• Man is jumping high in front of grafitti wall..

    Urban gaming – Why playing in the city brings happiness.

    Researchers declare war on lack of exercise and turn the city into a playground for young and old.

    Text: Claudio Rimmele

Inspiring the imagination.

In one of his essays, the Turkish author Orhan Pamuk enthused about an Istanbul he described as a forest of stairways full of children playing. Far away from the lives of adults, children create a secret world in their play. They have the gift of being able to transform even the most ordinary location into an adventure playground. Where there are no swings, roundabouts or climbing frames to set the agenda, their imagination takes over and summons the surroundings into life: a bench turns into a raft, the staircase becomes a water slide, the multi-storey car park is a labyrinth requiring exploration. However, the powers of the imagination and the pleasure of play don’t cease when childhood ends. More and more inner-city projects such as Invisible Playground from Berlin and apps like Pokémon Go! are proving that adults too can turn the city into their playground. What lies behind the concept of urban gaming?

Man balances football on arm.
  • Man balances football on arm.

Urban gaming – more than a pastime.

The urban gaming phenomenon is closely associated with the technological progress made in the field of digital communication. Chat groups, apps and Facebook enable people, sometimes complete strangers, to meet up to turn their city into a playground. In some cases this involves creating multidimensional versions of simple board games, but there are also adaptations of computer games, such as Pac Manhattan, in which a player dressed up as Pac-Man has to earn points by completing an obstacle course in New York. In other games, whole teams compete against each other to locate an item hidden somewhere in the city. Or, thanks to Augmented Reality, unfamiliar areas can be explored using a mobile phone. From urban paper chases to fantasy role-playing, there are no limits to the creativity involved.

You can often take part in these games without having to pay any kind of fee. As a player, the main requirement is an inquisitive mind and some free time. The objective of many games is to break through or challenge the structures of everyday life. Once stimulated, the imagination will alter your perception of the city and in some cases completely put it on hold. The rules of many urban games reflect interpersonal structures such as professional hierarchies or social isolation, and can sharpen your critical perspective on your own behaviour. In the game a new world emerges which the players are free to help create. Being made aware of one’s actual role in the social fabric generates new motivation to challenge or even change one’s everyday attitudes. For example, the way we look after our bodies.

Man does exercises on colorful mat.

Fit for the game, fit for life?

More and more doctors and scientists are talking about a global health crisis affecting the western world. Increasing obesity among children and young adults is having drastic consequences for our health systems. The last thirty years have seen a steady rise in the average body fat percentage and body weight of children. Added to this is the problem that around fifty percent of children and young people take too little exercise to develop a healthy cardio-vascular system and strong muscles. The problem for many is a lack of motivation. Television, computer games and smartphones are leading increasingly to isolation instead of communal games in the fresh air. And for most adults it’s the same story these days. It is precisely this crisis of motivation to which urban gaming provides a creative solution.

Fun and games for a healthier lifestyle.

This has now been recognised by academics: a new research team at Darmstadt University is developing health-promoting games for the cities of the future. Their work on the “Urban Health Games” project involves testing games designed to motivate children to pick the healthier version of an activity when offered a choice. A child who takes the stairs at school instead of the lift gets bonus points in the game. Other games prompt children to discover parks or other healthy locations in the city and make them part of their everyday lives. The research team is also looking at ways of designing a city to include games that enable residents to find more enjoyment in exercise. The idea of a “city for play” where people prefer to run up a brightly coloured staircase than take a hidden lift is gaining ground on an international level. The city of New York has produced its own Active Design Guidelines for urban development. These contain recommendations for incorporating elements of play in the design of staircases in public buildings and footpaths and cycle routes to motivate residents to use them. The games don’t need to be complicated in order to motivate people to use them.

Man does trick with football.
Man is running on colorful mat.

Making friends through play.

The special thing about urban gaming is that it’s good for our psyche and particularly for our social lives; it takes us away from the worries of everyday life and lowers stress levels. Urban games also counteract the anonymity of life in the city. People get to know each other on a very different level in games than in normal everyday situations. You get a chance to display an open and inquisitive side of your own personality which you might not let out much otherwise. It doesn’t matter whether you dress up as Pac-Man or a Pokémon, the main thing is for the game to inspire your imagination. The decline of physical activity resulting from technical progress can be reversed – with a little creativity. Even though urban gaming will probably never take off as a mass phenomenon, the insight it gives us into human motivation can help urban planners and architects to create healthier cities where even climbing the stairs comes with a guaranteed fun factor.