The city as a playground

In April 2004, students in New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications program converted a large chunk of Greenwich Village into a game board. Aided by a variety of geeky technologies, a player dressed as Pac Man raced through the maze-like grid of streets and buildings around Washington Park, alternately pursuing and pursued by players dressed as his four arch-rivals — Inky, Pinky, Blinky and Clyde. The idea was weird enough and cute enough to attract a lot of media attention.

While most urban games are neither as high-concept nor as high-profile as Pac-Manhattan (pacmanhattan.com), the good news is that such games can be staged in pretty much any urban centre with next-to-no-funding and a minimal amount of aggravation. Largely because they’re not for profit, these games don’t require space rentals, permits, insurance, licensing fees or any similar hassles. All that’s really needed to get them going is a little creative inspiration, some basic planning and a common desire among the participants to turn their city into a giant playground.

In modern times, we urban denizens have in some ways become estranged from the ancient art of having fun, or at least from rolling our own. We pay for most of the fun we have in the civilized areas of the city. If we want to do something passive like see a movie, go to a show or watch a game, we pay for tickets; if we want to do something more adventurous, we usually wind up forking over some loot to the local laser arena, arcade, paintball emporium, go-kart track, mini-putt course, karaoke bar, amusement park or other admission-oriented experience. Unless we’re skateboarders or have similar inclinations, when we think about free things to do for fun in the city, we normally think about retreating from the city’s citiness into the safe enclaves of a park, where we can toss around a frisbee or play catch for a while.

While parks are indeed good places for fun, we shouldn’t let games be ghettoized. By breaking out of these designated recreation zones and into the parts of the city we actually live in, urban games integrate themselves more fully into our experience of our environment and increase our ownership of our surroundings. By reminding people to visit and use areas of the city they might never otherwise pass through, such games are useful in helping people to think of their home as consisting of not merely their private dwelling or their neighbourhood but the city as a whole. They encourage us to bravely strike out from our home neighbourhoods and see and use parts of the city in fun new ways they were never intended to be seen or used, giving us new angles and fresh perspectives on city planning and the borders between public and private realms.

Whether I’ve been playing them or organizing them, urban games have greatly changed my relationship with the city. I love that I can’t pass by the skyway connecting the two halves of Honest Ed’s without remembering the Hallowe’en night when My fellow players and I witnessed a brutal murder there, and then had to spend the rest of the night running around the Annex trying to solve it.

Every time I see Gooderham and Worts I think of the time I watched my friends chase each other up a fire escape on the side of an abandoned building in a desperate race to capture a flag hidden on the building’s roof. When at the Eaton Centre I think about when I had some friends fish marbles out of the fountain and then chase these down the mall’s spiral parking ramp to find their next clue as part of a day-long chase game. I can’t visit BCE Place without thinking of the time I watched a team of determined players gather there to prepare to smuggle a large inflatable buffalo through the PATH past a series of would-be kidnappers and onto the auditorium stage at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. When I visit the ROM or Kensington Market I think of the thrills I got when my friends and I finally turned up the geocaches there; when I pass through the Entertainment District I think of skulking in its alleys late at night and getting funny looks from cops while being Manhunted. I have all kinds of associations of having incredible, silly fun in areas all over town, and these associations strengthen my connection to the city.

It really isn’t necessary to sit around waiting for the city or a shoe company to create fun events for us. We can do it ourselves, and we can do a much better job. Anyone can get a fun, memorable game going without much more effort than it used to take to throw together a game of hide-and-seek at recess. Instead of going clubbing or going to the movies next Friday night, save some money, make your own fun and treat the city like the playground it is.

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