The Right to the City

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

The question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from that of what kind of social ties, relationship to nature, lifestyles, technologies and aesthetic values we desire. The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is . . . one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights. (David Harvey)

The capacity of lived environments to be repurposed and to acquire new meanings is what makes environmental games and alternate reality games (ARGs) possible — and, perhaps, necessary. None of us can hope to fundamentally reorganize the massive conglomerations of concrete, glass, rebar, and asphalt that constitute the urban environments of our time. Nor can we hope to reconfigure or compete with the information networks, mass media outlets, and computational agencies that are just as thoroughly integrated into our experience of life. The Web and the City are everywhere, and countless Haussmanns have come and gone and left their mark. The expansion of communications technologies (and their implicit urbanism) into every crease and corner of existence produces new social relations at a ferocious pace; and since these new relations — these new spaces — are the product of a vast and interdependent technoindustrial and military apparatus, they naturally tend to serve the interests of various concentrations of capital, power, and authority.

The ARG — even the most crass, marketing-oriented endeavor (which, it should be noted, accounts for the vast majority of such projects at the time of this writing) — intervenes on this arrangement. It says, “here’s a story or a game in a space where stories or games aren’t supposed to be,” and in so doing, makes that space into something new and awakens participants to the potential that it could be just about anything except what it is. This is the core pleasure of the ARG. Designer and Jejune Institute creator Jeff Hull:

[Our work] is in part a reaction to the narrow confines of sanctioned activities in public space, which have been largely defined by commerce. We can legally: commute, shop, and drink a latte. Walk or run in a park between sun up and sun down. Otherwise you’re somehow suspect. People feel isolated by that. I think we’re all trying to loosen those reins . . . My name for it is Socio-Reengineering. That’s Jejune Institute terminology, and in our story it has dubious connotations, but we’re actually quite sincere about this aim. To infuse variability and play into the workaday world by re-engineering the way that people navigate and experience the space and the population around them. (Jeff Hull)

A similar sentiment is echoed by experience designer Tassos Stevens:

It was really important that we used the reality of the building and its people in the story of the adventure, wrote the least possible fiction, because that meant that people wouldn’t know what was real and what was [the game]. Because the authorship is obscured, it means that everything could be part of it, and perceptions of your place are heightened and transformed. (Tassos Stevens)

This notion of a “heightened” or “transformed” perception is a common refrain in much of the critical and design discourse around ARGs. “Reality is Broken” author Jane McGonigal writes of the way that ARGs “have the effect of sensitizing participants to affordances, real or imagined” and that they “make surfaces less convincing” and “encourage magical thinking”. Transmedia scholar Christy Dena claims that ARG players’ perceptions are expanded and distorted during the course of a game to the point that the “actual and fictional worlds [become] one [and the same]”. Such statements testify to the idea that the primary target of interventions such as these is the phenomenology of everyday life, and suggest an antidote to de Certeau’s lament about the fate of the typical city dweller:

The ordinary practitioners of the city live “down below,” below the thresholds at which visibility begins. They walk—-an elementary form of this experience of the city; they are walkers, Wandersmanner, whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of the urban “text” they write without being able to read it. These practitioners make use of spaces that cannot be seen; their knowledge of them is as blind as that of lovers in each other’s arms. The paths that correspond in this intertwining, unrecognized poems in which each body is an element signed by many others, elude legibility. It is as though the practices organizing a bustling city were characterized by their blindness. The networks of these moving, intersecting writings compose a manifold story that has neither author nor spectator, shaped out of fragments of trajectories and alterations of spaces: in relation to representation, it remains daily and indefinitely other. (Michel de Certeau)

By changing the way we experience the world, we change the range of possible worlds that we can imagine, opening and elevating our perception and capacity for action. This insight has two powerful ramifications for the present discussion: first, it suggests that participation in ARGs is always on some level an act of resistance, no matter how imbricated in the apparatus of capital a particular may be. Crucially, however, this resistance itself is not immune to reappropriation and capitalization. That is, in order to produce the core pleasures of the ARG, expectations about what can happen in a given space must be turned on their head or otherwise identified and problematized, and this has important effects on the subjectivity of players.

To conceive of an ARG that does not function on the level of the unexpected or the disruptive (at least in terms of the uses of a given space) is to conceive of something else altogether. But in spite of this disruption of spatial hegemonies — or, perhaps, because of it — the ARG also serves as a kind of automatic cultural re-uptake machine, containing and rendering intelligible to power the very intervention on power that it creates.

Second, since ARGs lean so heavily on the creation of novel phenomenal states, they are an inherently unstable form. Once a given space has been reappropriated in a certain manner often enough, it begins to become a different space altogether, placing new demands upon those who would like to intervene upon it. The ARG is thus necessarily an agile and mobile space — a heterotopia extraordinaire, like Foucault’s proverbial ship sailing the seas from one provisional port to the next.

In this context, what can one say about how to create an ARG that is overtly transformational with regard to civic space? The first answer is that it depends on the issue and the audience and the context. The design workflow for ARGs is inextricably linked to what Gaston Bachelard would call topoanalysis, “[the] systematic psychological study of the sites of our intimate lives”. An ARG design workflow typically begins with some kind of source material — a story, issue, theme, or media property — that the designers then set out to explore through creative interventions into lived spaces. Determining where, when, and how to make these interventions requires a temporally-sensitive topoanalysis of a network of spaces related to the game’s target audience and source material.

Blast Theory’s A Machine to See With and Duncan Speakman’s Our Broken Voice intervene on the concrete space of the street and the virtual/aural spaces of call center phone trees and iPod headphones to create “films you can step inside,” destabilizing identity and perspective; iPhone apps like Serendipitor and Situationist turn navigational and social use cases on their heads, revealing the myriad possibilities suppressed by our typical engagements with civic space; The Games of Nonchalance weave story and participation into the fabric of the Bay Area, blending fiction and reality toward the vanishing point. Each of these projects presents a unique solution to a unique topoanalysis, revealing civic space through experiential remix, remediation, and disorientation.

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  • Bachelard, Gaston. Poetics of Space. Beacon Press, 1994. 8.
  • Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press, 2002. 93.
  • Dena, Christy. Transmedia Practice: Theorising the Practice of Expressing a Fictional World across Distinct Media and Environments. Doctoral Dissertation, 2009. 296.
  • Harvey, David. The Right to the City. New Left Review 53, October, 2008. <>
  • McGonigal, Jane. This Might be a Game. Doctoral Dissertation, 2007. 43-44.
  • Stevens, Tassos. Playing in a city <>
  • Watson, Jeff. “Trap doors and hatches all around: Jeff Hull on infusing variability and play into the workaday world”. Interviews, 2010. <>