My parents used to go on and on about how much they played outside when they were kids, extolling the virtues of exercise, fresh air and sunlight that our generation, as beneficiaries of the first home videogame systems, denied ourselves.
At the time, I wholeheartedly believed they’d have taken to their sofas to play Atari Football instead of toiling away outside if given the choice. Which is why it was probably more difficult for me, a lifelong gamer, to accept the Wii as readily as the “family orientated” players that Nintendo has so successfully targeted. All those years learning joypad, keyboard and mouse control techniques suddenly became void. Nintendo expected people to jump around and wave their arms for entertainment – and we’ve been jumping around and waving our arms ever since.
We now find ourselves in a time when games – the best games – are physically interactive. But as my mother would undoubtedly point out, we still play these games inside. We’re a step closer to exercising while we play, but all that fresh air and sunlight has yet to break through the hermetic seal of contemporary entertainment.
Strangely enough, the technology to take games out into the field has been around for a long time. Unfortunately, there aren’t many developers keen to realize the scope of free-roaming gaming. Literal free-roaming, that is; not sandbox-style games with fast cars, plentiful guns and an endless cityscape.
On the south coast of England, however, a team of visionary gamers has been working on a mobile phone application intended to help game developers put the proliferation of GPS technology to more amusing effect. They’re now in the process of field testing the platform, called LocoMatrix. Main man Richard Vahrman is surprisingly candid about where his inspiration for the project came from.
“Fat kids,” he begins, light-hearted but surprisingly serious. “Seeing a family with two obese children in a pub car park, in the back of a people carrier on the edge of the South Downs, eating crisps and playing with their DSs rather than running around the beautiful countryside at their feet.” The goal was simple: Vahrman wanted to “get kids running around outside playing computer games where they are the characters chasing and being chased, rather than manipulating them on the screen.”
Look at the age old argument that playing outside can be as much fun as playing inside, and the lines begin to blur. Vahrman talks about games where the players become the characters. It’s a level of immersion that developers have consistently promised and failed to deliver. So why aren’t game designers looking toward GPS as another tool in that holy quest?
“LocoMatrix has an open API that still needs some work, but this is already starting to get some use,” Vahrman says. “Not so much interest from games industry as from other areas, such as using LocoMatrix as a vehicle for promotional campaigns, for team building, in education. We have two universities using it for teaching students, and we’ve started on a £100,000 project to create a resource for schools.
“Personally, team building is one of my favorites at the moment, and we’re looking to do some really exciting things with our treasure hunts. One of the great things about being mobile-based is that all the players can be connected even if they’re out of sight of each other, or in different towns. Even different countries.”
Software houses might be slow on the uptake, but LocoMatrix has already earned the attention of many in the mobile gaming community. Test games featuring basic treasure hunt premises have been put together for a variety of Java- and GPS-equipped cell phone handsets to showcase the potential of outdoor gaming. One prototype application requires players to gather in any open space, with mobile in hand and under the watchful eye of a Clarke Orbit satellite. The game system places virtual letters about the play area for the GPS-runners to collect and return to their allocated bases to spell out words. It’s a simple concept, but it demonstrates how LocoMatrix could potentially create a massively multiplayer game through geostationary satellites, mobile phone networks and good old-fashioned leg work.
This scope of possibility – though mostly unrealized for the time being – is what Varhman’s new framework is all about. Nearly everyone who’s dabbled with the concept (and the game editor) has ideas on how to expand the platform.
“Generally, once people get the idea, they start thinking about the sorts of games that could be played,” Vahrman says. “We’ve had everything from adaptations of arcade games to a giant simulation of going inside the human body a la Fantastic Voyage. There could also be a lot of fairly simple games that challenge player’s abilities for speed and competition. Maybe the LocoMatrix Olympics; pervasive games that take place over weeks and in many locations, and roleplaying fantasy games that incorporate the real world.”
In short, Vahrman says, “my fantasy is to see people playing outside, becoming fit and healthy, where they’re not dependent on insulin injections as a part of their daily life.”
“I see a movement developing where there’s an increasing interest in people going outdoors to play,” he explains. “Take events like geocaching, and festivals like Come Out and Play, Hide and Seek, and igFest . I think we’ll continue to see a steady increase in play, but I partially agree with others who’ve suggested that we haven’t yet seen the killer game. That’s a big opportunity for the right developer.”
As fantastical as much of this might be right now, it’s clearly on the cusp of possibility. With LocoMatrix, Vahrman and his team are laying the foundations for a new gaming system that’s independent of platform; where the outside world is the programming engine, our arms and legs are the controllers and reality is the graphics processor. It might not be quite what my parents had in mind when they told me I should go outside and play, but 25 years later I might finally be tempted to take their advice.
“The Wii is brilliant,” says Varhman. “It’s shown players that they can stand up to play games. LocoMatrix will show them they can go outside and run around. It’s obvious in a way. Why sit down and play on your mobile phone when it lets you be free?”
Spanner has written articles for several publications, including Retro Gamer. He is a self-proclaimed horror junkie, with a deep appreciation for all things Romero.