What are Pervasive Games?

March 10, 2014 - Blog

When I tell people I am a game designer they immediately think video games or board games. The conversation might go like this:

Me: “I am a game designer.”
Them: “Oh yeah, like video games?”
Me: “More like tag.”
Them: “You play tag for a living?”
Me: “Sort of. More like I make up new kinds of tag. The technical term is ‘pervasive games’.”
Them: “Sounds weird. This is a job?”
Me: “Turns out it is.”
Them: “But they pay you? Money?”
Me: “Yes. But I accept tokens too.”
Them: “Tokens?”
Me: “It was a joke.”
Them: “Oh. Cool. Well I gotta go.”
Me: “See ya.”

So maybe this conversation never exactly happened, but the point is that in the world of games pervasive games (or social games, big games, live-action games, etc.) are in some sense the road less traveled. Even the most popular pervasive games are still underground phenomena, and while there is a nascent discussion in the academy it is still mountains to molehills when compared with the literature on other game genres. That being said, this post is an attempt to provide an everyman’s introduction to the wide world of pervasive games and lay out some of the basic concepts at work in every pervasive game.

The Magic Circle

Before describing the genre of pervasive games in detail, it will be helpful to introduce another identifying characteristic of games and a key concept in game studies: the magic circle. Johann Huizinga, considered the father of game studies,[1] first theorized about the concept of the magic circle:

All play moves and has its being within a play-ground… the magic circle… forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.[2]

Huizinga’s “magic circle” of play is a space in which the rules of the real world are suspended and the game rules hold sway. The magic circle is composed of the space and time in which a game takes place as well as the players who take part in it. The game Twister is a perfect illustration of the nature of the magic circle. The game is fun because, as it progresses, players become increasingly tangled with one another as they struggle reach each new colored dot, hence the name of the game. Outside of the game, one would never place one’s right foot on a red circle that happens to be so close to one’s friend’s head. In the social rules that govern our lives outside of play, this would be rude — and smelly. However, within the magic circle of the game of Twister, that is not a strange or offensive behavior at all—it is in fact the whole objective and fun of the game. Shazam! Behold the power of the magic circle.

Expanding the Magic Circle

Pervasive games are a subset of the broader category of games in which the magic circle is expanded beyond its usual boundaries, whether spatially, temporally, or socially. Though pervasive games have many names—big games, expanded games, transmedia games, ubiquitous games, mixed reality games, urban games, and so on,[3] I find the term “pervasive” best describes the unique feature of these games—the expanded nature of the magic circle. In pervasive games the boundaries of the magic circle are blurred and are made permeable, becoming a membrane that lets “game and life bleed together so that game becomes heavy with the reality of life, and life becomes charged with the meaning of the game.”[4] In short, the game pervades life and life becomes the game.

Spatial Expansion

In pervasive games the magic circle is no longer geographically limited to the game board, the field of play, or the game console as they are in traditional games. Rather, the boundaries of the magic circle can be as large as the whole earth or as small as the stamp on an envelope. The game “board” maps onto the real world in a way that embraces the environment and contexts within which the game operates.[5] The real world is appropriated for the purposes of the game; anything in the physical space in which the game takes place can be part of play.

A classic example of a pervasive game with high spatial expansion is the game Killer (also known as Assassin). In the most basic versions of Killer each player is given a target (another player) and a weapon, which in the expanded magic circle may be a squirt gun, a camera, a code word, a binder clip, etc. Finally, the player is given the task to find their target and “kill” them with the assigned weapon, all while avoiding another player who is in turn hunting them. When a player catches his or her target, the player then inherits that person’s target and the game continues until only one player remains. The fun of Killer is in the way it generates its own kind of paranoia due to its spatial expansion; every physical space is fair game. Players may be ambushed coming out of their houses, walking to the bathroom at work, crossing campus en route to their next class. Although most games of Killer are played with set geographic boundaries, those boundaries are sufficiently expanded to preserve the sense that “nowhere is safe,” which could just as easily be phrased at “everywhere is play.”

Temporal Expansion

Traditional games begin and end at clearly defined times. They start when all players are present with controllers in their hands or with the pieces arrayed on the board. They end when the console is shut off or the game board put back in the closet. Similarly, when people are playing traditional games they are not typically involved in other activities unrelated to the game. Though a player might pause the game to take a phone call, this action is an interruption of the game, which stops when the players stop playing. However, pervasive games can last days, months, or a lifetime, as is the case with an ongoing game of tag that ten friends have been playing together for the past 24 years.[6] Pervasive games exist co-temporally with all the events of real life. Players often inhabit an “in-between state” in which they must try to “fit together the ordinary world with the game objectives.”[7]

An example of a highly temporally expanded pervasive game is the curious and creative Mystery on Fifth Avenue,[8] a game in which an unsuspecting family moved into a newly renovated apartment which had come to house a series of hidden clues, secret panels, and mysteries built into the walls and furniture of the apartment itself. The family began to discover the apartment’s secrets when a letter arrived containing the first clue, and the game played out over the next several months as the family slowly unraveled the mystery around them. In Mystery on Fifth Avenue the play session never truly ended, but continued ambiently in the very architecture of the house whether the family members were either actively solving the clues or not, and, as it were, constantly issued invitations to them in the midst of their daily lives.

Social Expansion

In traditional games the social boundary of the magic circle is clear: fellow players are those in the room or on the court with one another, who are easily identified, by themselves, other players, and any bystanders or audience members, as willing participants in the game. In pervasive games, on the other hand, players may not be certain about who else is playing. Players might freely enter or exit the game; games can be played alone or with a thousand people; bystanders can be unwittingly assimilated into the game.

The Beast, one of the best-known and largest examples of an alternate reality game—which is a subgenre of pervasive games—shows social expansion on a grand scale. The Beast was built as part of the marketing campaign for director Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film A. I.: Artificial Intelligence. The game designers built the world of the film online by creating fictional blogs, government agencies, characters, companies, and even two complete universities with dozens of departments.[9] When the movie was released, theaters across the nation unknowingly displayed the first clue on the movie poster—a credit for “Jeanine Salla, sentient machine therapist”. If a passerby happened to notice, a Google search would quickly furnish the homepage of the fictional Jeanine Salla and the game began. After it was released, word of the game quickly spread to an unprecedented number of players who began to collaborate to solve a series of extraordinarily difficult puzzles designed specifically for the “hive mind” that emerged as players collaborated with one another online. Internet communities sprang into existence with thousands of members (the largest of which sent 43,000 internal messages during the game as they worked to solve the clues). By the end, over three million people had participated in the game.[10]

[1] Markus Montola, Jaakko Stenros, and Annika Waern, Pervasive Games: Theory and Design (Morgan Kaufman, 2009), 7.

[2] Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: a Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Published originally in 1944. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971).

[3] Montola, XX.

[4] Montola, XIV.

[5] Montola, 12.

[6] Russell Adams, “Tag, He’s ‘it’ for Another Year,” Wall Street Journal, March 1, 2013. on.wsj.com/ZIUS1U.

[7] Montola, 14.

[8] Montola, 91.

[9] Montola, XIII.

[10] Montola, 28.


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