How to Make Pervasive Games Safer
June 17, 2014 - Blog
Given the dangers inherent in many pervasive games, here are a few guidelines to help game designers mitigate the physical and psychological risk factors in their games. Exactly how to do this differs from game to game, but there is a “toolbox” of practices that fall under four broad categories:
- Playfully restoring the magic circle.
- Designing for emergence.
- Designing for Murphy’s Law.
- Playing in the player’s shoes.
Playfully Restore the Magic Circle
Many of the challenges in pervasive game design stem from the very thing that makes such games unique: the expanded magic circle. Addressing those challenges will involve playfully restoring the magic circle. The point is not to turn pervasive games into traditional games, but simply to make the magic circle more visible in certain key places.
The simplest way to do this is through the use of ludic markers – symbols or signifiers that show players and non-participants that what is happening is a game. Ludic markers are sensory stimuli that act as embodiments of the boundary of the magic circle. These ludic markers could be as simple as a badge worn by players or as subtle as a certain phrase or password that players can use to identify one another. Common ludic markers are gaming equipment clearly recognized as such, or obviously playful costumes or movements.
Games that involve benign or socially acceptable behaviors have a lessened need for ludic markers, however, where game behaviors are more socially unacceptable or potentially dangerous, the appropriate use of ludic markers can be essential. For instance, the game Cruel 2 Be Kind is variation of Killer in which players’ weapons are kind words and the “assassinations” are accomplished by giving another player a compliment. In this game, ludic markers are not needed, and would actually lessen the fun of the game, as players must discover who else is playing by complimenting strangers until they stumble upon a fellow player. In this scenario, the worst that could happen if players include a non-participant in the game is that a stranger gets a compliment.
Anti-game markers are also key tools in the pervasive game designer’s toolbox. The ability to denote certain places, times, or people as decisively not being part of the game can mitigate the dangers associated with players treating non-game elements as if they were part of the game.
Indexicality refers to the congruence between an object and its meaning in the game. For example, in the game Killer a highly indexical weapon would be a toy gun, whereas a banana is a weapon with low indexicality. In the former, a toy gun represents a real gun. In the latter the gun is represented by food, an object that does not naturally suggest violence. Low indexicality can suggest play. No one will call the police if they see a player brandish a banana at another player, whereas they might if they mistook a toy gun for a real gun.
In games where there is agreement between game behaviors and behaviors that are acceptable in normal life, high indexicality might not be a risk factor. For example, if in a scavenger hunt a player’s task is to take a picture of another person, as opposed to taking something out of that other person’s bag, there is less risk that action will be interpreted negatively by bystanders.
Design for Emergence
It is not possible to eradicate emergence in pervasive games without removing the very thing that makes them pervasive, but there are strategies game designers can implement to reduce emergence or mitigate any harmful unintended consequences.
The most straightforward way limit emergence is to restrict the game by creating social, temporal, and spatial boundaries. The more limited the game area becomes within these boundaries, the fewer variables there are for game designers to attempt to control. Boundaries clearly communicate to players when the magic circle stops and the non-game world begins again. If the game ends at sundown, if only coworkers are playing, or if the game boundaries extend only to the edge of the park, designers can focus their attention on a limited range of people, places, or times within the boundaries of the game, reducing the likelihood that something unaccounted for will cause problems during the game.
Control and Monitor
The challenge for game designers in dealing with emergence is to address it in ways that do not adversely affect game play. Technology has furnished game designers with tools to control and monitor their games in unobtrusive, but nearly comprehensive ways. For example, the low cost and ubiquity of GPS tracking applications has enabled game designers to continuously monitor the exact location of each player. In a game like The Beast, where much of the game play happens online, the game organizers were able to read the publicly posted message threads to learn exactly what players were saying and adapt accordingly. Video and audio recording devices enable designers to know as much about player activity as they would if they were playing the game alongside them. In general, the more game designers know about the details of the game, the better, with the caveat being that players should always be made aware of the ways they are being monitored.
In games that involve a great degree of spatial or temporal expansion, checkpoints can be helpful tools to keep tabs on the game and on players. These checkpoints could be periodic phone calls or text messages players are required to send to the game organizers, or certain locations at which they must check in to be able to continue playing. Checkpoints such as these bring progressive elements into an emergent setting and serve to rein in the emergence without being detrimental to game play.
Design for Murphy’s Law
Murphy’s Law states that what can go wrong, will go wrong. If there was ever a medium in which Murphy’s Law holds sway, it is pervasive games. Game designers should have as complete a picture as possible of what could possibly go wrong in any given scenario, and should work backwards from the worst possible scenario, shoring up areas where the greatest possible problems might arise. If handled properly, Murphy’s Law teaches a worst-case mentality that can be just one more tool in the design toolbox for pervasive game designers, resulting in better, safer games.
Know When to Kill an Idea
Many potential problems can be identified and addressed in the design process. However, there are situations in which the worst possible scenario is still possible, even when careful attention to detail has been given. In cases like these where the potential risk to players remains despite the game designer’s best efforts, organizers should consider killing the idea. Knowing when an idea is too risky is an imprecise calculus, but when in doubt, game designers should err on the side of caution.
In the Veritas Treasure Hunt, a pervasive game that took place on the campus of the University of Missouri, a clue was placed in an attic of a campus building. This attic space could be reached by climbing a 20-foot ladder and pushing aside a ceiling panel. During the treasure hunt, a player stepped between the rafters of the attic while searching for the clue. The player caught herself before falling completely through the floor of the attic, but a part of the ceiling collapsed into the empty classroom below. The height of the ladder, the unsure footing in the attic, and the chance that if the ceiling fell, someone might be injured in the classroom below, were all factors that should have disqualified the attic from being used in the treasure hunt.
Always Notify the Relevant Authorities
Because pervasive games are played in the real world, they often take place in areas, whether public or private, for which someone else is responsible, usually a non-player. Game designers should make every effort to notify the relevant authorities whenever possible. If a game takes place in a museum, the museum’s security guards should know what is happening; if a game takes place in a park, the park service should be notified; and so on.
Don’t Break Laws
Pervasive games should never involve the breaking of laws as a part of game play. In addition to being best practice in terms of ensuring player safety, it also reduces the emergence of the game in a positive way because players will know that if they want to do something against the law that it is definitively not a part of the game.
Give Players a Ripcord
Players and bystanders should always be able to refuse an invitation to play the game, as well as be able to step out of the game at any time. This is important for pervasive games in a unique way, as the social expansion of pervasive games can make it unclear when a player is playing a game or not. There are times when for safety or clarity reasons players will need to definitively signal to the other players that they are stepping outside of the magic circle and games should have easily recognizable ways of allowing them to do this.
Play in the Player’s Shoes
Designers have to play the game in players’ shoes, as it were, and to extensively test every inch of game play in every possible scenario. Designers need to experiences firsthand the details of the game from the inside and pass the game through several iterations as the bugs of the game are worked out. A game is not ready until designers have answers to the basic questions of game play in the precise conditions players will experience. What does it feels like to play? What are the potential dangers in the environment in which the game takes place? How does the game impact players psychologically? How physically taxing is it? How do bystanders respond?
Game objects suggest their proper use by their structure. Designing for affordance means integrating objects into the game that clearly suggest what the players should use them for, and ensuring that that use is an ethical one. To the man with a hammer everything looks like a nail because the hammer has affords pounding; its design suggests its use. The lesson here for game designers is if they do not want players to pretend to shoot things, players should not be given toy guns, for example. Designers must understand how the game and the game objects will make players want to behave and factor that into the design process.
“Flow” is a phrase coined by Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi  to describe the “perfect” state where a players skills match the challenge facing him or her. This is the place where the player’s enjoyment and sense of accomplishment is highest. If a game is too difficult the players will feel frustration. If the game is too easy and the player’s skills exceed game’s difficulty, the player becomes bored. Flow is the sweet spot; designing for it is a key part of understanding the effects of the game on a player’s psychology and emotions.
 Markus Montola, Jaakko Stenros, and Annika Waern, Pervasive Games: Theory and Design (Morgan Kaufman, 2009), 203.
 Ian Bogost, How to Do Things with Videogames (Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2011), 120.
 Montola, 84.
 Milhaly Csikzentmihalyi. “Beyond Boredom and Anxiety.” The Experience of Play in Work and Games. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1975.)