Digital maps as a tool to ‘Gamify’ Urban Places and Practices

Jordy Bossen (3551873) University of Utrecht Faculty of Humanities New Media & Digital Culture

Maps have always played an important role in the exploration of urban spaces. Now due to the rise of mobile interfaces and worldwide mobile internet connections people can connect to information spaces and digital maps while walking through urban spaces. In this way the physical space merges with the digital, which allows a whole new way of exploring and navigating urban places. This new way of exploration and navigation is strengthened by the use of digital maps. Nowadays we can see that there are distinct game elements embedded in to these digital maps. This article will therefore argue that digital maps are used as a tool to ‘gamify’ urban places and practices, in order to stimulate people to explore urban spaces differently. It will become clear that distinct game elements are merging in to our everyday life activities, which turns urban spaces in to a urban playground; the gamification of urban spaces.

Keywords: physical space; digital space; gamification; mobile technologies/interfaces; exploration; reward systems; digital maps; participatory culture; configuration.

Introduction Johan Huizinga was one of the first who analyzed the fundamental characteristics of play and has demonstrated the importance of its role in the development of civilization (Caillois 123). He typified culture as a form of play and described mankind as playful, or as he states: “[D]e speelse mens” (Huizinga 21). This idea of homo ludens has always been present within society, but is becoming more explicit through dispersive usage of communication devices within the postmodern era; ”[c]omputer games and other digital technologies such as mobile phones and the Internet seem to stimulate playful goals and facilitate the construction of playful identities” (Raessens 52). The postmodern culture “sees itself as play without transcendental destination” (Raessens, Homo Ludens 2.0 2). Elements of play are not just bound to computer games but are merging in to our daily life through the use of mobile technologies. These mobile technologies let us access hybrid spaces; “[h]ybrid spaces arise when virtual communities, previously enacted in what was conceptualized as cyberspace, migrate to physical spaces because of the use of mobile technologies as interfaces” (De Souza e Silva 261).


These mobile interfaces serve as a central hub to connect the physical space with the digital space, and due to worldwide mobile internet connections people can always connect to this hybrid space while walking through urban space, and as Raessens already argued these hybrid spaces and mobile technologies stimulate elements of play within our culture, also known as the ludification of culture. Nowadays we see a new phenomena arising; gamification. Gamification is a term for the use of video game elements in non-gaming systems in order to improve user experience and user engagement. We can see this phenomenon within mobile applications like Foursquare or Ghowalla. With the ludification of culture elements of play were stimulated, with gamification of culture video game elements stimulate a new way of interaction with our urban space. It transforms the urban space in to a sandbox game; it transforms in to a playground, the urban playground. This article will argue that the use of mobile interfaces and digital maps facilitate game elements in exploring and navigating urban spaces, which turns urban spaces in to a urban playground. By digital maps this article does not mean standard services as Google Maps, YaHoo maps, or Bing Maps, but focuses on crowd-sourced and geo-collaborated maps; open source or user-generated cartographic applications. These maps are forms of “emergent collaboration in which multiple people work together on a common project” (Crampton 95). Various case studies like Repudo, Serendipitor, Chromanoma, and SQVNGR will exemplify the argument this article is trying to make. Eventually it would become clear that distinct game elements, stimulated by mobile interfaces, are merging in to our everyday life activities. Digital Maps as a tool to ‘Gamify’ Urban Places and Practices In 1960 Kevin Lynch already stated in his book The Image of the City that cities can give a special pleasure, however common it may be. Every moment within the city has more than the eye can see, more than the ear can hear and more waiting to be explored. There is nothing within the city that “is experienced by itself but always in relation to its surroundings, the sequences of events leading up to it, the memory of past experiences” (Lynch 1). In experiencing the city the moving elements like people and their activities are as important as the stationary physical parts. People are not just observers, but are part of the city experience. Besides this important role of people Lynch already addressed the importance of environmental images; “In the process of way-finding, the strategic link is the environmental image, the generalized mental picture of the exterior physical world that is held by an individual” (Lynch 4). The city image is a product of both the immediate sensation and of the memory of past experience, and is used to interpret information and to guide actions. In the creations of these images the need to recognize and pattern the surroundings is so crucial that the image has wide practical and emotional importance to individuals which lead to a great social function of the city.

In this notion Lynch already addressed the importance of city images or maps in exploring or navigating urban spaces. The use of these images and maps is now even more ubiquitous, because people tend to make more use of digital maps due to the emergence of worldwide mobile internet connections and mobile interfaces equipped with GPS technology. These technological advancements have led to a wider range of different cartographic products, which can enable real-time interaction. Or as Latour argues that the experience we have of engaging with mapping is to log in some data bank which gathers information in real time through an interface (582).


Cartography has “moved the emphasis from static to dynamic map use, from discrete to distributed information provision, and from „wired‟ access to „wireless‟ access” (Cartwright 2).

Besides access to digital maps, people can now also develop their own maps. The producers and users of maps are not longer separated. Users can become producers of maps, which they can share with others in more contexts than ever before. The creation of maps, or cartography, has developed in two directions: “the refinement of the means to represent natural points of reference; and the depiction of multiple phenomena” (Cartwright 3). Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have enabled multiple user access in order to add human-oriented elements within maps; elements that highlight human and social aspects that reflect the basic goals of society. In this way a new and different form of maps arrived. Maps that really extended the technology in order to create a different way of presenting geographic information that changed geographical information access. These new forms of maps expand the channels of information available for users in order to compose individual mental maps or virtual worlds and thus “[…] making available artefacts that allow geographical information and the real world to be better understood” (Cartwright 4). In this way interactive maps give access to underlying data and metadata allowing users to link to other information and offering an enhanced spatial information resource, and can it stimulate new ways of exploring and navigating through urban spaces. According to Cartwright, Kuhn saw that, for mapping and GIS technology, strong spatial video game components could be useful. Or as Kuhn stated: “it seems tempting to further explore this kind of paradigm for GIS applications. In some sense, a GIS is like a toy world – a model of reality simplified to the point where users can play with it” (Cartwright 27). Kuhn‟s notion emphasises that mapping and GIS technology can, stimulated by game elements and interaction, change the way people explore and navigate urban spaces. But in order to understand what computer game design and interaction could offer, this article first will define the features and criteria of successful games and game-style interactivity. One of the more concise definition of games comes from Jesper Juul: “A game is a rule-based formal system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable” (Juul 2003). Aldrich adds to this the interactive and engaging nature of games; a game is a “interactive and entertaining source of play, sometimes used to learn a lesson” (240). According to Erik Champion games also seem to have other typical features like challenging tasks, social embeddedness, physical embodiment, metaphorical rewards, and player feedback (348).

These mentioned elements combined with distinct game elements given by Raessens, King & Hrzywinska, Gazzard and Sutton-Smith will illustrate that they are also more and more embedded in to digital maps. By analyzing various case studies like Repudo, SQVNGR, Chromaroma, Serendipitor this article will illustrate that the exploration of urban spaces is subject to this new phenomena gamification

REPUDO.COM Repudo is a digital location based mobile tagging application. With Repudo users can drop all sorts of multimedia like text, photos, a video or an audio message at any location the user wants. In this Repudo allows


the user to drop digital objects in real-time in the physical world, or as they call itself: “Repudo brings perception of physical interaction with digital objects in the real world” (Homepage Repudo). Digital objects can therefore only be picked up by one mobile device. After it is picked up it will disappear from the digital map. It also cannot be deleted, in this way people can drop it again for other users. Repudo is also used as an urban-game. On 28th of May 150 digital „repudos‟ were tagged upon an a digital map of Amsterdam. A few digital repudos were packed with an iPad 2 or Galaxy tab. In order to get one of these devices people physically had to explore and navigate, though the use of the digital map, the city to crap the digital repudo with their mobile device. Once a repudo was picked up it disappeared from the digital map. By physically showing the digital repudo to the referee the player could get his iPad2 or Galaxy Tab. In this we see clearly the merge between the physical and the digital space. In order to play the game a location based mobile interface and digital map is needed to eventually explore the urban space in search for a digital object.

Looking at the game elements embedded within Repudo we can see some clear distinct elements. First the physical embodiment is clearly visible. Though the avatar can be seen as the physical user itself, there is a clear digital representation of the user; it‟s represented as a dot or arrow on the digital map. In this way the user can explore the urban space by using his digital representation in order to complete his clear task: finding the correct repudo to eventually receive his reward. Secondly there is a clear social element embedded within Repudo, because there is a sense of other players, the possibility to complete tasks and the necessity in taking various actions. But Repudo is also a good illustration of Rüdstrom‟s notion of social space; the merge between the physical and digital space in order to connect people with each other by geographical positions (5). The digital information that can be attached, through the use of Repudo, on the physical world is not focused on the position of the user itself, it is focused on the connection between users, which stimulates the construction of a social space. Finally the player‟s feedback is given to him through the mobile interface which registers all his actions in real-time. Physical actions are registered within the digital space.

SQVNGR.COM SCVNGR is a location based mobile platform that stimulates users to discover new places where they can do challenges to earn points, which they can share with friends. By earning points users can unlock badges and even unlock rewards in the physical space. SCVNGR sees itself as a game and a massive experiment in building a mobile game together. They want to build a game layer on top of the world. In realizing this they build a powerful platform which can be accessed by downloading the application on a smart phone. SCVNGR provides users a high-tech game-based exploration through urban spaces.

In using SCVNGR users can create a new perception of space due to the use of mobile interfaces (De Souza e Silva 261). It blur‟s the borders between digital and physical spaces in order to change the abstract physical city in to a social urban playground. This playful experience is created by the use of distinct game-based characteristics, which create, as Raessens calls it, a participatory culture (Raessens 380). First we can discover the element of reconfiguration which entails the exploration of the unknown. In using SCVNGR people can explore and experience the physical known at the same time they explore and experience, by using a mobile interface, the digital unknown. This digital unknown can be explored by winning interactive tasks that are


focused on the physical objects within the urban space. In this way the user builds a digital world to understand the physical world of the city (Raessens 380). A digital playful layer is embedded within the physical space to create a participating active attitude towards the exploration and experience of urban spaces.

The second game element is configuration. Configuration can be understood as the making of new games (Raessens 381). The creation of new games occur within the so called social interface (De Souza e Silva 260), because SCVNGR provides a second game layer, namely the competition between different SCVNGR users. These users can compete with each other by challenging each other to achieve as much points they can get. In this way they can challenge each other by visiting different urban places were they can try to win various challenges in order to achieve as much points to unlock real-life rewards (physical merges with digital). These type of rewards can be, according to Allison Gazzard, called as rewards of glory; “all the things you‟re going to give to the player that have absolutely no impact on the game play itself but will be things they end up taking away from the experience” (Gazzard 2011). Rewards of glory allow players to discuss an experience and asses their progression which can create a social dimension to the „gameplay‟.

CHROMAROMA.COM The technology used by people pervades most things we do. With the use of mobile phones, smart cards, blogs, social networks, Flickr, and Twitter people are creating endless content and data trails as they journey through urban spaces. Chromaroma uses similar types of endless content and data in a game that shows the movements and locations of users by visualizing their trails which they have left in using public transport. By checking in their Oyster Card physical journeys become visible within the digital space. In this way it can connect communities of people who cross paths and routes on a regular basis, and encourage people to make new journeys and use public transport in a different way by exploring new areas and potentially using different types of public transport. People can watch their own travel details by which they can investigate new ways of traveling and finding out new exciting destinations in order to achieve more points. In this we can see Brain Sutton-Smith‟s notion of play. He states that: “Travel can be a playful competition to see who can go to the most places or have most authentic encounters” (Sutton-Smith 299). Besides earning these points users can also grab „multipliers‟ and earn bonus points by working in teams, building up connections with fellow passengers and discovering mysteries that are attached to locations on various routes. So users have to set records, earn achievements, and go on real missions. Here we can see, even better than SQVNGR, two reward systems; rewards of glory and more or less rewards of access. By earning as much points users can unlock achievements which they can share with other users in order to create a social connection (rewards of glory). In unlocking rewards of access people can get access to new digital spatial locations or digital places which they can explore by searching within the physical world (Gazzard 2011). By unlocking an access reward within Chromaroma users can get access to new rewards within the digital space, but it can also open up new options in ways of travelling through the physical urban space.

In looking at Chromaroma we see that digital data is visualized on a map and transformed in to a multiplayer urban game. By exploring urban spaces people can earn points and unlock various awards, in order to get more


points users are stimulated to explore urban spaces differently. In this we can see that distinct game elements stimulate people to explore urban spaces differently which transforms the urban space in to an urban playground.

SERENDIPITOR.NET Serendipitor can be seen as an alternative navigation app for the iPhone. It helps the user to find something by looking for something else. It combines directions generated by a routing service with instructions for actions and movements. Users can enter an origin or a destination and the app maps a route between the two destinations. In exploring this route the app gives suggestions for possible actions the user can take at a given location. In this way a normal efficient route from A to B is changed by stimulating users to undertake actions they wouldn‟t normally do during the exploration.

Looking at this example we can see a comparison in role-playing games. According to King & Hrzywinska roleplaying games have the greatest scope for exploration (111). Role-playing games often create large gamescapes in which players are considerably free to roam at will, and in which they can emphasize exploration over other activities, but not in an absolute way. Many game designs encourage a balance between exploration and activities instead of an exclusive focus. Exploration can be a substantial appeal for playing these games. Substantial within Serendipiton is the exploration of an urban space, but during this exploration the user is stimulated and enabled to take actions, which create a new way of exploring urban spaces. Conclusion This article argued that the rise of worldwide mobile internet connections and mobile interfaces changed the way people explore and navigate through urban spaces. In this exploration people tend to make more use of digital maps, which nowadays is no longer just a navigation tool but more or less an information tool that merges the physical space with the digital space. In analyzing various case studies this article made clear that more and more game elements are embedded in to these digital maps. By using these distinct game elements like goals and rewards, explorative and participatory game design, and configuration within digital maps people are more stimulated to explore urban spaces differently, connect with other users/players, and staying connected to urban spaces. In this way digital maps and mobile interfaces are used as a tool to „gamify‟ urban places and activities, which shows that distinct game elements are merging in to our everyday life activities; urban spaces are changing in to urban playgrounds.


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