Posted by: Montola | September 18, 2011

Review #14: Farman

Jason Farman is an Assistant Professor at University of Maryland, who has used Pervasive Games as material on his courses. He has published an academic review of the book in the Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds, Volume 2, Issue 3 (2010).

We were happy to notice that he’s highly appreciative of the book:

Pervasive Games is largely a success because it accomplishes a nearly exhaustive chronicling of the major games within this category. Though this approach may leave both academics and designers wishing that the authors would dwell longer on the theoretical implications or the pertinent design questions, these audiences will nonetheless find the book immensely interesting.


Anyone interested in the changing landscape of gaming in pervasive computing culture will be drawn to this book (despite the desire many will feel for sustained analyses in place of simplifications). The first full-length work of its kind, Pervasive Games lays the foundation for future work in this area, pointing scholars and designers toward an impressive collection of pervasive games and toward others working in and writing about this emerging field. The shelf life of this book will also be extensive since it seeks to develop the history and current state of the field. It is thus a snapshot of the foundation of pervasive games and will undoubtedly be the text we continue to refer to for years to come.

His biggest criticism is that some ideas and design questions should have been examined more thoroughly. And as he cites an example from The Ethics of Pervasive Gaming, I must say I agree with his critique: the topic of pervasive gaming ethics still requires more discussion.

Read the full review here.

Earlier reviews: Davidson, Pettersson revisited, Goncalves, Hosken, Chong, Hook, White, Fatland, Gerdes, Holter, Noyons, Pettersson, Harviainen.

Posted by: Montola | December 22, 2010

Nordic Larp

During the last 18 months, Jaakko and I have been working with editing our next book. Like with Pervasive Games, we are still working design, history and societal significance with embodied forms of play. However, Nordic Larp is also quite different: We have enlisted a number of authors, putting together stories from 30 outstanding live action role-playing games from Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

Like pervasive event games and ARGs, larps are ephemeral games: After the games are played, they are gone and the only way to learn from them is through stories. So we wanted to write a history book of the incredible Nordic larp movement, as the important, brilliant and innovative games of the last 15 years would otherwise be surely forgotten in 2020.

Nordic Larp

Steampunk starships.
Animatronic dragons.
Cancer patients.

In the Nordic countries, live-action role-playing has developed into a unique and powerful form of expression. Nordic larps range from entertaining flights of fancy to the exploration of the intimate, the collective and the political. This incredible tradition combines influences from theatre and performance art with gamer cultures, in order to push the boundaries of role-playing.

Nordic Larp presents a critical cross section of this vibrant culture through 30 outstanding larps, combining stories told by designers, players and researchers with over 250 photographs of play and preparations. In addition the book contains two essays that explain the history and rhetorics of Nordic larp, and contextualizes it in relation to theatre, art and games.

As the book is a highly visual photo book with pages larger than A4, I recommend you to peek inside (make sure you see full spreads). For a pervasive gaming enthusiast, the book includes stories of several pervasive larps ranging from a meeting of mad scientists on a cruise ship to the high-end production Momentum you have surely heard of already. Additionally, Jaakko concludes the book with an essay titled Nordic Larp: Theatre, Art and Game; if you are interested in the artistic relevance of pervasive gaming, that essay is almost directly applicable to pervasive games played in events such as Come Out & Play, Hide & Seek and Playground.

Said about Nordic Larp:

“Nordic Larp is a rare and vivid glimpse into a fascinating gaming tradition. If anyone knows how to imagine better worlds and build a more engaging reality, it’s larpers.”
Jane McGonigal, author of Reality is Broken

“The rise of the ars ludorum is not confined to the bombastic power fantasies of the videogame but is manifest all over the globe in diverse ways, from the doujin games of Japan to the passionate intensity of the indie games movement to the rise of the Euro-style board game. Not least among these movements is larp, brought to its apotheosis in the Nordic countries, where vast, imaginative works of enormous artistic ambition receive attention not only from game geeks but from their national cultures as well. This vital phenomenon is now accessible to English speakers through this landmark work, an anthology of articles describing some of the most impressive and compelling works of the form. Anyone seriously interested in role-play, interactive narrative, and the collision between games and theater will find it of enormous interest.”
Greg Costikyan, Game Designer

“Now evolved far from its roots in genre consumption and modification, the progressive Nordic live roleplaying scene is building the tools for participatory performance that artists internationally will be using for generations to come. Nordic Larp is the first book to put the community’s key pieces in one easily digestible and visually seductive format.”
Brody Condon, Artist

This hefty tome is definitely worth all the extra publicity we can spare: Jaakko Stenros and Markus Montola have done major cultural service to game, culture and art studies (as well as to the history) by collecting and putting together an amazing volume of photos, descriptive texts and cultural essays to celebrate the fine art of live action role-playing, Nordic style. Great work, congratulations.
Frans Mäyrä, Professor of Digital Culture and Game Studies

Since the book was largely done pro bono, and funded generously by cultural foundations, we have been able to seriously push the price down. Order your own copy here!

For review copies and such, contact Jaakko or myself at

Posted by: Montola | October 26, 2010

Review #13: Davidson

J. Davidson from NYC reviews Pervasive Games for Amazon. Very brief, but saying all the things we like reviews to say:

This is an extremely smart and engaging book — it works as introduction and as authoritative overview, but it’s lively and interesting and without any of the tedium one associates with that sort of volume! Very highly recommended for anyone with an interest in performance studies more generally.

The super book is worth five Amazon stars to him/her.

Earlier reviews: Pettersson revisited, Goncalves, Hosken, Chong, Hook, White, Fatland, Gerdes, Holter, Noyons, Pettersson, Harviainen.

Posted by: Montola | October 22, 2010

TEDxTransmedia, Nordic Larp

Recently, our research interests have been mostly outside pervasive games, which shows in our pace of updating this blog. We once aimed at 2-3 updates a week, currently once a month seems more realistic. Me and Jaakko, we have been focusing on our next baby, the photography book Nordic Larp, that presents the brilliant Nordic live action role-playing scene.

Even though Nordic larp is not all about pervasive gaming, it’s still close and related. If you appreciate productions such as The Truth about Marika, Dollplay and Conspiracy For Good, you should care about Nordic larp too. See for yourself; the CEO of The company P, Christopher Sandberg, has quite a bit of Nordic larp in his TEDxTransmedia talk.

This is where my two major research interests converge:

You should definitely have a good, long look at the TEDxTransmedia talks: They have Christy Dena, Dan Hon and lots of other smart people.

Posted by: Stenros | September 1, 2010

On Real and Simulation

I’m reading Jean Baudrillard’s Simulations. In it I ran into a passage that just has to be reproduced here.  Baudrillard argues, that certain simulations will always be seen as real, obliterating the difference between the two. We presented a similar argument in the book in connection to the ethics of pervasive play and how certain people (like police officers) do not have the luxury of treating certain things as games. Baudrillard just makes that argument in a much more eloquent fashion.

The impossibility of rediscovering an absolute level of the real is of the same order as the impossibility of staging illusion. Illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible. It is the whole political problem of parody, of hypersimulation or offensive simulation, that is posed here. […]

Organize a fake holdup. Verify that your weapons are harmless, and take the most trustworthy hostage, so that no human life will be in danger (or one lapses into the criminal). Demand a ransom, and make it so that the operation creates as much commotion as possible—in short, remain close to the “truth,” in order to test the reaction of the apparatus to a perfect simulacrum. You won’t be able to do it: the network of artificial signs will become inextricably mixed up with real elements (a policeman will really fire on sight; a client of the bank will faint and die of a heart attack; one will actually pay you the phony ransom), in short, you will immediately find yourself once again, without wishing it, in the real, one of whose functions is precisely to devour any attempt at simulation, to reduce everything to the real—that is, to the established order itself, well before institutions and justice come into play.

It is necessary to see in this impossibility of isolating the process of simulation the weight of an order that cannot see and conceive of anything but the real, because it cannot function anywhere else. The simulation of an offense, if it is established as such, will either be punished less severely (because it has no “consequences”) or punished as an offense against the judicial system (for example if one sets in motion a police operation “for nothing”) — but never as simulation since it is precisely as such that no equivalence with the real is possible, and hence no repression either. The challenge of simulation is never admitted by power. How can the simulation of virtue be punished? However, as such it is as serious as the simulation of crime. Parody renders submission and transgression equivalent, and that is the most serious crime, because it cancels out the difference upon which the law is based. The established order can do nothing against it, because the law is a simulacrum of the second order, whereas simulation is of the third order, beyond true and false, beyond equivalences, beyond rational distinctions upon which the whole of the social and power depend. Thus, lacking the real, it is there that we must aim at order.

This is certainly why order always opts for the real. When in doubt, it always prefers this hypothesis (as in the army one prefers to take the simulator for a real madman). But this becomes more and more difficult, because if it is practically impossible to isolate the process of simulation, through the force of inertia of the real that surrounds us, the opposite is also true (and this reversibility itself is part of the apparatus of simulation and the impotence of power): namely, it is now impossible to isolate the process of the real, or to prove the real.

Posted by: Stenros | August 4, 2010

The Greatest Treasure Hunt on Record

I ran into a piece of treasure hunt history I was previously not aware of. Apparently in 1904 London sufferend from “Treasure hunt riots”! Sunday newspaper the Weekly Dispatch launched what they called The Greatest Treasure Hunt on Record in its January 3, 1904, edition. They had buried medallions that could be exchanged for £50 at the newspaper offices. Paul Slade has written a great piece about the case (he has covered other pervasive stuff as well).

Of course, what happened was that treasure hunters disregarded the disclaimer mentioned in the paper saying that one did not need tools to find the treasure and that it was buried in a public place. Instead, the crowds started using shovels and the like to go through private gardens!

Thomas Wright, a West London barrister, came home from his Lincoln’s Inn chambers one evening in January 1904 to find a mob of treasure hunters wrecking his front garden. One of them had already dug down to the base of the garden railings and was busy trying to dislodge them to see if a £50 medallion had been buried beneath. Glancing up and down Westbourne Terrace, Wright could see that many of his neighbours’ gardens had been invaded too. This had been going on for four days.

Many of the treasure hunters were fined, but for about a month the courts were unable to connect the newspaper to the events. Finally there was an injunction from London County Council’s parks committee backed by the Attorney General which ended the fun. Naturally, the editors of the magazine were disappointed.

“The interest taken in the treasure hunt has far surpassed the most optimistic expectations,” the paper reported. “Our offices were besieged by crowds waiting to obtain early copies, and in the provinces hundreds of people waited at the railway stations in order to secure a copy of the Dispatch the moment the newspaper train arrived. In our printing works, extra machines had to be kept running for long hours to produce the enormous issues demanded by the public and we have again and again found it necessary to reprint the various editions. The result has been to raise the circulation of the Dispatch to nearly a million copies weekly.
“It is not by the wish of the proprietors that the treasure hunt has now reached its close. This has been entirely due to the fact that in certain quarters enthusiastic seekers for medallions have not followed or heeded our repeated and urgent warnings against causing annoyance or doing damage. As a natural result of this complaints have reached us and serious representations have been made to us by the authorities. Such representations we could only treat with the consideration and respect that they deserved, and we accordingly decided to bring the matter to a close on Friday last” (19).

Of course, this was not the only treasure hunt organized by a newspaper – the succes was copied aroun Europe. Nor was it the first one. According to Slade that honor falls on a weekly magazine called Tib-Bits. Theirs was a more intellectual one and as the one run by Weekly Dispatch was prompting unwanted interest from the authorities, they decided to make their puzzles less pervasive.

Readers would get another serialised story full of clues to hidden booty, but this time be asked to mark its location on a printed map. The first reader to send in a map marked in the right place would get his prize through the post. […] Real-world treasure hunts, the paper had concluded, caused too many headaches.

Posted by: Montola | July 29, 2010

Invisible Masterpieces?

In his essay in Pervasive Games, Frank Lantz talks about masterpieces and pervasive games: Where is the Citizen Kane of pervasive gaming? Washington Post gave one answer in Pearls Before Breakfast: They had the violin virtuoso Joshua Bell play on a Washington D.C. metro station.

In preparing for this event, editors at The Post Magazine discussed how to deal with likely outcomes. The most widely held assumption was that there could well be a problem with crowd control: In a demographic as sophisticated as Washington, the thinking went, several people would surely recognize Bell. Nervous “what-if” scenarios abounded. As people gathered, what if others stopped just to see what the attraction was? Word would spread through the crowd. Cameras would flash. More people flock to the scene; rush-hour pedestrian traffic backs up; tempers flare; the National Guard is called; tear gas, rubber bullets, etc.

As it happens, exactly one person recognized Bell, and she didn’t arrive until near the very end.

As pervasive games are ephemeral, invisible, selective of their audience and require a lot of literacy, who would even notice a masterpiece?

This is certainly topical, considering that Conspiracy for Good used street musicians as gameplay elements (3:35) just last weekend. I wasn’t there, but I assume that non-players had as much trouble appreciating them as Washington commuters had enjoying Bell’s performance.

Conspiracy for Good had one solution to the problem of invisibility, though: How about an all-singing, all-dancing bollywood performance? A glimpse here (0:48):

Obviously, a bollywood number doesn’t turn a game into a masterpiece, but Bell’s experience gives food for thought: What’s the point if no-one notices? Extensive film documentation in the style of Conspiracy for Good — and The Amazing Race — is one solution, but it also poses a new question: Who is the true audience, the player or the spectator?

PS. Washington Post also had a very good methodology for catching the unawares:

Picarello was stopped by a reporter after he left the building, and was asked for his phone number. Like everyone, he was told only that this was to be an article about commuting. When he was called later in the day, like everyone else, he was first asked if anything unusual had happened to him on his trip into work. Of the more than 40 people contacted, Picarello was the only one who immediately mentioned the violinist.

That’s my new number one favourite method.

I am currently employed by Nokia Research Center, and conduct research on Conspiracy for Good.

Posted by: Montola | July 27, 2010

Come Out and Play 2010

Gentrification: The Game by Atmosphere Industries

David Fono, of Atmosphere Industries, is our correspondent at Come Out and Play festival. He gave his take on it for us again!

This was my second year attending CO&P, and my second year participating as a designer, volunteer and player. One thing I’ll say about this festival: there’s certainly a lot to immerse yourself in, if that’s your bag. This year they featured a fairly staggering 40 games over 48 hours. Last year I felt somewhat guilty about not playing more of the games, but this year I sort of accepted the reality.

Even as a designer of street games, I often forget that they involve a fairly significant overhead in terms of time and energy for players. A one hour game can easily expand to three hours when you include: a) getting there, b) meeting up with friends and figuring out exactly what’s going on, c) the inevitable organizational hiccups that come from running events in public space, and d) sitting down, having a drink, and recovering after spending an hour doing something that was probably pretty exhausting. Add in all the usual odds-and-ends implicated in maintaining a human existence, and you’re looking at catching maybe a dozen of those 40 games; and that’s if you’re trying really hard, and don’t have anything else to do. But this may be a problem limited mainly to maniacs who travel internationally specifically for the festival.

Moreso than last year, I definitely got a feeling of attendance from local residents who were just looking for something interesting to do. It’s worth noting that last year the festival was largely based in Times Square, because being in Brooklyn this time presented a real contrast. As a local I spoke to noted, no one actually ever goes to midtown Manhattan; there’s too many people there. The location last year was electrifying, and I was initially disappointed by the movie this year. On the surface, running or playing a street game in Times Square seems grandiose and thrilling. Yet Brooklyn seemed to have a more receptive atmosphere.

Field Crumpets

Certainly there appeared to be a lot more parents and children, and I felt there were higher numbers in general. It was certainly something to see people sign up for games on the opening night (last year, signups were online); some of the games hit well over 100 names and spawned massive waiting lists. What’s more, some games that played very well in this year’s environment, such as our own, probably wouldn’t have been possible to pull off in last year’s. I think a lot of people who dream about creative public space interventions dream about imposing crowds in monumental locations, but there’s a lot to be said for the opportunities that quiet spaces and friendly people create.

So, the logic behind moving around a festival like this has been made clear to me. I quite loved Brooklyn, but I’m hoping next year they’ll go somewhere else new and interesting.

The opening party this year was pretty noteworthy for the very smart decision to pack in a lot of short, indoor games; the space was bustling, despite it being about 150 degrees. A couple of games stood out for me. Human Asteroids must have been very fun to play, but was probably even more fun to watch: within a darkened auditorium, both a (human) spaceship and (human) asteroids were lit up with glowing white wiring/tubing, to make them look just like the videogame when viewed from above. A really smart use of very basic technology to create a fairly arresting effect.

Mary Mack 5000 was the only game I actually managed to play, because it was so overwhelmingly clever, and also because the lineup was short. We’re talking about a childhood clapping game done up like Guitar Hero, complete with pressure-activated gloves and a hard rock version of a standard schoolyard rhyming song. It might not be a “pervasive game”, but it’s certainly something. The game was, unfortunately, interrupted by technical problems, which I only mention because it’s a helpful reminder that innovative games with sophisticated technology tend to always go wrong, somehow, sometime, somewhere.

The big draw of the night was clearly Countersquirt, which I certainly wanted to play, but darn if it I wasn’t about #52 on the waiting list. Which I only mention because it’s a helpful reminder that at the end of the day, nothing draws a crowd like a good old-fashioned water-gun battle.

The lineup throughout the weekend was fairly diverse, and represented a good mix of what pervasive games can be. In Radar Blip, I ran around in a field in the dark and avoided flashlights; In The One, I (mostly failed to) hunt down other players on the streets (with the context of a pretty awesome theme concerning alternate dimensions); in The Time Traveller’s Knife I wandered around a graveyard while reading and discussing alternative timelines (there’s just something about these alternate dimensions, people); and in Love’s Labour’s Lost I simply tried to pursue a secret gay love affair.

SCVNGR on iPhone

Another noteworthy aspect for me, this year, was a stronger corporate presence from sponsors. I mean “corporate” in an exceedingly loose sense here, referring specifically to sponsors like SCVNGR and Nonchalance, who are clearly very small and passionate organizations, but who made a pretty clear and concerted push to make themselves visible. I mean this in a good way, you understand. Both offered pretty cool prizes, and Nonchalance put on a remarkably well-produced pirate radio broadcast covering the whole weekend.

Now, CO&P is a pretty grassroots affair, and I think we’re all in a niche deep enough to keep us shielded from the spectre of mainstream success for the next few centuries. But what this looks like to me is some serious entrepreneurial efforts within the space of pervasive games, becoming increasingly a part of the community. Last we saw Seek & Spell and Gigaputt for the iPhone, but these were both essentially demos — compared to SCVNGR’s clear marketing effort to build awareness of their new brand, and the few million in venture capital behind it.

We’re clearly in the early days of this thing, and will be for a while I think, but it’s heartening to see these burgeoning efforts and their awareness of the grassroots scene as a big and relevant part of their domain. I’m really looking forward to seeing how things develop at future CO&Ps.

Thank you David! The report from 2009 is here.

Gentrification photo by Ceetap (CC), Field Crumpets by Sombraala (CC).

Posted by: Stenros | July 23, 2010

Action One Interaction

I was in London last weekend taking a look at Conspiracy for Good (by the way, that is the official name of the thing, the creative director confirmed it). I had a good time playing, but won’t get into the analysis yet as the game is still going on – and so is the research. Basically this Action One was a trasure trail leading up to an intense initiation ritual and a swat attack. In a way it also acted as a tutorial for the later parts.

The people behind the game have been doing a pretty good job of producing recap videos on what has happened. You can find the web stuff leading up to the street events on their site and the juicy bits of last saturday below.

I will say one thing about the design, though. This is a pervasive game that targets not just the usual crowd, but is aiming for a larger audience. It is a combination of a treasure trail with some puzzles, pervasive interaction and larp-like elements thrown in. Some of the participants just want to do the treasure trail and don’t really care about interacting with the ractors (i.e. interactive actors), whereas others love to play with the characters they have seen online and try to trick the security guards and so on (in the top . One elegant solution to this is that the participants got all kinds of hand-outs in the beginning of the game, all branded with the spira logo. They were told to hide the logos. What seemed to happen, though, was that the ones that hid the logos were not harassed (as much) by the actors as the ones who did not bother to hide it. The players also had wristbands that marked them as players, so in essence there were two levels on ludic markers: the I-am-a-player wristbands and the the I-want-to-play-with-other-people logo. A great way to establish multiple interaction patterns for different player types.

The second action happens this Saturday.

Posted by: Montola | July 8, 2010

The Conspiracy Hits London

Mark down the dates, Londoners, Conspiracy for Good is coming to town. Four Saturdays in July and August with six hours marked for play, followed up by secret parties for the participants… I’m grounded in Finland, but that’s no excuse for you to not find out what The Company P and  Tim Kring and others have cooked up.

Join us in massive diversions, dodge security guards and surveillance. Find clues in the streets. Bring down the greedy Blackwell Briggs. Sign up for a series of Saturday spectacles in July and August. It is all free of charge.

Apparently you have to register to the events, so I now is the time to sign up for Action One — it takes place on the Saturday of the next week!

These guys did Prosopopeia, Momentum, and Sanningen om Marika: If you live in London, you should treat this a once in a lifetime opportunity. Or how many games of this magnitude you think they’ll make in your hood?

I am currently employed by Nokia Research Center.

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