Demarcated public spaces for play, such as playgrounds and parks, have long been factored into city planning. But researchers, artists and policymakers are increasingly paying attention to the potential benefits of play for the wellbeing of citizens and the economic development and liveability of cities. Over the past decade in particular, numerous cities around the world have begun to recognise the social benefits of play in their cultural and economic policies.
Internationally, groups and events such as the Come Out and Play festival in New York, the Playable City organisation in Bristol, and Melbourne International Games Week fund and support large-scale public artworks and installations that make everyday spaces and activities more playful and interactive or “playable” for citizens. Many of these projects and artworks utilise digital, networked technologies such as GPS-enabled smartphones, sensors, and large screens to “reappropriate”, reconfigure, and augment everyday public spaces through play and games. Others take a more simplified, analogue and low-tech approach.
Meanwhile, the global success of Pokémon Go has brought location-based, digitally mediated outdoor play into the mainstream. Cities around the world have sought to capitalise on the game’s player base by sponsoring festivals, walking tours, and other events. Meanwhile numerous game developers have tried to replicate its success by developing their own location-based mobile games based on popular franchises, such as Next Game’s The Walking Dead.
Within this milieu, the potential benefits of games and play for cities and residents are attracting growing attention in policy circles and the mainstream media alike. Through a combination of theoretical and empirical approaches, research conducted in the Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies is critically examining the impact of play in public spaces in terms of:
- Studying both the positive and negative consequences of social interaction and encounters with strangers through outdoor gaming events and projects: from encounters with diverse others and opportunities for expression and representation through play, to potential disruption to passers-by and unethical practices;
- Measuring increased health and wellbeing through physical activity aided by gaming technologies and apps, such as location-based games and ‘gamified’ fitness apps; and
- Examining the potential for economic growth and development of local economies through funding for game developers and artists that attract tourists/visitors, improve the city’s image/brand and encourage people to visit and explore new places.
By focusing on these different aspects of play in public spaces, CoE GameCult researchers are contributing to knowledge on the impacts of digitally mediated urban play, informing city planners about the potential benefits of investing in urban play, and collaborating with game designers and artists to design and study urban games. The accumulated knowledge is also being disseminated to wider audiences through public events and exhibitions, educational initiatives, and media outreach (e.g. Helsingin Sanomat, 15.2.2020), further expanding the impact of the work in this area.
Diverse approaches to location-based player research
CoE researchers have taken diverse approaches to researching player experiences of location-based mobile games, employing a range of methods including online surveys, interviews, observation and auto-ethnography. At the forefront of this research has been a large-scale study of Pokémon Go. Since its release in 2016, CoE researchers have conducted two surveys of Finnish Pokémon Go players: one in 2016 which received 2,611 valid responses; and one in 2019 which received 2,881 valid responses. These surveys both provide a unique snapshot of a global cultural phenomenon: the first survey took place only a few months after its release, while the second took place exactly three years after the first, attracting many of the same respondents. Their large sample size and timing have provided valuable insight into how one of the largest global gaming phenomenons unfolded in Finland soon after its release and how its societal impact has evolved over that time.
In 2019, the Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies and Tampere University Game Research Lab organised an international public research seminar Urban Play on 15th–16th April at the Museum Centre Vapriikki in Tampere. The seminar was attended by 30 presenters and 45 audience members from academia and industry, as well as invited expert commentators Professor Sybille Lammes (Leiden University, the Netherlands) and postdoctoral researcher Dale Leorke (Tampere University), and keynote speaker Troy Innocent (RMIT, Australia). The seminar presented a wide range of perspectives related to urban play and included several presentations from CoE researchers, with the aim of creating dialogue between game studies and urban studies which are often isolated from another. The seminar led to the formation of a special issue of the American Journal of Play edited by Lammes and Leorke and published in 2020.
Museum exhibition on location-based games
In 2019, CoE GameCult researcher Dale Leorke curated an exhibition on the history of location-based games in collaboration with the Finnish Museum of Games at Museum Centre Vapriikki in Tampere. The temporary exhibition, titled The City as Playground – From Geocaching to Harry Potter (Pelikenttänä kaupunki – Geokätköilystä Harry Potteriin) ran from 13 September to 1 December. It highlighted the broader history of location-based games beyond recent games like Pokémon Go and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, with a focus on both commercial and artistic/experimental games over the past 20 years.The exhibition was an opportunity to communicate Leorke’s research on the history and evolution of location-based games and technologies like GPS and mobile media to members of the public. The exhibition opening was accompanied by a public lecture from New York-based game designer Pete Vigeant, who co-created one of the games featured in the exhibition, and two tours of the exhibition for members of the public by the curator, Dale Leorke.
Supporting and studying urban games
CoE researchers have been active in attracting, conducting and observing various urban games and projects. In 2019, the CoE invited Australian artist and game designer Troy Innocent to run a version of his game Wayfinder Live in Tampere to coincide with the Urban Play seminar. The game involved finding and scanning sixteen codes hidden around the city using a smartphone application. It ran for six days in April during the seminar and attracted 89 players who scanned one or more codes. A modified version of the game was also hosted inside the Museum Centre Vapriikki from September to December as part of ‘The City as Playground – From Geocaching to Harry Potter’ exhibition. CoE researcher Dale Leorke also conducted research interviews with some of the players, the findings of which have been published in the American Journal of Play.
Developing new research-based university courses on play in public spaces
In the autumn 2019, Leorke designed and taught a new course ‘Games, Play and Public Space in the Mediated City’ for master’s degree students of Game Studies and Media Studies at Tampere University. The course introduced students to the role of games and play in public space and the public life in cities, and how games and play have been changed by the introduction of new media technologies. Students examined theories of urban play and examples of how digital, non-digital and hybrid games and playful practices have changed the urban environment – such as avant-garde art, festivals, protests, location-based games, and ‘playable city’ initiatives. It also included a fieldwork-based assignment, which asked students to observe and document different types of play behaviour in the public spaces of Tampere. The course was attended by twenty students in 2019 and thirty in 2020 as an online course.
The University of Turku CoE team has also included research-based teaching and learning experiments related to location-based games and technology-assisted play in public spaces on the course ‘Playful and Gameful Exercise’ (Leikillinen ja pelillinen liikunta in Finnish), organised in May 2020 at the University Consortium of Pori by CoE researchers Riikka Turtiainen, Usva Friman and Elina Vaahensalo. The course was attended by a total of 27 students, including master’s degree students in Digital Culture at the Cultural Production and Landscape Studies degree programme as well as general upper secondary education students from Porin suomalainen yhteislyseo. During the course, the students tested different gameful and playful technologies while moving in public spaces and shared and discussed their experiences in relation to research regarding gamification of exercise, health, and wellbeing with other students and course teachers.
Creating playful spaces and interactions
The University of Turku research group of the Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies founded Pori Laboratory of Play (PLoP) in early 2019 at the University Consortium of Pori. PLoP is not only a playful research space, but also a concept for various public engagements and interventions that utilise the research of play, playthings and toys, and sports, and interact with various groups and actors, such as office workers, children, athletes, users of sport services, and so forth. Since its introduction, PLoP has organised various events to study everyday play and to introduce playful ways of organised work as well as everyday life situations.
The CoE GameCult Tampere University team also takes part in maintaining and developing the playable public space OASIS, founded by the Tampere University Game Research Lab researchers in 2014 in collaboration with students. The space contains computers, game consoles, and board games available for everyone and it can be reserved for open events and lectures during the day and for private events during the evening. OASIS also houses the Game Research Lab library collection and functions as a living lab for playable and playful research experiments. In 2019, the Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies created a lecture series called OASIS Lunchtime Talks that includes public lectures of current game research topics from game studies scholars in Finland and around the world. The series was first curated by Olli Sotamaa and from autumn 2019 to spring 2020 by Sabine Harrer and Jaakko Stenros, and produced by Elisa Wiik and Mikko Seppänen. The talks are open to attend, and they are also live streamed, recorded, and made openly accessible on the CoE GameCult’s YouTube channel.
The Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies has approached the goal of creating and exploring play in public spaces for increased wellbeing, social interaction, and economic growth by finding new and innovative approaches to conducting research, disseminating the results, and teaching about location-based games, their players, and other playful activities in public spaces. The concrete impacts include organising game events, museum exhibitions, university courses, and public lectures and academic seminars, as well as creating and experimenting with new types of playful spaces and environments. This work has been done in close collaboration with game designers, educational institutions, museums, public audiences, and other public and private institutions and organisations.
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- Ramírez-Moreno, C. & Leorke, D. (2020) Promoting Yokosuka through Videogame Tourism: The Shenmue Sacred Spot Guide Map. In D. Leorke & M. Owens (Eds.) Games and Play in the Creative, Smart & Ecological City (pp. 37-63). London and New York: Routledge.