This piece is one of the latest collection of London Essays from think tank Centre for London, all on the theme of play. Its author, Holly Gramazio, is one half of Matheson Marcault, who use game design to engage people with places and ideas. Here, she argues that digital games allow us to inhabit London in new ways.
In 1951, the people of London had a chance to play one of the very first videogames. It was based on the old-fashioned table game Nim, in which players take turns to pick up different numbers of objects from several piles. If you’re stuck with the last object, you lose. The computer that played Nim was the Ferranti Nimrod, built especially for the Festival of Britain: a vast grey thing, almost four metres long, all vacuum tubes and panels and slow bulbs and signs that lit up to tell you if you’d won.
The game that the Nimrod played wasn’t meant, particularly, to be fun. It was “designed to demonstrate the principles of automatic digital computers”, according to a slightly defensive booklet published by its creators: “It may appear that, in trying to make machines play games, we are wasting our time. This is not true as the theory of games is extremely complex.”
As far as visitors were concerned, the game was enough. Even Alan Turing had a go. Some visitors played over and over again, spending “long hours trying (in vain) to win” – the Nimrod was pretty good at its single task, and hard to beat.
Eventually the Festival of Britain finished; at the end of 1951, the Ferranti Nimrod was dismantled. And digital games in London had just begun.
What does it mean for a digital game to be about London? In one sense, the Nimrod was just about picking objects from digital piles, nothing to do with London at large. In another, the experience of play was absolutely dependent on its location, on the Festival of Britain itself, on its wide-ranging experimentation, the crowds of locals and tourists who bustled past it each day, the spectators waiting for a turn, the hum of the machine, and the hall around it. It isn’t necessary for a game to be about a location in order for the experience of playing to reflect upon and reimagine that location.
Of course, that doesn’t mean there are no games that treat London explicitly. Over the last few years, the Museum of London has acquired a collection of video games that address the city directly: games made between 1982 and 2000 that represent, or misrepresent, London and its suburbs (the collection was shown in an exhibition in 2016). From social-climbing parody Hampstead to SimCity 3000, each of the acquired games communicates a way of thinking about London and the people within it. Videogames, writes Digital Curator Foteini Aravini, “are experienced through motion and activity” and therefore “have the capacity to depict a range of urban structures, representations and systems”.
Some games, whether in this collection or outside it, try to show the whole city, which can give a powerful sense of place to people who have never visited while simultaneously allowing Londoners to mutter about how that’s definitely not where Westminster station is and also that there are places worth knowing about south of London Bridge – you know, come on. Other games take a moment or tiny observation, and incarnate it in something playable: take for example Rosa Carbó-Mascarell’s Overground, a small free game which encapsulates its creator’s experience of commuting from Stratford to Gunnersbury throughout 2016.
So sometimes it is as simple as that: a game is set in London, draws inspiration from it, and to play the game is to discover something of London’s shape or history or systems. Perhaps in playing the game you can move around a simulacrum of the streets or read descriptions of its landmarks or interact with illustrations of one of its tiny corners. Perhaps the creators of the game have made something that communicates a little of what it is to be somewhere very specific, sharing one of the millions of possible experiences of the city with players who are far afield.
But the possibilities for game design that really communicates something about London, and affects our experience of the city, go far beyond straightforward portrayals in purely digital games, however enticing or beautiful or evocative or straight-up fun those portrayals might be. It’s not just that we can make games set in London. We can also make games that genuinely inhabit and even transform the city.
People often talk about digital games as if they’re somehow separate from the physical world, but that’s just not true. Every game we play, from old-school hopscotch to Angry Birds, happens in the world: we play with our bodies, and the pleasure we feel is deeply embedded in our movements and sensations.
In chess, different people may prefer the texture and heft of different pieces, and some players strategise not just about moves but about psychological intimidation and physical advantage – particular ways of putting down the pieces that disturb opponents, even sitting so that your rival has the sun in their eyes (as recommended in Ruy López de Segura’s 1561 chess manual). In the Mario series, now nearing 40 years old, we enjoy the sensation of pressing a button and seeing a tiny man execute a famously perfect jump: the connection between our hands and fingers and impulses and his movement is part of what makes the games satisfying. As videogames academic Brendan Keogh puts it, “the reason we really play a videogame is because it feels real good within our soft meaty body”. Playing Nim with flashing lights and heavy buttons is different from playing it with a few little piles of matchsticks.
When we play a game, then, our experience is changed by our surroundings. And as the line between digital experiences and traditional physicality erodes, there are more and more opportunities for game designers to take advantage of this by designing experiences that know where and when and how they’re being played.
Our phones are constantly aware of where we are; our computers pay attention to the time of day, switching, if we would like them to, from bright blue light during the day to warm light at night. Games, too, experiment with this sort of awareness. Animal Crossing: New Leaf presents players with a different choice of activities at different times of the day and night, a bustling village transforming into an almost desolate space; Julian Glander’s Lovely Weather We’re Having incorporates the local weather data of the player into the game world.
No surprise, then, that there are game designers who push this even further, inviting players to interact with and respond to their physical environment as part of the game.
Sometimes this means creating a game people play on their own devices, but that is aware of and responds to its environment, or prompts its players to do the same – whether that’s something like Pokémon Go, playable across the world using local landmarks, or something like Circumstance’s A Hollow Body, an experience that guides participants around the Barbican and its surrounding streets.
Sometimes it means installing a game or playful experience in a particular location, to engage passers-by or intentional visitors – something physically embedded within the city, like any other work of public art. Tine Bech’s installation We Believe, which ran from 10 to 19 November this year, allowed visitors to Aarhus City Hall in Denmark and the Danish Embassy in London to control lights and create patterns over the outside of the buildings. The fountains outside Granary Square at one time allowed visitors to download an app to control their spray, inviting them to play out a giant version of the classic game Snake, with fountain jets standing in for pixels.
For game designers who are interested in articulating or exploring a particular place, the attraction of making a game that takes place physically within that space is clear: creating another layer of meaning, a different way of interpreting the streets, drawing players’ attention to things they would never otherwise notice, galvanising activity, bringing people together, taking advantage of the whole real city that is already there and the people within it, and the joy we can feel at the physical pleasures of play.
But what do things look like from the other side of the equation? What can cities gain from consciously making a space for games and play – for adults and teenagers, as well as children, for digital games or experimental play, as well as in playgrounds?
Games and play can change the feel of a place for the better, make it welcoming, make it somewhere to dwell rather than passing straight through. Architect Ashvin de Vos, based in Brixton, for example, has spoken about work he did in an area where local adults sometimes complained about “the youth” in shared public spaces. The solution, as de Vos reports it, wasn’t to take away seating, or discourage the kids from spending time outdoors. It was to add a table tennis table and a shelter to the place where they gathered. Suddenly, adults no longer interpreted the kids as hostile or aggressive; they were just young people hanging out, and sometimes playing a game.
Games can get people moving, exploring, and inhabiting the city in new ways. Zombies, Run! by writer Naomi Alderman and studio Six to Start – both based in London when they developed the game – is a game, and a story, and an app that helps motivate runners. As you run, you listen to a serial narrative about a post-apocalyptic world. If you speed up when a horde of (imaginary) zombies “chases” you, you gain an advantage in the game. The proportion of people still playing and running years after buying the game is way above the percentages found in other running apps, or even most other digital games.
Games and play can create moments of connection between strangers. Design studio Daily Tous les Jours uses play as a tool to facilitate these experiences, to get people in public space to acknowledge each other and interact. Work like Mesa Musical Shadows – where players’ shadows fall on a specially designed tiled surface, and different sounds are triggered based on their movement – encourage everyone in the space to “become part of a collective sound and body performance”.
Games can get people to stop and spend time in places, to notice things about familiar places that they would never otherwise see, to explore spaces they would otherwise overlook. They can help people to develop a sense of ownership about shared spaces. Usually, we play when we feel safe and surrounded by the familiar; so when we play somewhere, our brains can play the reverse trick of telling us that ah, this place must be ours: this must be home.
It’s important not to get carried away with this: it’s easier to imagine an idealised future in which we are all drawn together by play than it is to make it happen. Cities will always be places where stuff needs to get done, where many of the defining rhythms and movements are driven by instrumental behaviour; where, even in parks and squares, many of the people walking by are sad or drunk, or on their way to something else or having a bad day or busy or just want to spend time alone with their thoughts. Games will not summon a spontaneous utopia of communal play for all, all hostility defanged, all alienation banished.
But at the same time, play is one of the fundamental ways we have to relate to our environment. If we pay attention to the types of play and games that our cities allow, if we create new intentional work and spaces for that work to thrive, then the possibilities are real. The potential is there.
To play is a vital way of being in the world: attentive to different things, focused on different aims, connecting in new ways, noticing, exploring, living. When we play in cities we can change ourselves, and what we notice, and how we feel, and therefore – just sometimes – the cities themselves.