The Underground Project

A fascinating link that has been doing the rounds recently is the Live London Tube Map by Matthew SomervilleThe link is meant to be here, but at present (24/6/2010) it is not active… probably because so many people re-tweeted it and I guess it makes pretty heavy demands on the servers of Transport For London, who provide the raw location data.

I know many people share a fascination for watching or listening to events and processes that happen in real-time.  During the shuttle missions, I like to listen to the communications between the astronauts and Houston; ATC audio holds the same fascination, as does FlightRadar’s graphical representations of live air traffic around Europe.  Chris Heathcote has created a page of TFL cams, showing live images from London’s roads; and subscribers to the Shoreditch Digital Bridge project are just as keen to watch each other via CCTV as they are to watch actual programmes.

The appearance of Matt’s tube page inspires me to post a short concept for an urban game that I wrote a few years ago, uploaded to a wiki, and then failed to develop much further.  It is reproduced below.  I sense that Foursquare may actually perform many similar functions, though I haven’t used that platform yet.  Either way, it would be great to get some input from people like those who run LiveFiction and Hide&Seek.

The Gaming Pitch

Probably the most memorable of the public art projects commissioned during Ken Livingstone’s third term as Mayor of London, was The Underground Game.  Launched in January 2013 to mark 150 years of the London Underground, the game was a simple idea with huge scope, the project captured the imagination of the entire city. Without a doubt, none could make a greater claim to inclusivity and interactivity (those two buzzwords that peppered public discourse during the early part of the 21st century), and by the autumn of 2013 The Underground Game’s ‘Golden Thread’ logo had become one of the iconic images of the year.

The details of The Underground Game are surely familiar to any Londoner, and hardly need more than a brief description. In summary, The Underground Game turned London’s underground rail network (or rather, its stations) into a giant a computer game that visitors and commuters alike could play, either online or in the real world. The game was based loosely around the Greek myth of the Minotaur, allowing players to imagine themselves as a Theseus character who had to negotiate the tiled, labyrinth-like corridors of the London Underground system.

Travellers who wished to play could log onto the system using their mobile phones. Points and rewards were accumulated according to what stations the traveller moved between, what routes were taken, and at what time of day. When the player/traveller entered the same corridor or platform as another traveller, they would either gain or lose extra points, depending on various criteria that the player may have fulfilled on their journey, and whether they had been awarded any rewards or special powers. Just as Pacman collects fruit, Sonic the Hedgehog collects gold rings, and Mario collects mushrooms, travellers on The Underground Game could collect balls of ‘Golden Thread’, which would temporarily alter the balance of interactions within the game.

Barriers to entry for players were extremely low. They did not need an expensive computer or a fast broadband connection to render life-like graphics… They were already in the real world! The bluetooth technology which communicated with the players mobile phones was already ubiquitous. Users could download the game to their phone for the price of a ring-tone, and then play it for free whenever they travelled the system.

Just like other puzzle games, the popularity of the game was attributed to its simplicity – A game of mazes, avoidance and strategy. Players could not shoot or otherwise destroy their adversaries. Their phone merely gave them warnings as to their proximity to other players and obstacles they might wish to catch, or avoid. This rumbling uncertainty, about who or what might be around the next corner, fit perfectly with the Minotaur theme of the game. The shock at being caught unexpectedly by another player, or the relief at successfully avoiding a challenge, proved to be addictive elements.

Although The Underground Game was non-linear, and had no definite ending point, it was designed with real life rewards available. Players who accumulated over 500 points in the game (which took the average commuter between four to six weeks) were able to claim a discreet Golden Thread badge. Each month, the player with the top score won a prize, and as the game gained popularity in the summer months, prizes were also awarded for the best newcomer. Although no prize was ever awarded for the person with the most accumulated points, these figures were published online, and a dedicated group of players (mainly young male commuters) did compete ferociously for this accolade. This gave the game an added dimension, since the game was designed so that the more points a player had accumulated, the more were at stake each time they played the game.

The Radio Pitch

Another reason for the success of The Underground Game was the associated storyline, which was developed over the entire year in association with the BBC. The corporation commissioned a series of fifteen-minute stories, sixty-one stories in total (one for each Zone 1 station on the London Underground system). As each programme was broadcast, the station to which it corresponded became ‘hot’ in The Underground Game. Players scored double points for successfully passing through these stations. As is well known to students of history, each station has a unique architectural story to tell anyway, and players expressed delight at having visited a station for the first time, while playing the game.

Although the stories were first broadcast across the BBC radio network, they were actually written with the idea of podcasting in mind. The pace and structure of each story, and especially the sound design, was created with the expectation that people would listen to the stories on the tube itself. A thought or discussion by a character, which lasted the length of a tube journey, would be punctuated by the sound of station announcements and sliding doors, timed to match those same occurrences that the listener would witness on an average journey.

A wide range of authors and poets were invited to produce work, which included simple love stories played out on the platform, meditations on the nature of travel, science fiction about parallel worlds, a detective story about someone who had fallen onto the tracks, and a surrealist foray into the white tiles of the corridors.

The Interactive Pitch

Late in the project, further interactive elements were introduced. The first of these was an online version of The Underground Game. Instead of actually entering the tube network, players could guide a ‘virtual commuter’ through the system. When players entered the simple three-dimensional landscape, they were able to see coloured dots, representations of real commuters, which online players could choose to help or hinder. ‘Virtual commuters’ had relatively less power than real commuters (they could only move at a certain speed, for example), yet were able to do things that real commuters could not (such as move instantaneously between stations). Regular players of The Underground Game reacted positively to this innovation. “When you get a message from the game telling you that a virtual player is walking beside you, its like you have a ghost, or a guardian angel to help you out.”

A second interactive element played no part in the game or the BBC broadcasts, but still became an integral part of the culture of The Underground Game. These were ‘Journey mixes’ – compositions, narrations and song lists that were mixed together by players. Given titles such as ‘Holland Park to Bethnal Green’ and ‘Maida Vale to Lambeth North’, these MP3 files were uploaded to The Underground Game website as pod-casts. Each mix was designed to last the entire length of the journey in question, with each station stop usually meaning a change in pace, song, or (in the case of the acclaimed composition ‘Circle Clockwise’) an orchestral movement.

Finally, The Underground Game served to encourage people to use the London Transport system. Commuting became less of a chore than it had been. The awarding of points was biased in favour of off-peak travel, which assisted the authorities in easing congestion at busy stations. Points were also gain quicker by using stairs instead of escalators, thereby promoting a healthy lifestyle.

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