Of shoes and ships and sealing wax

and a game you’ve never heard of

By now, we’re tired of hearing about people strolling enthralled as their phones tally small, monstrous actions, tired of worrying over compromised email servers, and debating whether or not it is objectionable for someone’s physical security to be endangered by casually walking around outside. But enough about American politics.

Six years ago I made a game to test a hypothesis about gift culture. One of the many location-based games that preceded Pokémon Go, my Galvanize was more of an art project, a working prototype in the app store inspired by experiments and showpieces commissioned for telcos and other global companies created at independent game studios that ingeniously made the parameters of the then-latest phone models a feature, not a bug. In 2010 everyone in the field seemed to know, or know of, each other and be focused on solving for the big question with any game: is it fun? The various names and subgenres in this game category sound similar and have almost overlapped in the past couple decades, but mainly it’s been: big games, urban games, pervasive games, alternate reality games (ARGs, usually with a fictional narrative, often dystopian), and augmented reality games (AR, extra information layered over the world). The current nerd fight, as I understand it, is whether AR needs to generate that extra information layer dynamically to qualify (Go wouldn’t yet, in the dynamic view of the argument). Again, the distinctions only matter if many multiples of people are playing your game. Because it’s fun.

Screens to streets, designers have been bringing realness to games for years, and in the past month, game realness has collided with reality as Pokémon Go rolled out globally. For the first time, an elastic magic circle of roving location-based game players has critical mass — they can identify fellow players on the street! Gameplay is continuous and (sparsely populated in some areas but) unbounded. Commercial entities beyond the game title’s author are showing profits by directly participating, or rewarding players who lure players on their behalf (local businesses want foot traffic, preferably at this very moment, not another review site to monitor and maintain). We may finally see if a location-based game can scale over time, and since catching them all is just one way to build, the games that follow Go’s success and future Go versions may imagine different play-worlds, perhaps like some of the play-worlds that have come before.

It’s always interested me that games using wireless handheld devices came to be in years coinciding with cities like New York coming out of decline. Many of these games require the population density that cities excel at, as well as an aesthetic that fixed objects (buildings, street hardware) are blank obstacles to route around. Niantic, the company behind Pokémon Go and Ingress, is named for a whaling ship originally built to carry the teas and silks of China that was later run aground in Gold Rush San Francisco, burned and buried and partly recovered in 1978 from the infrastructure sediment of a city perpetually sluiced with seekers. Like the ship, games played through devices on streets trade in dear commodities (historically: fragrant, foldable, currently: attention, time).

Galvanize, iOS, 2010. Illustrations by Chris Bishop.

The idea for my Galvanize game, I still dream about it, was to take a simple mechanic of hide/find and add push notifications. A player hides a physical gift for you in a neighborhood and leaves a text hint in the app. You receive an SMS notification with a link that opens a map inside the app. You find the gift and add a photo of the gift to the app. Galvanize was geocaching — that glorious global directory of hidden “caches” at specific geocodes varying in size from glitter vials to tubs of rubber duckies — skinned for a two-player setting. (Much of my thinking for Galvanize started in conversation with my friend Ethan Zuckerman — he explains the joy of geocaching beautifully.) In theory, having Galvanize rely on private messaging instead of a public grid to motivate players to move would mean anywhere remote or urban was an interesting location to play, and you could trust your (known) giver to secure an appropriately safe hiding spot. As a woman who often walks alone on city streets, I couldn’t test the game without thinking about safety. I also wanted everyone to be able to play — our characters were drawn by the talented Chris Bishop so that buttons clarified how to use the app to players of all ages (and those who weren’t English readers/speakers).

Like wax-sealed correspondence, the gift details in Galvanize were communicated privately, but the gift itself was hidden in a public space. The map, then, needed all possible detail, and one of the difficulties of building location-based games in 2010 was the four levels of specificity possible in Apple maps, each closer map level a heavier ask. So much (too much, probably) depended on clever hiding and hinting for Galvanize to work. The action required to take your turn was cerebral: look until you see the gift in front of you. Did the giver calibrate for the ways you do and don’t see? Will you consider, rightly, how they would hide something for you? How well do you and the giver really know each other? Games are at the edge of language because their design triggers impulse, and we take strategic or reflexive actions. My secret hope was that Galvanize could show a reciprocal loop, a gift recipient more likely to hide a gift for their giver. Games allow us to visibly acknowledge our biases, that our actions affect others in a system. We never quite figured out the fun loop for the game, but it’s become my professional work to find and reciprocate audience messages.

danah boyd has written and researched thoughtfully about social steganography with teens, describing the ways they hide messages for their friend groups in plain sight of their parents on social accounts. Galvanize could hide messages in plain sight in plazas, doorways, and parks because no one but the recipient knew there was a gift to be uncovered. I spend a lot of time in dark sky regions to remember that even when I can’t see them, all those stars exist. Everyone used to ask me if Galvanize was a scavenger hunt. We’re measuring the strength of your attachment to another person instead, I would reply. Scavenger hunts are wonderful games gathering volumes of miscellany, while treasure hunts like Galvanize are focused pursuits, with personal stakes and precious rewards. We’ll need the lessons from both, alongside the collected wisdom from the early years of location-based games, to play ourselves into the future.

Golden geocoins out to Karen Barbarossa, Jason Oberholtzer, Alice Daer, Kevin Slavin, Margaret Rosas, Mike Xu, Aaron Taylor-Waldman, Ben Hammersley, Cameron Nordholm, Ethan Zuckerman, and Chris Bishop.