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GPS, Smart Phones Move Online Games to the Real World and Vice Versa
Sarah Kuck, 3 Mar 09

Gamers and web developers are mixing tech tools like smart phones and GPS devices with social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook to create potentially hundreds of new avenues where humans can take interaction from the web to the street and vice versa.

New smart phone applications, like the soon to be launched Gowalla, for example, are helping translate our real world journeys into adventure games and opportunities to share with our online communities where we've been, what we did there and what we thought about the experience.

Worldchanging ally Janette Crawford writes on the Pop!Tech blog:

Whereas we know and love Facebook for transporting our real-world relationships and interactions into an online venue and there enhancing them, Gowalla works in the opposite direction. Gowalla will be transporting a social online game into the real world, creating real-world interactions that users wouldn’t have otherwise had.
Two things make Gowalla particularly notable. First is the aforementioned geocaching mechanic. Traditional geocaching sends GPS-equipped adventurers on expeditions to find physical treasures planted by adventurers who have gone before. Once a cache is found, participants sign a log book, sometimes take and leave a trinket (depending on the type of cache) and then log their experience online. The game has long been reserved for outdoorsy types, with many “treasures” hidden near hiking trails and the like. While urban placements do exist, they tend to be small and can be difficult to find.
Other smart phone apps have allowed users to “check in” at physical locations, including BrightKite, a location-based social network that pre-dated GPS-enabled smart phones as an online application. Now, from either phone or web, it lets users check in at a given address, which is logged on and can be tweeted to your Twitter followers (an opt-in option). Both the app and the website allow you to see who’s checking in within a certain radius around you, potentially connecting you with fellow neighborhood tweeters. (Other Twitter apps, like Twinkle or Tweetie, also use GPS to let you see who’s tweeting nearby.) On the Android platform, the location-based game JOYity works on a similar level, offering both real-world video game-like missions or games of tag with strangers — you tag a user by checking in within 80 feet of them. This provides a potential human element, though it doesn’t incorporate with existing social networks. (And I’d recommend against playing after dark.)
Where Gowalla differentiates itself in the “digital geocaching” market is in incorporating a social game element. Gowalla will allow check-ins at both user-created spots and the game’s own “featured” spots — think popular attractions many of us are apt to visit anyway, like Wrigley Field in Chicago. When players check in at a given spot, not only will they collect a “passport stamp” that is logged online, but a set of icons are unlocked and can be collected. The icons become virtual souvenirs. This element pulls in your more traditional gamers, and for anyone, provides an inherent motivation for checking in.
Gowalla transcribes geocaching into a more urban realm and allows it more mainstream acceptance. The game shares your journeys with your social network, giving you “credit” for having made the trip — an element lacking from the traditional game. “That’s been one of the things that’s kept me from getting into geocaching,” says Gowalla developer Scott Raymond. “If I’m doing it as a solitary activity, it’s cool, but if I want people to know I did it, I have to tell them” — which, in his words, can be socially awkward.

Second is the game’s wide appeal. It can be broken into three “gameplays”: Not only 1) logging individual locations and 2) collecting icons, but also 3) completing trips of multiple locations. Any user can create trips through the game’s online interface. These could range from a 15-location trip of “best places to eat in the Bay Area,” which might take a year to complete, to a five-location Tweetup scavenger hunt to be completed in an evening. While I personally may not get caught up in collecting icons, if my favorite blogger in Cleveland curated a tour of her city on Gowalla, I’d be sure to reference it when in town. (Online community architect Amy Jo Kim describes social gamer motivations.)

I'm not entirely sure how I feel about putting this much personal information online, but I did connect with one online game that Crawford mentions toward the end of her piece called, which recognizes the potential of this kind of technology to help train us for the scale of collaboration that will be necessary within the next 10 years or so. About 1,800 people played this online game for 32 days pretending to have "lived their real lives as though the world were undergoing a petroleum shortage."

“Extreme-scale collaboration becomes the most important human ability — and that massively multiplayer collaboration, trying to save the real world through these game structures, will become the new modus operandi for nonprofits, for governments — for anybody trying to change the world.” Read: Collaboration in gameplay will train us for collaboration in the real world.

My first thought was to rebuke this. We can collaborate as humans without the help of the Internet! But then I thought about how most of us live. How separated, physically and emotionally, we are from each other. Perhaps we do need these tools to help us learn how to connect once again? Especially at the level of efficiency that online tools can offer, which could be vital in times of disaster.

It will be interesting to watch the ebb and flow of information to the web, to the street and back again, as these tools develop and as we mold them for our purposes.

Image credit: Flickr/Rev Dan Cat

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Sarah, many thanks for picking up my Pop!Tech post!

I'm with you 100% on that initial level of skepticism about how much social gaming will really affect the future of our interactions -- and the term "alternate reality gaming" is still a bit jarring to me, whether those games take place on- or offline. But because some people will continue to debate the value of social media as we know it, they should be glad to know it at least has the potential to cycle back into real-world interactions.

In addition, we've seen the role that online organizing has played in several really important recent events, particularly the last election -- how will it look different in the next?

Posted by: Janette Crawford on 3 Mar 09

Who in the world would use BrightKnife? It comes with a lot of serious privacy issues, but the good thing about it is that you only let your friends keep track of your location. Thus, you do not want to add the FBI as your friend on BrightKite and they keep track of your location, "Hey I just checked into Bar ABC!"

Posted by: Free Games on 3 Mar 09


i'm agree with you but do you know MMTRG ?
see or .fr
it's a new generation of Smart Phone Games between real and virtual world.

Posted by: franck on 5 Mar 09


One thing that a lot of people have missed in this recent economic down turn is the fact that in-game money for all of the massive mutliplayer online role playing games has not been effected. I guess it just shows how strong and stable the computer game industry really is.


Virtual Currency

Posted by: miller on 24 Apr 09

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