Posted by: Montola | September 16, 2009

Seek and Ye Shall Find!

Our second guest writer is Neil Dansey, based on his excellent talk at DiGRA 2009. He discusses ambiguity and context as design tools for pervasive games. Enjoy!

“June 14th. Sunday. I found another heart-shaped pebble, exactly like the others… A golden-yellow spangle was glued to the stone. I cannot solve the riddle, but I have a presentiment that it must be an omen… ‘So it is the Feast of the Sacred Heart today,’ thought I, and looked at my four stone hearts, rather impressed by this striking coincidence.”

It has often been noted that humans have a tendency to perceive sense in nonsense, perhaps as a miscalculation of probability, a poor understanding of randomness, oversensitive semantic networks in the brain or an intrinsic need for a meaningful and significant life. Either way, sometimes the result has such profound personal applicability that it creates an incredibly memorable and thrilling experience.

HorseShapedCloudThe passages such as the above (taken from August Strindberg’s Inferno) characterise the potential of apophenia, which Klaus Conrad describes as the unmotivated seeing of connections, accompanied by specific feeling of abnormal meaningfulness. For example, hearing satanic voices in backwards music, being on a winning streak at the casino, or seeing familiar faces in clouds.

Apophenia is the subject of the film The Number 23, in which Jim Carrey sees increasingly tenuous manifestations of the number 23 wherever he goes, inspired by a book he found about the significance of the number. It would appear that apophenia is closely related to creative interpretation, and from Peter Brugger’s cognitive neuroscience point of view, links have been drawn between apophenia and creativity. It is believed that they both rely on a disinhibition of associative-semantic processes, so if I say “red”, another person might think “yellow”, but a more creative person, with a more flexible semantic network, might make the extra leap and think “fire truck” instead.


The focus of my research is on games which facilitate creativity and/or apophenia in players. Apophenia and creativity, I believe, could lead to games which are more personal, expressive, ‘spooky’, and surprising.

Which brings us on to the subject of pervasive games.

Pervasive games, as discussed in Pervasive Games, are those which blur the boundaries of play in social, spatial or temporal dimensions, in order to make the game feel more real, more present, or more intense. At DiGRA 2009 I discussed the possibility of extending this definition to include an additional, contextual dimension, in order to facilitate creative and apophenic content.

Let me explain.

All games have rules. Rules generally limit player behaviour:

  • To particular places: “if the ball goes over the line, it doesn’t count”.
  • To particular times: “on your turn, roll the dice”.
  • To particular people: “the referee’s decision is final”.

It could also be argued that there is a behavioural aspect to rules, such that ‘at a particular place and time, a player must (or must not) perform a paticular action’. However, I would argue that actions are numerous spatial and temporal movements, grouped together for practical reasons to make it easier to understand. Remember, as opposed to the formal logic of the game, operational rules are written for the benefit of the players, and it is unlikely that players wouldn’t understand (or couldn’t quickly learn) the concept of rolling the dice, so the spatial and temporal adjustments involved therein are abstracted to an action.

Pervasive games mess around with the above limits, in order to create ambiguous situations. In ARGs and other crossmedia games, the players can expect game content across a variety of platforms, such as TV, internet, magazines, SMS, live events and regular mail. There is no clear distinction as to where the game ends, and therefore everywhere is potentially part of the game. Similarly, in extended larps such as Momentum, the extreme duration of the game means that players are forced to play while maintaining their everyday lives and routines. This means that the game is always ‘on’ and the players can expect to be playing at any time of day or night, for an unspecified amount of time. Thirdly, in Killer: The Assassination Game, players are not told the identity of their ‘killer’, so they have no idea who they need to avoid. Everyday actions by work colleagues arouse suspicion and players are forced to keep their guard up, even when it isn’t necessary.

I think the key theme here is ambiguity. The ambiguity of the boundaries of play means that players are not sure of the exact boundaries, so every time, everywhere, and everyone is potentially part of the game.

However, there is another type of ambiguity which I feel merits discussion with regard to pervasive games. Contextual ambiguity blurs the boundaries of meaning, leaving the players wondering “does this count?”. For instance, one of the tasks of the collaborative street game SF0 is for players to “go to a street corner of your choosing and wait for something fantastic to happen”. But what counts as “fantastic”? My idea of fantastic might be different from yours, but who is right? Are we both wrong?

SF0: Something fantastic is happening in a street corner -- pervasive game aficionados are waiting for something fantastic to happen!

The subjective nature of contextually ambiguous gameplay is that there can be conflicting opinions, so it would probably suit a more introspective style of play. But that doesn’t matter for games with creative, artistic or apophenic potential, as there is often not a ‘wrong’ answer. People have differing but equally valid experiences of the same game world, but that is fine. In fact, some games thrive on the comparison of player experiences and the inevitable discussion which results. In addition to SF0 there are the photography games that are found on websites such as Flickr, which provide the players with a contextually ambiguous ‘brief’ in order to facilitate creativity and, perhaps unintentionally, apophenia too.

Rules which incorporate contextual ambiguity are described in my latest paper as internally-validated. This means that no matter who defines the rules, the player is free to validate their input regarding whether or not they have met the requirements of the rules. If I honestly believe I have satisfied the rules, then that is good enough, no questions asked. The full discussion on distinctions between rule definition and validation, and between internal and external events, can be found in the paper.

In Ambiguity as a Resource for Design, William Gaver et al discuss the potential of contextual ambiguity to create thought-provoking products. By making our pervasive games more contextually ambiguous, not only can we take the game to the players, but we could also provide an experience which is unpredicatable, memorable, surprising, and above all, personal.

There are some potential pitfalls to this, however. If people perceive the ambiguity as lazy design or a cheap tactic, as some do with horoscope techniques, it might detract from the overall impact of the game (and indeed, this has happened in early studies of mine). At the moment I have two suggestions. The first is to mix up the ambiguity with specifity, such that rules can be taken both literally and metaphorically. Many of the tasks in SF0 could be taken literally – for example “eat a food that scares you”. However, a particularly creative player might eat something which symbolises a scary point in their life, documenting the symbolism in a poem for the other players to read. Both approaches are valid in SF0, but experienced players would tend to choose the latter because the process of completion becomes the most enjoyable part, not the end product. Indeed, players often strive to ‘schplank’ a task, providing such an unnecessary, but impressively creative, attempt at completion that it is almost impossible to beat.

The second suggestion for avoiding the problem of ‘obvious’ ambiguity is to use players who are purported to bias their resolution of ambiguity towards meaning rather than noise: followers of astrology or religion, for example. There is a theory that some people have a stronger inherent hunger than others for meaning and significance in their lives, such that there must be an explanation for everything, therefore life isn’t as futile as it first would appear. This transcendental temptation, then, provides them with the faith that life is governed by god, fate, the stars, or even conspirators, and therefore at least someone knows what’s going on and can explain why we go to work every day for little spiritual recompense. That is not to say that the transcendental temptation marks people as more gullible and less intelligent than others, or vice versa. In fact, Paul Kurtz notes that it is often “intellectuals or quasi-intellectuals” who experience the transcendental temptation via religious superstition and the like.

The transcendental temptation is particuarly evident in the film Pi, where the protagonist, a mathematical genius, becomes obsessed with seeing numbers in everday life, and is convinced that numbers hold the key to the universe, such that events can be predicted and chaos explained. He suffers from severe paranoia, and although it isn’t stated in the film it is speculated by critics that he has some form of schizophrenia or social anxiety disorder. A common symptom of schizoprenic disorder? Apophenia.

The success of Momentum rituals was largely based on players' own perception on whether they did a good job or not. The parade-demo-ritual in Stockholm old town was a major success.

It should be noted that I’m not trying to propose that contextual ambiguity is new in games, or that I have uncovered a new sub-genre of pervasive game. Indeed, pervasive games sometimes feature elements of contextual ambiguity (Uncle Roy All Around You, the Prosopopeia games), and there are also games which feature mainly internally-validated rules or contextual ambiguity as a core gameplay mechanism (SF0, Flickr games, The Game). I am just highlighting an area of games research which I believe merits more discussion than it is currently receiving. Although, it could all just be apophenia.

Neil Dansey is a PhD Student at the Advanced Games Research Group, School of Creative Technologies, University of Portsmouth.

See The Cloud Appreciation Society for more clouds. SF0 photo courtesy of Cate / Jane McGonigal (CC). Momentum photo by Jaakko Stenros.


  1. […] Seek and Ye Shall Find! « Pervasive Games: Theory and Design – view page – cached Our second guest writer is Neil Dansey, based on his excellent talk at DiGRA 2009. He discusses ambiguity and context as design tools for pervasive games. Enjoy! — From the page […]

  2. When you Neil told about SF0 in DiGRA, I became an instant fan — just add water. The only reason it’s not everywhere in the book is that it somehow slipped our radar. Awkward, I know, since Jane McGonigal for instance discusses it in some of her stuffs. (For once she failed to direct my eyeballs on something insanely cool.)

    Curiously, I have proposed a vaguely similar ideas in umphteen workshops in the last few years. Less ambiguous, but equally hilarious. I mean — eating in a three Michelin star restaurant is greatly underrated as a game element.

    Gotta write a longer blog entry on SF0, as an excuse of not having it listed in our case studies…

    – Markus

    PS. Looking for the photos for this blog entry, the one from the SF0 was literally the first one that hit my screen.

  3. By the way — not all internally-validated rules are ambiguous. At least The Game mind game, which I just lost and you did too, has a very exact internally validated rule. I mean: when in doubt, you just lost the Game. :-)

    Then again, Killer uses both external and internal validation. I mean, if I want to use a poisonous spider toy to murder you, I may have to validate the murder weapon externally with the referees before using it. When you find it from your shoe, it’s your internal validation — more or less — deciding whether you died or not.

    It’s a very interesting theme, something I’ll definitely refer to in my PhD.

    – Markus

  4. I immensely enjoyed reading this and agree apophenia is fertile ground for further study. Thank you for sharing.

  5. […] PhD student at the University of Portsmouth explores whether apophenia and creativity could lead to games which are more personal, expressive, ’spooky’, and […]

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