Playable Cities: Kaia the Kākā

Photo Credit: Mary Hutchinson -

As a child, when I walked or cycled through my neighbourhood, I’d imagine fantastical worlds. Depending on the day (and the inspiration), houses concealed portals to alternative dimensions and dense bush was host to the late-night meetings of ninja sleeper-cells.

To be honest, I still imagine fantastical worlds as an adult — albeit less often and with slightly different narratives.

A world filled with imagination is a wonderful thing. As Terrence McKenna put it:

“The imagination is the golden pathway to everywhere.”

We now live in a world where magical tools like Google Maps and its human scale extension Street View, have allowed us to search and explore in ever increasing detail.

With the press of a finger we can find an address, an event, or explore the interior of a building through a virtual lens.

In 2016, the world was taken by the phenomenon that was Pokémon Go. As you may remember, hoards of people jumped aboard this hugely promising, but short-lived, augmented reality game based on one of the 90s and naughties best-loved franchises.

Leveraging the fantasies of fans under the age of 35, it caught on like wildfire. People were enthralled — glued to their phones from dawn til dusk. In large cities the following sight was common place.

People losing their shit over imaginary virtual characters

The game was an overnight success but over the next few months player numbers steadily dropped off. While the basic concept was great— catch Pokémon in the real world — the game had no ‘stickiness’. People were captivated by the idea that they could run around their neighbourhood and catch Pokémon, but unlike the original 2D adventure game that spawned the franchise, there was no narrative, no quest and no end game.

With nothing to play for except to catch ‘em all! and obtain higher gym rankings — people just stopped playing.

Full Disclosure: I played Pokémon Go when it was first released. I’ve since reintegrated into society.

A Wellington based organisation, the Nature through Arts Collective (NTAC), approached enspiral following the success of their project entitled, “Imagine My City”. A real-world event, delivered in collaboration with scientists, educators, artists, performers and local children between the ages of 7–11.

The project kicked off with a “Moa Hunt” — a real world adventure in Mount Cook where children were tasked with tracking down a wild Moa (played by an actor in a suit), aided by guides and misled by antagonists leading them off track. The event was a huge success, activating and engaging young people (and their parents) in the natural world through immersive narrative and sparking their ongoing engagement through a 100 Day challenge — inviting them to imagine and craft a vision for their city, culminating in an Art Exhibition attended by the Wellington mayor.

When NTAC approached us, they wanted to build on the success of this immersive event and extend the opportunity to others, allowing a wider set of people to participate. Our early conversations set the scene. If you haven’t heard about Nature Deficit Disorder, I’d recommend starting here. To summarise, as urban populations grow and our digital revolution takes hold, young people especially, are spending longer indoors, on-screens and out of contact with the natural world and each other. The impact this has on their well-being, health and feelings of connection are scary, to say the least.

Thanks friends :)

We worked together to understand what made this event magical. How could we take the best parts of this kind of ‘journey’ and expand on them to design enhanced experiences that would enable more children to engage with the natural world?

Long story short, we created “Kaia the Kākā”.

Through collaborative and iterative processes involving people from diverse backgrounds — including conservation, education, digital tech and kids — we created an interactive journey based in Central Park, Wellington. It attracted hundreds of adults and children over the course of a couple of months.

It follows the journey of a Kākā named Kaia who’s trying to find a safe place to raise her chicks, but…finds out that the park she’s chosen has rats!

Players navigate through the park finding locations, answering challenges and receiving virtual rat traps. To finish the journey users have to drop enough traps at the Kākā’s nest (one of the locations) and are rewarded for doing so.

All of this is delivered via Facebook Messenger using a combination of text and images and requires users to navigate the environment relying on wit and imagination.

Here’s what one of our users had to say:

“What a lovely adventure! We found new nooks and crannies in a park we’ve been to a million times before. We could hear the Kākā calling and our boy said “that’s Kaia!” It was a beautiful way to explore the environment.” ​- Kena Duignan, parent

Where next?

Kaia the Kākā is one example of what’s possible but the applications of this kind of technology are unlimited.

The potential for augmented ‘treasure hunts’, interactive storytelling and even ‘gamified’ customer acquisition are obvious but we’re really excited about how we can help people engage with each other and their environment through well crafted narrative and play.

  • What would it be like to visit a new city (or a familiar one) and realise that hidden adventures lay just beneath the surface?
  • How could we bring historical events and characters to life, just a step across from the visible world? Could we explore Tokyo as a time-traveler? Florence as a foreign merchant?
  • Can augmented journeys build more bridges between people and the interwoven web of life we’re a part of?

We’ve just started to scratch the surface. Will you join us on the journey?

We’re already building the next iteration of enhanced journeys. Reach out to if you’re interested in the intersection of narrative, play and the physical world

A BIG THANKS to everyone who made this possible: The Nature through Arts Collective, Artists Kemi & Niko, Lift Education, Upstream, Simon Tegg, Cassidy Abbott (Youth Ambassador), The New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO, Wellington Community Trust & Wellington City Council Arts & Culture fund & all of our early testers and supporters!