A Fork in the Road

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A Fork in the Road

Ben Barker

2nd September 2014


Last month we launched a small prototype of a new project called A Fork in the Road. Somewhere between a game and a storytelling platform, it works using the path and road network of the city as a framework to tell branching stories. In its current incarnation players use text messages to relay content and every junction has multiple directions, allowing players to decide how to progress. The prototype ran for four days in the American city of Indianapolis to coincide with a games festival called GenCon and we aimed to learn how both players and writers responded to the mechanic.


The Streets as Interface

The idea was partially conceived during Hello Lamp Post last year. As the experience was drawing to a close in Bristol, we hid a small branching narrative around the harbour. Only a handful of people encountered it, but the idea of city-based branching narratives kept nagging away at us. Then earlier this year we were speaking with John and Vishant at Concept Catapult in Indianapolis about GenCon and we realised that there was a perfect interface to manage those divergent choices: the city streets.

Streets make a great overarching story management grid, but are also completely legible by players at ground level. Located games have often abstracted the city to use its grid for excellent projects like Crossroad or Pacmanahatten, but we were influenced as much by the physchogeography of Iain Sinclair or Janet Cardiff’s Missing Voice which are both completely located and could only ever be experienced in one place. Interestingly neither could be played using street view, you have to enter buildings and look under benches to make the story work.

on street-04


We always felt this mechanic could work using anything from a Choose Your Own Adventure style book, which anyone who was a child in the 80s or 90s know, through to a GPS powered app. The choice to use SMS for the prototype came down to its ubiquity and accessibility. SMS means a player can go from zero awareness of the game, to playing, within 30 seconds. It’s also a very intimate medium – easy to suspend disbelief and imagine the message are being written by a remote ally, who’s carefully following your every step.


Even as we developed the idea and cemented the plan to create an SMS prototype for GenCon, we realised the potential implementation was very broad. Should the platform focus on competitive, game like experiences using chance, conditional modifiers and character progression? Players could play in groups and race to solve problems. One can imagine six friends starting out to solve a mystery, taking different journeys through the cityand arriving at a final point each with a different set of clues with which to approach the finale. Or the platform could be a collaboratively sourced narrative mechanic, where an exquisite corpse interaction combines with a peer voting system to create an evolving picture of local storytelling.

Story branches could be persistent, meaning multiple narrative threads could intersect a junction. Alternatively the junctions could be persistent, meaning the same context always exists but character state (e.g. ‘player has met npc x’) influence the interaction and possible outcomes.

With so many potential mechanics to explore we decided the first step was to build a simple prototype, get some users involved and test the premise of narrative-in-situ itself.

Writing for the City

The writing style naturally felt like it should be in the spirit of Dungeons and Dragons, writers should construct story worlds for people to explore where the rules and realities were dependant on the imagination of the Dungeon Master. We spoke to a lot of writers and they mostly proposed an approach that played with fact and fiction, often building on city myths or playing with the history of place. We knew the system could work either entirely using fact as an enhanced city tour, or as fantastical tales rooted in the sights and sensations of the city, most of our authors chose abstract fiction that explored the in-between space.

Now, following on from the success of the playtest narrative, we have a story being written for Halloween by Janet Fry based on Washington Irving, an Indianapolis-based author and his story within in a story: The Sketch book of Geoffrey Crayon. We also have a tale just completed by Julie Young about the SS Indianapolis, the shark attack its crew faced and its role in the film Jaws.

However, as the initial playtest loomed, we realised we would need to write our own narrative to prove and articulate the nuances of the platform. So with a lot of help and research into local history, we pulled together a story around a historical quirk: In the 1860s a small town just outside Indianapolis called Boggstown had seceded from the Union. Simultaneously, Morgan, a Confederate general, was moving north in his infamous race through Union heart lands. In his party he had a Telegrapher, known for his skill with misinformation and propaganda. Our conceit was that there was a legacy of his work still existing in Boggstown and a shadowy operation was still exerting influence to this day. Some one called Ellsworth is connected and you’ve just received a message from him.

After a series of iterations and play tests the mechanic and story seemed to go down really well. Below are a couple of players in front of the war memorial in the heart of downtown Indianapolis. If you are in Indianapolis and want to play, let us know, the stories are still up and running. They all start from a specific plaque in the city. The Irvington Halloween story will start from a small local bookstore, the Civil War Boggstown narrative starts form the convention center and the SS Indianapolis starts form the Soldiers and Sailors monument.


Next Steps

From our work in Indianapolis we quickly saw that the challenge was not so much to communicate the premise to players, as it was to explain how the mechanic worked to writers. Writing good branching narratives is hard, a point reinforced by Glynn Cannon’s piece on the subject that nagged throughout the writing process. There has been so much enthusiasm from writers to create content for the system that we need an interface that lets them prototype, visualise and mange the expanding complexity of a branching narrative. We have begun testing different map based UIs to help people write directly in location.

The other idea that has come out really strongly is a more democratic writing process. The line between player, and contributor is very thin. People want to add to and improve the stories, even more so whilst they’re out on the street, playing the game. We’ll hope to test how writers can open up stories to be forked and added to by citizens. Local people will know the best legends, locations and secrets of a place, the exquisite corpse of story telling in location has real potential.

SA route

We ran a small writing workshop at GenCon to generate new content and contexts for the application. We’d love to collaborate with other organisations to create a story that takes players to and from places of interest while telling them an engaging story. So of course, if you think your community or audience has a story to tell or you have a journey you’d like to take them on then please get in touch, we’d love to work with you.

Better Than Life

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Better Than Life

Ben Barker

29th August 2014

Last month we worked on Better Than Life, Coney’s 45-minute interactive theatre piece designed for a small live audience and an unlimited number of people online simultaneously. Though created for a paying public, it was very much a research piece, an exploration of modes and markets for development in the digital arts. By blending elements from theatre, gaming and TV, it set out to explore how drama is generated when agency is given to audiences online and in a physical space to influence a single narrative world. Can you create theatre that is equally compelling for both audiences?


The narrative focused on the life of Gavin, an unassuming cult leader whom, under the direction of passionate believer Shipra, had developed an inquisitive following. In their headquarters, hidden behind a bike shop in New Cross, Gavin had predicted a potentially world altering event which the live and online audience were coming together to avert.

Coney approached us to design the interactive experiences that would cross between the two audience contexts. We’ve always been keen to explore the impact of networked experiences on live immersive theatre. So alongside the set, visual and online design, we worked on a number of interactions, including designing the Ouija board mechanic integral to the conclusion of the piece and the disappearing trick seen above.


What does agency look like online?

This was a big starting question. There is a precedent set for research in live-streamed immersive theatre by Punchdrunk’s digital staging of Sleep No More in New York. In that work they aimed to recreate their very successful live show for an online audience, which they did by linking an audience member online with one in the live space, thus creating a one-to-one relationship between audience online and off. The Nesta report goes into that work in more detail:

“In effect, Punchdrunk planned to create an entirely new theatrical experience based on ‘mixed–reality’ – the live performance linked with the online experience. Could they offer an interactive online user anything to match the quality of the interactive live experience that is at the heart of immersive work?”

As the work progressed it became clear that it was a hugely ambitious undertaking and had to be somewhat scaled back:

“The decision was made to focus on paired online and real–world participants who, over three hours, would work together to discover a hidden narrative.”

With Better Than Life we were particularly interested in exploring experiences that allow scalable online audiences, where numbers could reach into the thousands and still have a direct influence on the space. So our challenge was not ‘how do we recreate this experience online?’, but ‘how do we create something that suits both contexts well?’. A particularly relevant online experience was Kilo by Light Light, a crowd sourced, interactive music video seen below. There is a sense of the average online viewer, a visual consensus, yet at the same time there is room for an individual to standout. As I watch I find myself wondering about whats happening with the person wiggling her cursor in the top right corner of the screen.

Screen Shot 2014-08-22 at 15.16.29


Ouija Board

That line of inquiry led us to one of our key design decisions. There had to be a space somewhere in the piece that allowed online audience to see themselves directly relayed, whilst also being able to collectively affect a significant impact on the narrative. That is key to what it means to be part of a community, both being expressive as an individual and powerful together. We also felt it was important that people in the space were active in that exchange, could they influence or avert the power of the online community? What evolved from that was loosely termed ‘the Ouija board mechanic’, the idea of using a camera and projector rig, ceiling mounted and angled directly to the floor. This video stream would show the live audience, whilst the projector would relay the mouse position over the video of all online viewers. We would have a feedback loop of projected mouse pointers, creating spotlights in the space viewable to the live audience and then relayed back online via the live stream. So we had a mechanic where an audience online could expose a traitor, vote in a new leader or influence the progression of a particular emerging storyline. The challenge was then to weave it into the narrative and make it work technically. I won’t say too much about how it came together narratively, but suffice to say it includes some of the above.

What were the challenges? With BTL being a live streaming project, we talked a lot about lag and its impact on interaction. As the project developed there was a general feeling that below 2 seconds was fine, hardly longer than an intake of breath; 2-5 seconds could be handled using dramatic pauses, perhaps even create drama of its own as people awaited responses or feedback. However anything over 5 seconds and we were in a difficult place where audiences might start to waiver and interactions between online and live would become jarring. With the number of streams we were aiming for and heavy load on the servers, BTL was running at between 4-7 seconds of lag. This among other technical issues, such as calibrating the projector and making actors distinct enough from above, meant the Ouija board mechanic struggled. Players moused around and waited for responses, never quite long enough to understand the relationship between what they were doing and what was happening in the space. As a result, without support from the cast, readability in the space was largely lost. However moments of wonder did emerge. In one play-through an online participant managed to guide a live audience member around the space by shining his mouse cursor spot light onto his open hands. So although flawed, there is still something very exciting about having had at times 100 or more people organically influencing and expressing themselves upon a live narrative from their bedrooms and lounges around the world.


The Disappearance

A more definitely successful interaction was the disappearing trick seen above. The show needed a climax that read equally well online and in the space. A camera was rigged at the perfect viewing spot, 90 degrees from the stage, to ensure it read well online, then the live audience were moved to a position where they were viewing from the optimum angle. Though a far less technical challenge, it’s value came from leaving both audience unsure as to what had occurred, and looking to each other for answers. For the online audience, was it a trick just for them, something in the edit. For the people in the space, were the online audience aware of the nature of what had happened.


The Space

Both of the above interactions took place in the third and final space. The rectangular Orangery in New Cross was divided up into thirds, roughly equivalent to acts, each one delineated by a transparent butchers curtain. The second space had collaborative drawing exercise, where the live audience was pulled together to draw a vision for Gavin, set to the rhythmic pulsing of lights and sounds set by the mouse movements of the online audience. A far more ambient interaction, but important in getting that audience used to the more involved mouse interaction coming in the final scene.




In the first space we created a number of smaller profiling tests, designed as a way of giving an identity to each of the live audience members so if things came down to a personality test later on people online would have a way of recognising particular traits. The outcome of those tests resulted in Shipra assigning one of four profile types.

One of the tests was a galvanic skin response test, built using this source code. Another was a Rorschach object recognition test seen below.


In hindsight we might have made better use of the online audience at this point, by having them pass judgement or able to give rewards or enact punishments. These test were visually scientific, even sinister, the hint of something a bit more shocking here, playing with the fear of an online judgement would have set things up well for what was to come.

Is there a difference between a person in the space making a judgement on how you performed and a remote collective doing that? I think there is and I think it comes down to a perceived disconnect. Empathy and personality are removed. If the online audience could have suddenly popped out and made a wrong, surprising  or even cruel decision it would have reminded all audiences that the order was only being maintain by a collective of humans, rather than an immutable digital system.


Visual Design

We also designed the online interface and show branding. The interface posed questions about how commonplace this level of audience interaction was. We started out trying to be quite clever, with hidden interactions, Easter eggs for unlocking other camera streams and credits to be spent on interactions including the Ouija board. Bearing in mind the other technical challenges, such as lag and the steep learning curve, we may have over reached. We were asking people to understand a narrative, online/offline interactions and an interface all withi 45 minutes. Given the newness of this type of experience, particularly for the online audience, things may have felt a little borderless. People in the space had a clearly defined sense of scale: three acts made clear by the space in front of them. It must have been much harder for the online audience to know what or indeed, how much, to expect.

btl_poster-01 Screen Shot 2014-08-23 at 13.41.55

What does an online bar look like?

Throughout the development of the show, this question kept coming up. Though on the surface a peripheral challenge, it always felt like an important part of the research. Aside from being a vital source of revenue, theatre bars form an important part of the experience; a place to dissect what happened, even more so in the divergent narrative worlds of immersive theatre. As the show progressed, that question became more pertinent as we realised we’d forgotten to answer something even more obvious: What is it like to be online with other people? It took two thirds of the run to realise that, of course, people with access to a chat window would be as fascinated by each other, where they come from and how they got involved, as the theatre piece unfolding in front of them. Experiencing the theatre online was more like being in a bar than a theatre, not a story to be navigated, but a social experience to be discussed in real-time.

As we saw this trend emerging we knew what we had to do with the bar space at the end of the show. People in the space get beer, people at home do the same. Then we stood the live audience in front of a camera and the people online asked them things through the chat window. It was without doubt the show’s biggest success. We saw the two separate views coming together and unpicking what they had seen. A sense emerged from both groups that the other had had the full experience. People online felt like they were working the story out with each other, rather than having the whole story. Whilst people in the space were seeing odd asides to camera that perhaps didn’t make sense. This led to better conversations later, especially if narratives start coming together. The shared sense of confusion after Nigel’s disappearance from online and offline worked really well.


Better Than Life was a hugely ambitious experiment, broadcast live around the world. There were breakages, successes and failures, but most of all it was really good fun. We look forward to further exploring the future of online theatre.

Better Than Life was a collaboration between Coney, Goldsmiths and Showcaster. It was funded by Nesta Digital R&D
More about the show: Better Than Life – Coney
Guardian review: Coney No Island
Sketches Review: Better Than Life

Kentucky Derby – New York

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Kentucky Derby – New York

Ben Barker

22nd August 2014

We were asked by London-based experience design duo Bompas & Parr to design a Kentucky Derby – a traditional horse racing game commonly seen at funfairs – but with a bawdy twist. The game was to form part of their Funland Exhibition at the Museum of Sex, New York. Never having been a studio to say ‘no’ to making large-scale arcade games, we agreed. The twist? The horses were… well, they were shiny disco sticks. They were glittery schlongs. Spangly wangs.

They were golden hand-carved penises.

Hardware and Software

Our proposed design had four players, each with a dedicated individual rolling ramp, a corresponding racing lane, lighting and audio. Underneath we constructed four identical, 2 meter long linear rail sets. To ensure precise control of each carriage we used a combination of T5 timing belts and pulleys. Each set powered by ‘Nema23’ motor controlled by a variable step and current drivers. Strips of wire created a link between the wheel of the carriage and the ‘horse’ to create a wobbly ‘galloping’ motion.

The use of SPDT (Single Pole Double Throw) micro limit switches as sensors helped to determine ‘home’ and ‘end’ positions, allowing us to calibrate the horse position on activation and determine the winner. The same switches were used to count successful rolls.

The code for the game was written to allow us to adjust the speed and number of rolls required for a win, important as the mechanic was being developed alongside the cabinet, 8 successful rolls proved to offer the best difficulty level.

Audio loops were played from an Mp3 shield which were used in combination with led and signal lights, different combinations were generated in response to different stages of the game.

Here’s a video on the game, and the whole exhibition:

Cool Hunting Video: Funland from Cool Hunting on Vimeo.

News From The Grid

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News From The Grid

Sam Hill

14th July 2014

Playing with the Game Mechanic

Recently we’ve been deploying a series of experiments to trial elements of the game mechanic. One thing in particular that we’ve been bearing down on is a detail in the way territory is captured.

Though it is easy enough to log player GPS locations, a more difficult task is to make this data applicable to the game.

For example, if you imagine two players run​ ​along the same route, their paths will look similar, but they won’t actually be identical. If we intersect the shapes they create​,​ then lots of unwanted tiny gaps and spaces will be created as their routes criss-cross over each other. These little unreconciled shards of territory would soon make the game confusing to play as well as slow it down.

Before starting the Kickstarter campaign we had planned to ‘sanitise’ this GPS information by snapping to third-party road data. However there were a couple of technical and gameplay compromises with this approach – not least the fact that players would be tied to only running on documented roads and paths.


We’ve since decided to go for a new tack – breaking the world down into small units of space (we’ve shown hexagons here but they could end up square or triangle, depending on other factors which we’re currently testing).

Now players will be able to run around – or through – tiles to capture them. This should make the game more fun to play for several reasons:

  • Players will be able to go *off-road* when out capturing territory – adding parks, forests, mountains and fields to their empire.
  • Players won’t need to run in a loop any more. It’ll still be the most efficient way to grab a lot of territory at once, but if they prefer to run from A-to-B (e.g. on their way to work) then that’s a way of playing too.
  • (This one ties into a couple of suggestions people have sent us) It’s not something we’re planning to build in immediately, but further down the line we could start giving some tiles properties. E.g. a “fort” tile that’s more difficult to take over, or a “mill” tile, which is more valuable to own. This could open up new variations in the way the game is played.

So this is the basic idea:


Anything Else?

  • We’re working on the new Run An Empire website, which should be live in the coming weeks.
  • We have a dedicated systems for responding to queries specifically about Run An Empire. If you have any questions or feedback about the game then you can now send them to backers@runanempire.com for the quickest possible reply.

Finally… here’s our screen print for the shirts:


…And here’s a test print on a tee:


Here are some pics of Luma Studio printing out our posters:





… And here’s the finished result:


Why we’re making Run An Empire

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Why we’re making Run An Empire

Sam Hill

7th April 2014


Now we’re in the final week of Kickstarter fundraising for Run An Empire, I thought it might be good to explain why we wanted to make the game in the first place.

(You can back it here by the way)

A bunch of ideas and observations sort of fell together into a basic “Run An Empire” shape over a year ago. Probably the closest analogy I can conjure is from an episode of nineties muppet sitcom Dinosaurs. In episode 215 (Power Erupts) pubescent Hypsilophodon Robbie “Bart Simpson” Sinclair comes up with an idea for sustainable geothermal energy by combining different objects and systems around him – a jelly strainer(?), a volcano and a foot pump.


I don’t know if there’s an actual lateral thought methodology that exists to this effect, but it’s kind of what happened with us too. I’ll attempt to describe what elements were present in the genesis of Run An Empire, and what spurred us on to make it.

The Nub

The nub of the idea came about in late 2012, whilst developing initial ideas for the first Playable City Award. In the end we went on to develop Hello Lamp Post, but the theme of localised “ownership”, combined with play, came up several times. We were interested in Risk, Strava, Go, “The Dots Game”, Advance Wars, the gang-warfare tagging mini-game from GTA: San Andreas,  and a bunch of other stuff.


As our ideas progressed, smartphones and Apps didn’t feel like the best application for the brief, so we ended up going in a different direction. However, the spark of an idea was there, and the more we looked around at what already existed, the more we saw an opportunity to get people playing something unlike anything else out there.

Ignoring momentarily all board games, console games, wearable technologies and smart devices, and focusing only within the smartphone apps ecosystem, there are three well defined and heavily subscribed categories of application salient with respect to Run An Empire:

  • Health and fitness apps
  • Location and quantified-self tools
  • Mobile games

Each category contains a huge number of apps, of varying degrees of quality. Then there are some well-executed crossover products that benefit from the fusion of two or more categories, and these have often been well received.

What was beginning to form for us was the idea of something that worked across all three categories:


Not Exactly Gamification

As we mentioned on the Kickstarter page, we intend to make a full-blown game, not a “gamified health app”. This is because we’re most interested in making something fun, but paradoxically a schism between points and energy exerted could (we believe) be a progressive device in future digital-physical activity games. It could liberate games-with-benefits from the “gamification” dogma, and allow for more creative and more entertaining play mechanics.

Take football. Football is a game, played for fun. The objective is to score goals – not to “be healthy”. If someone were to take the components of football and “gamify” them to improve health then the end product would likely more closely resemble football training than the game itself, with slaloms and bleep tests and little plastic markers. Football doesn’t fundamentally demand constant activity, or a granularity of quantification beyond the main points system – a player might, through skill or luck, find themselves on a winning team, even if they haven’t run the furthest, had possession of the ball for the longest amount of time or burned the most calories.

As another example (and at the risk of including the franchise in two sequential blog posts) I remember how Sid Meier’s Civilization series taught me a tonne amount about world history, science, politics and philosophy. Alpha Centauri taught me a lot about nascent and theoretical fields of science. In each case, though I’m sure the developers of the games knew there was an educational fringe element to their work, they didn’t develop the games with the primary intention of teaching players and they knew better than to market the games on these grounds too. Knowledge became a fantastic byproduct.

Compare this with the contrivance of typing tutorial games, which are led by the desire to increase typing skill (though Notch’s Drop is kind of fun), or the early corporate console games like McDonaldland or Cool Spot (or even the Chupa Chups-laden Zool) where the paper-thin façade completely undermined any gameplay value that might have existed.



New Sport

What do we have on our hands then, if it isn’t a gamefied health app? Is it, perhaps, a sport? Sport is kind of a funny term to define, but we could say it’s a subcategory of gaming, itself a sub-category of play. Sports are generally considered to be competitive, multi-player, and involving entertainment and skill. Depending on who you ask, sports can include car and horse racing, darts and billiards, poker, chess and even Starcraft – but generally speaking we consider then to involve physical action.

Sports can be somewhat divisive too. Though the global market is worth a buhzillion pounds, in the US something like 60% of adults simply ‘don’t like sports’ at all (SIFA and ACTIVE Network, 2012). Though I can’t really speak for Ben – who likes his football and cricket – I would probably count myself as one of these folk. Like a lot of people, I suspect, I grew up enjoying the puzzles and immersion of tabletop and computer games, but couldn’t really get into competitive sports, which required a level of co-ordination and physical skill that I felt I lacked. It can be difficult to find social sports compelling when one finds themselves consistently in the lower 50% of ability and I imagine experiences from PE at school are what put many people off returning to these kinds of games later in life.

Which is a shame, I would concede. Many sports possess an incredible culture, and playing them can tap a deep well of sensations and emotions – it’s a shame not to feel more involved with them. As an experience designer I’ve had a removed admiration – jealousy, even – for the ability of spectator games like Football and Rugby to draw such intense emotional responses from their spectators – an energy you couldn’t ever hope to replicate in a cinema, theatre or installation space (though Alex Fleetwood told me they got a certain amount of frenzy out of people at the Hide & Seek Sandpits).

Run An Empire feels to me like an attempt to reconcile myself with the intentions behind “sport” (application of skill, social mediation, play) – and make them applicable again on my own terms. I’m hoping it can have a similar effect for others.

The proliferation of smartphones and the cultural groundwork laid by alternative-reality gaming has given us the opportunity to seriously pursue this. There’s an under-exploited potential, technologically, for us to take part in entirely new forms of localised, physical, asynchronous, competitive play. Games like Ingress and Zombies, Run!, and applications like Foursquare and Runkeeper have definitely exposed some innate appeal here. Maybe the next step is an entirely new typology of physical play – a kind of augmented “Frankensport” (or New Sport) – something with a unique applicability and purpose.

Perhaps we could even see a return to mass-subscribed community sports – like the epic mob football games of medieval Britain, which would have neighbouring towns competing in a single game.

Our aspiration, ultimately, is to see Run An Empire create benefits in several ways. We want to see it entertain, change the way we think about the environment around them, encourage a new typology of play and, yes, improve people’s health. Though not designed with healthy living in mind, we know that Run An Empire has the potential to encourage regular exercise and we’re excited by the idea that the game can also be used this way.

We want to see a never-ending game, played simultaneously by many people of varying levels of fitness, on a playing field that encompasses the whole world.

Future Cities: Starting From Scratch

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Future Cities: Starting From Scratch

Ben Barker

29th March 2014

Above Photo: Last years Delhi Trip

As I write this we’ve taxied to the far side of Heathrow. Through the window are a beige 7 storey car park, an angular carrier plane and 2 cars on a road just beyond the footprint of the airport. We’re waiting for clearance on an Air India flight, first to Mumbai, then on to Ahmedabad.

We are in Ballard country. Through the window is his proto-city. Not the airport itself, but the spaces that grew around it, turned from London and it’s institutions, freed to be a new type of urban, a city built for speed. To Ballard, Heathrow and it’s suburbs were places built around anonymity, efficiency and a decoupling from the heavy gravity of London. Most of all the Heathrow Hilton:

“The Heathrow Hilton, designed by Michael Manser, is a masterpiece…Sitting in its atrium one becomes, briefly, a more advanced kind of human being. Within this remarkable building one feels no emotions and could never fall in love, or need to. I’d like everything to be like that. I’d like England to look as if everybody was getting ready to leave for Mars.”

There are parallels in Ballards Heathrow to the modern narrative of the smart city, sold through glossy adverts and soulless urbanites. As Adam Greefield points out in his pamphlet Against the Smart City big technologies vision of the future city is being built from scratch in the desert, places such as PlanIT Valley in Portugal or Kochi in India. They are urban spaces built around a vision, rather than on top of other institutions. They are places without concession. Although most of us have never been to the parties, homes or offices depicted and they bare no resemblance to our experience, big technologies view of the future is still carving the deepest channel in our cities.

Concrete Island, Ballard’s book about a man marooned in the negative space between two flyovers tells a deeper truth about urban life. Trapped in the un designed margin, the protagonist is forced to adapt, a 20th century Alexander Selkirk, which for me recalls images of ingenuity and compromise from Delhi and last years Unbox. There this same triangle of land was a dwelling, a garden centre or a bike repair stall. Cities are people and things in improbable places. It’s the bar down the seedy side street, the theatre piece in a disused office. The city is a collection of potential spaces, impossible to know entirely. It’s a patchwork not just stitched by services and data, but stories experienced together and apart.

So whilst in Ahmedabad, I’ll be thinking about how we convey human experience in the future city. Our storytelling is often limited to measurability, impact and scale. We show a future of data zipping to expectant end points and people freed from impulse. How do we support cities that think it’s just as important to have intrigue and disappointment?

If Microsoft, Cisco and IBM all get to have their dream city, what is our sensation and experience driven city? In the Hilton, Ballard got his functional Corbusian dream but what spaces would we build in the blank slate paradigm? If we went now to found a city in the desert, what if anything, would we take from the suburbs of Heathrow, from the IT Valleys of Portugal and from beneath the flyovers of Dehli? Then, what institutions and spaces would we build to support them?

Now, first flight over I’m in Mumbai airport, sat in the new and other-wordly Terminal 2, waiting for a flight to Ahmedabad. Stuffed with seven thousand pieces of art from the last 1500 years, it’s billed as the one of the largest public displays in the world. But as Naresh Fernandes points out, it’s only public once you’ve bought an international flight. So in Mumbai, as in Ballards Hilton, and in Plan IT valley, this vision of the future is privately owned, built without concession and not for everyone. I’m looking forward to seeing what Ahmedabad and the Unbox programme provokes that might challenge the current offer.


Other reading:
Ballard: Cities Built for Speed
Matt Ward: Boring Urban Spaces.

Originally posted here
Delhi Photos here

Future Cities: Playing

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Future Cities: Playing

Ben Barker

Ahmedabad, India

What makes a city? Last week as I flew out to India I wrote about the blank slate, Le Corbusier’s influence on Ballard and the new city that emerged around Heathrow. Ahmedabad was something of a playground for Le Corbusier, he did some of his most experimental work here. DNA India points out a number of his architectural ideas can be traced to Ahmedabad. His building at the Musuem of the City was the first to use his internal form circular exhibition, and by all accounts the Mill Owners Association is beautiful. Ahmedaabad offered a lack of constraint to Le Corbusier and the modernist movement.

I’m interested in the Tabula Rasa and what the seeds of an experiential, playful city might look like. Ahemedabad, and India in general, can be a sobering place to do that. 50% of people live in slum housing, there’s a massive disparity between rich and poor, and huge sanitation and health issues. An often spoken phrase is: ‘We have more malls than parks.’ Public space is a hot topic. The National Institute of Design, where we are working, was built in Corbusier’s modernist style, following a report from Charles and Ray Eames. That report, though written over 50 years ago and relatively brief, is surprisingly similar in it’s message: India has huge social problems and all design and artistic effort must be mobilised to improve living conditions. So it’s into that historical context, with pressing social issues, that we are designing and thinking about cities in a universal sense.

CEPT, the national school of architecture describes Ahmedabad as the formless city. A place where there is no one public space and all are claimed by many. The multiple centres are activated according to time of year and day. In the old city, Manek Chowk is an excellent example. Early morning it’s a vegetable market as traders enter the city, in the day it offers jewellery and gold, then at night it becomes a co-operative food market. It lives 24hrs. Ahmedabadis describe their chaotic, polycentric city with a pride for the empathetic chaos that defines its public space. Further north Chandigarh, Corbusiers top down, modernist city has two faces. The concrete facades are listed, yet inside away from the view of planners and conservationists spill out chaotic, colourful interiors. Indian owners were forced to turn their exploratory form of expression inwards and there is a much discussed tensions between the values of modernism and the way people actually live.

Ahmedabad, India

The imagination of a modern municipality doesn’t include the idea of cows (let alone elephants) on the street. That’s the truth of an India city, a society defined by a visible acceptance of what should remain public. Ahmedabad has multiple cow insurance policies and a municipal organisation who collect bovine corpses. Indian cities are defined by an on going tussle for how things should be. Systems are tested through iteration and exploration.

Though the Eames report is heavy reading in many ways, there is a suggestion of a more experimental approach:

Like most problems in design and architecture, [planning for an event] is a problem in true speculation. You must relive the act before and evaluate many possible courses of action.

What the Eames’ describe is not unlike play, the creation of an alternate space in which to inhabit other realities, and versions of this reality. It’s the freedom to contest and re-articulate systems, to appropriate, to hack and subvert. It’s well documented in the work of Guy Debord and the situationists that play and the spectacle are tools for political change. As it is in Eric Zimmermans idea of the ludic century. Play is both exploring the slack in a system and creating a new system that demands a different reality. Its potential both here in Ahmedbabd and globally, is to be our method to challenge the status quo.

Ahmedabad, India

And of course India does play, at sports and in unusual spaces. In Ahmedabad they play in rusty old cars, they play catch in the crowded street and cricket in a 4 foot wide alley. Play, and the constant re-articulation and contestation of space, and the subsequent consent achieved through public visibility, is play at it’s most powerful. As we move forward I’ll be thinking of play as a way of exploring what an alternate, experiential city might look like. Whether that’s the spacial qualities of a game city like Assassins Creed’s Venice (Ahemedabad old town has a wonderful secret passage network ), the engineered social experiences of Disney’s Celebration or completely new types of city on other planets or in other futures.

Other reading:
More Ahmedabad photos
Sam’s post on Digital Cities
The Eames Report

Future Cities: Which Future?

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Future Cities: Which Future?

Ben Barker

The future has a lot in store for cities. Planners and architects will soon see some weird briefs. We’ll make settlements on the moonin digital space and roaming settlements that graze the landscape for resources. Opportunities will shape our urban futures in exciting ways, whilst impending challenges will redefine how we understand urban. The decline in the efficacy of antibiotics will affect how we live together and rising water levels will terraform cities from London to the Ganges Delta. Designers and makers will have a responsibility to explore what those futures are, and understand how we’ll live when they get here.

Bruce Sterling’s assertion, in his closing notes at SxSW, that the future will be old people in cities, frightened of the sky, is an extrapolation of the challenges of climate change, urban migration and an ageing population. It’s a possible future that hasn’t been rendered in such folk terms before. In that talk Sterling also announced that he would become a maker of things, his decision to move from words to objects shows his understanding of the power of design, it puts the thing in your hand and the idea in a form you can discuss.

At the start of March I was part of the Unbox Future Cities Lab, a two weeks programme held at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, India. 36 researchers, designers and makers from the Uk and India came together around theme of Future Cities. The brief was almost impossibly open: collect people working on city based projects using diverse processes and get them thinking about cities together. We know there is a responsibility for practitioners to explore the forces that might split, weave and define the many possible threads of the future, the question is which futures?


First we have to define what the opportunities and trends facing our collective futures are. Most will happen on some scale, somewhere, but which are likely to have the greatest impact? We spent a day creating headlines from futures we both anticipated and hoped for. The cross-cultural record of the future we created will be one of my enduring records of the trip, a zeitgeist of expectation from two continents. Importantly, as with Sterlings assertion, closer inspection of those ideas reveals that a lot of them aren’t as far away as they first seem.


We also have to bring these ideas to life. Whether that’s through the design fiction seen in the work of Dunne and Raby or in the alternate realities of games and film. If we don’t imagine and then realise these futures then we are left working under the assumed notion of a shared values of the future. We have to design futures that encapsulate the values we want. We have to be frank about what and only by making them can we defend or avert them.

When Mayor Antanas Mockus of Bogota made all his traffic warden dress up as Mimes, he wasn’t saying this is the future, he was saying what if we understood the role of the city differently.  One of our best known working prototype future cities might be Disney Land, Walt Disney created a a testing model for our future urban spaces in the form of a theme park. I want more weird future testing spaces, if Unbox left me thinking one thing, it’s lets bring to life more of these possible future cities. Below are a selection of the spaces we began to describe at Unbox, the document containing more detail can be seen here.

The Data City – Due to it’s climate and proximity to energy resources, a Siberian town becomes home to the worlds largest data centre. The finance industry move in driven by a need for reduced latency in algorithmic trading and briefly make it the banking capital of the Eurasian continent. Who moves in after them?

The City after Antibiotics – LA becomes obsessed with personal hygiene transparency and sterilisation as antibiotics are deemed no longer effective against the vast majority of diseases and bacteria. How do people move around and indicate their good health in disease obsessed city?

The First Settlers at Chernobyl – In the distant future, with uninhabited land at a premium, the first planning permission is received for the irradiated blast zone around Chernobyl after lying uninhabited for nearly 600 years. What does this application look like..

Run An Empire: Kickstarter

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Run An Empire: Kickstarter

Sam Hill

11th March 2014

RaE - MedQual JPG

Today we’re super excited to announce the launch of our Kickstarter campaign for Run An Empire – a game we’ve been working on, where players compete against each other to capture territory in their local environment by running (or walking) around it.

The Kickstarter page is here.

We’ve been a fan of games like Starcraft, Civilization, Risk and Go for most of our lives. Run An Empire for us represents the kind of strategy game we’d love to play ourselves – taking the strategic thinking required for digital and board games and injecting it into the real world, where physical actions can make a difference.


How it Works

The game will use GPS to record the paths players take – local neighbourhoods will become new arenas for strategic play.


To control a territory, a player simply has to sprint, jog or saunter around it. For a competing player to capture it from them they need to do the same – either faster or more often. Territory can be better protected from invasion by encircling it multiple times.

Captured - MedQaul JPG

The key to success is dedication. The game is designed for people like us, not naturally gifted athletes – a slow player can beat a faster opponent if they show more determination.

Rather than a gamified fitness app, we see Run Your Empire as a strategy game with sports-like real world elements. While there’s certainly a potential health benefit (which we’ll enrich as best we can with player analytics) what we’re really excited about seeing are the strategies players enlist to achieve victory.


We have already been awarded some seed funding from Ordnance Survey’s latest Geovation Challenge, where the theme was Active Lifestyles. Now we aim to raise a further £15,000 whilst building a community of beta-testers to help develop the game mechanic.

The first release of the game will be available for iPhone, with an Android version planned as a stretch goal.


Help us Bring Run An Empire to Life


We would hugely appreciate your support through the length of our campaign. Pre-order copies of the game are available from £4, but we also have posters and in game miscellanea up for grabs. Visit the Kickstarter page and see if there’s a reward there that suits you.

Another kind of MAC

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Another kind of MAC

Edward Lancaster

19th December 2013

With most of us living our lives online via the phone in our pocket, no longer is it a private life but a very public one. The distinction between what is our private space and the public domain has become disputed ground. Our private lives that were once confined to our immediate physical space, whether that was the home or a chat amongst friends in a bar, have now extended. Our private spaces now overlap and are shared with others online[1], our chats with friends exist across the globe and back again, online content penetrates our home, where many of us transmit our own content back out again.


It is unsurprising that our wireless lives and the data we transmit would not go unnoticed, however it is also unsurprising that the collecting of this data has often acquired Orwellian connotations. Whether this is due to the predominantly dystopian approach to sci-fi becoming so ingrained within our paradoxical attitude to technology, or the media’s preference for perpetuating a sense of anxiety – or possibly it may just be a healthy dose of scepticism. Whatever the reason, the notion of our data being taken is uncomfortable. There is no shortage of stories of illicit data mining, from Google earth’s cars illegally storing wifi data from every house it passes, to recycling bins in London that track passers by. This need not be the case, from major projects that hope to mine big data to predict natural, economic or man made disasters, to small scale design research that aims to integrate our wireless selves into our architecture, creating a more adaptable and smarter urban planning. There is great potential for our phones to be used to better integrate and experience the physical world so as to bridge the two worlds we inhabit: digital and real. One such piece of data that has the potential to do this is the unique wifi address, called the MAC address that is transmitted from every Smartphone. From the initial awareness and research that went into a previous blog post on Renew’s Bins, it was decided to investigate MAC addresses further to investigate other design potentials beyond a listening bin. The MAC address seemed the perfect starting point for experimenting with other uses of data rather than targeted advertising.

What is a MAC address?

An anagram of ‘Media Access Control’ every wifi-enabled phone has within it a 48-bit, 12 digit number consisting of 6 groups of hexidecimal digits separated by a colon (see fig 1). It is a number you would not know unless you looked for it, as it is part of the devices automated processes that enable a smoother operation of the applications you participate in. It is the communication that happens on a sub layer, as you are not the only person who speaks on your phone, your phone also speaks. It talks frequently, possibly more than you. It speaks to as many wifi access points that are willing to speak to it, sending probing packets of data to enquire as to whether the wifi access points are known to it or not, so as to connect to a possibly faster network (rather than 3G).

The MAC address is the international standard of LAN and WLAN communication set by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE). First implemented as part of Xerox Park’s Ethernet scheme, it has become the standard of all WLAN (wifi is the synonym) technology. As such this small often unnoticed group of numbers surrounds every inhabited space (on the condition that the inhabitant has a smart phone).

(Fig 1) A breakdown of the MAC addresses standardised format.
(Fig 1) A breakdown of the MAC addresses standardised format.


As a means of obtaining highly personalised data, MAC addresses share little. They can tell you the phone you own (This has been used to obtain statistical data on the market share of Smartphone manufacturers). They can be used to count people or cars, they can be used to track shoppers within a retail store to determine their (approximate) movement, or as the controversial Renew bins in London tried to do, track movement over time and within a specific location (the financial district). The purpose of which was to attempt to amass a unique pattern for each phone (and of course its owner). This particular project and how it works (and a better understanding of MAC addresses) was covered by Tom Taylor  at Scrap lab.

As the Woody Allen gag goes “80% of success is showing up” and that’s what the MAC address can tell you, who is here. That was the starting point of the research we undertook. What interesting interactions and experiences can be gained from simply knowing that someone is here?


To explore the possibilities of handling MAC addresses as a source of data, we set out to build a simple double function program. The two ambitions were simple: to check who is present and then cross-reference those present with previous scans. The first task was to obtain the MAC addresses. Starting simply with a Raspberry Pi and a wifi interface we used a piece of software called Aircrack-ng and its subprogram Airodump-ng (see fig 2) to scan for MAC addresses[2] (there are other programs such as Kismet). Once we had access to all the available MAC addresses, it was time to take these anonymous numbers and turn the data into a more personalised experience.

(Fig 2) Airodump-ng in operation.
(Fig 2) Airodump-ng in operation.

Within the studio, everyone’s MAC address was assigned the name of the owner in the dictionary function of Python. Python then extracted the MAC addresses from Airodump-ng’s csv file. Iterating through the csv file of the MAC addresses that where found in the scan, these were cross-referenced with the dictionary of known MAC addresses and their owners (see code extract)[3]. The result was the ability to record the combinations of people that were present (Fig 3).

(code extract)

def check_address():
with open(‘/home/pi/MAC/address.csv’, ‘r‘) as f:
address=csv.reader(f, delimiter=‘,’)
for row in address:
for field in row:
for address in MAC.keys():
if address == field and address in MAC:
person = MAC[address]

MAC = {’04:A8:xx:xx:B1:91′ : ‘Ed’, ’00:88:xx:xx:1A:F9′ : ‘Sam’, ‘F0:D1:xx:xx:D9:1E’ : ‘Ben’,
‘9C:04:xx:xx:73:96’ : ‘Paul’, ’54:26:xx:xx:F0:1C’ : ‘El’}

(Fig 3) (left) the screen grab shows the graphical output of the python program as cross references the Airodump scan with the database of known MAC addresses. (right) The other function of the program is to then cross reference the people present with past scans to see if this is a unique combination of people.
(Fig 3) (left) the screen grab shows the graphical output of the python program after it has cross referenced the Airodump scan with the database of known MAC addresses. (right) The other function of the program is to then cross reference the people present with past scans to see if this is a unique combination of people.

Of course, within a small studio, knowing that you are sat with the same people as before is no great revelation, but extrapolate that to a public place. Have you ever wondered how many people you have passed before on your local high street? Think of a time that you have encountered someone whose history has overlapped with your own, perhaps at the same university, or maybe you grew up in the same town. The potential of a design intervention that will illustrate the entwined nature of public space could only help illustrate the fact that we are not only connected wirelessly but remain physically connected on a very different local area network.

Initial observation

The initial problem of placing the scanner within the space of the studio is that the wifi of everyone’s phone connects directly to the studios wifi, and dependent on the phone and its power management (it takes energy to go looking for networks) the frequency at which it probes other networks is greatly reduced. This resulted in a low yield of known phones (and their owners).

What also came out of working with Airodump-ng was that not only does it report the MAC addresses that are present but also the power of each signal (see Fig 2). Although not accurate enough pinpoint the phone in space – even with additional scanners to triangulate the signal – the power reading can be utilised to distinguish between groups of people. The problem of locating people in space maybe more effective in an outdoor space without the interference of walls.

Physical output

In response to the criticism that the Renew recycling bins received (and their eventual suspension) the chief executive tried to dampen peoples fears by describing them as “glorified people counters” – this is not how they are described to potential advertisers on their website. However, this is another possibility of MAC code scanning, to retain the anonymity of the owner and simply reduce the phone to an entity to be counted.

(Fig 6) The motor in operation. The distinct dots towards the bottom occurred when large numbers of phones where found, the smudges in the center were created with few phones and a slower speed.
(Fig 6) The motor in operation. The distinct dots towards the bottom occurred when large numbers of phones where found, the smudges in the center were created with few phones and a slower speed.

This initial research had the intention of not prescribing outcomes but exploring the unique traces of data emitted from phones and exploring how they can be experienced – and what there is to be experienced – through design. So it was not only individualised relationships that were explored but also looking at the data-set as a mass. To do so we took the number of MAC addresses that where found and simply reduced them to a total number, this number was then mapped to the speed of a motor which in turn was attached to a piece of chalk; the greater the number of phones the faster the motor ran, creating a specific pattern distinguishable from lesser numbers (Fig 6). The physical output of an ever changing action begins to explore ideas around the patterns that are created or can be recorded from our transmitting pockets. A project that specifically uses MAC address data to dynamic effect is Selena Savic’ Quadricore. The project creates a dynamic architecture that utilises the MAC address scanner as a sensor for adjusting the physical space of its Smartphone carrying inhabitants.

(Fig 7) Salena Savic - Quadricone. Les Urbanes, Lsusanne, Switzerland.
(Fig 7) Salena Savic – Quadricone. Les Urbanes, Lsusanne, Switzerland.

Dynamically mapping or visually representing our wireless world, although not utilising the power of individual experiences, can result in interesting and engaging results. The light paintings of Timo Arnall are a great example of this. Visually representing the wavelengths that go into making our urban environment while saying nothing of each personal input, it speaks to everyone because it is built, used or at least inhabited by everyone. This is where Timo’s research is positioned, not engaging the data on an individual base, as a set of personal data, but looking at it as an urban material (or immaterial as he calls it). In his Wifi light paintings he uses long exposure photography to visualise the invisible. The photographs transform radio wavelengths to lights waves, illuminating (quite literally) the wireless networks that surprisingly don’t always surround us.

(Fig 9) Wifi Light Paintings. Long exposure photographs capture the physical space of our wireless networks.
(Fig 9) Wifi Light Paintings. Long exposure photographs capture the physical space of our wireless networks.

The interesting distinction between Timo’s projects and projects working with specific individuals data, is that of the ethical implications. Working with the wifi spectrum as a whole speaks volumes of the invisible urban environment but once you start delving into what all this data is, once you start assigning it no longer to the mass but to the individual, it not only become a question of how do we use this in an engaging form, but how to apply it with ethical consideration and sensitivity.

The debates circling around private and public data, whether or not Smartphone technology is bringing us closer together, will continue. There is no shortage of apps that rightly or wrongly claim to be doing so. But what is unquestioned is that our world is becoming increasingly wireless, which must be incorporated into the world in which design and art engage with, as Adam Greenfield writes:

“The truly pressing need is for translators: people capable of opening these occult systems up, demystifying them, explaining their implications to the people whose neighborhoods and choices and very lives are increasingly conditioned by them.”

The passive uses of MAC addresses have an interesting potential for design, as they are not exclusive to phone or app, simply acting as a beacon of your presence, simply announcing ‘hello I’m here’.

[1] See: Mitchell, William J.: City of bits (1995), Me++ (2003): MIT Press

[2] We used a Realtek chip set, this is important as not all chipsets can be placed in monitor mode. For a list of compatible chipsets go to: http://www.aircrack-ng.org/doku.php?id=compatibility_drivers.

[3] note: python can not read Airodump in real-time only its recorded csv file once the specified scanning time has elapsed, we set it to 10 second scanning periods.

Lessons Learned from Digital Cities

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Lessons Learned from Digital Cities

Sam Hill

2nd December 2013

How are cities in computer games different from other fictional cities?

Across film, television and literature, from Minas Tirith via Gotham to Neo Tokyo, we’ve been carefully shepherded – like tourists to North Korea – through a great number of fictional cities. This is even before taking into account the extrapolation, contortion and parody of real locations (Ghostbusters II New York, Lock Stock’s East London, Police Academy 7’s Moscow) and sci-fi future visions of the familiar (Blade Runner‘s Los Angeles, Escape From L.A.’s Los Angeles and Demolition Man’s San Angeles).

As artistic renderings, these fictions tell us something about the cities we do live in. They painstakingly depict moments in time, or guide us between heady vistas whilst showing us something about how we live with ourselves and each other.


But how much further can visual media inspire our future cities? In London at least, there’s no shortage of projects designed to make the city a greater spectacle to behold. One of London’s premiere forms of attraction has become platforms to view the city – not so much as a street-level, person-watching flâneur, but as a helicopter-jockey/shiny glass evangelist. From the Shard, the Millennium Eye, the Emirates ‘Air Line’ cable cars, to Heron Tower, Centre Point, Tate Modern’s Members room and a myriad of other rooftop terraces between Hoxton and Peckham, we’re encouraged to pay exorbitant amounts for the luxury of a high-up window.

Games developers are more obliged than other media creators to take their visions of urban life and render them in greater depth. An immersive world can’t depend too heavily on hyperbole to elicit an emotional response from us. So though the whole must still be compelling to take in, every component nook and cranny must also bleed with the same character and message – there is no space or scale for ambiguity or misdirection. When a writer tells you something is so, and a director shows you something is so, a developer – a simulator – must appear to have made it so.

Cities in games need arguably do two things: first of all they must simulate a functioning society, though granted only so far as the realism of the game demands. Secondly, critically, they must still be fun places to be in and interact with.

It is therefore appropriate when we consider how our living environments can be more experientially enriching, that we should look to simulated spaces to learn how they have done the same. What can the real learn from the simulacrum?


When the City is the Star


In the UK, post-war development and ubiquitous brand enfranchisement have created such homogeneity across urban centres that our high streets have become all but interchangeable. So it can be incredibly refreshing to visit fictional cities with such rich and distinct identities. Some games have created incredible works of art, in the form of habitable cities – atmospheric, detailed, awe-inspiring, textured, multi-faceted, believable, subtle, and vast. Mentioning said cities by name can elicit a stronger emotional response than by mentioning any of their particular denizens.


Bioshock remains a premier example of this – personally, when I hear the mention of “Rapture”, it stirs up a greater sense of wonder, dread and melancholy than any particular antagonist of the series. Similarly, memories of the broken Prague-like City 17, and her painterly Victorian cousin Dunwall, can tug at the heart strings stronger than Alyx, Emily or any other major character from their respective titles.


Grand Theft Auto has delivered a mixed bag of cities over the years (actually other than Vice City they’ve been pretty well realised), but arguably the most recent incarnation of Los Santos has been their richest and most compellingly built environment yet.


These non-places, though unreal, have the integrity to hold together many individual strands of narrative, are open to several perspectives, and can survive the same schisms as our real cities – luxury and squalor; old and new; alien and familiar.


Playground Cities


Dishonored‘s aforementioned island capital Dunwall and GTA’s Los Santos sit alongside Batman’s Arkham City district, I Am Alive‘s Haventon and any one of Assassin Creed’s historic set-pieces – but perhaps most notably 15th century Venice – as cities designed from the rooftops downwards with a single goal: to be playgrounds, specifically climbing frames, equal parts vertical and horizontal. Digital environment design for play is a challenging, experimental process in itself, but these spaces are fantastic for giving the tactile and stealthy movement of their characters the full potential.



On the surface this kind of physical exploration and play seems comparable to parkour, though in reality parkour is about exploiting and negotiating an unyielding environment. These spaces, rather than being re-appropriated by the player as it first seeems, have been painstakingly designed to work harmoniously together with the nuances and limitations of player movement to create a very gratifying play experience.

Sanctuaries in a Harsh World


Though often little more than settlements, the villages, towns and cities that pepper the landscape of many RPG landscapes, from the homely back-water starter town to the mid-game metropolitan base of operations, often serve two roles.

The first is R&R – a safe bastion in an otherwise dangerous and untamed wilderness. A small haven of civilisation (It’s difficult not to feel sorry for the unfortunate folk who have to  endure our adventure worlds permanently). This is somewhere to sleep and (sometimes literally) recharge – probably there will be a tavern in which to rest one’s head, consolidate some XP and save current progress.

It’s common for cities to have tall, impenetrable walls; the only entrance being a single,well-guarded main gate (and possibly a few sewer grates). Though this is mostly done to economise on memory (such as Megaton in Fallout 3, or the compartmentalized Imperial City in Elder Scrolls: Oblivion), the psychology of these safe zones shouldn’t be underestimated. The walls draw a definite boundary between the chaotic danger of ‘the wild’ and the enforced civility of ‘the tame’ and it’s common for city guards to patrol the streets too, should the player wish to upset this balance themselves. These proto-cities re-enact what our earliest settlements were founded for: municipal protection racketeering.


They are such palpably different environments from outside the walls, that for a player that has spent a long time dungeoneering the break in pace can be very cathartic. Completed quests are often rewarded in cities and so these digital spaces can become strongly linked with a sense of gratification and closure.

Whilst refuelling, it’s very likely that there will be a general store to buy essentials, like food and healing materials. RPG settlements are interestingly distinct from their real-world counterpoints for being engineered entirely for the benefit of the player, and this is often thinly veiled. If there are a handful of special interest/niche stores in town, it’s more than likely that they will cater specifically to the needs of the player – a place to trade encumbering loads of loot for shiny new weapons, armour or scrolls. Though economic on reality, these townships are dead on the money for providing for the needs of their market – even if it is, effectively, a market for one.

Fo1_Hub_Downtown (2)

The second role of RPG settlements is to drive the main narrative forward – this is the home of the brief-dispatching wizened sage or beleaguered king. But the taverns will probably have a few troubled souls within them too – cities are great places for lightweight side-quests, testing the player’s otherwise undeveloped genteel skills – silver-tongued charisma, lock-picking or bartering. Any mercenary tasks that do take place within the city walls are distinctly less strenuous then those beyond them – rats in the basement etc – further reinforcing the message of a step down in difficulty.


Simulation Cities


Obviously, city builder and management sims (Sim City, Transport Tycoon, Anno 1701, plus some real-time strategies like Age of Empires) give us the opportunity to understand the city from a different, top-down perspective, and allow us to create or modify these spaces in a manner that we prefer. They are interesting for helping us to see first-hand the reliance we have on infrastructure, and the socio-economic factors that make up (according to somebody’s model) a well-balanced environment for living and working.

They also give us a licence to consider how our cities could be better designed – more efficient, more sustainable, or with improved lifestyle opportunities.

Minecraft deserves a mention in this camp because even though, as a sandbox game, its grit is finer than most, the vast majority of building blocks are still implicitly designed for habitation. Below is an example of perhaps the twentieth sincere attempt I’ve made at starting a township – this time a Mediterranean-style fishing village.



Cities as Part of a Larger System


Finally there are the cities that are part of a bigger scheme – such as in Risk-like military conquest games. In particular there is the Civilization series where we see a city as a desirable, possessable machine, able to convert inputs – food, raw materials, energy, luxury, trade networks, healthcare and security – into outputs: revenue, scientific advancement, industry and culture.


Who’s calling the shots

Our living cities can be more like the ones we experience in computer games – aware of their own rich identity, affording more opportunities for narrative, interaction and play – if the architecture and infrastructure were designed with these affordances in mind.

This isn’t necessarily about vertigo-inducing stunts or god-like power play, but there is still the potential for contextual, located fun and intervention points to be soft- and hard-built into the city systems. The challenge is partially about trust – a trust between denizens and governing bodies. Play is inhibited when permissions are removed and activity is restricted, for the sake of our safety and protection.

However the larger issue is lack of motivation from decision making parties. Companies and organisations are the main powers that change the form of our modern cities. There isn’t a lot of impetus between the vanity of the prestigious client and the vanity of their equally prestigious architectural firm to create any emotional engagement with their spaces, other than a reserved and passive sense of awe – which locks us back in to the look-don’t-touch world of cinematic cities. Even shopping centres and high street stores prescribe a very limited form of engagement, wrapped up in a particular model of consumption. This is a shame because with a more playful attitude, spatial designers could tap in to a much deeper vein of emotional engagement through their work, and their clients would benefit from having a more integral and meaningful link with the community around them.

Knee High Challenge: The Play Agency

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Knee High Challenge: The Play Agency

Ben Barker

20th November 2013

The Play Agency is looking for new recruits; families in Southwark and Lambeth are being enlisted to help share ideas for play. Explore, invent or play, then share your ideas with other agents and get families in the boroughs playing more.



The Knee High Challenge

A few months ago we proposed a project for the Knee High Challenge called the Play Agency, which focused on getting families playing more together. Happily it was shortlisted for further development, and we’re now exploring it’s development. Our ambition was to create an organisation that recruited families to find, capture and share ideas for play across Lambeth and Southwark, celebrating and encouraging a layer of daily play. Our belief was that play can happen anywhere, and by highlighting it we can take the pressure off parents to be ‘good’ players. The Knee High project research told us that although dedicated spaces like parks and soft play offer good opportunities, getting the children ready to go and travelling to the location are big barriers. We imagined families might capture anything from where good deep puddles form in the rain, to a game of make-believe they play using bike racks. We wanted to challenge the common conception of where play should and shouldn’t happen and help people explore new opportunities.

knee high PDF
See the longer document here

The key to the success of the project will come from the ability for players of all backgrounds and skills to share and learn from each other, rewarding the inventor, as much as the explorer or casual browser.  That means we must balance technology and physical tools to make best use of the affordances and accessibility of each. We imagine that using digital technologies to capture locations, contemporaneous notes and images would be well complimented by physical reporting and dissemination. Our research is now focused on exploring which format is right for each.





Research and Exploration

In our initial research we’ve stripped away technology to understand more about the value of this hidden layer of play. We’ve been at these key themes;

Capture – families look out for examples and opportunities for play;

Share – example are distributed to Agency members;

Learn – the examples supply families with inspiring ideas for play in their local area;

Families then have the tools and ideas to develop their own play ideas, capture and share, continuing the loop.


We proposed focusing our idea on children aged 3-5 years. At an age where their language and social skills are developing rapidly and their curiosity and independence is growing, this age group will benefit most from being encouraged to, and celebrated for, playing. Parents who may be struggling for ideas and those which are bursting with inspiration will be able to learn and share with others, building a network of skilled play inventors.


We aim to build upon the capabilities of parents to play with their children regularly as part of a daily routine. The Agency encourages parents to notice and be proud of the play they engage in with their children; even those lacking in confidence will have developed their own approaches to play and our vision is to facilitate the sharing of those ideas between parents. As parents become more confident in their own abilities to find opportunities for play, play is legitimised and rewarded, becoming a normal part of everyday life for families.


Through the Play Agency, children are encouraged to explore the world around them through play. Coming up with ideas for play isn’t just down to parents; children invent games and find fun everyday and the Agency hopes to harness children’s naturally playful, curious nature and celebrate it. With parents growing confidence in using play to aid in their child’s development, the children will be exposed to more stimulation and interaction with their parents and other children.


Local parents and families are able to connect through the Play Agency, through sharing and learning about ideas for play. Whether parents and families meet through a physical space such as a pop-up shop, online via a website or through sharing ideas on a social media platform, it will be the celebration of creativity and ideas that unites those who join the Agency. As research suggests, it is parents who have a strong informal support network that are best able to deal with the highs and lows of parenthood and we hope the Agency will strengthen those networks as families get to know their neighbours through sharing ideas with those in the local area.


For a lot of parents the understanding seems to be that play is structured and to some extent formalised. For the Play Agency to have real merit we have to engage parent in the idea that there is equal, if not greater value in small scale, playful moments throughout the day. The project continues to develop, and we’ve discussed a newspaper format, as well as a system that uses post boxes as markers for play in the local area, supported by a post card subscription system. For now follow the agency on twitter or check out the flickr set for more research images.

Post boxes – a very public object

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Post boxes – a very public object

Ben Barker

24th October 2013


Last Tuesday Royal Mail became a plc. It will face an uphill task to survive, with Fedex and UkMail competing for the easy money, whilst it remains solely responsible for the universal access service. Privatising now was weird timing, given Royal mail made a substantial profit for the tax payer last year and the shares have nearly doubled in value since floatation (we spent 500 years growing the company for government to sell it at half price), but it’s been coming for a while. Either way, the red boxes on our streets now belong to private investors. Thomas Pynchon’s novella, The Crying of Lot 49, makes a good companion read. Its description of a secret underground postal service, running alongside the state funded service, encourages us to imagine a different future for the Royal Mail and it’s boxes.

For me seeing a post box creates a muscle longing, in part from the disappointment of no longer really using them, and in part from their role in my childhood. Growing up the boxes were treasure chests on the street, I dreamt of arriving at collection time and seeing inside. Posting a letter was just as charged, every child wanted the responsibility, an irreversible act that epitomised growing up. There were 3 post boxes in my village, two pillar boxes, gatekeepers to the nations door matts. The third was built into a stone wall outside of the church. Slightly out of the way and hardly used, yet also the input for an international communication system, serviced everyday on the off chance. Imagine how many empty postboxes RM staff open on any given day (can we get a montage of that?). As we rely on it less, the services impressive scale becomes more apparent, the USPS still delivers more mail in 1 day than Fed Ex does in a year.

The post box in question, not quite as moss-covered as I remember, it’s CB24 447 PB fans

With uptake and visibility being two of the biggest challenges facing emerging networks, the postal service has units everywhere. Britain is covered with red, logically numbered and strategically situated boxes. Each one individually identifiable using an alpha-numeric sequence printed on the front (a derivative of the post code), making them a located (but not overly) reference point that’s positioned in and around communities. It’s a system ready for re-appropriation.

A map of all the post boxes used during Hello Lamp Post, it’s worth noting that about a 3rd more were talked to, but weren’t locatable as the code was formatted in an ambigous way, or only the first part had been used, thus not making it specific to one box. The really popular one is a fake

The semi-located nature of post boxes feels right for a few behaviours, information exchange, exploration and game-like experiences. You’re normally near a box, even in remote places such as Knoydart where you can find this guy who is only served by ferry, but their discovery may require a degree of exploration (there’s a street view game in there somewhere). Royal mail doesn’t publish the precise locations, but their are some neat OSM tools for finding them, and for information on the quality of that data check this article (The data’s not perfect, but is fun to use).

So how is the position of a post box chosen, or rather what can we deduce from seeing one? The obligation on the postal service until recently was:

In each postcode area where the delivery point density is not less than 200 delivery points per square kilometre, not less than 99% of users of postal services are within 500 metres of a letter box. (DUSP clause 1.8.4)

Which sounds clumsy, flimsy and as pointed out here, was was not in keeping with the universal access policy:

That criteria only applied to the 61 PCAs (post code areas) where there is a delivery point density greater than 200 delivery points per square km, resulting in the exclusion of predominantly rural PCAs.

In part in response to Royal Mail going private, Ofcom now requires that 98% of the population of the country is within 500m of a post box, which didn’t change a lot but it has protected the location of a good part of Britains 115,000 post boxes. Following that criteria change, more than ever, a post box serves as an indicator of population density.

An international system, a photo from Delhi earlier in the year, where codes applied to an area rather than a single unit.

Post boxes have a great potential as a platform, game object or exchange point. The impending change in our relationship with the service makes the discussion of what’s next more relevant (remember there are 115,000 in Britian). In part based on my fascination with them as a space full of potential as a child, we explored a proposal for the Knee High Challenge, a design council initiative targeted at under 5’s, that focused on post boxes as an object for sharing play ideas, a meeting point, where the opportunities for play or adventure in the area could be listed. Our proposal, (which has happily been shortlisted) may well use a different technology and language but post boxes are still very much in our thoughts. Pynchens novel is a reminder of how much importance the postal service is in our culture and how much it is a part of our past, (though his Tyrstero service used waste bins). By showing how various marginalised groups felt the Trystero and it’s iconic muted horn existed to serve them he hints at what is core to our postal service. It works the same for everybody, a universal service allows everyone a feeling ownership. That may no longer strictly be true for Royal Mail, but it’s boxes are still very much in the community.

To paraphrase game studio SlingShot, building on existing infrastructure gives us a level of access and street level integration we could never normally afford. Whilst private investors work out what that means for them, we should also consider alternate futures for these very public objects.



A project to photograph every box:
The letter box study group:
Tool for finding post boxes:
How well mapped are post boxes on OSM:
Historic postal service, core to Pynchons novel (thanks to Tom for the recommend):


Who Cares About TV Bins?

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Who Cares About TV Bins?

Ben Barker

13th August 2013


We’ve talked a lot recently about changing peoples relationships with street furniture, but does it really matter whether people notice bus stops and bins?

The Hello Lamp Post project is often rightly talked about in the context of the internet of things, and as we said the other day it’s hard to imagine working as a designer right now and not thinking about objects with embedded networks and systems, whether that’s glance-able communication in lamps or a domestic operating system. The internet of things is a term for objects that are the visible part of a wider network.

The streets are busy with drains, billboards, phone boxes and adshells, each with their own associated systems, yet rendered largely invisible by their ubiquity. By building a project on these objects we draw attention to the mechanics of the existing systems and explore the potential for their re-appropriation, particularly digital. For Hello Lamp Post we were able to place one-off instructional publicity on addshells around the city that contained the unique reference number specific to that location, promoting our own system by hightlighting the existing one.

Re-appropriation is a common theme in the digital world, the internet is built on it. The web API is in many ways a sanctioned form of hacking, taking a useful part of one system to build or improve another. Playing that out on objects (and systems) and in a public and physical space gives us a chance to probe what that feels like to a new and wider audience. This created a lot of confusion over the project; are the Royal Mail responsible for the talking post boxes, or were the council trying to deflect attention away from high bus fares? This is partly evidenced by the UKIP comment under the Bristol Post article. The result of an audience unaware that individuals or organisation outside the council have the right to affect their city. Noticing these objects is about bringing digital reappropriation to the physical city, encouraging people to dream up their own uses of public space rather than feeling all they can do is challenge the services imposed on them.

Which brings us to Renew, of TV bin fame, who in London have been trialling (and have sort of stopped) using your smart phones MAC address to store personal locational data for more targeted marketing. They are allowed to do this partly under the proviso that 5% of the time the screens are used for public service information, which it seems largely means showing a digital clock (in a place that has a really good regular clock).

When people critisced us about surveillance culture under a poorly informed Daily Mail article they were doing so because it is what they are primed to expect, impositions with dubious motives. The objects on our streets walk a line between public and private (as do a surprising number of the streets themselves), and through Renew they seem to have won consent to be digital agents operational in the memory dimension. These objects have been reimagined according to financial concerns, not the moral or public good; to be clear, these are no longer bins. We are so surprised this is legal, that we hardly have the tools to rebel. We need to be armed not only with outrage at the intrusion but with the opinion that every financially motivated imposition is a missed opportunity to enhance the city we live in. Services on our streets are always in change, post boxes and pay phones are becoming antiquated, but there is a real and exciting potential for these spaces to become something else, something human, something exciting and most importantly, something for us.


Hello Lamp Post: Week #1 Stats

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Hello Lamp Post: Week #1 Stats

Sam Hill

24th July 2013

The first week of Hello Lamp Post (15-21st July) is complete and we thought it might be interesting to summarise how it went. In the coming weeks we can tunnel a little bit deeper into specific parts of the data (responses to particular objects and questions etc), but seeing as it’s early days right now we’re just going to give a glancing overview of activity.


Unique Players

We had just under 1000 new players take part…




Players initiated just shy of 2300 conversations with their objects. This amounted to 5221 player SMS messages sent (with a similar amount sent from the system in return). The modal length of a conversation is actually four messages each way, but in this case a “conversation” is really any discrete exchange between a player and an object and sometimes this can be over in one or two texts.




445 unique items of street furniture across Bristol were woken up by players, meaning that, on average, each object had about two players converse with it (though this will be skewed somewhat by some more popular/ promoted objects having a larger engagement than their suburban siblings).

In the first week the eponymous lamp posts were the most commonly addressed item of street furniture, followed respectively by post boxes, telegraph poles and parking meters.



…so it’s been quite an active week and we’ve been really happy with the spirit in which everyone has entered into the conversations. We’ve seen a steady (bizarrely linear, actually) increase in play, and look forward to seeing how players’ behaviour changes over the coming weeks. We’re hoping to make tweaks and changes based on the way people are choosing to play – whether that means adding new object category types, or ensuring there’s enough depth of questioning for people returning to particular favourite objects. This approach to flexibility is made immeasurably easier by the very fact we’ve got a powerful system in place for providing us with necessary contextual data – for diagnostics, effective analysis and review.