their spare time as well as how they move through public space (which in general is not a lot).  Since pervasive games are played intermixed with everyday life, they run the risk of being inaccessible for girls unless they are designed to take their situation into account.

When designing Codename Heroes, we first took a look at ethnographic literature mapping out the lives of   girls in their lower teens. (Btw, this was a rather depressing read. Either the ethnographers were intent of finding as many problems as possible or girls at this age live horrible, horrible lives.) Then, we worked with the game mechanics, in particular those that had to do with spatial and social expansion, to address some of those challenges. For example, many young girls are afraid of getting assaulted when walking alone, which makes them very restricted in how they move in everyday life. Some quests in Codename Heroes asks you to go to new places (to break confinement) but since you play in teams you never need to go there alone. Furthermore, young girls are often very dependent on their friends, for good and for ill as it creates support and group pressure at the same time. In Codename Heroes there is a mehanics of gift-giving to support trust building.

(At this point, I must stop to mention that we have no idea whether our mechanics actually have the intended effects. We know that they work as we have play-tested the game on multiple occasions, and we also know that our women players have liked the game so far. But since we haven’t run the game long-term yet, we have no idea whether the gift giving actually builds trust, for example.)

At the same time, we did not want to design a game that would appeal only to girls. Many products are styled and marketed in a way that marks them out as ‘for girls only’ – if you decorate a toy with pink ruffles you can be pretty sure that boys will not touch it with a ten foot pole. Much of our graphical design efforts have been spent on finding some kind of gender-neutral form of expression. We ended up in a soft steampunk style for props, and a rabbit icon that just might be a little bit too cuddly.

So this weekend, I did a HUGE mistake. We are running a ‘sneak preview’ of the game at the Ung’08 festival  a one-hour adventure nowhere near the long-term game that Codename Heroes is designed to be. I needed to make an additional set of props for this adventure, and when shopping for material I fell in love with – you guessed it – ruffles. They weren’t pink, but they had polka dots and were absolutely lovely. So now I have a set of props with ruffles…

This gives some room for experiment. Suppose we run half of our runs with the ruffled props, and half with neutrally gendered props? Will the ruffles trip the scale and make the whole game girly? Or will the players see the game as girly even without the ruffles? Or will it matter at all – maybe the game appeals equally to both genders with and without the ruffles? My personal guess is that the ruffles will trip the scale, but that boys in particular may see the game as ‘girly’ even without them. (To be honest, there is a quest in the event that encourages some sewing as well, and that alone may be enough to trip the scales.)

Please place your bets! If we get enough players, I will be able to give the results in two weeks from now.


Back, J., Papadogoula, F.A., and Waern, A. (2012). The challenges of designing a gender-aware pervasive game. CHI Workshop on identity, performativity and HCI, Austin, Texas, May.

Markus Montola on Shadow Cities

Shadow Cities uses gestures on the screen as its main mode of interaction.

My old friend and colleague Markus Montola has just presented at GDC, this time from the ‘right side of the fence’, as representative of Grey Area, the Finnish game developer behind ‘Shadow Cities‘. (We presented together in 2009, but at that time we were both academics.) His talk was already blogged at Pocketgamer.

Shadow Cities is a beautifully crafted mobile MMOG, using GPS to chart a parallel world in which magic powers roam. The concept is rather similar to the ‘Mythical Mobiles’ game designed within IPerG, but the gameplay is primarily about area control in teams rather than player-vs-player battle (there is a bit of both, though). The major invention of Shadow Cities is its model for remote play, which allows you to ‘teleport’ to play anywhere in the world from your couch.

According to Pocketgamer, this is also what people do: they play Shadow Cities more from home, than on the move. This might be surprising for a location-based game, but it makes perfect sense: after all, phones are becoming a par preference mode of access to the Internet even at home for many users. We might want to game when on the move, but why would we want to stop doing it when we come home? So why shouldn’t locative games also support couch play?

Curiously enough, Markus talked about reaching critical mass as the biggest challenge for Shadow Cities and maybe for locative multiplayer games in general. “We need critical mass in every neighbourhood at all time”, Pocketgamer cites him. But with their support for distant play, it can’t be the locative factor that makes critical mass an issue for Shadow Cities. Rather, I think it is the requirement on synchronized play. In Shadow Cities, players team up to battle other teams or achieve particular feats at particular times and particular places – and I think that is the time, not the place, that’s their problem. Mobile gameplay is typically short term, at least compared to PC or console play. Games like WordFeud and (semi)games like Foursquare don’t run into critical mass issues, and I think the reason is that they are asynchronous. And Foursquare doesn’t even support couch play!

These are important considerations for our current research game prototype ‘Codename Heroes’… We have asynchronous play, but we don’t have a lot of support for couch play. I think we may need to consider that a bit more carefully.

By the way, here is a good reference on why people use mobiles when they have access to computers:

Stina Nylander, Terés Lundquist, Andreas Brännström, Bo Karlson. “It’s just easier with the phone” – a diary study of Internet access from cell phones. Pervasive 2009.

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