Recently, I had this fantastic idea for a video game. Upon reading about various Alternate Reality Games (ARG) and with a vague grasp of recent Augmented Reality applications, which overlay real, physical images captured on 3G mobile devices with digital information, I thought why not combine the two? Create a Virtual Augmented Reality game which blended the the real landscape with a parallel fantasy one? Over diminishing pints I outlined a version of Pokemon to my friends (and anyone within earshot) where one’s own geographical location formed part of the narratives, where special items or Pokemon could only be obtained in certain locations, forcing the player to trade and explore. I was sure I was onto a real money-spinner.
However, like all things, it turns out I’m about ten years behind. In her essays “Playing Life and Living Play” (2008) and “From Cyber to Hybrid” (2006), Adriana De Souza e Silva talks extensively about such Hybrid Reality Games (HRG) which have emerged from the convergence of applications and media to mobile, internet-supporting platforms and ones which simultaneously use physical space as well as digital space. These games, and mobile technology generally, create a new space which reconfigure users relationships both geographically and socially.
Essentially, the ability to carry the internet around in your pocket fundamentally changes one’s relationship with the various social spaces we inhabit, be they physical, digital, work or play, continually blurring the lines between them. You may answer work e-mails while you eat, tend to your cabbages on Farmville while you commute or map your urban excursions on some 3G gadget (I would probably still be wandering around Whitechapel in the dark if not for my girlfriend’s shiny iPhone). Silva correctly asserts that far from disconnecting people from their physical environments, as has been widely suggested, these new technologies instead enrich and expand one’s connection to the physical realm.
I noticed a funny example of this dramatic shift of spaces, personal, public, physical and private on the bus to uni the other day. A fellow student sitting beside me flipped open his iPhone and began to use the gay dating/social networking application Grindr which allows the user to identify fellow gay users in the vicinity including such detailed information as how far away a fellow user is in metres. Naturally, I assumed he was just trying to see f I was on it, of course, but it still struck me as a notable shift in perceptions of space and privacy. Mobile applications allow us to be completely private in public and vice versa.
Play or game space has always been one that’s been considered an alternative space, “outside” of reality. HRGs shatter this distinction via their ability to transcend confined game space (such as a board, or video-game level). The main tenets of these games are that they merge these spheres, they are collaborative, usually requiring group action to progress, and require a development of trust. As in all play space the “fun still derives from the assumption of interacting with another and specifically from the potential of interaction” (Fink, 1974), so the attraction is social and social engagement. The creation of social spaces requires three elements: the material, physical practices, representations of space and the spaces of representation (Lefebvre 1991). These games satisfy each, the physical urban environment the game takes place in, its digital representation and finally the constructed, fictional narratives that blur with the ordinary space of the city (Silva, 2008).
Silva talks about how these games, such as I Like Frank (2004), Botfighters and Mogi, forces the player to re-evaluate the physical space they inhabit and can promote exploration and discovery of physical spaces through location based objectives. But the games also force personal and socio-spacial renegotiations also. The anonymity granted by the user allows for “a safe environment for experimenting with one’s identity” (Silva, 451) and thus the blurred boundaries between digital and physical spaces may extend to personal ones. Also, in order to be part of the game and interact with other users, tracking their movements, etc., one must allow oneself to be tracked, which requires an act of trust in the other players. They must have the interests of the game at heart and must enforce each other. Although trusting online teammates can be tricky business as the anonymous and consequence-free nature of the art can allow users to simply leave instantly if they become frustrated.
We see here in this video the Augmented reality creating Hybrid space by overlaying the real image with new digitalised data, mediating reality through technology into a narrative. I believe that as gaming tastes and trends continue to expand further than repetitive first-person shooter nonsense and into the more lucrative markets of iPhone games and apps we’ll probably see more diverse and engaging HRGs, which will connect users through their negotiation and exploration of this new hybrid environment.
There is, as ever, potentially a dark-side to the seemingly innocuous fun. To engage in the Hybrid space you must connect using a variety of social media tools and applications which continually gather data on the user in order to function. Take an iPhone’s GPS orFourSquare’s grotesque “checking-in” function. HRGs run the risk of joining the aforementioned applications as agents promoting the normalisation of surveillance culture. It allows private firms to collate inordinate amounts of data on users, allows them to track not only our tastes and behaviours but also where exactly we are at any given time and as usual, the user gives this to them on a platter. As ever the users will be complicit in their own exploitation. The hybrid space allows for many interesting, innovative and unprecedented social interrelationships and is undeniably shaping the ways in which we negotiate space, physically, digitally and mentally but it may come at the cost of true privacy.
De Souza E Silva, Adriana. “Playing Life and Living Play: How Hybrid Reality Games Reframe Space, Play, and the Ordinary.” Critical Studies in Media Communication25.5 (2008): 447+..
De Souza E Silva, Adriana. “From Cyber to Hybrid Mobile Technologies as Interfaces of Hybrid Spaces.” Space and Culture (2006): 261-278