Why Pervasive Games are Dangerous

March 28, 2014 - Blog

There should be a Hippocratic Oath for game designers. Unfortunately, in pervasive games, “doing no harm” is easier said than done. The game designer who would create ethical games has to account for two factors inherent in the nature of pervasive games:

  • The expanded nature of the magic circle.
  • The hyper-emergent nature of game play.

Before describing these two challenges it might be helpful to illustrate them by describing an instance in which they combined to disastrous result. During Shelby Logan’s Run, a large-scale, high-budget treasure hunt, players received instructions to go to a certain mine in a certain location and were warned to only enter a certain mineshaft. The designers took the precaution of telling the players explicitly to enter only one certain shaft and even gave them markings by which they could verify if they had found the right one. However, one player, perhaps misunderstanding his instructions or thinking the instructions themselves were part of a larger clue, entered the wrong mine shaft, fell 30 feet, and sustained an injury to his back which left him paralyzed.[1]


The Expanded Nature of the Magic Circle

Pervasive games often lack the ludic markers associated with traditional games—symbols and signifiers that convey the boundary of the magic circle (the space within which the game takes place) in commonly understood ways. This is the very distinction that makes pervasive games unique and is one of the sources of their appeal, and yet, as a result of this departure from conventional understandings of what a game consists of, a certain amount of confusion and uncertainty is inherently coded into the DNA of pervasive games. This blurring and bending of the magic circle introduces risk factors to which traditional games are not subject.

Often pervasive games even involve intentionally misleading players, hiding certain facts from them, or otherwise creating a knowledge imbalance between the players and organizers or between players and other players. At one level, this is part of the alluring mystery of these games; if a treasure hunt had no hidden elements, it would be a list of errands. Game designers shouldn’t remove the unknown elements from games—all games, even non-pervasive games, involve unknown elements of some kind, whether involving a pair of dice or the exact nature of the opponent’s strategy. However, in pervasive games the mystery is often located at a very fundamental level: Where am I? What do I need to do? Who else is playing this game? When does it end? Who can I ask for help? Players may not know what is part of the game and what is not, and therefore, whether the game rules and behaviors obtain or not. In a traditional game if a player arrives at the wrong conclusion about their opponent’s strategy, they only risk losing. However, the mystery in pervasive games allows for a much wider margin of error, with potentially more serious consequences. The less a player knows and the greater the field of possibility for his or her actions, the greater the risk. In pervasive games both of these factors are often maximized, and these risk factors are only compounded as the magic circle expands.

Generally, players can make one of two errors: believing something is part of the game when it is not or, alternatively, mistakenly concluding that something is not part of the game when in fact it is. For players, the former presents the greater challenges as far as safety goes. Some pervasive games generate a sense of “pronoia”[2], the sense that forces are conspiring around you for your benefit.  This feeling is then generalized to the totality of the game environment, which in very spatially expanded games can include everything. This can lead to bolder behavior on the players’ parts and can motivate them to take risks or do actions they would not otherwise, confident that it is all “part of the game.” While in its proper context this is a desirable element of player experience, pronoia can lead to reduced caution on the part of players, and thus, increased risk.

For bystanders, the dangers of expanding the magic circle are reversed: the greater consequences flow from non-participants believing what they are seeing is not part of a game. It is incumbent upon game designers to make games that take bystanders into account. Bystanders may not know a game is happening because the activity may not always bear the normal marks of a game. The moment of realization can elicit a wide variety of reactions. Imagine the reaction of the average bystander if, say, a hundred people spontaneously broke into a coordinated dance in a public area. Now imagine how a bystander may react to seeing a Killer player brandish a realistic looking toy gun in a crowded park and run after another player. In the former scenario, bystanders might react with pleasure and surprise; in the latter bystanders could respond with fear, alarm, anger, or even seek to prevent the perceived attack from taking place.


The Emergent Nature of Game Play

Game designers divide games into two categories: progressive games and emergent games.[3] Progressive games are linear and can only play out in one way; there are fixed and finite solutions to the challenges they pose. In the video game genre, most adventure games, such as Mario Bros., are games of progression. On the other hand, emergent games are built on a matrix of rules that give rise to unique games at each instance of play. Every board game is emergent, as the games change with each new dice roll or new player. However, not all emergent games are created equal; there is a spectrum of emergence. Tic-Tac-Toe is an emergent game on the low end of the scale—there are only 211,568 possible games.[4] Chess, on the other hand, has around 1,000 times as many possible games and is a highly emergent game. Despite this, Chess is not nearly as emergent as most pervasive games. Pervasive games may be considered hyper-emergent. Chess, while allowing for a multitude of unique games, is still played with a fixed amount of pieces on a board with only two players. The total number of possible games can be calculated because there are fixed variables at play. However, with pervasive games, the variables are infinite and the emergence incalculable; there are too many variables and those variables are too uncontrollable. Just as you cannot step in the same river twice, you can’t replicate the same pervasive game again.

In hyper-emergent games, by definition, designers are unable to account for every eventuality, no matter how carefully they prepare. In pervasive games the uncontrolled factors always exceed those that are under the game designer’s control. These factors can be environmental, cultural, psychological, physical, technological, or pertain to almost any other element in the game or in the environment in which the game takes place. Obviously, this introduces the potential for greater risk, as for any given game the task before the pervasive game designer is not one of how to control all the variables in the game, but how to, as it were, create a cleared space within the emergent possibilities in which the game can safely and reliably take place.


[1] Markus Montola, Jaakko Stenros, and Annika Waern, Pervasive Games: Theory and Design (Morgan Kaufman, 2009), 202.

[2] Jane McGonigal, “The Puppet Master Problem: Design for Real-World, Mission Based Gaming,” Second Person (2006).

[3] Jesper Juul, Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2011), 69.

[4] Juul, 61.

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