Two weeks ago I took part in a test run of games played in a movie theatre. The event was orchestrated by Kai Kuikkaniemi from Helsinki Institute for Information Technology who is writing his dissertation on games staged at the multiplex. Kuikkaniemi argues that as traditional celluloid film projectors are being converted into digital projectors, a new possible arena where games can be staged emerges. As many of the theatres are under-used during daytimes and weekdays, multiplayer games with a giant screen and individual handheld game controllers for each player might just be a more profitable niche to fill that timeslot. Kuikkaniemi envisions film theatre gaming as social playing, sort of like board gaming for groups larger than six.
There were about 15 of us playing the games. We shared the giant screen and each player had a hand held operator (new Nokia N-series phones). We tested two games, Galactic Trivia 3000 and Palm Beach. The first was a quiz game where we saw clips from films and then were asked questions about them. The game itself was fairly basic as quizzes go, but the fact that I was sitting in an audience of a big theatre with people I had never met before added an interesting layer: every time someone chose a wrong alternative in the multiple choice questions the phone played the sound of Jabba the Hutt laughing. It was surprisingly satisfying to hear other players fail. As a film buff I can very well see myself playing a version of Scene It! based on trailers before watching a film…
The second game, Palm Beach, was inspired by the board game Manhattan. On the screen we had a map of a city and during the turns each player would use their phones to try to build and take ownership of skyscrapers. After each turn we would see who succeeded and who failed on the screen. The game itself was fun and, well, addictive, but again the interaction in the audience was a central source of enjoyment. People would curse aloud when their plans did not work out, mock-complain about their ranking, and when they realized that they had made a mistake or tactical error they would shout in exasperation.
Neither one of these games is pervasive. Indeed, the whole concept of gaming in a film theatre is very unexpanded: the magic circle is quite concrete. Yet I find the interaction of the players who do not know each other in the darkened theatre interesting. (Neither of the games really took advantage of the physical closeness of the players, the theatricality of the film theatre or the possibilities for social interaction that they bring.) Also, as the game client can be installed on a normal phone, it would be possible to hide ludic content in the trailers or the film itself. The pervasive players equipped with the right devices could start following Jeanine Salla’s trail already in the theatre while most audience members are oblivious. Or get booted out by the other viewers who would be bothered by the people fiddling with their mobiles during the film.
Anyway, I must admit that I have been a bit skeptical about the whole idea of playing in a film theatre, but the two test games were fun enough to convince me that Kuikkaniemi might be onto something. I’m still not sure if I would pay for this type of gaming – or what the advantage of playing in a film theatre as opposed to at home. (Board gaming is again raising in popularity at least here in the Nordics and an increasing amount of gamer homes are equipped with a data projector, so these kinds of games could very well find their way to homes as well.) It seems to me that the strength of this kind of gaming would be either to take spectacular advantage of the big screen – or to build specifically on the social aspect of playing with strangers.