the PhD

Playing with Reality: A cultural framework for understanding pervasive games

Pervasive Gaming has an epic and extensive vision, but a seemingly banal and everyday trajectory. However within the tension between these two extremes there is an exciting and productive space of possibilities, practice and play. Pervasive gaming is one place where the development of ubiquitous computing technologies are flowing into the everyday world and the move from experiment to post-digital practice creates unexpected eddies and currents that are not part of the original vision. This research is intended to address the lived experience of these games and the world that surrounds them.

There are two interrelated directions that this research is exploring. Firstly, the cultural context of pervasive gaming and secondly, to understand what is particular to the aesthetic experience of these games. Neither of which can truly be understood separately

Previous research has tended to focus on the games or technologies and this project is intended to take a cultural studies perspective; being sensitive to the social, cultural, political and economic situations from which these practices emerge. Pervasive gaming didn’t just appear, it was developed by real people with real world concerns. Importantly these practices are very unstable and many of the common technologies involved are moving from R&D into mainstream adoption.

Considering also that the foundations of Pervasive Gaming are concerned with the physical and lived world one of the large discrepancies in the research to date is a sensitivity to the way that lived space is experienced. The long history of relational spatiality in cultural geography has largely been ignored.

This leads to the following research aims and questions.

1. Aims

  • To carry out an appropriately critical exploration and discussion of the subject of pervasive and mixed reality games.
  • To carry out a research project that is firmly grounded in empirical, qualitative research.
  • To construct a framework for understanding pervasive gaming in relation to the specificities of culture, lived space and interaction with contemporary technology

2. Research Questions

  • How is the practice of pervasive gaming culturally situated?
    • How does a network of actors, such as designers, players, festivals and technologies, emerge, change and stabilise?
    • How is design enabled and constrained by this technical and cultural situation?
    • How does the techno-cultural situation contribute to the aesthetics of pervasive gaming?
  • What is the common aesthetic experience of pervasive games?
    • What is different from other experiences?
    • What is the core experience of these activities?
    • What does technology contribute to these experiences?


Background and Context

The subject of this research is pervasive gaming, a new form of playful experience that has emerged via ubiquitous computing technologies and is played in the physical world, away from desktop computers and gaming consoles; expanding game space into lived reality. These new game experiences are intrinsically linked with our everyday lives, through the objects, devices, environments and people that surround us.

Many types of experience have been collected under the banner of pervasive gaming: mixed-, hybrid-, augmented-, alternate-reality, cross-, trans-media and ubiquitous games as well as LARPing, street sports and urban gaming to name a few emergent genres. This project starts off with open arms and part of the research will be to examine these fuzzy boundaries and the ways in which the design community and players construct and understand the field.

The vision for these games is often grandiose, nothing less than the playful mixing of game structures, technology and lived reality; the world as a game-board and life as the pleasurable interweaving of normality and game. But the current reality is individualised mobile gaming, locative games with simple mechanics, ARGs played in introverted communities, service gamification and new urban sports played in the absence of technology. The field of pervasive gaming is a contradiction between a world changing vision and the quotidian reality of everyday games. However within this contradiction there is a productive mix of possibilities currently being played out.

As a label covering a broad set of experiences, ‘pervasive game’ is difficult to describe let alone define. The term has recently developed a level of commonality and traction in the literature as a label for the superset of these games and experiences (Montola et al., 2009). Though it has this commonality it is still a very contested term, with a contested history (Nieuwdorp, 2007, Montola et al., 2009) that is used for a wide variety of reasons. Particular instances of games are often labelled with more specific genre or technical descriptions to distinguish them, however the scarcity of cases in many of the sub-categorisations (Björk and Peitz, 2007) would point to these being avant-garde experiments rather than new genres of experience.

Eva Nieuwedorp surveyed the discourse concerning ubiquitous computing and pervasive games (2007). She points out that there are two main ways of defining pervasive games. One is via its relationship with pervasive and ubiquitous computing technologies and the other is a more cultural, based on the nature of the game itself and the relationship between gameplay and the real world. Both of these attempts at definition are situated within the – largely academic – discourse around the disciplines of computer science and game studies respectively. Nieuwedorp’s final conclusion is that we should not be defining Pervasive Games, but instead asking “what makes a game pervasive?”

The Pervasive Gameing discourse certainly has its roots in ubiquitous computing (ubicomp). Since Mark Weiser set out the vision for ubicomp (Weiser, 1993) the field of ubiquitous computing has developed into a rich discipline with many researchers, many slightly different directions and often competing agendas (Kinsley, 2010). Weiser outlined a vision for the future that was as grand as it is simple, the disappearance of computing into the background of everyday objects. He wanted to remove the commanding focus of beige boxes and computer screens and return to a world where desks, whiteboards and notebooks were the objects that people interacted with. Since Weiser’s early vision of future work the research character of ubicomp has changed to other more specific domains. Terms such as ambient, mobile, pervasive, public, urban are used in front of either computing, intelligence or media as ways to differentiate research agendas and approaches (Kinsley, 2010).

In the very early years of the 2000’s academics and experimenters started to both discuss and apply the principles and technologies of ubiquitous computing to the field of games (Nieuwdorp, 2007). The fundamental aim of this research paralleled Weiser’s concept of making technology disappear, liberating us from sitting at boxes and screens and embedding computational intelligence in the everyday environment. These original experiements started to use the emerging technologies such as GPS location sensing, wireless ethernet networking and handheld mobile computing. Whereas some of the earliest experiments were the replication of computer games in the real world, a high degree of design sophistication rapidly emerged around the various loci of practice and research. Between 2000 and 2010 the types of games rapidly developed to fit in with the affordances and constraints of the technology, urban spaces and player preferences. This has resulted in games that are quite different in character from the early experiments.

Although the current situation owes a lot to the emergence of ubicomp there are problems with descriptions based purely on the technologies used and the the agendas of those using them. In 2006, Jane McGonigal described the practice around pervasive gaming (Mcgonigal, 2006). She pointed out that different actors in the field use different terminology for these forms of games largely for rhetorical effect. She points out that there is no common terminology, but instead a discourse that is localised for different communities and audiences. With this in mind she describes a broad typology with three different types of games.

The first are ‘ubicomp games’ – what she describes as colonisation through gameplay – the use of games for research agendas. Through this gameplay becomes a rhetorical medium for furthering hardware and software as research platforms. ‘Pervasive games’, for McGonigal, are those that challenge the concepts of games, play and the everyday. They are disruptive experiments with the possibilities of what games can be when set loose from boards, boxes and screens, defy the limits of the magic circle and insert themselves radically into the everyday. Technology is often used as an enabler in this disruption. Her third type are ‘ubiquitous games’ and her vision for these are games that activate the natural affordances of the everyday and add gameplay to the quotidian. This final type of game reflects the rhetorical direction of her PhD and is reflected in the trajectory of her current work (McGonigal, 2011).

McGonigal’s own formulation of these three types of pervasive gaming also draws heavily on the rhetoric surrounding ubiqutous computing; the disappearance of technology and its embedding in the everyday. She draws heavily on Rich Gold’s essay This Is Not A Pipe (Gold, 1993). Using Margritte’s famous painting Gold discussed the ubiquity of imaging technology as a foreshadowing of other forms of ubiquitous technology and the relationship between recognisable, everyday objects and augmented, computationally embedded objects. These things are at once the object they pretend to be, but also contain within them a whole raft of other invisible meanings. McGonigal uses this as a design approach to discuss, in her terms, ‘ubiquitous gaming’, applying the concepts of Weiser and Gold to the domain of gaming.

Influenced heavily by the literature in game studies, Montola, Stenros and Waern (2009) present one of the most widely used descriptions (or definition) of pervasive games. They describe the nature of pervasive gaming using Salen and Zimmerman’s concept of the Magic Circle (2004). This idea, heavily influenced by Johan Huizinga (Huizinga, 1992) is that play and games occur in a separate ‘space’, set aside from the ‘real’ world. Playful activities occur in a space that has spatial, temporal and social borders. Montola et. al. create a framework from this idea of a closed space and describe pervasive gaming as games and playful activities that extend and blur either, or all, of these three boundaries. Ultimately they plot all the case studies they write about onto these three dimensions.

However the magic circle approach doesn’t work very well as a way to describe the so called ‘space of gameplay’. Games don’t have this artificial separation from the real world and are heavily situated in the everyday, with much blurring and extension of the magic circle already occurring (Pargman and Jakobsson, 2008) and culturally, games have never been truly separate experiences (Consalvo, 2009; Malaby, 2009).

A rich and dirty discourse has emerged around pervasive games that resists attempts to define, or even adequately describe it. So far the discourse around them has been constructed in the technological imaginary, through the vision of ubiquitous computing and pervasive play. One of the things that these descriptions of Pervasive Gaming all lack is a grounding in the physical, lived, everyday nature of the real world. There is also a lack of a socio-cultural picture surrounding the practice, where the influences of a wide variety of phenomena can be taken into account and evaluated for the way in which they mould the development of Pervasive Gaming as a field. There is a lack of recent mappings of the way that the practices of game design are constructing experiences that lie in the interstices between contemporary technology and the physical world.

This leads on to the two, main, interrelated directions that this thesis is focusing on. Firstly, the cultural context of Pervasive Gaming and secondly, to understand the particularly unique nature of aesthetic experience of these games. Culture and experience are intrinsically interlinked and cannot be analysed separately; any framework must address both at the same time.


Björk, S. & Peitz, J. (2007) ‘Understanding pervasive games through gameplay design patterns.’ Proc. 3rd Digital Games Research Association International Conference,

Consalvo, M. (2009) ‘There is no magic circle.’ Games and Culture, 4, 408.

Gold, R. (1993) ‘This is not a pipe.’ Communications of the ACM, 36, 72.

Huizinga, J.H. (1992) Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Beacon Press,

Kinsley, S. (2010) Practising Tomorrows? Ubiquitous computing and the politics of anticipation. PhD thesis, University of Bristol.

Malaby, T.M. (2009) ‘Anthropology and Play: The Contours of Playful Experience.’ New Literary History, 40, 205-218.

Mcgonigal, J. (2006) This might be a game: ubiquitous play and performance at the turn of the twenty-first century. Citeseer.

McGonigal, J. (2011) Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. Jonathan Cape,

Montola, M., Stenros, J. & Waern, A. (2009) Pervasive Games: Theory and Design. Morgan Kaufmann,

Nieuwdorp, E. (2007) ‘The pervasive discourse: an analysis.’ Computers in Entertainment (CIE), 5, 13.

Pargman, D. & Jakobsson, P. (2008) ‘Do you believe in magic? Computer games in everyday life.’ European Journal of Cultural Studies, 11, 225.

Salen, K. & Zimmerman, E. (2004) Rules of play: Game design fundamentals. MIT Press,

Weiser, M. (1993) ‘Some computer science issues in ubiquitous computing.’ Communications of the ACM, 36, 75-84.

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