landscape architecture

The Bees and the Brontosauruses

Or is it Brontosauri? Let’s start with the Bees…

Manchester is a hive of activity at the moment with ‘Bee in the City’ in full flight (I could work for a tabloid). Families, couples and curious parties trek from one side of the city to the other looking for the next winged work of art and all important number to register on the associated app. The app map becomes very handy when in pursuit of the 105 bees, although you have to zoom in super close to actually make out the streets and street names amongst the bee symbols.

Bee in the city

The app isn’t without its issues, which shouldn’t take the shine off the overall experience. I used a Samsung S8, which proved useless when I attempting to access the solitary AR component, a hovering bee at one of the bee sculptures outside the central library. Another bystander squealed with glee as the bee successfully bumbled around on their iphone. I watched with subdued interest, hoping to see something a bit more engaging, a simple game perhaps. The thing is, Bee in the City is a missed opportunity when it comes to interactive content. I didn’t consider the treasure hunt aspect to be especially engaging – it took me to parts of the city I had never been and I enjoyed seeing the new sights. The app would crash with great regularity and when in close proximity to the new bees I would find the associated code had already been entered. On these occasions there was little else to do in the app, apart from see where the next bee was. Cunningly the app integrates a number of deals associated with the local business or sponsor of each sculpture. This is a commendable aspect of the app as an economic driver for the charitable project and highlights the extensive coordination the project will have required.

City Verve backed a more engaging app recently called City of Firsts, run via the Buzzin’ app (reminded me a bit of Foursquare) and created by Sparta Digital. Buzzin’ also featured map system with destinations clearly marked throughout Manchester. I opted to approach the University district and found destinations were also marked by sculptures – nicely designed, with subtle 3D ‘M’ plinths, presumably standing for Manchester. Convenient height for a coffee. These sculptures featured interactive content, accessed through AR and audio.

Buzzin

QR codes across the top of the plinths accessed augmented objects to explore, associated with short historic narratives, which were also delivered via recordings of people in AR. These speakers highlighted characters of local and global historic significance. I was genuinely surprised and engaged by the pivotal role many of these people played. I had no idea for example that the first stored computer program was created locally, by Sir Frederic Williams and Tom Kilburn. I came across parts of the campus of MMU and University of Manchester that I had never seen before. The landscape architecture around the Bright Building was a pleasant surprise.

Manchester sites

The Buzzin’ City of Firsts experience would have benefited from a series of connected stories, opening opportunities for mystery of puzzle solving. I understand the benefit of having sculptures as way finders linking to the apps, Buzzin’ or Bee in the City included, but there is opportunity to capitalise on existing infrastructure as part of this experience. It would be great to see a bit more creative licence taken too. It’s safe to stick to the solid historic facts and figures but if these apps are to sustain interest and offer replay value there needs to be more engaging content.

Take Jurassic World Alive for example. I understand this is more of a game but bear with me. I have been playing for a few months now and it has kept me coming back for a few reasons. It leverages off the Jurassic World licence, providing broad appeal through dinosaurs – I’m as interested as my 7-year-old nephew. The challenges within the game revolve around the discovery, capture and collection of dinosaurs, which requires an increasing level of skill to achieve. This gives the experience a difficulty curve. It has recently been updated to include battle modes to pitch dinosaurs against one another, providing a competitive element.

JWAlive

Yes, the game can be played anywhere and doesn’t tell you anything about the locations you are in. Yes, it is less serious in nature, whereas the other two apps mentioned are more serious in their intent for local benefit. What I’m alluding to is that there could be more playable aspects to location exclusive apps like Buzzin’ and Bee in the City. How long will it be before we start to see locations more heavily backed and marketed for engaging, playable digital content?

Play and Landscape in the Age of the Artificial

Videogames form an exciting part of the modern day cultural landscape.

Whether created for leisure, or more serious in their intent, videogames are being utilised in more branches of society than anyone could have predicted.

They are helping to shape our broader understanding of the dynamic between people and place.

For those curating the public realm, there is a necessity to broaden our horizons, understanding that places are not just designed, constructed and managed, but that they are also programmed.

The parallels between virtual, hybrid and physical environments has become too close to ignore, raising the question, can we and should we make video games a more integral part of the public realm experience?

Landscape Architects play a pivotal role in the curation of outdoor spaces. We inherently understand how those spaces will function, as a balance of man-made and natural processes, to achieve sustainable design resolutions.

We also have an expanding role in how those spaces are planned and programmed through urban design and place making. Our understanding of how people use space must diversify to acknowledge and incorporate this new digital layer of information that we interact with.

The games industry has become a powerful medium of entertainment that has connected people globally and socially. It is an industry that has transcended age brackets and cultural boundaries, that has allowed people to reinvent themselves, and spend as much time gaming as a part time job – out of choice.

Whilst videogames are undeniably a sustained form of entertainment, they have drawn criticism on issues such as censorship, addiction and obesity. The default view on videogames by many seems to be that the time spent on games takes away from the time that could be spent outdoors.

‘Videogames…are often accused of ripping people out of the natural world and placing them into an artificial one.’ – ‘How to do things with videogames’, Ian Bogost (2011)

Landscape architecture may seem unorthodox in advocating for the games industry, but it through the evolving portrayal and use of the landscape, and play value it offers, which draws parallels.

It raises the question – should people be playing videogames less or does outdoor play need to be as accessible and engaging as digital play?

At a lecture in Adelaide in 2014 author and Journalist Richard Louv spoke about the emergence of the global ‘nature play’ movement, sighting a ‘growing unease with technology’.

This movement emerged because our concept of the landscape has changed over the past few generations. Children venture outside less and reside closer to home when they do, restricting their ability to build up an accurate picture of what the landscape is and what it has to offer.

This is due to a wide range of issues, not confined to parental fear over safety and security, and accessibility of quality open space. Culturally, play is being impacted by a risk averse, blame driven society.

Meanwhile, our use of technology and screen addiction is now being portrayed as a threat to society, including our exposure to the natural environment and therefore nature play. Can these modes of play can coexist? There are common goals where getting people outdoors and active is concerned, including entertainment and exploration.

The experience of landscapes in video games might serve a greater purpose than simply a setting for a game.

‘The experience of playing (Golvellius 1987) was a journey of discovery; discovering new lands and discovering ways of crossing previously encountered natural environments. It wasn’t just a game but an experience, and in many ways no different to one that children play out continuous time in parks and back gardens, exploring the environment in the hopes of finding something new and exciting albeit in the confines of a virtual space.’ – ‘Virtual Landscapes’, Umran Ali (2012)

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Digital gaming itself has undergone a rapid evolution over the past 40+ years that has seen the widespread domestication of digital gaming devices.

A Guardian article highlighted:

‘for a time video-gaming offered a level of physical and social interaction, at the arcade or through multi-player sofa games that friends and family members could play at the same time, in the same room. Then multi-player videogames moved online, and fellow players became physically removed from one another, if not completely anonymous’ – The rise and rise of tabletop gaming, The Guardian 2016

To the surprise of many, it hasn’t been any domesticated game systems that has proven to be the most flexible in introducing games to the masses – it has been the humble mobile phone.

Although location based mobile games have been around for some time now, it is the emergence of Pokémon Go that has caught the imagination of the public. The number of people playing has forced everyone to take notice, but what seems to have been reported prolifically is where the game has gone wrong, rather than the many ways it has gone right.

What it has done is force new questions on how it can be successfully integrated, which I believe can help advance our understanding of how games can enhance the experience of the public realm and educate people over the benefits.

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The Digital Australia report provides valuable statistics in relation to the videogame industry. The diversity of people playing games and the frequency they play them highlights the cultural significance of the industry.

When we talk about play in the public realm by default we might think of playgrounds and a specific demographic. In the context of video games all age groups play games and they account for 68% of the population (around 16.5 million people). The average age of players is 33. People who grew up playing games continue to play them. This forces us to think more broadly around the notion of play.

So why are we playing games? Amongst the most prominent reasons cited in the Digital Australia report, were to have fun, keep our minds active and relieve boredom.

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It was, however, the less cited reasons that caught my attention.

We are less likely to play games to learn, to exercise, or to socially interact. These are all commendable attributes of playing games, but I think that gamers are not oblivious when they are pushed onto them too heavily. It’s a balancing act, but one that cannot be ignored with the couch-potato traits often associated with games.

The Heart Foundation noted:

‘There are both long-term and short-term impacts of prolonged sitting. These include an increased risk of becoming overweight or obese, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and premature mortality, an increased number of musculoskeletal conditions and eye strain’.

Encouragingly they also noted:

‘If games like Pokémon Go get people active, and improve their heart health as a result, we say go for it. We all need to minimise prolonged sitting by breaking it up with periods of activity’.

As adults we have a recommended weekly level of moderate to intense physical exercise:

150 to 300 minutes of moderately intense physical activity

or

75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity

http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/content/health-pubhlth-strateg-phys-act-guidelines

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If we take those figures and compare them to the average time spent playing videogames – a reported 88 minutes a day, there is a clear opportunity where outdoor gaming can have a healthy impact.

It is surely only a matter of time before studies occur to determine the extent of health benefits associated with Pokémon Go and it won’t be the first time a study of this nature has occurred.

Active behavior encouraged by the Nintendo Wii created much interest on the domestic front with games like Wii Sports. Whilst a study confirmed that Wii Sports didn’t burn as many calories as actual physical activity, this is really where mobile games have stolen a march on their domesticated forbearers.

For example the mobile game ‘Zombie run’ encouraged players to sprint at intervals in the outdoors to escape hordes of zombies. It was unique in that it didn’t rely on screen to time for players to participate. Many of those games lost momentum because rewarding players with monotonous in-game achievements (e.g. distance markers) became meaningless once those milestones were achieved. Games have to do more, they have to be meaningful in other ways.

So where else have videogames and landscape converged?

A significant part of play is the narrative we assign to it and I think this is an essential ingredient in videogames, physical play and the broader landscape.

‘Play is the fiction of doing’ – Oscar Barda, ‘How I found a definition for games after searching for 16 years’, Gamasutra blog 2016

Story City, a choose-your-own adventure story app, connects people with place via fictional stories. The app empowers the reader to make choices on where they would like to explore, linked by decisions made in a fictional narrative and guided by GPS.

 

Further to current location based games, the strength of Story City lies in its ability to capitalize on the work of local writers, musicians and artists.

Each story is unique and actively links in with the context of real locations.

For the Port Adelaide edition of Story City, we have been working with a local primary school, testing stories, generating art and creating music to include on the app, providing an authentic experience that will resonate with locals and inspire visitors to explore the area.

Whilst many location based games are made for a mass market, Story City demonstrates the flexibility to adapt game content and empower the local population.

There are other games emerging offering a closer relationship with the landscape by making their input an integral part of the game.

The Questagame app encourages players to scan flora and fauna outdoors, which they are rewarded for in the game. This reward varies at a rate depending on the rarity of the species. This mechanic is an excellent example of how games can build up a database of useful information and has already been endorsed by multiple agencies, academic institutions and botanical groups.

Interestingly, a similar scanning process was also an integral part of the recent game No Man’s Sky, which embedded the flora and fauna on procedurally generated planets for gamers to explore, who were also rewarded as part of these discoveries.

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No Mans Sky (2016)

Unfortunately, our public realm doesn’t often embrace the opportunity for play and games.

Playspaces are the broadly accepted location for ‘play’ to occur.

There is a saying, ‘Nature doesn’t stop at the boundaries we draw for it’, and perhaps, neither does play.

Some of the biggest strides in games in the public realm has come via play equipment design. Equipment has been adapted to incorporate button operated, light and sound based games. The games require a combination of movement, balance and speed and was pioneering in many respects. This fusion of digital and physical components has been described as ‘Playware’ (‘Playtesting the digital playground’, Gunver Majgaard, Carsten Jessen, 2009), and might just be to playspaces what Pong was to the domesticated games industry.

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Kompan’s ‘Icon’ range

These integrated ‘Playware’ games don’t rely on a screen, allowing the conventional physical benefits of playspaces to flow naturally whilst engaging children in a hybrid play experience.

There have been other playspaces that have incorporated brands as part of their theme, in addition to mobile apps themselves. Rovio Entertainment and Lappset (who are represented by Active Recreation Solutions in Australia) combined to develop a series of Angry Birds playspaces.

The association with popular culture helped to raise the profile of the playspaces in a similar way to the use of the Pokémon brand by Niantic.

There are some peculiar measures emerging elsewhere in the public realm to address mobile gamers. The introduction of ‘smart paving’ and similar measures to guide the neglectful mobile user, removes individual accountability and takes away the liberty of self-assessment and freedom of movement. This harks back to the brutalist urban design approach of the 60s, creating walking deterrents to ‘guide people’.

pavers

That said, there is a common language on how we understand people function in spaces, whether considering open world virtual environments or real world environments, and increasingly where location based games, and integration of augmented reality is being developed.

Landscape Architects from Fletcher Studio in San Francisco worked on a videogame called the Witness. It was an Island based, first person, puzzle game. Like numerous open world game environments, the non-linear gameplay and pace of the game allowed greater opportunity to observe and explore the Island. The landscape was iconic, mimicking different environments and taking influence from different periods of civilization.

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The Witness (2016)

Lead Landscape Architect Deanna Van Buren highlighted that

‘Given the increasing number of people who “see” the built environment digitally, designing environments for the electronic gaming industry can have an impact on the public’s appreciation of good design and on their demand for better quality in their physical world’.

Lead game developer Jonathan Blow said that the guidance and advice of the architects helped to craft the island in a way that felt more immersive for the player because all the details were in place.

The Witness sets a precedent for potential collaboration between landscape architects and game designers.

But why do people play games of this nature?

Speaking of his earlier years spent in built up UK suburbia, Dr Umran Ali, expressed some other sentiments. He noted:

‘Video landscapes offered me the possibility to play, albeit in a virtual space, and experience the natural spaces I craved for’ – ‘Virtual Landscapes’, Umran Ali (2012)

He was right, we do have an innate desire to experience and be in the landscape, but to what extent does this satisfy our needs if delivered artificially?

It is a confronting concept to think that the virtual landscapes might provide a significant part of our exposure and opportunities to explore the landscape. It could be argued that some of the most recognizable landscapes don’t physically exist – they are virtually embedded.

The visuals and audio of games have become so realistic, with compelling narratives and vast game worlds, it is little wonder that Australians are spending so much time playing.

Ali also noted:

‘For many players experiencing changes in the landscape rather than pursuing the goals of the game… (is) more appealing than the narrative or the primary quest of the game’ – ‘Virtual Landscapes’, Umran Ali (2012)

Not all games possess these qualities or intend to. For every Firewatch there is a Flappy Bird, but there are different types of games for different types of gamers.

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Firewatch (2016)

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Flappy Bird (2013)

There is a term to describe these artificial landscapes (The Witness’s and Firewatch’s of the world), these surrogate landscapes that we roam in the confines of our screens. The idea of a ‘surroscape’, in shaping our interpretation of the physical landscape may seem perverse at first, but consider this:

Not everyone has means of accessing rich, stimulating environments, whether it be down to location, weather, physical and psychological limitations, financial restraints or simply a lack of knowledge that these environments exist.

Urban densification, over-population, and climate change are huge global challenges that are impacting on our experience of the landscape. We could yet rely on virtual landscapes in ways beyond play and games that supplement our livelihood.

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Aliens (1986)

It becomes a question of – what is the human need for exposure to the landscape?

In Summary

  • Videogames add value the experience of the landscape
  • They encourage more active behavior without being the primary focus
  • They offer a sustainable, adaptable opportunity for place activation
  • And they allow a unique sense of place to develops

This article was adapted from the presentation ‘Play and Landscape in the Age of the Artificial’ at the Open State: Future Cities event in Adelaide 26/10/16 and can be viewed online https://youtu.be/45AII4lvIT0?t=8m20s

Making Games an Integral Part of ‘Place’

Curators of the public realm and game designers need to explore opportunities to collaborate to make games an integral part of place.

It will be a challenge to bridge these professions, but it is a nexus that must occur for common goals to be established.

Gaming can enhance human interaction with the landscape, inviting and engaging with a broad spectrum of society. There are, however, some key differences between designing physical and virtual environments.

The physical landscape is bound by the conventions of society, layered with a history, a suite of infrastructure and landmarks, which help to define the setting, purpose and cultural significance.

Virtual environments are at origin created from scratch on a blank canvas, within a game engine and adaptable physics – an abstraction of the actual environment. This is accompanied by an inventory of items to populate the space, often featuring their own traits, again, an abstraction of the physical equivalent.

We frequently see real world locations referenced in virtual game environments, often in the form of famous landmarks, architecture, landscape, historic periods and events. This helps people to make associations and to create the desired ‘atmosphere’ within a game. In one sense, landmarks may be considered the anchors of place as they are often the first image people associate with.

‘To the tourist, a city is a collection of landmarks, their surroundings irrelevant on a whistle-stop tour of the most famous sights. In games, geography is matter not of accuracy, but of atmosphere’ 1

Be it virtual or physical, assets and locality are not the only thing that define a place.

It is only when we consider the potential of tapping into local settings and experiences that the local economy for gaming becomes apparent. Gaming could be informed by locals and created for a broader audience, allowing market for local knowledge to develop.

‘A game is always going to feel more true to its real-world setting if it’s made by people who actually live and work there’ 2

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When we think about ‘Place’ there are other qualities that contribute to our cultural map of the world. An ongoing social narrative. Human interaction. A history. A future. Events. Appeal. Last but not least, and most applicable in a gaming sense – fun.

In one sense Augmented Reality (AR) is competing with the world of domesticated gaming, however, there are other audiences that may find the outdoor setting appealing – tourists. When combined with the local gaming population, AR draws people outdoors to be active, without preaching the benefits or making the physical achievement the central focus of the game.

Whilst the game designer has a lead role in creation and execution of games, the desired experience of cities continues to be shaped through public realm curation and stimulated through place making. Outdoor gaming  can provide an adaptable tool to help to inform both.

Landscape Architects and Place Makers understand the need for engaging activities within the public realm. There is, however, a flexibility that the overlaid, augmented digital environment presents, which transcends both the permanency of physical boundaries and features, and expense of infrastructure.

One of the other tangible opportunities AR that sets it apart from Virtual Reality (VR) for example, is the ability to leverage off the existing tactile experience as part of the game. This adds something new to location based mobile gaming (LBMG). Whilst this is not unique experience when considering existing experiences such as geocaching, the hybrid of traditional screen based game experiences with AR, in conjunction with specific geographic locations is new territory and practically unheard of amongst curators of the public realm.

References 1 & 2 – Edge Magazine, ‘Cabbies hate this weird trick’, Dec 2015

 

 

 

 

Narratives in the Digital Landscape

Not everyone has means of accessing rich, stimulating environments, whether it be down to geographic confines or financial limitations, physical and psychological health or perhaps most likely – a lack of knowledge of where these environments exist. Increasingly densified and over-populated urban centres, diminishing open space and poor weather are also other factors that limit our experience.

By focusing on our lack of experience of natural environments, it is possible to better define what it is we find redeeming about it, and how this is manifested in videogames.

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Discussing his recent works having branched out into the art scene, architect and hybrid practitioner Nick Wood touched on the idea of absence of experience and the assumptions we draw from to form an image of place in our heads.

Building upon this, our interpretation of places are not only shaped by our experiences when we have visited them, but other factors such as word of mouth, elements of popular culture, and perhaps even videogames.

A digital landscape is not bound by the detrimental factors detailed at the start of the article, but they can be artificially recreated and augmented as part of a game to interpret the environment.

Drawing on the experience of ‘Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture’, we are indulged in the realistic depiction of the Shropshire countryside in summer. Travelling to and from destinations within the game is paramount to the experience, unremarkable by the pace of most modern gaming conventions.

The experience is abstracted by a narrative that meanders through the game on orbs of light, conveying the apocalyptic dialogue of the visually anonymous country folk. Irrespective of the ominous messages the narrative becomes the vehicle of experience in the game and the landscape, despite its realism is ultimately a wonderful distraction.

Without the narrative the experience of the landscape is ambiguous given it partakes to a game, and our generic expectation of a game is that there is a problem that needs to be solved.

Landscape therefore becomes more meaningful when we assign a narrative to it.