TupperWare and Other Containers

(A sub-section of the overall discussion on play and performance in civic space.)

In 1972, the BBC produced an hour-long documentary by architectural historian Reyner Banham entitled, “Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles.” A central conceit of this documentary is the “Baede-kar,” an automated geolocative tour guide that looks suspiciously like an 8-track tape player. In the film, as Banham drives through the city, the Baede-kar tells him about the buildings and people that he passes by, providing location- and context-specific information in real-time.

At the time of the documentary’s airing, such technology was pure fantasy. Now, of course, anyone who owns a smart phone has access to all of the Baede-kar’s capabilities — and more.The Baede-kar is a prototypical example of what I’m calling TupperWare™ — interactive systems that enable the embedding and retrieval of location- and context-specific metadata. The term TupperWare™ derives from another antecedent, namely geocaching, a variant of “letterboxing” that emerged alongside the first wave of consumer-grade GPS devices.

In geocaching, players use GPS coordinates to find hidden caches left for them to discover by other players. These caches, typically held in small Tupperware containers hidden beneath park benches or in the hollows of trees, contain messages and instructions left by both the players who created them and by any players who have found them. A typical geocache contains a note with simple instructions such as, “take something and leave something behind.” Upon discovering a geocache, players will often leave special items, such as marked coins, which other players will then take and place in subsequently discovered geocaches.

While geocaching remains a vibrant niche activity, the capacity of contemporary smart phones to both read location metadata and search a variety of databases for related information makes the existence of physical Tupperware containers somewhat redundant. By embedding virtual objects in real space, designers can situate narrative and game elements in the immediate physical environment of their players. Hence: TupperWare™.

Importantly, TupperWare™ alone is not enough to create powerful and potentially transformative experiences. A Baede-kar-style interface isn’t a game: it’s an interactive geo-archive. Players consume embedded media, but their actions have minimal or zero impact on the system’s overall state. In this sense, activating geo-objects with a smart phone is just a very inconvenient way of reading. Without a strong game mechanic structuring and motivating engagement, players begin to wonder: why do I have to walk around and go places just to view this crappy little video on my iPhone?

Many augmented reality games suffer from this motivation problem, presenting players with little more than a media asset and a clue indicating where to find another in exchange for their troubles. Moving beyond this unsatisfying arrangement requires two things (which are really two sides of the same coin): a persistent story/game world, and a player profiling system.

In 2008, Harrah’s, one of the three combines that owns and operates the Las Vegas Strip, introduced a “loyalty cards” system “to induce people to play longer and spend more money.” This experimental system monitored casino players’ behavior, enabling the casino pit bosses to enact a variety of interventions. Nina K. Simon writes:

The cards function like bank cards; users swipe them at the slot machines to play, and the cards register wins and losses. The loyalty cards are part of a pilot program to track individual user behavior. The casino maintains real-time data on the actions of every card-holder and uses the data to determine individuals’ financial “pain point” – i.e. how much money they are willing to spend before leaving the casino. The casino uses that pain point to stage strategic interventions during real-time play. When a player comes close to her limit, a staff member on the casino floor receives an alert from a dispatcher, greets the player, and offers her a free meal, a drink, or a bonus gift of money added to the loyalty card. By mitigating the bad experience of losing with a gift, Harrah’s extends people beyond their pain points and they stay and play longer. (Nina Simon)

This simple, and somewhat disturbing, example of a real-time feedback loop connecting user behavior metrics and targeted interventions is a stripped-down illustration of the core procedure of what might be called, “situated hypergaming.” By using available sensor data to shape interaction — and by monitoring the response (or non-response) to the newly-structured experience — designers can rapidly evolve highly personalized experiences using a limited set of rules and material assets.

Games such as Dokobots, Parallel Kingdom, Shadow Cities, and TapCity are representatives of an emerging class of persistent locative game worlds that track individual users and enable them to asynchronously have an impact on the hybrid physical-virtual environments in which they play. These “situated hypergames” embed virtual objects in real space not as an end in and of itself, but rather as a part of something larger — a true game, wherein the progress of players is persistently tracked by the system and has an impact on what happens next, both to them and to other participants. Such projects are suggestive of the true storytelling potential of geolocation technologies.

The city itself is already a network of meanings and narratives. Intervening productively on these meanings is the work of artists.

Everything else is just TupperWare™.

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  • Simon, Nina. “Going Analog: Translating Virtual Learnings into Real Institutional Change.” In Archives & Museum Informatics: Museums and the Web 2009. Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, 2009.