The beginning

I recently took a walk out into a park less than ten minutes down the road from my home. We’ve lived here about a year and I’d never even set foot in that park, never mind found what turned out to be miles of wooded footpaths hidden round the back of people’s houses in the middle of a city.

That got me thinking, what can be done to help people discover these unknown pieces of the urban landscape? The hidden footpaths, historic monuments just off the beaten track, and unexpected views.

And that led to me to thinking about alternate reality games (well, that, and the huge Pokemon Go craze that’s sweeping the planet), and how they can be used to help people connect with the world around them. I’ve always like the idea of Ingress and Pokemon Go, and enjoy a spot of Geocaching when I remember it exists. I bounced off both Ingress and Pokemon Go pretty quickly, I think at least partially because they don’t actually feel integrated with the actual world, they really just use it as a glorified game controller. What I wanted was the physicality of Geocaching with the gamification and friendly competition of Ingress.

So here I am, starting the process of building the game I wanted to play. The overall concept is pretty simple, throughout the world will be markers of some form, probably QR codes initially because they’re easy to work with, although I’d love to use NFC for that extra bit of physicality. By scanning the marker with the Traverse app you’ll claim it for yourself, and start accruing points for your team as you retain possession. If it had a previous owner, they’ll be notified, and they might just come out and take the marker back again. That’s really all there is to it. Go out, claim markers, acquire points, and hopefully discover some nice places in the process.

Quite how I make that happen is a question I still need to answer. There are several things that I need to work out:

  1. The technology side — (potentially several) mobile app(s), backend, QR scanning, all that stuff. I’ve not done a mobile app of this nature in anger before, but I write software for a living, so this bit is at least a somewhat known quantity.
  2. Seeding the world with markers. I can place some around places as I travel around myself, but that’s going to leave the game very specific to a few bits of Southampton, an area around London Waterloo station, and a circle around work. That doesn’t sound hugely compelling. My initial thought is to try and rope a few students into seeding markers around universities, and maybe see if I can piggyback on the Geocaching community and persuade them to place markers on their caches.
  3. Dealing with cheaters. Every game of this nature has them. Having to actually scan a marker makes GPS spoofing less of a problem, but people will steal markers to prevent them being retaken, hack the mobile app to claim its taken points it hasn’t, and countless things I haven’t thought of yet. This and the next one are the most daunting problems, but thankfully ones that only really become an issue with scale. Maybe I’m being naive, but who can be bothered to cheat at a game no one plays?
  4. Ethics, and player safety. Raph Koster’s article “AR is an MMO” really struck me when I read it recently. By placing games and their players in the real world we risk encouraging the same toxic behaviours that are seen in online gaming in a physical space. How do I discourage people from deciding the best way to keep possession of their markers is to wait in ambush and then attack anyone trying to claim them, or even more sinister, from placing markers with the intention of luring people to a quiet back alley and mugging them? Again, this is largely a problem of scale, but it needs taking into consideration.

Hopefully I can find answers to these questions, and the time and motivation to actually build this thing, if only because I really want to play it in a world which is littered with markers in interesting places!

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