Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Introducing Canterbury in 3 Words




For the past seven months or so, I’ve been developing a location-based game as part of my PhD research. Building on early experimentation in the first year of my PhD, as well as The Timekeeper’s Returnthe mixed-reality game I created for Canterbury’s Cathedral Quarter in 2018, Canterbury in 3 Words is a digital treasure hunt that challenges you to discover and share stories unique to the city using the What3Words app.

The rule that defines the game is that each story must contain all three words in the What3Words address of the location it’s written about. Other players can then read stories shared on the game’s Facebook group and decipher the locations they describe using their knowledge of Canterbury and the What3Words app, aiming to find as many locations as possible and rise up the leaderboard.

In this post, I’m going to talk about the development of the game thus far: how I arrived at this concept for a location-based game, some of the gameplay features that players can expect, and what all this means for my PhD research.

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To put it concisely, my PhD research looks at the potential of location-based games as platforms for eliciting and telling the stories that make places meaningful.

This research project is practice-based, meaning that I’m employing creative practice – in this case, designing and developing location-based games – as a method through which I get ‘data’ I can use to answer my research questions.

Alongside more conventional research methods such as ethnographic observation and interviews, this allows me to gain insight into the processes of idea generation, initial design, testing, iteration and production that shape location-based gameplay, as well as how players negotiate the architecture of game rules and platforms.

In geography and more broadly across the (digital) humanities, researchers looking at games have been reluctant to engage in game development practices themselves, even though their highly iterative processes have a hugely significant bearing on what kinds of player experiences eventually unfold from games.

While there are many valid reasons for this, it can consequently become difficult for researchers to detect the tacit (yet often highly influential) knowledges that shape how creative works such as games are produced. These can include ideas that were tried but abandoned, gameplay elements that changed over the course of the development, practical constraints that needed to be overcome, and unexpected occurrences or considerations that had to be managed.

Many of these more tacit elements of the design process were encountered on the winding path that led to the current version of Canterbury in 3 Words itself, which was born out of an amalgam of earlier creative experiments. These ranged from very basic game concepts that were never developed any further, to a full prototype that was tested in person by my PhD supervisors.

The useful thing about making games from an academic perspective is that, unlike in a commercial game development environment where there is much more pressure to make something workable sooner, even ideas that end up needing significant refinement or fail to work as intended can provide useful findings for the research.

In fact, it wasn’t until late summer/early autumn last year when the idea of using What3Words addresses to tell stories about places first came to mind.

I already knew a little bit about What3Words and how it works – mostly through news stories about how it had helped the emergency services get to incidents in remote locations. What3Words claim that their service is built to ‘make everyone everything and everywhere easy to find’; the idea being that telling three words to someone is a much more efficient way of communicating location than the strings of digits we use to define GPS coordinates.

But I wanted to find out what critical geographers and cartographers had to say about the implications of this new method of identifying points on the earth’s surface.

As expected, many of the usual caveats of locative technologies had been discussed, such as how the geodetic movement of the earth can affect the accuracy of locative addressing systems over time. Many commentators also raise concern about the implications of an addressing system that is directly tied to corporate interests, when addresses in general are so important to everyday life globally.

From a cultural geography perspective, I’m most interested in the repercussions that associating certain words with certain places might have for how locations are imagined, represented and performed.

We can already see evidence of these kinds of impacts in the ‘gimmicky’ quality of the What3Words addresses. For example, we might chuckle at an opportune placement of words (such as ///best.home.ever, which is apparently a tree in Framingham, Massachusetts), and there are whole forum topics devoted to finding these kinds of addresses on the internet.

You can imagine how the addresses could become problematic, though, when their words become attached to politically or culturally sensitive sites. Yet What3Words continually distance themselves from the notion that the words used in their addresses could possibly ‘mean’ anything other than being signifiers of location.

It occurred to me that using the words from What3Words addresses as tools for storytelling, while adopting the format of a treasure hunt to play with the goal of making things ‘easy to find’, was a neat way to problematise such top-down, instrumental applications of locative technology while providing a fun yet challenging framework for people to tell their own stories of place.

In the way that the addresses themselves would provide the prompts for people to recount their tales, the gameplay demonstrates how the signifiers we attach to locations – and the cultural associations we make with them – are a crucial part of how they become meaningful to us as places.

Once I had settled on how the game was going to work, the next phase of the development was testing it.

Drawing on a wide range of local contacts, I managed to recruit 15 local people to play the game over a period of three weeks in November and December 2019. As well as recording my observations from activity on the game’s Facebook group using a research diary and screenshots, I then interviewed the testers who were actively involved in the game activity.

After transcribing all these interviews, I was left with a lot of text and images from the Facebook group posts, screenshots, research diary entries and interview transcripts to analyse.

Not only did I need to think about the relevance of what I had found from a geographical point of view (in response to my research questions) but I needed to think about how these findings would shape the design of the game going forward.

This segues nicely into talking about the gameplay features, where I can explain some of my design ideas in more detail, my decision-making regarding things that have changed or stayed the same since the test, and the implications for how players engage with places in Canterbury and their stories.

The first thing to note about Canterbury in 3 Words is the area in which the game is played: within the city walls.

As I’ve written on the game’s FAQs:

“The game area needs to be quite clearly defined so that people know which areas ‘count’ when hunting for story locations. Canterbury as a city covers a large area, particularly if you include suburbs, the University of Kent and other outlying areas, and it can become difficult to identify where the city begins and ends, let alone identifying one particular location within it. The city walls are a historic boundary line encircling an area of the city centre that contains a large number of unique and interesting sites, while being fairly easy to navigate. It will typically be the part of Canterbury that people are most familiar with.”

Interestingly, the original decision to set the game within this boundary was a fairly arbitrary one. As the game was only being played by 15 people, it seemed inappropriate and potentially unsatisfying to ask people to search for story locations across the whole administrative area of Canterbury.

Yet it was only when interviewing the game’s testers that I realised just how important this boundedness was for people’s experiences of the game. It prevented them from ever becoming too overwhelmed with possible locations for stories, and meant that they had a clearly defined area they could explore to search for story locations they didn’t immediately recognise.

Of course, once players know to stick within this bounded area of the city, the key activity that defines the gameplay of Canterbury in 3 Words is the sharing and finding of stories about places.

While this task might seem fairly self-explanatory on the surface, the requirement for the stories to include all three words from their locations’ What3Words addresses, and to have a photograph attached to the text, creates some interesting opportunities for creativity and strategy.
                            
If the place in question is covered by multiple What3Words squares, for example, a story author can choose a square with words that are easier, more appropriate or more interesting to fit into their story.

The writer can also be tactical about how they present information in their story text and image. Framing the image of the location in a certain way can make its context more difficult to identify, or ensure that only those with specific knowledge will be able to recognise it. Similarly, the style in which a story is written can make words that might otherwise seem out of place sound natural.

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There are tactics that people searching for the story locations can use too.

When scanning the story text, sometimes a word might strike the reader as being unusual to use in a particular context; as if it has been shoehorned into the story. This might suggest that the word is one of the three from the location’s What3Words address – information that can be particularly useful if you have a rough idea where the location might be. This can make identifying the precise square on What3Words much quicker.

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Information can also be gleaned from the framing of the story image (you could think about: where is the feature positioned? What kind of material is it made out of? What else is around it?) or the content of the story itself, which might suggest the kinds of activity you could expect in this location.

Once a person has found a story location, they should comment on the original post on the Facebook group to mark their find and share their experiences of finding it. But one question that might come to mind when someone comments on a story: how do you know if that person has actually found the story, or if they are just saying they have?

Well, in the test, the system operated so that once a story location had been found, the finder had to message the story author on Facebook with the appropriate 3-word address to confirm their solution as correct. Once they had received confirmation from the author, they could comment on the post on the Facebook page.

However, the test revealed that there were occasional issues with some participants not responding very quickly, or at all, to participants messaging them with solutions. This was sometimes because the author missed the message (e.g. if it appeared in their ‘Message Requests’ on Facebook, or was buried by other messages); sometimes people’s other commitments were a factor.
     
To minimise the frustration that this kind of delay could cause, I’ve changed the system so that a player can comment on a post as soon as they have worked out the story location.

Given that each story has to include all three words of the location’s What3Words address, it’s very unlikely that a player’s solution would be wrong if they have managed to find three words in a story that match a What3Words address in Canterbury (and if the location makes sense when looking on satellite view/Streetview). So it made sense to give finders the satisfaction of commenting on the post as soon as the solution is identified, and earning their point for the game’s leaderboard.

Now, the responsibility to check a solution is the story author’s. By monitoring activity on their story posts and messaging people who discover the story locations, the gameplay encourages them to take ownership of their stories and take interest in how people respond to them.

This is very similar to Geocaching, where anyone can log a geocache as ‘found’, but the geocache owner will eventually discover from checking the physical logbook in the cache container whether somebody has lied about finding it. It is also the cache owner’s responsibility to maintain their cache.

The evidence from Geocaching suggests that giving players greater responsibility in the running of the game in this way can not only help to organically maintain a high standard of gameplay, but also to create a benevolent community with the shared aim of creating positive experiences for other players.

Speaking of the sociality and community that can develop around location-based games, there is one major change I’ve made to Canterbury in 3 Words since the test: the incorporation of regular community events as part of the gameplay.

The decision to organise community events for the game was partly made after talking to some testers, who despite enjoying the game found that the experience of writing about and searching for story locations could be quite solitary. As the game can be played at any time, there is only a small chance that players would ever encounter each other while taking part, making it difficult to foster any sense of community among participants.

I also was keen for the game to speak more to the ‘live-ness’ of the city – the mobile, fleeting and partial ways in which we encounter different places in Canterbury during our daily lives – rather than players only feeling as if they were interacting with the urban fabric as a series of static locations to find or write about.

As well as being a platform for existing stories, I wanted new stories to emerge as a result of the gameplay; meaningful experiences that players can have as a result of actively taking part.
      
Looking at other location-based games such as Pokémon Go and Ingress, community events have been a successful way of bringing together individual players – many who might have limited time to play during the working week, or who otherwise struggle to meet and play with others – within particular areas to share collective experiences organised around the gameplay.

For the community events in Canterbury in 3 Words, stories will be commissioned around particular themes when the event announcement is made. These stories will then be arranged in a form of treasure trail, for which players will have to work together to find all of the locations. Importantly, story locations for these events will not necessarily be restricted to within the city walls. Rather, the sites will largely depend on what theme is chosen for the event.

Clearly, given the current pandemic situation, these events cannot take place physically at this moment in time. I’m still developing my ideas about exactly how they will work virtually, but I’m currently taking inspiration from Alternate Reality Games and other large-scale, internet-based, collective activities. To some degree, what I eventually end up with will also depend on the content of the commissioned stories themselves.

Regardless of what format they take, I’m hoping that the events will be able to bring to life some of the lesser-known stories that populate the city in a memorable way, encouraging conversation and sociality between players.

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So all that’s really left to announce is the date that people will be able to try the game for themselves.

The public version of Canterbury in 3 Words will be launching on Friday 24th April. Bookmark the links below if you're reading this before then; otherwise follow the links now to join in the fun!

Obviously, spending so much time indoors isn’t exactly how I expected this stage of my PhD fieldwork would go, for both me and those who play the game.

But I’m fortunate that Canterbury in 3 Words lends itself quite well to being played purely on the internet, given the range of online tools players can use to engage with the cityscape remotely such as Google Streetview, satellite view on What3Words/Google Maps, and search engines/image databases. Indeed, these services were used regularly by the game’s testers to play remotely during the cold and wet winter months.

I’m hopeful that those who are familiar with Canterbury will be able to use the game as an opportunity to reconnect with the city at a time when possibilities of travelling to and through it in person are restricted.

If you would like to play the game yourself, or want to share it with someone else, you would be more than welcome. Join the Facebook group here and check out the information website for the game here.


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