By Fran Molloy
November 24, 2005
You're moving through the streets of Melbourne stalking your quarry. A phone call on your GPS mobile phone tells you your target is only a few streets away. A direct kill means boosting your team's score. And in this game, winning is everything.
Welcome to the world of "real-life" games that blur the boundary between gaming and reality.
Last year the classic arcade game Pacman came to life on the streets of New York. A player dressed as Pacman ran around Manhattan collecting virtual "dots" while trying to evade four players dressed as ghosts. Each player had a human controller back at base who monitored their progress online and phoned through strategy and advice.
A few months later, a lab at Singapore National University had developed a version of the same game using GPS and motion sensors to track players through the city's streets. This time, players could see the game overlaid on the real world through special goggles called augmented-reality headsets.
A lab at the the University of South Australia is also working on moving gaming from the couch and on to the streets by projecting games into the real world.
"Our work is designed to be as realistic as possible and the user carries quite a bit of equipment," Dr Wayne Piekarski, assistant director of the Wearable Computing Lab, says.
"The user walks outside wearing a head-mounted display and can see virtual monsters overlaid onto the landscape."
The work by Dr Piekarski's lab is part of a bigger move in recent years that has seen gaming companies getting physical, including the development of vibrating game controllers, Sony's eye-toy games - which follow body movements - and arcade dancing games such as Dance Dance Revolution.
But it hasn't been enough, and gamers are finding all sorts of ways to hit the streets as artists join the push to move gamers off the couch.
Last month, British art collective Blast Theory ran a version of its chase game Can You See Me Now? at the Cardiff Festival. In an extraordinary blend of cyberspace and reality, players on the streets using hand-held computers hunted down online players.
"We ran a ridiculous number of kilometres," Blast Theory developer and artist Ju Row Farr says.
"We weren't fit enough for the online players and had to develop strategies on the ground to go after people."
The Blast Theory collective is working with the European Project on Pervasive Gaming, a consortium of universities in Sweden, Britain, Germany and Finland, to extend gaming into the real world.
Thanks to portable GPS units, mobile phones, public wi-fi hotspots and the internet, gamers worldwide are now roaming cities in the guise of their gaming personas, which can range from spies and assassins to poker players, detectives, ghosts and even characters from the wild west.
At the same time as people are diving into game worlds, the games are starting to invade the real world.
Other games need GPS to find a clue at a map co-ordinate or might require wireless networks, hand-held computers and mobile web cams.
Far from being socially isolating, players say the games can significantly enhance their lives.
"These games encourage interaction in real life," says Jackie Kerr, a 26-year-old US science researcher from Baltimore.