Pokémon GO Plus: The challenge of casual pervasive gaming?

Pokémon GO Plus package contents.
Pokémon GO Plus package contents.

Our research projects have explored the directions of pervasive gaming and more general ludification trends in culture and society. One of the success stories of last year was Pokémon GO, the location-based mobile game by Niantic (a Google spin-off) and Pokémon Company. When winter came, the player numbers dropped: at least in Finnish winter is became practically impossible to play a smartphone outdoors game in below-freezing temperatures. Considering that, I have been interested in trying the Pokémon GO Plus accessory – it is a small bluetooth device with one button that you can wear, so that constant handling of smartphone is no longer needed.

Pokémon GO Plus notifications via iPhone in Pebble Time 2 smartwatch.
Pokémon GO Plus notifications via iPhone in Pebble Time 2 smartwatch.

Based on a couple of hours quick testing, this kind of add-on certainly has certain potential. It reduces (an already rather simple) game into its most basic elements: the buzz and colourful led signals when there is a familiar (green) or new (yellow) Pokémon creature nearby, ready for catching. Pressing the button will automatically try to capture the virtual critter: easy ones usually register as “captured” in a few seconds (rainbow-style multi-coloured led signal), more challenging ones might “flee” (red light). When one arrives next to a Pokéstop, there will be a blue light & buzz signal, and with a press of button one can quickly interact with the stop, and get all available items registered into ones inventory. This is actually much more convenient than the usual routine of clicking and swiping at stops, Pokémons and balls. When the “Plus” is active, the game app itself also keeps running in the background, registering walking distances also when the phone is locked. This is how the game should function in the first place, of course. It seems that it is also much easier to capture Pokémons with the “Plus” than without it (how fair this is to other gamers, is a subject of discussion, too).

Pokémon GO Plus notifications on iPhone 6 Plus screen.
Pokémon GO Plus notifications on iPhone 6 Plus screen.

The larger question that remains is, what “casual pervasive gaming” will become, in the long run. If this kind of devices show the direction, it might be that a casual, always-on game will be more like a “zero player game”: an automated simulated of gaming, where game server and game client keep on making steady progress in the game, while the human player is free to concentrate on other things. Maybe it is enough just to check the game progress at the end of the day, getting some kind of summary of what the automated, “surrogate player” had experienced, during the day?

Playing Pokémon GO with the “Plus” add-on is not quite there, though. There were moments today when the device was buzzing every few second, asking for its button to be pressed. I quickly collected a nice selection of random, low level Pokémon, but I also ran out of Poke Balls in a minute. Maybe the device is made for “Pokémon GO whales”: those players who use real money to buy an endless suppy of poke-balls, and who are happy to have this semi-automatic collecting practice going on, whole day, in order to grind their way towards higher levels?

The strategic element of choice is mostly missing while using the “Plus”. I have no specific knowledge which Pokémon I am trying to capture, and as the game is configured to use only the basic sort of Poke Ball automatically, any “Great”, or “Ultra” balls, for example, are not used, which means that any more challenging, high-level Pokémon will most likely be missed and flee. At the same time, the occasionall buzz of the device taps evokes the “play frame” of Pokémon GO – which relates to the “playful mindset” that we also have been researching – so it is easier to keep on having a contact with a pervasive gaming reality, while mostly concentrating on mundane, everyday things, like doing grocery shopping. Some of us are better at multitasking, but experiments like Pokémon GO Plus provide us with a better understanding on how to scale both the game-related information, as well as the in-game tasks and functionalities, so that they do not seriously interfere with the other daily activities, but rather support them in the manner we see preferable. At least for me, wearing the “Plus” made those winter walking trips a bit more interesting and motivating again today.

Retrospect, 2016, 2006, 1996, and beyond

I am not particularly good in remembering things, which makes annually returning cycles of breaks and opportunities for reflection challenging, yet also very useful.

Year 2016 was exceptionally burdersome year for many reasons, but among much sadness and strain, there were also many happy things, and quiet progress that is important, but that will most likely surface only later. If I’d have to name one thing, I would say that 2016 was the “Year of Pokémon GO”, as both in personal life as well as professionally, that single location based, social experience coloured much of the latter part of the year in particular.

Randomly sampling the past, in ten year intervals, in 2006, I notice from my records that I was making several public talks about ludic literacy. For example, in one publication I sketched six dimensions of skill sets that each build on top of each other: 1) fundamental ludic understanding (“this is play, game has rules”), 2) functional gaming skills (“this game works this way”), 3) strategic and meta levels of game skills (“this way of playing is interesting / makes sense for me”), 4) social ludic skills (“this is what makes playing fun for other, this is why these people want to play”), 5) creative and productive game play skills (“this game can be extended, or reimagined in these ways”), and 6) literacy related to media in general (“this game is produced to make money this way, its marketing and business strategies rely on this kinds of principles”. (I seem to have worked on a longer article on the topic, but the last draft of that was marked “version 0.5”, so I guess other worked ran over that one.)

In 1996, I was working on the manuscript of Koneihminen article anthology (The Man-Machine), which was a wide-ranging exploration into the multiple cultural roles that technology holds in our lives – as a living environment, as an integral element that extends as well as shapes, and limits our individual and social subjectivy and agency, as well as an evolving and chancing source of various aesthetic experiences. It is interesting to read about the reflections of technological ambivalence, and critiques of 1990s techno-romanticism today, when two decades have changed the landscape of technology into something considerably more pervasive, but also into something more banal. It is certainly true that in 1990s we were considerably more naive regarding the pace of cultural change, and what was really important and what not so, but looking around at turn of 2016/2017, much of both the utopian and dystopian elements of technological imagination are now reality. The more philosophical dimensions of technologically informed subjectivity would clearly benefit from a revisit, or two.

In 1986, I was early in my studies of comparative literature in the University of Tampere. Sadly, it seems that I do not have any digital notes saved from the time before 1991, due to the multiple changes in those years, one of the most important technical ones being the move from Commodore 64 to some early 286 PC that caused me losing my records. Only some backups coming from my Unix account from early 1990s has survived. The C64 floppy disks still just might be somewhere, but I have neither hardware or software to access them, any more. Digital amnesia? But I still remember for example typing rather long essays and seminar works on C64 “Sanatar” word processing software (AmerSoft, 1984) – and then using the same home computer at nights to play AD&D adventure “Pool of Radiance” (SSI, 1988), slowly, sometimes with painful failure rate, but endlessly fascinated. Long Finnish summer nights were filled with light and bird song, also in 3 or 4 am, when I remember holding a break in my upstairs student apartment, stepping outside of the Forgotten Realms for a while.

Remembering is good for us. I link below the slides that I prepared for “Personal gaming histories” course this fall – no commentary this time, but maybe the pictures also tell some stories. Times, they are a-changing.

(PS – these exercises remind us, how our lives do not equal to “life stories”, consistent, logical, progressive wholes. They just present us these constant challenges for sense making, always more or less retrospective.)

10-year-update: my home pages

screenshot-2016-12-26-16-23-27Update: the new design is now live at: www.unet.fi. – My current university side home pages are from year 2006, so there is a decade of Internet and WWW evolution looming over them. Static HTML is not so bad in itself – it is actually fast and reliable, as compared to some more flaky ways of doing things. However, people access online content increasingly with mobile devices and getting a more “responsive” design (that is, web page design code that scales and adapts content into small or large screen devices differently) is clearly in order.

When one builds institutional home pages as part of the university or other organisation infrastructure, there are usually various technical limitations or other issues, so also in this case. While I have a small “personnel card” style, official contact page in our staff directory, I have wanted my personal home pages to include more content that would reflect my personal interests, publication activity, and to carry links to various resources that I find important or relevant. Our IT admin, however, has limited the WWW server technologies to a pretty minimal set, and there is not, for example “mod_rewrite” module loaded to the Apache that serves our home pages. That means that my original idea to go with a “flat file CMS” to create the new pages (e.g. Kirby: https://getkirby.com/) did not work. There was only one CMS that worked without mod_rewrite that I could find (CMSimple: https://www.cmsimple.org/), and testing that was pain (it was too clumsy and limited in terms of design templates and editing functions for my, non-coder tastes). The other main alternative was to set up a CMS that relies on an actual database (MySQL or similar), but that was forbidden from personal home pages in our university, too.

For a while I toyed with an idea that I would actually set up a development server of my own, and use it to generate static code that I would then publish on the university server. Jekyll (https://jekyllrb.com/) was most promising option in that area. I did indeed spend few hours (after kids have gone to bed) in setting up a development environment into my Surface Pro 4, building on top of the Bash/Ubuntu subsystem, adding Python, Ruby, etc., but there was some SSH public key signing bug that broke the connection to GitHub, which is pretty essential for running Jekyll. Debugging that road proved to be too much for me – the “Windows Subsystem for Linux” is still pretty much a work-in-progress thing. Then I also tried to set up an Oracle VM VirtualBox with WordPress built in, but that produced some other, interesting problems of its own. (It just also might be a good idea to use something a bit more powerful than Surface Pro for running multiple server, photo editing and other tools at the same time – but for many things, this tablet is actually surprisingly good.)

Currently, the plan is that I will develop my new home pages in WordPress, using a commercial “Premium” theme that comes with actual tutorials on how to use and adapt it for my needs (plus they promise support, when I’ll inevitably lose my way). In last couple of days, I have made decent progress using the Microsoft Webmatric package, which includes an IIS server, and pretty fully featured WordPress that runs on top of that (see: http://ivanblagojevic.com/how-to-install-wordpress-on-windows-10-localhost/). I have installed the theme of my choice, and plugins it requires, and started the selection and conversion of content for the new framework. Microsoft, however, has decided to discontinue Webmatrix, and the current setup seems bit buggy, which makes actual content production somewhat frustrating. The server can suddenly lose reading rights to some key graphics file, for example. Or a WordPress page with long and complex code starts breaking down at some point, so that it fails to render correctly. For example, when I had reached about the half way point in creating the code and design for my publications page, the new text and graphics started appearing again from the top of the page, on top of the text that was there already!

I will probably end up setting up the home pages into another server, where I can actually get a full Apache, with mod_rewrite, MySQL and other necessary functions for implementing WordPress pages. In UTA home pages there would then be a redirect code that would show the way to the new pages. This is not optimal, since the search engines will not find my publications and content any more under the UTA.fi domain, but this is perhaps the simplest solution in getting the functionalities I want to actually run as they should. Alternatively, there are some ways to turn a WordPress site into static HTML pages, which can then be uploaded to the UTA servers. But I do not hold my breath whether all WordPress plugins and other more advanced features would work that way.

Happy Geek Holidays!

Suomen Pelimuseo, The Finnish Museum of Games

The Finnish Museum of Games (Suomen Pelimuseo) was open for the first time tonight; this event was only for the various partners who had made the museum possible, experts and makers, as well as to the important donators in the crowdfunding campaign. Pelimuseo is the first public organisation in Finland which has successfully run a crowdfunding effort to realise its goals: there were over 1100 people and organisations who took part (our UTA/SIS Game Research Lab was one).

This first look was exiting experience, and already convinced me that this museum will be a major success story. There is so much pent-up need for re-experiencing, reflecting and sharing of game culture, play histories and digital cultural heritage of the past decades that it is obvious this museum will have to face the positive problem of how to facilitate the requirements coming from its popularity. That is at least my feeling on the basis of this first evening, as a large crowd of game enthusiasts, parents with their kids, game designers, game scholars, game educators, historians, journalists, members of gaming subcultures of various kinds gathered together to celebrate and re-experience some of the formative elements from their personal pasts, as well as to meet for the first time some forgotten gems of digital, as well as analog (e.g. board game, rpg, larp) games of the past.

The Finnish Museum of Games will officially open its doors to audience in January 2017. It is located in Vapriikki museum centre, in Tampere. More at: https://suomenpelimuseo.fi/.

CFP: Spectating Play, 24-25 April 2017

Spectating Play – 13th Annual Game Research Lab Spring Seminar 24th-25th of April 2017, Tampere Finland

http://spectatingplay.com/call-for-papers/

Important dates

– Abstract Deadline: January 18th, 2017
– Notification of Acceptance: February 3rd, 2017
– Full Paper deadline: April 3rd, 2017
– Seminar dates: April 24-25, 2017

Call for Papers
This year’s Game Lab Spring Seminar focuses on the spectating elements of play. Below you will find detailed instructions regarding the CFP for this Spring Seminar.

Spectating play
Watching play unfold is almost as pervasive as play itself. Today, developments such as let’s plays, eSports, and streaming have made spectating play an important mode of engaging with digital games. Historically, sporting arenas have brought together not only skillful athletes, but huge crowds of spectators. The audience has an effect on the play, from the cheering of the fans of the home team, to rule changes implemented in sports in order to make them more television friendly. The spectator experience places different design considerations on a game than that of the player experience.

Digital games have always had spectators, be it in an arcade or a sibling waiting for their turn to play on the home console. However, during the last decade spectatorship has become much more visible, first through esports, and more recently through streaming. Numerous new genres of recorded play videos have emerged, from let’s plays to speedruns. Furthermore, the audiences of livestreamed games is hardly passive; amongst other things they comment, form communities, participate in playing, and financially support the players.

Simultaneously, in some play cultures the line between the audience and the player/performer is being blurred on purpose. From immersive theatre to larp and from reality television competitions to amateur livestreaming and onto phenomena such as the “Twitch plays Pokemon”, the structures around watching and playing are shifting.

Spectating Play is the 13th annual spring seminar organized by University of Tampere Game Research Lab. The seminar welcomes any and all scholarly work on the intersection of audiences and game/play.

The possible list of topics includes but is not limited to:

  • Streaming play
    • Live and recorded play
    • Genres: Let’s plays, speedruns, machinima, unboxing, reaction videos, etc.
    • Managing streamers and tubers
    • Production and business models of streaming
    • Cultures and practices of streaming
    • Boundary negotiation between work and play
  • Audience
    • Audience participation in games
    • Designing games for spectating
    • Audience theory for participant
    • Why spectate? Audience gratifications
    • Learning by watching (i.e. foreplayers, tutorials, walkthroughs)
    • Passive and ambient play
  • Performing for spectators
    • eSports
    • Performative game development (e.g. streaming, use of time-lapse videos and public game jams)
    • Arenas for play as performance
    • Arcade culture
  • Perspectives on spectated play
    • History of spectating play
    • The limits of recording as a document of play
    • How spectating play transforms into play practices

The seminar emphasises work-in-progress submissions, and we strongly encourage submitting late-breaking results, working papers, and submissions from graduate students. The purpose of the seminar is to have peer-to-peer discussions and thereby provide support in refining and improving research work in this area.

The papers to be presented will be chosen based on an extended abstract review. Full papers are distributed prior the event to all participants, in order to facilitate discussion. The seminar is looking into partnering with a journal so that the best papers would be invited to be further developed for publication in a special journal issue. In the past we have collaborated with Games and Culture, Simulation & Gaming, International Journal of Role-Playing, and ToDiGRA journals. The seminar will be chaired by Professor Frans Mäyrä (School of Information Sciences, University of Tampere) and Associate Professor Juho Hamari (UC Pori / Tampere University of Technology & University of Turku). There will also be two invited commentators, to be announced later.

The seminar will be held in Tampere, Finland and will be free of charge; the number of participants will be restricted.

Submission guidelines
The papers will be selected for presentation based on extended abstracts of 500-1000 words (plus references). Abstracts should be sent in the PDF format. Please use 12 pt Times New Roman, double-spaced, for your text. Full paper guidelines will be provided with the notification of acceptance.

Our aim is that all participants can familiarise themselves with the papers in advance. Therefore, the maximum length for a full paper is 5000 words (plus references). The seminar presentations should encourage discussion, instead of repeating the information presented in the papers. Every paper will be presented for 10 minutes and discussed for 20 minutes.

Submissions should be sent to: submissions@spectatingplay.com.

Lautapelikysely, Hybrid Social Play

Pelaatko tai pelaavatko perheenjäsenesi lautapelejä usein, satunnaisesti tai harvoin? Vastaa lautapeliaiheiseen kyselyyn!

Kysely on osa Turun, Tampereen ja Jyväskylän yliopiston yhteistä Hybrid Social Play -hanketta. Hankkeen tutkimuskohteena ovat erilaiset tuotteet kuten lautapelit, leikkivälineet ja raha-automaatit sekä niiden yhteydessä hyödynnetyt sähköiset ja digitaaliset ominaisuudet kuten älypuhelimet, tietokoneet ja sosiaalisen median palvelut.

Tutkimuksen kannalta on tärkeää, että saamme vastauksia erilaisilta lautapelaajilta. Vastaaminen ei edellytä aktiiviharrastusta. Voit valita, mihin kysymyksiin vastaat. Kyselyn yhteydessä järjestetään lautapeliarvonta 15.12.2016 mennessä vastanneiden ja yhteystietojensa jättäneiden kesken.

Kyselylomakkeeseen pääset alla olevasta linkistä. Täyttäminen vie arviolta 10-30 minuuttia riippuen kirjoitusinnostasi. Kyselylinkkiä saa jakaa eteenpäin. Kiitämme vastauksista!

https://www.webropolsurveys.com/S/DB26641B9FCA0CD6.par