The Art of Play: Real rules for location-based gaming

By Kellian Adams Pletcher

In location-based games, location is everything. Construction, a cold front or finals week could entirely derail you. A parade, an unusual character in a storefront or a sunny spring day could make your game the memorable, wonderful thing that people talk about for years.The video game Zelda will be the same Zelda in any environment- rain or snow, wind or hail. It’s the same game in Tucson with a group of college guys as it is for 11 year old girls playing in Alaska. Location essentially means “real world” and in the real world, whether you get wind, hail, college boys or teenagers all make a difference in how your day goes.

Boys in front of building

So how do you build for location? How do you respond to your location? It’s a little cliché and goofy to compare planning a game to planning a battle but with both, your outcome is directly connected to the context in which the event takes place. And so, I give to you, young grasshopper, time-tested wisdom on what to look for as you build real world games.

— — — — — — — — — — — — -

1. (Way) Purpose:

The most important thing is first to determine exactly what it is you’re trying to achieve with your game and what will constitute a success for you. What you want will shape how you build your game- and you want to be VERY specific about your goals.

Here are some suggestions of goals that work:

1. You want over 500 competitors to engage outdoors for very public and visible marketing.

2. You want to support a particular lesson plan. You want at least 5 teachers and their classes to be able to talk about the game together and write projects about it.

3. You want to engage at least 300 undergrads from a certain college or group of colleges during an event or season as part one of their student activities

4. You want something that is disruptive and generates buzz and media. How many people play, what they learn and how long they play is less relevant than how much press you get.

Here are some goals that really don’t work:

1. You want people to play and have fun

2. You want lots of people to be engaged and excited about it

3. You want to reach out to a tech-savvy demographic

The goals above are specific asks with action items that you can take to tailor the game to achieve your goal. The goals below are broad, over-simplified and generic so they lend you no structure in how to proceed with your game. You’re setting yourself up to be stressed-out and disappointed. Location-based gaming is a very surgical gaming tool. People will go exactly where you ask them. They will do exactly what you ask them to do. You should be extremely clear what you want that to be and what will constitute a success for you.

4 people creating shapes with their bodies

(Above: People participating in the Boston Swing Challenge)

2. (Heaven) Weather:

Weather is a very BIG little thing when it comes to location games so don’t underestimate it. Rain or snow can totally change your game just as a sunny day in spring can keep people outside for any length of time playing a game.

A good exercise is to spend a few minutes sitting at a café window and watch people from your region (or the region where you’re building). When it’s cold, do they look happy about it? (like in NH) or when it’s cold, do they bundle and hide? (like in Boston, Mass.) People in Portland, Oregon don’t seem to notice rain while if it rains in San Diego, Californians think the world is ending. Play off of people’s natural likes and dislikes and work with the weather rather than against it.

Players lying on stairs making the shape of the letters M F A

(Above: Players taking part in the Museum of Fine Arts SCVNGR trek)

3. (Earth) Gameboard:

A basic rule when building a location game is that the traveling- to-doing-stuff ratio should be really slim, like 2 to 1. For instance: 10 minutes walking, 5 minutes doing a challenge or something cool. Not 20 minutes walking or driving to answer 1 question that takes 30 seconds or could be answered on Google.

Keep a close eye to the capabilities of your gameboard. Lots of colleges around? College sports bowl game! Family neighborhood? School vacation game! If you’re running your game somewhere that people will naturally be busy and traveling through (like a train station or a science museum) run a timed, event game. If you have somewhere that people are sitting and waiting, (like an exhibit line or a sit-down restaurant), you can run something a little more casual where people can play when they feel like it.

Don’t run a tech-based game if there’s poor reception or no wifi. Make sure your players are playing in a place where they’ll feel welcome, not where they’ll get yelled at.

For a location-based game, always remember that your gameboard is the real world- NOT online. Don’t have challenges in a location game that players could answer by Google. People will resent being asked to traipse through the streets to play a game that they could have played in their living room.

4. (Generals) Community Leaders:

Being part of a big group outside is really fun. Playing alone outside in the real world is not quite as much fun. Groups are really what make games work (teams, friends, clubs) so you need leaders to help you approach those groups.

Pinpoint community influencers who will bring groups with them. School groups, church groups, universities, tweetups, sports teams, dance teams, events and companies will all enjoy having something new and fun to do with their group. To kick off your game, always personally invite existing groups and enlist the leaders of those player groups to help you. Don’t blanket market and expect people to show up by themselves to play. Once your game starts to get its own momentum and buzz, informal groups like friends and families will follow suit.

Lady mimicking the pose of a statue

(Above: The Doppelganger Challenge in the MFA SCVNGR Trek)

5. (Law) Game Management:

It’s really key that people come to a location-based game expecting to play with the technology to play and a general idea of the rules. It is extremely difficult to catch passers-by and this is why: Step 1 in a game is to figure out the rules but when people play games, one of these three things is the case:

• People already know the rules from childhood. (football, baseball, tag);

• People learn in a closed environment from other people who already know how to play (board games, card games);

• People are at home, by themselves and can learn the game slowly without anyone bothering them and without feeling too stupid. (video games, computer games, mobile non-location games).

Card advertising Go Smithsonian Trek

In a location-based game, often we surprise people when we ask them to play. (“Welcome to the museum! Would you like to try our game-based tour?) In this case, this game has totally new rules and the player has to learn them publicly and on-the-spot.

Sometimes the first thing people have to do is to admit that they don’t have the technology needed to play, which is a total bummer. Next, even if they do have the technology, they might not be savvy in running it. Also a total bummer. These things all need to be dealt with before the game player starts to play.

As a builder, you need to be proactive in showing people how to play your game before they even arrive. Make sure people know exactly what hardware is needed. Give them incentives to show up with the hardware pre- installed. Make sure there’s someone there to explain to them how to play or to answer questions. Signage is great. Directions cards are also great. Don’t leave people alone to be awkward with the game, you have to scaffold the learning so that it’s not a shock to them and they don’t feel stupid or have to say things like “oh, I have a dumb phone” or “I’m not a techie”. This makes people defensive from the get-go and they won’t want to play.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — —

In short: Going into a location-based game, you want to study and work with your environment. Notice what time of year it is, if there are students, if you have an internet connection, if there’s a lot of tourism and build WITH and not against those factors. It seems obvious, but it’s often neglected (and TEST, Test, Test, Test. Did I mention test?)

To close up, people always like to hear of types of games that succeeded and failed- and why. For your viewing pleasure, here are some examples (names have been omitted to protect the innocent) of games that were not as successful as people would like, and the reasons why:

Cross icon

A game where the distance between question 1 and question 2 was 9 miles! (Gameboard Fail)

Cross icon

A game across 5 lovely neighborhoods of Boston… in February. (Weather Fail)

Cross icon

A competitive location-based game with 350 locations. (Gameboard Fail)

Cross icon

A game that advertised only with social media and then attempted to capture any visitor’s attention at a desk as they came in to the museum. (Leadership Fail)

Cross icon

A beautiful location game via Facebook that asked people to do a very complicated series of things that nobody (myself included) entirely understood how to do or why. (Management Fail)

As well as some location-based games that totally succeeded because they addressed all of the 5 environmental factors:

Tick Icon

SCVNGR: Buffalo Wild Wings TableGate:

Tick Icon

The Luce Foundation: Ghosts of a Chance:

Tick Icon

Foursquare: The Neiman Marcus Challenge:

Tick Icon

DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum: Soundscapes by Halsey Burgund:

Go forth, young grasshopper, and build wonderful games!! (and test them.) Have fun playing!

Find out more about Kellian Adams Pletcher here…

Designer Psychology

Exploring the space between design and psychology

Kellian Pletcher

Written by

Designer Psychology

Exploring the space between design and psychology