Sunday, 30 August 2020

Canterbury Arts Conference 2020: Location-based games as platforms for site-specific storytelling

The video embedded above is the recorded presentation I gave at the Canterbury Arts E-Conference 2020, hosted online on 15th July 2020. This is a conference for practitioners and professionals across all disciplines working with the arts, to share knowledge, network and learn about a wide range of creative projects. While this conference is usually held in person in Canterbury, this year's online version was able to showcase a wonderful diversity of creative work from participants from across the world. The theme of the event was 'Art to the Rescue'.
My presentation was adapted from the paper I shared at the 20 Years of Seeing with GPS symposium in June. It 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, but this time focusing on its relevance in the creative fields of digital and location-based games, media arts and site-specific art. You can read the words from this presentation below.
I’d like to thank the organisers at Warnborough College for their work in putting together such a vibrant programme of presentations, and making the online conference format work so smoothly. I'd also like to thank my fellow presenters for sharing such exciting, diverse and worthwhile projects, which illustrated why art of all kinds is so important in our societies - now perhaps more than ever.         

Digital games are now widely recognised as an increasingly influential part of cultures across the world, with a global industry worth more than music and film combined. However, a crucial part of games’ growing recognition as an artistic medium has been their unique capacities for telling stories. Across many different genres of games, creators have been finding innovative ways to use their interactive and playful properties to provoke particular kinds of narrative experiences for those who play them.

Over the past couple of decades, one genre to have risen to prominence is location-based games – those in which a player’s physical location is central to the progression of the gameplay. The opening of GPS to the public in the year 2000 was the catalyst for their emergence. Since then, a wide range of digital devices and platforms have been developed not only to help us locate, but to record and attach different kinds of content to locations, visualise our journeys and share them with others.

Today, these functions are often encapsulated in one device – the smartphone. And it’s on this device that we’ve seen the development of the most popular location-based games. These include apps such as Ingress, Pokémon GO and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, which are played by tens of millions of people worldwide.

While many predicted that the rise of the internet and digital technologies in our societies would make our physical locations less relevant, these kinds of locative media arts have shown how digital technologies can keep us connected to the sites we inhabit, in some cases arguably intensifying our relationships with our surroundings. To use geographical terms, these media don’t just impact how we think about space – the abstract coordinates we use to mark points on the earth’s surface and the distances between them. Crucially, they can help us encounter sites as places – those that are meaningful to us as humans, associated with particular cultural values, feelings, practices and memories.

In this way, locative media have built on a broader range of site-specific arts, in particular those associated with psychogeography. This toolkit of creative practices – playful, political and narratological – seeks to encounter our everyday environments as sites with layers of meaning and emotional significance that both shape, and are shaped by, our behaviours and the experiences we have in these environments. Today, psychogeography’s traditions echo in the realm of site-specific arts such as audiowalks and place writing, and more recently digital media arts that use technology to reimagine the ways we inhabit places.

My creative practice in making location-based games aims to achieve something similar. For the past two years, I’ve been undertaking a research project for my PhD, investigating the potential of location-based games as platforms for telling the stories that makes places in Canterbury meaningful to us. My focus on storytelling derives from its close relationship with navigation. Our experiences of a place are often shaped by how we encounter and thread together difference pieces of information about it into stories we tell ourselves and others. I’m studying how the design and play of location-based games can intervene in – and help to cultivate – practices of navigation that weave together and bring into focus the diverse narratives which shape our experiences of Canterbury.

This has involved a lot of experimentation, as well as collaboration with local community groups, and has resulted in projects as varied as small, unfinished Geocaching trails to large-scale public projects. For example, in my last big public project in 2018, I was commissioned to make a location-based treasure-hunting game by Canterbury Cathedral Quarter, a group of independent businesses based in the historic streets around Canterbury Cathedral. This resulted in The Timekeeper’s Return, an immersive, story-based treasure hunt played by scanning QR codes, in which over 200 people took part on the day.

In this presentation, I’m going to be focusing on Canterbury in 3 Words, a location-based game I’ve been developing over the past 9 months using the What3Words geolocation service. Aiming to be both playful and participatory, the game involves players telling their stories of Canterbury, and trying to decipher the locations other players write about using the What3Words app.

But first, what is What3Words? What3Words is a free-to-use geolocation system and app 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 chosen 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.

You can try it out for yourself right now. Open up a web browser, go to, and in the search bar type in ‘shunts.hammer.honest’. This should take you to a famous Canterbury landmark. I’ll give you a couple of moments to do that now.

As I was developing ideas for my game, 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 when the addresses seemed to match or compliment 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 finding locations easier is actually productive for understanding them as places. I wanted to explore the potential of locative media for engaging with place beyond the purpose of efficient navigation.

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 others 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 journeys 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 anyone can join, with players commenting on the posts when they find the correct 3-word address used in the story – without giving it away.

Here’s an example of a Canterbury in 3 Words story. The three words highlighted here are the address words, which have been hidden quite cleverly into the text by the author. If you try typing in these three words into What3Words, you should be able to see this landmark’s location in Canterbury. I’ll give you some time to do that now.

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 and recording my observations, I then interviewed 8 of these players. After analysing the results and updating the game’s design, I launched Canterbury in 3 Words publicly at the end of April. I’m now going to talk about what I’ve found so far both from the initial test and in the early gameplay since the launch.

Firstly, I want to talk about opportunities for transforming people’s relationships with Canterbury through creativity and discovery.

The two stories I’ve shared here were two of the earliest stories shared in the test, 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 lent 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 captured 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 sites. 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, many players have remarked on how the attention to detail encouraged by this small-scale treasure-hunting gameplay changed how they encountered familiar locations. This participant described how searching for this story location led him to discover how many different styles of decorative lampposts there are in Canterbury, which he’d never appreciated before. The game fostered the kind of critical gaze I mentioned earlier – a form of attunement with players’ surroundings that could re-enchant superficially mundane sites and invest them with new emotional significance.

This attunement process became ever more apparent to me in how individual players negotiated the game’s rules creatively by employing tactics. When sharing stories, in their photographs some players framed their subjects in ways that made the location less obvious by removing context from the image. Also, if the landmark was covered by multiple squares on the What3Words grid, they tended to choose the address with words that were easiest to fit into the story.

When searching for story locations, players often scoured 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 even simply asking for help from others.

All these examples demonstrate how the gameplay was able to cultivate creative practices of navigation that used a combination of treasure-hunting and storytelling to transform and re-enchant people’s relationships with Canterbury.

Digging deeper into how players used the game’s digital platforms, 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 those with mobility issues and other commitments, this made the game much more accessible. 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 sites in person.

For the majority of testers who did play the game while physically being in Canterbury, the granularity of the What3Words grid was sometimes found to be a frustrating 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 could lead them to a neighbouring square instead. This happened with the story location shown here, where the landmark in question is actually in the square to the right.

The stories themselves are all shared via Facebook, which players have to already use to join in. Despite this, many players have expressed their general dislike for the platform in interview, with some citing privacy concerns. Participants also found some 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 making newer posts less visible.

Overall, then, we can see that the digital services used for the game had both enabling and disabling impacts on how 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 often find troubling.

However, the use of these various digital platforms has certainly made a big difference in managing the situation with the Covid-19 pandemic. When the lockdown began just as I was preparing to launch the public version of the game, I was initially quite worried about how people were going to participate. Thanks to social distancing and limitations on outdoor activity, I knew it wouldn’t be possible for many Canterbury people to navigate to the story locations in person.

Having seen how players embraced digital platforms to play the game remotely during the test, though, I was confident that I could make the game online-only and still get enough participation. For the research, this provided an opportunity to study how platforms like Google Streetview allowed people to engage with place remotely. And for the project itself, I was able to advertise it as a fun activity during the lockdown that would keep people connected to the city even at a distance.

Some adaptations did need to be made to the gameplay, though. As well as taking their own photographs of places, participants can now use licensed images from the internet, including cropped screenshots from Google Streetview like this participant did here. While there are some limitations in terms of image quality and framing, it meant that people could still contribute stories without being near Canterbury city centre.

One thing I couldn’t replicate was the experience of encountering places on daily journeys through the city. This low-level engagement with the game was important in the test as the game relies upon people being inspired to write stories about the city and discovering those already shared, and these situational encounters helped to transform the ways testers encountered the city in their everyday lives.

So to provide a new springboard for creativity and interest in the online-only version of the game, I’ve been using two main techniques. The first is weekly themes. At the beginning of each week, I choose a broad theme which players can decide to respond to in the stories they write. These prompts provide distinct perspectives on the city that can sometimes inspire players to share stories about places and experiences that connect with the theme.

More recently, I have also created weekly challenges, where I provide a list of What3Words addresses in Canterbury and players have to work out the connection between them. Although this feature is more curated and perhaps less participatory than the normal gameplay, it’s a fun activity that helps to keep participants engaged with the game and the city at a basic level.

Looking forward, I’ll be continuing to iterate on the game’s design over the coming months. One of my key plans is to create a book out of the stories, which as well as archiving the project could act as an alternative, playful guidebook to the city. In order to gather more stories for the book, I’m aiming to host the game on a wider range of social media platforms and make the whole project more public-facing. If possible, I also want to work with local community groups to reach a more diverse set of people. By making a more long-term and wider-reaching intervention into Canterbury’s social life, I’m hoping that an expanded version of the project based on making the book can make a difference beyond the confines of my research outcomes.           

So while this project is still very much in development, what I hope to have shown in this snapshot of Canterbury in 3 Words are some of the opportunities and challenges that location-based games present for telling stories about places. By reconfiguring locative media away from simply making things ‘easy to find’, location-based games can draw attention to small-scale, everyday places in the city and re-enchant them by telling stories that reveal the unseen emotional residue these sites can have. My work shows that this doesn’t have to be particularly high-tech, but you need to think carefully about which platforms you do choose to use, and the barriers to access and ethical concerns they may present. Despite these limitations, in my case the versatility of the game’s design and the platforms used has meant that people could still participate during the pandemic, at a time when many can’t easily travel to the city centre.

If you’re interested in getting involved in Canterbury in 3 Words yourself, you can find all the information about the game on the project website, and join the game’s Facebook group using the link on this slide. Both of these pages will be updated as the project develops.

Thank you.

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