Wednesday 24 June 2020

20 Years of Seeing with GPS: Platforming place narratives with location-based games

The video embedded above is the recorded presentation I gave at the 20 Years of Seeing with GPS symposium, hosted online by the Department of Digital Humanities at Kings College London on 12th June 2020. This event marked the 20-year anniversary of GPS availability in the public realm, asking and reflecting upon how GPS has affected how we see the world.
My presentation discussed the potential of location-based games as platforms for storytelling about place, drawing on findings from testing my own game Canterbury in 3 Words, which I developed as part of my PhD fieldwork. You can read the words from this presentation below.
I’d like to thank Claire Reddleman and Mike Duggan for organising such a thought-provoking and inspiring event, and for persevering with hosting the symposium online in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic (and despite numerous technical challenges). I'd also like to thank my fellow presenters and those who attended the symposium for being part of such an illuminating, critical and creative discussion around GPS.

GPS, and the locative media that operate using this technology, are often upheld as an example of how the specificity of place has been re-established in our globalised, ‘digital age’. With the internet’s capacity for information sharing, and mobile devices that let us access and attach information to locations in situ, it’s been suggested that locative media can intensify our relationships with the places we inhabit.

In talking about ways of seeing with GPS, I’m going to talk particularly about seeing playfully, in the form of designing and playing location-based games. I’m going to discuss the possibilities and challenges of these media for re-purposing instrumental applications of GPS towards providing platforms for diverse narratives of place. In the process, I’ll be suggesting that location-based games offer illuminating vantage points for understanding the affordances of locative technologies and platforms, as the practices of playful navigation that players adopt articulate the ways they both enable and inhibit means of attending to place.

I want to begin by highlighting that for as long as GPS has been open for public use, it’s been used for play. The first ever geocache was hidden on May 3rd 2000, the day after selective availability was removed from GPS, which spawned the treasure-hunting game Geocaching that’s now played worldwide by millions of people. Since then, creative practitioners have drawn on the specific attributes of GPS to create ludic experiences centred on various forms of location-awareness. These include games that play with GPS’s accuracy as well as its inconsistencies, its relationships with forms of digital mapping, geo-tagging information shared via the internet, and the pervasiveness of its everyday usage in the Global North.

In doing this, location-based games and other playful applications of GPS have, to varying degrees, re-attuned awareness and reflection on locative technologies and the infrastructures that enable them, at a time when their pervasiveness has arguably made them less visible. At the same time, these media have been harnessed to shift modes of attention towards our surroundings in “sensory-inscribed” ways, as Jason Farman puts it. Examining location-based games can therefore be fruitful for apprehending the dual embodied and representational processes through which locations become meaningful to us, and the technologies with which these experiences unfold.

Traditionally, play has been understood as a sphere separate from everyday life; a magic circle entered voluntarily where special rules apply. Location-based games, however, are an example of pervasive play - one in which the magic circle is expanded to incorporate spaces and times of the everyday. The transformative potential of these games, it’s argued, is in how they draw on the ‘meaningful inefficiencies’ of play rules to cultivate new forms of awareness towards, and interaction with, the places we inhabit and their associated rhythms.

When it comes to the stories of place, we can observe how location-based games build on navigational practices fostered in earlier pervasive media such as audiowalks, which use movement through space as “narrativizing” practice. This close relationship between navigation and narrative can be explored further as locative media draw together different means of accessing and communicating information, which are articulated by the participating user.

My research sought to investigate the potential of location-based games to be both playful and participatory; telling and eliciting stories of places. But rather than approach this question by studying finished works, I wanted to learn about the affordances of these media in practice and in context, where I could access processes and relationships of production that are typically tacit and less visible. Game design in particular is highly iterative as a creative process, as you attempt to configure the contingent ways that people interact with the system you curate. I wanted to figure out what opportunities and challenges would arise in practically making a location-based game focused site-specific storytelling, to better understand how ludic practices of design and play might enable meaningful engagement with place.

I’m going to discuss this research here using the example of making Canterbury in 3 Words, a location-based game I made in my home city of Canterbury using the What3Words geolocation service.

But first, what is What3Words? What3Words is a free-to-use, commercial platform and geolocation system that divides the world into 3-metre squares and gives each one a unique 3-word address. These 3-word addresses never change, and are determined by an algorithm that converts GPS coordinates into the What3Words grid, attaching words from a library of those approved.

The company’s mission is to ‘make everyone, everything and everywhere easy to find’ – the idea being that it’s much easier to communicate location by saying three words than reeling off a list of coordinate digits. This idea came about when a delivery to the company’s founder ended up in completely the wrong location because a driver misheard GPS coordinates being relayed over the phone.

Since being founded in 2013, What3Words has partnered with a growing number of large corporations who make use of their system for purposes such as logistics and automotive navigation. In the UK, the service is often recommended to the public by local emergency services, as a way to quickly and accurately communicate your location in an emergency. Notably, the company has also partnered with postal services in Mongolia and Tonga, where What3Words has become the default addressing system in communities where street addresses never previously existed.

Unsurprisingly, though, this new method of mapping and locating presents a range of potential issues. What3Words is owned and managed as a business. The algorithm used to convert GPS coordinates to 3-word addresses is proprietary rather than open source, and even free users need to agree to a lengthy set of terms and conditions before using it. Individuals or organisations wanting to make high-volume use of their API will have to pay.

The words themselves too can be problematic. Obviously they’ll have pre-existing cultural associations – that’s part of why the system is said to aid communication. Users are aware of this when they spot amusing or opportune combinations of words, and there are whole forums online dedicated to finding these. But you can imagine how certain addresses could take on new significance when attached to culturally or politically sensitive sites.

Language settings are another factor. What3Words is currently available in 44 languages, however the same 3-metre square will have a completely different address in each different language, meaning that there’s no direct way to translate between them.

Lastly, geodetic movement can hinder the accuracy of an addressing system using a static grid. If an object shifts into a neighbouring square following events like earthquakes, it will have an address that bears no similarity to its previous one.

With these caveats in mind, as I was developing my design ideas, I was struck by how evocative the three-word addresses could be, even though their role on the platform itself is very instrumental. Addresses like ‘snows.alarm.builds’ almost seemed to suggest micro-narratives in themselves. Furthermore, as the second address on this slide shows, there were occasionally uncanny moments of synchronicity between the addresses and what could be found physically in the locations. It occurred to me that these combinations of words could potentially be interesting tools or prompts for storytelling.

I was also struck by the company’s aim for What3Words to make things ‘easy to find’. I started thinking about whether being able to find locations easier is actually productive for apprehending them as places. I wanted to explore the potential of geolocative platforms for engaging with place beyond the instrumental purpose finding specific locations.

The idea of a treasure hunt appealed to me as a type of game that both relies on locating, yet typically entails a slower, process of navigation that reconfigures forms of attention with your surroundings. In the process, players adopt a certain critical gaze through which they notice things about their environment that they weren’t previously aware of.

I was particularly inspired by the painted rocks game, which is played in local communities worldwide using Facebook. Players hide rocks they paint themselves in public places, and other players post photos with them to show when they’ve been found and rehidden. What struck me was how embedded it is in the everyday life of local communities, relying both on people coming across the rocks during their everyday activities and when doing their daily browsing on Facebook.

Drawing these ideas together, I devised Canterbury in 3 Words. The game involves sharing stories about places in Canterbury that use all three words of their addresses on What3Words, as well as a photograph clue. Other players can then attempt to find the locations using the information provided and the What3Words app.

The stories are posted on a private Facebook group, with players commenting on the posts when they find the correct 3-word address used in the story – without giving it away.

In November and December last year, I tested this game with 15 local people over a period of three weeks. After monitoring the Facebook group during this time and recording my observations, I then interviewed 7* of these players in the weeks after the test. The findings I’m going to talk about now are all based on this period of my research, though as I’ll explain later, the game has since evolved further.

*(I actually interviewed 8 of these participants; this was a mistake!)

Firstly, I want to talk about the opportunities the game enabled for creativity, discovery and improvisational relationships with Canterbury.

The two stories I’ve shared here were two of the earliest stories shared in the group, and I was surprised by the form they took. The author of the story on the left had decided to write his story as a poem, while the author on the right was inspired to write her story as an example of fantasy fiction.
When interviewing the author of the poem, he highlighted how the requirement of having to include the three words from the What3Words address in his story stimulated his creativity in a way that wouldn’t have happened if he was simply asked to ‘write a story about Canterbury’. The game rules afford him the opportunity to communicate a unique style of place narrative that might not have been shared otherwise.

Meanwhile, the author of the fantasy fiction told me she knew she wanted to write a story about these stone sculptures in the river, but it was the 3-word address that provided the lens through which her place narrative was told. The word ‘ritual’ in particular led her to re-imagine the story behind the sculptures in a way that was able to capture what she understood as the ‘magical’ qualities this place has.

For discovering stories shared in the group, the treasure-hunt format of the game, combined with the small-scale, 3-metre squares of the What3Words grid, made many players newly aware of places they didn’t know existed. I experienced this myself with these two images from stories shared in the Facebook group. I walk past these spots nearly every day in normal circumstances, but until the game test I’d never noticed these particular details. I was then inspired to find out the history behind them, discovering that the ‘Farewell’ plaque, for example, derives from one side of an old city gate demolished in 1833.

Equally, multiple interviewees remarked on how the attention to detail encouraged by this small-scale treasure-hunting gameplay changed how they encountered familiar locations. This participant recounted how, in the process of looking for a story location whose picture clue was a lamppost, he discovered how many different styles of decorative lampposts there are in Canterbury, which he’d never appreciated before. In her discussion of Geocaching, Maja Klausen argues that it through such processes of attunement – a particular ‘player gaze’ combined with the affordances of mediating technologies – that pervasive games can ‘re-enchant’ everyday urban spaces by revealing the affective potential that exists alongside the quotidian.

The performativity of this attunement process became most apparent to me in how individual players would negotiate the game’s affordances creatively by employing tactics. When sharing stories, in their photographs some players would frame their subjects in ways that made the location less obvious by removing contextual cues from the image. Also, if the landmark was covered by multiple squares on the What3Words grid, they’d tend to choose the address with words that were easiest to fit into the story.

When searching for story locations, players would scour the story texts to find words that seemed ‘out of place’ as clues for those that might be in their What3Words addresses. Furthermore, navigating to the story location for many participants involved triangulating between multiple sources of information outside of What3Words and Facebook, including Google searches, satellite view and Streetview on Google Maps, or the more analogue method of asking for help from others more familiar with the city.

All these practices demonstrate how the gameplay mechanics were able to cultivate creative practices of navigation, articulating the affordances of locative technologies and other digital platforms in situ to both engage with and tell stories of places in Canterbury.

Digging deeper into how players used the digital platforms employed for the game, however, the test revealed how What3Words and Facebook could be both enabling and limiting in different ways. Because the stories and records of finding them were all online, many players realised that the game could often be played without having to physically be in Canterbury. For some, this made the game much more accessible, particularly at a busy time not long before Christmas when many had other commitments and the weather wasn’t ideal. However, other participants felt that the game would have more ‘merit’ as a method of engaging with place if players were required to go to the places in person. Some even suggested adding features like GPS tagging to check this.

For the majority of players who did play the game while physically being in Canterbury, the granularity of the What3Words grid was found to be a limitation for both creating stories and finding story locations. As the 3-metre squares cover such a small area, any GPS inaccuracies on their mobile devices meant that the app could give them an address for a neighbouring square, rather than the one where their feature was situated. This happened with the story location shown here, where the landmark in question is actually in the square to the right. When finding story locations, players found that even when they visited the correct locations in person, there was often a slightly frustrating process of tapping on quite a few squares in the vicinity before they could identify the correct one.

The stories themselves and records of finding them were all shared via Facebook, which all the players bar one used before participating. Despite this, many of them expressed their general dislike for the platform in interview, with some citing privacy concerns, and others saying that they now only use Facebook for specific reasons, such as using groups like mine. Indeed, all of the interviewees said that they only accessed the game group directly or after seeing specific notifications for it, rather than seeing the posts when browsing their Timeline.

More functionally, participants felt there were limitations in how Facebook organised information. Posts on Facebook groups are ordered by recent engagement rather than most recently posted, which had the effect of sometimes ‘burying’ newer posts. Furthermore, in the use of Facebook Messenger to check each other’s solutions, messages from other participants would often be hidden in ‘Message Requests’ – essentially a ‘junk folder’ – if they weren’t ‘friends’ with them on the platform.

Overall, then, we can see that the affordances of the digital services employed in the gameplay had both enabling and disabling impacts on the spatiotemporal processes through which the players engaged with places in Canterbury. While some players negotiated these affordances in ways that provoked creative and re-enchanting methods of navigating the city, in other instances these platforms presented barriers to participation that could be frustrating. Particularly with Facebook, it made me question the ethics of using a platform people find troubling despite being widely used.

Before I conclude, I want to highlight one surprising observation from this fieldwork. For the test, I asked players to only write about locations within Canterbury’s city walls, as I felt the whole city was too wide an area for 15-person treasure hunt. I didn’t think much of this, but in interviews players frequently mentioned how grateful they were to know which areas ‘counted’, otherwise the locations could be ‘anywhere’ and would have discouraged them from searching in person. Some even suggested that confining the spaces and times further, perhaps in the form of game events, would have helped make the game a less ‘solitary’ experience, involving communicating in person rather than just through individualised digital devices. These comments indicate a continued importance of boundedness even for pervasive play, which raises some interesting questions about how these media are able to apprehend place expansively in terms of mobilities and trajectories. In the public version of the game, I’m exploring the question further in the creation of live, themed events that seek to develop more mobile and collective methods of interacting with the city using What3Words.

What I hope to have shown in this brief snapshot of my research with Canterbury in 3 Words is how engaging with location-based games can help to apprehend the affordances of locative technologies and platforms for engaging with place. Practices of playful design and play in location-based games entail navigational processes that enact how our relationships with place are formed through articulations of technologies, bodies and social norms. These practices can reorient locative media away from the instrumental purposes of identifying location efficiently, creating opportunities for storytelling and re-enchantment within everyday environments. Yet they come with caveats that raise important questions concerning barriers to access, ethics and the individualism of devices that have wider relevance for understanding what ‘location’ and ‘place’ mean to us in the so-called ‘digital age’.

These are questions that I’m probing further in the public version of Canterbury in 3 Words, which has now been live for over a month. This has involved iterating further on the design of the game, including incorporating live events as part of the gameplay, and further experimentation will be happening over the next few months. The Facebook group currently has 65 members, but it would be great to have more – so if you know anyone who is familiar with Canterbury, do let them know about the game.