Monday, February 5, 2007

The Dangers of Gaming in Plain Sight

Ubiquitous games leave traces throughout the everyday environment. They often require designers and players to install clues and interactive objects in public spaces. Sometimes these installations, if they are not well though-out or carefully managed, can cause a bit of (or a lot of!) commotion among folks who aren't in on the game.

This past week, an incident in Boston demonstrated just how bad things can get when non-gamers don't know what to make of a sign that play (or art) is afoot. "Just how bad" included arrests of two artists, hired as viral marketers, after a city shut down bus stations, airports and bridges because they mistook 10 elecronic cartoon art installations for terrorist bombs. You can read an excellent summary here, an editorial on the side of the city officials here, an editorial on the fence here, and an editorial on the side of the artists here.

Lots of interesting debate coming out of this event. For instance, unforum is a major forum for players of ubiquitous games; they're have an interesting conversation about the relevance of the Boston LED fiasco to game design here.

How does this Boston scare make you feel as a potential ubiquitous game designer? Does it make you want to more carefully frame your game so that no one overreacts? What strategies would you use to help prevent misinterpretation of the game? Or does the hysteria just make you frustrated by the widespread culture of fear? Should that culture be resisted through more play, or respected?


Doc said...

Honestly, I found the whole thing to be funny. While ubiquitous game developers have to consider whither or not their game will be seen as a threat to the public (and whither or not being a threat to the public is part of the desired effect), there has to be a line drawn that defines what is and is not a reasonably threatening.

Perhaps throwing thumb tacks onto a sidewalk could be seen as threatening, perhaps putting up billboards with the Al-Quida logo and a date and time could be seen as threatening, but a few LED lights and batteries, the Boston PD really dropped the ball. People cover their houses in the same sort of stuff every Christmas.

Furthermore, of all the news covering this story, I have been unable to find one article citing how many calls were received from freaked out citizens. Assuming Boston PD and Homeland security have trained bomb experts in their employ, I don't understand why the city had to be closed after finding the displays. The first one they found wasn't a bomb, and then neither was the second one, or the third. Furthermore, I am by no means a bomb expert, but even I know that covering a bomb in bright decorative lights defeats the purpose of making it. If a bomb is not hidden, the bomb maker runs the risk of someone finding and defusing it (thats why small bombs are placed into boxes and briefcases). Not to mention that the lights on the display bear the image of an extremely popular mainstream cartoon character. I have a hard time believing that the bomb squad in Boston is really that stupid. It also confuses me that that if the light displays looked ominous enough to shut down Boston (thats the Airport, Bus lines, and civic serves), how come there was no reaction (or even a removal until 1-31-07) in the nine other major cities they were put up? Actually, the one I saw on Height St. by Amoeba might still be there.

Boston has a long history of being intolerant towards graffiti or any kind. Now that graffiti is getting more high-tech, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that Boston was sort of making an example out of Interference, INC to show everyone that they don't put up with that sort of thing. This whole thing has less to do with art in a culture of fear and more with government officials using the culture of fear to enforce their agenda.

Jennifer said...

It's hard to predict what some people will find alarming and what others don't. Some will walk by a shouting match without batting an eye, others will get freaked out if a stranger asks them a question.

Which isn't to say creators of ubiquitous games shouldn't take into consideration how non-players will react.

When I was in the military there'd occasionally be exercises dealing with emergencies that they'd let the entire base know of ahead of time. Even then they had cards in their pockets citing that they were participants of an exercise and what was going on. I'm not saying that's what every game should have as then it limits those that want to just jump in, but it may be helpful in dealing with some events.

Personally, though, I find it rather foolish that conclusions would be so easily jumped upon. No one called bombsquads when Ignoktik was flipping people off from billboards.

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The whole incident is ridiculous.
End of story.
I hope this doesn't detur people from creating wonderful games or sculputures or anything else in urban enviorments.

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