September 22, 2006 4:00 AM PDT
Gaming on the streets of Manhattan
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To Lantz and Slavin, it's important to stress the nostalgia component of street games. Until about the 1970s, "games were for interaction, meaningful playful interaction between people," Slavin pointed out, "and that started to go away with the advent of video games." But even that development couldn't hide the need for social recreation.
"The biggest video games right now are like 'World of Warcraft,' and they're bringing people together," Slavin added. It's a bit of a paradox: Street gaming is a sort of "next step" beyond social video games like "WoW" and "Second Life," but at the same time, it evokes the days when face-to-face was the only way to play.
On the flip side, Lantz and Slavin nevertheless speak of street gaming in terms that are distinctly of the Information Age.
"We say that this is building software for cities," Slavin said. "Architects have built this amazing platform--all these neighborhoods and streets and avenues. We're thinking of those in terms of a platform you can run software on, and that platform is entertainment software."
If the city is a software platform, and street games are the programs run on it, the Come Out and Play Festival can be thought of as a sort of beta test. Street gaming, after all, has never been tried on this large of a scale and consequently has some hurdles to overcome.
The festival is being hosted by the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center, a Manhattan nonprofit that specializes in activities and exhibits that blur the line between the art studio and the data center.
For many of the game designers, like McGonigal, this weekend's festival marks the first run of their latest projects. Her addition to Come Out and Play is "Cruel 2 B Kind," a takeoff on "Assassin" or "Mafia" games where players stealthily eliminate each other through predetermined buzzwords and actions.
McGonigal, who co-created "Cruel" with Ian Bogost of Persuasive Games, considers this to be a test run of not only their own game but of the street game concept in general.
"We have approached the games from this festival as a design, research and sort of experimental project because we both have a lot of questions about how public gaming can be more socially sustainable," she said. "It creates a scene, or disruption, or disturbance. You wouldn't be able to sustain it over time."
Security is a more serious matter. In these times of heightened sensitivity toward terrorist threats, the antics associated with street games--people chasing one another through city streets, stealthily using laptops on sidewalks, taking pictures of strange objects with camera phones--sometimes don't float too well with local law enforcement.
McGonigal said a touring game called "Street Wars," in which players hunt each other down with water pistols, got a hostile response from the British government when it made a stop in London.
Still, despite the difficulties street games will inevitably encounter, this weekend and in the future, McGonigal remains optimistic. "We're hoping that this will kick off a frenzy of public gaming," she said. "It's completely open to the public. You don't have to be a coder. You don't have to be a game master. All you have to do is say, 'I want to play.'"
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