Just Add People
London has become a city of games. Public space is our playground, and the players are all around you. You might not notice them immediately, but they’re there. Sometimes, you might even be invited to play.
Games designer Holly Gramazio is making London more playful, and you definitely don’t need to know the rules.
Gramazio’s introduction into the world of game design began in 2006, about six months after she’d moved to London from Australia. “I got started by playing a game. I was just starting to get familiar with the city and how it worked and then I played the chase game Journey to the End of the Night.
“It started at a warehouse in Wapping. We were given maps and white armbands, and we were being chased by menacing actors wearing red armbands. Around 150 people were playing and it spanned the whole city from Wapping to Kensington Gardens and Waterloo. It was an extraordinary evening. I was still learning how bits of the city connected to each other and it recontextualised the city for me. It was a really lovely, strange way of beginning to feel at home. After that, I tried to run a few games. I began saying I was a game designer. After a couple of years, it was true.”
Gramazio went on to create the much-loved Hide & Seek and Sandpit events. She now runs Matheson Marcault with Sophie Sampson and curates the annual Somerset House experimental games festival Now Play This. The weekend-long festival is an opportunity for games lovers to get together and play, but it’s also a chance for games designers to test out new ideas and involve the general public, something that Gramazio is particularly excited by.
“I’m really interested in games that use the play of others to explain how they work. Games that draw members of the public in and explain themselves through their physical presence. Just Add People is lovely example of this. It’s a building game with ping pong balls and bamboo sticks. You make a 3D world. It just draws people to it.”
There’s also a practical element to public games that appeals to Gramazio. “Public space already exists. You’re allowed to be there. Using a public space is easier than building a purpose-built space or getting a venue on board. It’s where you can be.
“I like games that fit into existing spaces. What can I play here? How can I jump between these? That sense of deciding to play and to some extent inventing your own version of play is important. We once created a game with red and blue spots on the ground and no rules. We then watched as a teenage girl decided the rules and explained them to her family. She created the game. She made a thing up and convinced people of it. I love making work that nudges people towards play in their own way.”
That idea of permission to play, particularly in a city, brings up an interesting discussion about where you can and can’t be. “Playing games can be an assertion of a right to be in a space. You’re not just passing through, you’re not sitting around and waiting, a game is a purely recreational activity. You have a sense of ownership, you have a right to be there. It’s a way of asserting that right.”
It might not be new, but Gramazio suggests that there are logistical reasons for its popularity in London. “Londoners live in a spread out way. Flats are small, there’s not always much in the way of green space. It’s harder to be in London in a private space. When you meet up it’s in the centre of the city.”
Despite the growing enthusiasm for public games, one huge area of growth in the games industry is indoors. There are now over 100 different escape rooms in London alone, and the total figure across the UK could be higher than 1000 by the end of the year.
“Escape rooms are a concept that people understand, and they’re commercially sustainable. They’re the same 12 puzzles in a box that you can set up in a room that you have access to. People are innovating with puzzle design and narrative and how the experience feels. It’ll continue to evolve.”
Consistent commercial success in the games industry isn’t easy. Games come and go, and there’s often no precedent for a successful business model. “Creating in physical spaces is hard and expensive. Having a proven model that is commercially viable is really unusual.”
Gramazio is wary about putting any parameters around the concept of play. “There is a lot of really interesting work where the play takes place primarily in your mind. The doomed Garden Bridge project had a 'no games' policy on their list of rules. How do they know? What if you’re playing a game in your head? How can you recognise a game? How do you police that?"
In 2016, Pokémon Go changed perceptions of public play on a global scale. Totalling 750 million downloads, it became one of the defining conversation points of the year. Gramazio was hugely impressed with the phenomenon, yet remains critical about some aspects of the game.
“Accessibility is particularly important if you’re getting people to play in a shared space. Pokémon Go was a solid game design but it wasn’t the same experience for everyone. If you’re a woman, going down an alleyway on your own to catch a Pokémon is a very different experience than if you’re a man. Three black men playing in a park don’t have the same experience as a family playing together. Designers need to think carefully about who can play and try not to systematically exclude anyone. You have more of a duty when you’re working in a public space.”
One Easy Step at King's College London. Photo: Ben Peter Catchpole.
Pokémon Go’s popularity had unusual outcomes in some parts of the world. A local law in Wisconsin County had attempted to place regulations on AR games played in publics parks, demanding that games designers purchased permits to include certain public locations in their AR games. The ruling has been declared unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds – the right of the people peaceably to assemble – and the case is ongoing.
Gramazio is seeing this influence in her work, too. Innovation in public games is beginning to happen at the initial phase of planning. “People who are actively involved in urban planning are beginning to think about the possibilities. There are always dual pressures – wanting to be able to control what happens in a space, but also being interested in what can happen if you enable and encourage. The potential for play is really exciting.”
Gramazio's right: our playgrounds are becoming as big as we want them to be, our games as diverse as our imaginations. We just need to prevent fear and suspicion of new things from putting the pieces back in the box.
Holly Gramazio is speaking at Museum of London's Play salon on August 8 about experiencing London as an outsider. You can buy tickets here.
Share this article