Painting the Town Blue and Green: Curating Street Art through Urban Mobile Gaming

Kyle Moore

Abstract


Released in 2012 as an Android only open-beta, Ingress is an alternate-reality game for mobile devices. Developed by Niantic Labs, a subsidiary of Google, Ingress now has 7 million users worldwide (Ingress) on both Android and Apple operating systems. Players are aligned to one of two opposing factions, the Resistance (Blue) and the Enlightened (Green). Working on behalf of their faction, individual players interact with “portals” in order to establish dominance over material environments. Portals are located at places of educational or historical value, public artworks, “hyper-local” locations, public libraries, and also places of worship (Google, “Candidate Portal Criteria”). Players take on the role of portal creators, submitting potential portals to the game developers after confirming their location in the game (Google, “New Portal Submissions”).

Portals become the primary point of interaction for players, bridging the digital world of the game with the players’ surrounding material environments. Players may gain inventory by hacking portals in order to destroy and (re)claim portals. Territories are claimed by forging links between fully developed portals in order to establish control fields. Portals play an important part not only of the game but in situating the practice of play within the larger sociocultural and material framework of the urban environment. Players navigate their material environment, using portals and digital representations of such spaces alongside their existing knowledge of local environments, to engage with their immediate location as efficiently as possible. While numerous public landmarks are currently used as portals, the primary interest of this paper is the role street art plays within the game, and within the larger practice of curating the city.

This paper addresses the practice of playing Ingress as a form of situated play—that is, the notion that play is underscored by sociocultural and material circumstance, while simultaneously contributing to a new shared understanding of what constitutes urban play and the conditions that underscore it. In doing so, this paper firstly addresses the notion of play as a situated practice, mobilising concepts from the field of human–computer interaction as well as cultural studies analyses of games and gaming culture. This framework is applied to the practice of playing Ingress with specific focus on the role street art has in the practice of playing. The discussion of urban play as a means of exhibiting street art is extended to discuss the cultural practice of street art itself, with both occupying the liminal space struggle over the functionality of public space. Both practices occupy this liminal space between subversive use of urban environments and a form of legitimate art—a debate which has been central to forms of urban gaming.

By focusing on the role of street art in urban mobile gaming, this paper addresses the cultural function of both practices, while addressing larger questions of curatorship within the urban environment. That is: how can the practice of play, as informed by the practice of street art, be thought of as a means of curating urban spaces? This paper goes on to argue that the practice of urban play may be viewed as a form of curation via the practice of re-reading, re-mixing, and re-mediating urban environments—establishing a new shared understanding of street art, urban environments, and urban play.

In this paper I argue that urban mobile games such as Ingress are best thought of as a situated practice. The idea of situated practice is drawn from the fields of game studies and human–computer interaction, and the concept of situated learning. Firstly, situated practice draws from the concept of situated gaming, a term established by Yates and Littleton to understand the cultural niches in which video gaming takes place. For Yates and Littleton, these cultural niches arise from an interaction between gaming, gamers, and gaming culture—all of which are discursively constructed and culturally relative practices. Apperley (Gaming) expands on these ideas to define situated gaming as, firstly, an inclusion of the materiality of embodied gaming experiences and, secondly, an intersection of local gaming cultures and a larger global gaming ecology. Drawing from Suchman’s concept of situated actions, such interactions with technology must be understood as contextualised within specific sociocultural and material circumstances. Dourish expands on Suchman’s work and suggests thinking less about these contexts and more on the practice of technological engagement, of making meaning out of our interaction with technology. This use of “practice” is influenced by the work of Lave and Wenger, who situate learning within a social setting, what they term a “community of practice”.

In short, then, the act of playing Ingress is not only an interaction with underlying sociocultural and material circumstance which constitute the urban and play but also a process of generating a shared understanding of both the urban and play within this specific context.

Fig. 1: A view of Ingress’s map showing nearby portal using navigation function.

Playing with Street Art

Ingress functions foremost as a form of urban play; it is a mobile game with location-aware capabilities. The practice of playing games within urban environments is often compared to historically situated forms of urban exploration, such as the Situationist International practice of dérive—a form of urban drifting that is often compared to contemporary forms of mobile-mediated urban play (de Souza e Silva and Hjorth; Flanagan; Stevens). Ingress players, in their creation and constant interaction with portals, assist in the mapping of material environments—benefiting both communities of play and the game’s designers, Niantic Labs and parent company Google. Players are able to submit portals to the game’s developers if their proposed portal meets the satisfaction of the developer’s portal requirements. Portals may be erected at “a location with a cool story, a place in history or educational value … a cool piece of art or unique architecture … a hidden gem of hyper-local spot” (Google, Candidate Portal criteria).

A large number of public marks form the basis of Ingress portals, alongside plaques and prominent signage. Significantly, through their submission of portals players are participating in legitimising the history of a number of locations, ensuring up-to-date mapping of locations and landmarks. While a number of other landmarks form the basis of Ingress’s dense map of material environments, this paper is primarily concerned with the role public art plays in the practice of urban play and the curatorial possibilities of urban play.  

Given the portal criteria put in place by the game’s developers, Ingress pays a certain amount of attention to the historical, sociocultural, and material circumstance which constitute specific locations. As a mobile game, Ingress occupies a certain place within the history of playing in urban environments. Such historical practices have been previously discussed at length, drawing comparisons between practices of urban mobility which are themselves situated in specific historical and sociocultural movements (de Souza e Silva and Hjorth; Flanagan; Stevens).

Ingress, via its inclusion of street art as a potential anchor for digital portals, draws on this historical struggle over urban environments and the inherent questions of functionality and organisation which emerge from this struggle. For Stenros, Montola, and Mäyrä (262), pervasive gaming, a form of urban mobile gaming, occupies a similar cultural space to that of street art or graffiti. They argue that both practices are located within a larger struggle over public space—a struggle grounded in urbanisation, legislation, and cultural norms. Drawing comparisons between more contemporary forms of urban mobility, such as the practice/sport of parkour or skateboarding, and the historically situated flâneur or urban stroller, the authors suggest that pervasive forms of gaming and play occupy a similar liminal space and are grounded in questions of urban functionality. Similarly, the urban space may become a gallery or canvas, a space that may be subject to curatorship that is not bound to institutional bodies. The organisation and experience of urban environments then becomes deeply involved in a contested ownership and questions of functionality that are at the heart of urban play.

Within the context of Australia, the struggle over the legitimacy of both street art and video games has been subject to ongoing legal discourses. The liminal relationship between gaming and street art is perhaps best illustrated by the 2006 game Marc Ecko’s Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure. The game was granted an MA15+ rating under the existing model of video game regulation but was later refused classification due to its depiction of antisocial behaviour. The game’s rating was appealed by the Queensland Local Government Association. Apperley (“Video”) provides further details on this issue, situating the legislative decision within the historical and political context of Australia at the time, and offering insight into the means in which Getting Up represented street art as a legitimate art form.

The game’s narrative, a dystopian future where graffiti is mobilised as a form of social protest against authoritarian bodies, is similar to that of the 2002 game Jet Set Radio Future. However, unlike Jet Set, Getting Up was grounded in a detailed representation of graffiti subcultures. Getting Up’s refused classification is symbolic of the later Australian landscape in which video games and street art occupy a liminal space between art form and artistic practice. The key issue, that of antisocial behaviour, links to the notion of cultural norms and the functionality, organisation, and representations within urban spaces and, moreover, within spaces of play. This struggle for legitimacy is key to understanding the relationship between street art and urban play.

Despite the struggle to overcome the functionality of urban environments, street art retains levels of value as a form of cultural heritage. Both Merrill and MacDowall discuss the cultural functions of graffiti and street art, focusing on what Merrill terms a turn towards “post-graffiti”—a shift from the historical and cultural roots of street art and the practice of tagging (373). Such a turn is exemplified by an increased public interest: a legitimisation of artistic practices. Perhaps the most notable figure of such a shift is the Bristol artist Banksy, who is most famous for stencil based art. Graffiti and street art have arguably moved beyond their function as a subversive and subcultural movement, occupying a more legitimate space within urban environments and general public discourse.

Within the context of Ingress, street art holds the potential to exist as a digital node of equal value to historical plaques, public libraries, or large commissioned public artworks. This shift, argues Merrill (385) allows for street art and graffiti to be viewed as a form of alternative heritage to urban environments and cultural movements within specific locations. For MacDowell (476), graffiti may be viewed as a form of folk art, subject to new-found romanticism within the context of this “post-graffiti” turn. That is, as a form of alternative heritage, graffiti and street art signify historically situated sociocultural movements and the roots of the practice itself. Games such as Ingress, then, not only legitimate street art as a form of cultural heritage via their inclusion in a non-hierarchical network alongside longstanding institutionalised buildings and artworks but also allow players to participate in an archiving of street art through interactive cartography. The practice of playing Ingress, then, is not only a means of viewing and exploring existing street art but also a direct process in achieving and curating historically situated works of art.

Fig. 2: Portal information illustrating possible actions, portal level, and resonator information.  

Urban Play and “the New Curatorship”

Having considered the role of graffiti or street art within urban play as a form of cultural heritage, as a means of linking to the roots of the practice itself and signifying a struggle over the urban environment as a space of predetermined functions, the question then is: what role does the practice of curatorship have within this mesh of interconnected practices? For Bennett and Beudel, the work of the curator, as a caretaker of cultural heritage, is often institutionalised. Within the context of the city, such institutionalisation is itself a symptom of the city as a spectacle. The authors argue that there is the potential for art to be present on a range of surfaces within the urban environment, and call into question the role of the curator within this process.

As Groys notes, since Duchamp, the ontological division between the labour of making art and displaying art has collapsed. Public urban spaces, as designed spaces regulated by institutional bodies, are subject to the changing practice of audiences. That is, those who inhabit and experience the urban environment itself now have the possibility to participate or subvert traditional curatorial structures. Drawing on the etymology of the word “curate” as related to “cure,” Groys (53) suggests that the exhibition practice is thus a cure to the powerlessness of the image—a contextualisation of the image within new institutionalised frameworks for a viewing public.

Who, then, in the network of relations that is urban play, constitutes this public? Ingress players function as one faction of a public who view, inhabit, move through, and experience the urban environment and any subsequent street art within. As such, they have the potential to take on a curatorial role within the organisation of street art—recontextualising such artworks and generating a new shared understanding of the sociocultural and material conditions which contribute to a broad understanding of the urban and urban play.  

As such, these forms of digitally mediated urban play blur boundaries between production, consumption, and play. Players, regardless of whether they had a hand in submitting portals to the game’s developers, are articulating a collectively organised database of public art. The practice of curation, as described by Potter, is essential for contemporary digital gaming practices. Players are constantly participating in transmedia landscapes, articulating their literacies through the practice of arranging, assembling, cataloguing, collecting, distributing, and disassembling digital media (Apperley “Glitch” 240; Potter 175).

Within Apperley’s example of Minecraft, play unites creativity and the curatorial as one activity. Within the context of Ingress, the practice of play brings together the practice of cartography and of the curatorial. Players, as individuals and as larger localised or global factions, participate in a global mapping of material space, expanding Google’s already extensive collection of cartographic data. Players are more concerned with exploring and territorialising within the context of local spaces, at the level of the national or regional. Such practices are an articulation of localised bodies of knowledge and often of local histories and contexts. Street art forms an integral part of this sociocultural and material fabric which underscores the practice of play. Thus, urban spaces are not subject to a transformative process, but rather to a collective curatorship whereby street art, and its embedded cultural heritage, form a key foundation of how play is performed within urban environments.

Through the practice of arranging, assembling, cataloguing, collecting, distributing, and disassembling, the practices of urban play may be thought of as what Potter terms “new curatorship.” Potter’s notion of curatorship is grounded in the identity formation of young children through their use of social media and articulation of digital literacy practices.

With playful urban practices such as Ingress, this practice is an articulation of urban literacies: of understanding the rich cultural heritage of specific locations, and of constituting the player’s identity as tied to these specific locations. Players no longer perform merely as an audience for existing forms of urban or street art. Alongside the technological infrastructures put in place by the game’s developers, Niantic Labs and Google, players may be viewed as actively participating in a curatorial process. Players, in their articulation of complex systems and archives of street art, through the ability to constantly update, document, and construct urban narratives with street art at their core, may be viewed as co-curating urban environments. Working together with developers, street artists, and urban planners, players are constantly re-developing and sharing a new shared understanding of urban environments and the complex network of relations which constitutes the urban environment and the practice of urban play.

Fig. 3: Players may vote on and contribute new photographs to maintain accurate records of art.

Conclusion

To play Ingress is to participate in a situated practice of play. Here, play is grounded in material and sociocultural circumstance, with street art and graffiti representing just one of many practices which inform contemporary urban play. Within the context of Ingress, street art is played with as an object within the game (a portal), but it also occupies a similar liminal space. Both urban games and street art have been subject to ongoing debates about the functionality of urban spaces and appropriate behaviour within these spaces. Ingress also taps into street art as a form of cultural heritage; it represents shifts in power dynamics, local histories, and a range of other significant local histories. To play with street art is to acknowledge its roots, both on an international and local level. With the ability to digitally archive these histories and locations, as well as engage in the cartographic practice of urban play, Ingress players can thus be thought of as curators of the city. Through the lens of new curatorship, urban play can be thought of as a form of re-reading of urban environments, as a process of exhibiting a new-found shared understanding of specific locations and public artworks.

Street art and graffiti are just one of many sociocultural and material circumstances which inform the practice of urban play. During play, there is a critical reflection on the role street art has, not only during the current context of play but also more broadly as a key component of contemporary urban landscapes. Street art functions as a form of cultural heritage, as an element of urban exploration, and as a point of reference for navigating city spaces. Ingress brings together these interrelated forms of organising and sharing experiences of urban environments, through the practice of curation. Such practices are reflexively intertwined with playing urban mobile games as such Ingress. As such, the act of playing Ingress is, in essence, a form of urban literacy, as a practice of understanding the rich and complex sociocultural conditions which contribute to our understanding of urban environments. It is a practice of collecting, assembling, and exhibiting a range of locations. The practice of playing Ingress is a collective curation of city spaces on a global scale.

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Keywords


ingress; mobile gaming; location-based games



Copyright (c) 2015 Kyle Moore

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