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Buzz-napping. Cutting purses. Bung diving. Whatever you call it, pickpocketing has slipped unnoticed into the game designer’s bag of go-to mechanics. It makes sense from a game design perspective. Pickpocketing allows players to collect small sums of money without unbalancing the game. It sets up interesting mission possibilities like stealing keys or items. However, the act itself is usually simple and uninvolved – a tertiary mechanic at best. Which begs the question, how do pickpocketing systems stack up to real-life pickpocketing techniques, and what could developers learn from the historical record if they wanted to expand or improve implementation?

A Varied Mechanic

Stealing is one of those videogame actions that can either be very simple or a large component of the world depending on context. In Saints Row the Third the Boss harvests money just by bumping into people on the street, and never risks being caught. Corvo in Dishonored can steal pouches with a button press, but only remains undetected if he stays out of the NPC’s sightline. The original Assassin’s Creed had Altaïr follow along behind characters for nearly five seconds before fleecing them – a tricky prospect – but all the subsequent games replaced this with a two-second meter where the player avoids detection by walking away as soon as the job’s complete. Thief 4 has a meter-based mechanic that seems to combine Dishonored with Assassin’s Creed. However, probably the most extensive pickpocketing system of the last few years was in Skyrim, which included an algorithm to calculate the player’s chance of stealing an object based on its weight, value and whether the target sees the player. In addition, in Skyrim the player was only one part of a vast thieving network – training his skills as part of the Thieves’ Guild and selling any stolen items to a fence. While many of these games hit on one or more themes of the pickpocketing experience, Skyrim depicted the system from start to finish.

The Golden Age of Pickpockets

Due to Oliver Twist‘s affect on the popular consciousness, when most people think about pickpockets they generally picture Victorian children’s gangs. While this isn’t wrong, highly trained pickpocketing outfits were alive and functioning over a century before Dickens conceived Fagan and the Artful Dodger. Pickpocketing had its greatest period of innovation in the 18th century during the Georgian and Regency periods. During this time, London swelled with new residents as the country transitioned from a more feudal economic model, based around agriculture, to a capitalist system that involved manufacturing goods and providing services. Common people who previously farmed and lived off the land abruptly had to learn about managing money. Cobblers and barrel-makers that were the only source of goods in their small town found themselves subject to market forces and competition. Poverty relief efforts that previously assisted the working poor – family support, parish charity, and gleaning a lord’s fields – turned out to be less viable in the city or vanished entirely.

But while deep urban poverty was becoming a force for the first time, the new economy raised up and expanded the new middle class, who wanted to buy all sorts of consumer goods to celebrate and enjoy their new success. To the poor, these goods were unattainably luxurious – a wig, for example, could cost the same amount an average worker would make in a good year. In other words, capitalism and urbanization simultaneously created desperate poverty as well as a new market for consumer goods that could be stolen and re-sold anonymously in the city’s markets. Add into the mix that London wouldn’t have a professional police force until 1829 and you have a situation almost guaranteed to breed new and innovative theft.

You can easily see this connection between consumer goods pickpocketing by examining the kind of things thieves stole. “Star-Glaziers” cut holes in shop windows and filched the goods on display. “Anglers” leaned out second floor windows, stealing hats, wigs and even pocketbooks with a fishing rod. “Tail Drawers” stole gentlemen’s swords from their hips and “resurrection men” robbed corpses from cemeteries and sold them to anatomy students. We see, then, that contrary to most games that depict pickpockets stealing money, historical thieves were more like the ones in Skyrim, who steal precious objects then sell them through a fence.

Who Were the Pickpockets?

On the whole, most pickpockets during the Georgian era were children who would steal under the direction of an adult. Loose throngs of rascals would invade fairs, markets and theater crowds, stealing handkerchiefs, snipping off gold buttons or silver shoe buckles and then disappearing into crowd. They’d bring any goods they lifted back to their keeper, who’d fence them and provide the children – most between 12 and 14 but some as young as six – with food, gin, tobacco and prostitutes. Pickpocketing gangs preferred children because they were quick and nimble, exactly the right height to dip into pockets and able escape through a crowd. As an added benefit, English courts couldn’t sentence anyone under the age of seven to death – the standard punishment for theft of goods over 1 shilling in value – and had to prove special malice to execute someone between seven and fourteen. This was perfect for the gangs, who invested in their young charges long-term by teaching them the trade and hoping they’d grow up to take on bigger, more lucrative criminal activities. Most pickpocket gangs had formal training programs, called “schools of vice” by Victorian era reformers, where adult criminals engrained the lessons of theft through beatings. Whenever pickpockets became too big for the trade, they moved up in the organization, advancing to more serious crime like burglary or mugging.

But pickpocketing wasn’t the sole domain of children – women too had the nimble fingers and quick hands required in the trade. Prostitutes in particular were known to steal (or have an accomplice steal) a client’s possessions while he was distracted. The problem was so prevalent that both high and low culture tried to warn men about the danger. William Hogarth’s third oil painting in A Rake’s Progress shows a drunken Tom Rakewell being fleeced by prostitutes at the Rose Tavern, for instance, and Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, an infamous 18th century guidebook to London’s prostitutes, warned purchasers away from women known for theft. “She is as light finger’d and expert as a juggler,” said the List, of Miss West of No. 14 Wild Street. “And can pick her gallant’s pocket very coolly.”

So looking at history, we see that most pickpockets weren’t adult males like the protagonists of Assassin’s Creed and Dishonored, but instead were largely children and women. However, Skyrim was extremely on-point with its characterization of another aspect of pickpocketing – that of the “schools of vice.” In Skyrim, the player can’t become a truly successful pickpocket until he or she joins the Thieves’ Guild, thereby gaining access to the organization’s training as well as becoming subservient to its hierarchy. And in both Skyrim as in real life, pickpocketing is only an initiation before the apprentice thief moves on to bigger and more serious crimes.

Ingenious Historical Methods

“No cleverer pickpockets exist than in this country,” wrote Swiss traveler Cesar de Saussure, reporting that thieves had stolen his snuffbox. He was especially vexed because he’d taken precautions: “[I] placed it into the pocket of my carefully buttoned waistcoat; my coat was buttoned likewise, and I was holding both my hands over the pockets of my coat.” Despite this, poor de Saussure never had a chance against the studied tactics of London’s buzz-nappers.

Pickpocketing is an urban crime. It requires big city crowds, not only to provide targets but also because the rush of city life gives thieves pretense to get close to their target then disappear into a the thousand other faces. Georgian-era gangs usually targeted large crowds. They favored theaters and parades, as well as the hanging fields at Tyburn, where they stole beneath the scaffold as fellow pickpockets died for the same crime. Having said that, Georgian pickpockets didn’t simply stick their hands in someone’s pocket, their world was filled with subtle stratagems and fast cons that meant gang members had to be actors in addition to being thieves.

Many tactics involved a team of pickpockets working together, with one acting as a diversion. “Abraham Men” would feign madness to steal attention away from their accomplices. “Confek Cranks” faked epileptic seizures. Sometimes one gang member would trip a gentlemen or knock them down “accidentally,” and his accomplices would fleece the victim while pretending to help him up. Others would sneak up on a gentlemen and knock his hat over his eyes, then dive into his pockets when the mark raised his arms to readjust his headgear. In all these cases, they’d hand stolen goods off to another gang member who’d immediately slither away through the crowd. However, the most common and effective group tactic was for the most suspicious-looking gang member to bump into a mark. The victim, thinking he may have just been pickpocketed, would then feel for his valuables, telegraphing their presence to accomplices down the street. Modern thieves have refined this tactic – instead of bumping into people, they simply hang “Beware of Pickpockets” signs in heavily-trafficked areas.

Other criminals used disguises to facilitate their schemes. The most ingenious pickpocket in English history was a woman named Mary Young, alias “Jenny Diver.” Jenny had a particularly interesting disguise – a dress that made her look heavily pregnant and included a pair of false arms folded in her lap. That way, she could attend church services and raid her neighbors’ valuables without drawing suspicion to herself. The pregnancy disguise also made an excellent distraction when she’d pratfall in front of a crowd, causing a huddle of people to rush to her aid and help her up (without realizing her friends were stealing their watches). But Jenny was far from the only pickpocket to use a disguise. Stylishly-dressed thieves known as “Spruce Prigs” would blend in with the aristocracy at society balls and the opera, where the better element mingled dressed head-to-toe in luxury goods.

Most Spruce Prigs were former footmen who knew the ins and outs of living in the great houses, and though they operated in a risky environment the payoffs could be immense. One enterprising soul managed to lift a gold and diamond watch from a woman at a court ball, despite the fact that she was on the arm of King George I. Another infiltrated Windsor Castle and made off with a diamond buckle. Overall, these distraction, disguise and teamwork tactics were so effective that pickpockets still use them today. The only major difference is that many thieves now use a pair of tongs rather than reaching into a pocket with their bare hands.

We actually see a lot of these distraction and disguise tactics playing out in games. While it’s not necessarily used to aid in pickpocketing, it’s perfectly normal in the Assassin’s Creed series to hire courtesans or thieves to distract guards while you loot the chest they’ve left unattended. Likewise, in Dishonored Corvo attends a high society party in disguise, and though his aim is to destroy Lady Boyle, he can also make a fortune filching the guests’ purses as well. (Corvo is actually not a pickpocket, but a cutpurse – someone who slices off pouches or pockets, which used to be worn on the outside of clothing. Sewn-in pockets weren’t a reality until the 18th century for men, and women had to wait nearly two centuries longer.)

Improving Mechanics and Context

Overall, pickpocketing mechanics work well in all the games we’ve discussed. Skyrim‘s system is the most complex and interesting, since it calculates the percentage chance of success based on the item’s weight, value and whether the target is looking at the player. Assassin’s Creed, Dishonored and Saints Row‘s mechanics get the job done without bogging down play, but aren’t particularly special or memorable. One way to improve the mechanic in action games like these would be to make pickpocketing a little trickier but still keep it brief. Developers could do this by leveraging the highly-touted impulse triggers on the Xbox One, which could offer feedback as you dip your hand into an NPC’s pocket. Not enough trigger rumble and you come back with nothing, too much and you alert the mark. Alternately, games on the Playstation 4 could incorporate the touch pad on the back of the controller – though hopefully better than Assassin’s Creed: Liberation did in its finicky pickpocketing system.

As for how games portray the criminal culture surrounding the craft, Skyrim actually does quite a good job with its Thieves’ Guild and fences. Perhaps future games could tweak the system to include bonuses if the player tricks a mark into telegraphing the location of their valuables or have the player work in teams with NPCs. Games could include more female pickpockets as well, since they’ve always been prominent in the trade. Or, as games seem to be experimenting with mechanics other than killing, it would be interesting to see what developers could do with a dynamic pickpocketing system in a game where stealing, rather than killing, is the primary action.

But even if that doesn’t happen, even if stealing remains a third-tier mechanic not as important as fighting or magic, pickpocketing is here to stay. It’s useful, it’s fun to get away with, and it has an undeniable mystique. Because one thing has never changed between the London rookeries and next-generation consoles – if you want to survive on the streets, you’ve got to pick a pocket or two.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher currently based in Hong Kong. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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