Reaching an imagined better world through urban play

Activism can be expressed in the form of street protest. Open and accessible public spaces are places for social discourse and cultural change, or platforms for the performance of possible worlds.

Given that most people will live in rapidly expanding urban centres by 2050, the rules and systems of our cities increasingly define our shared world. Cities are usually constructed, coded and created from a set of beliefs or values that emerge from a social imaginary, a ‘world view’ of the dominant classes—‘the way the world is’.

For those whose beliefs or values have been excluded from this act of real-world building, cities are sites of resistance and survival, places to be changed.

Cities are not solid and enduring but sites of constant demolition and construction. Ongoing infrastructure development, accelerating urban growth responding to shifting and rising populations, and multiple layers of human settlement emerging from urbanisation, make cities sites of change and transformation.

The forces of urbanisation are equally shaped by less tangible forms of infrastructure such as flows of data and media throughout cities that shape the codes and behaviour of their inhabitants. Technologies may lead to increased democratisation of public space or be platforms for corporate-led surveillance and control.

Cities can be seen as contested zones, battlegrounds for competing worlds.

Social imaginaries can be expressed through cities. An urban imaginary can be understood as a collective set of cultural symbols and social values bound to a civic identity, a possible world.

‘Moving Earths’, a performance-lecture by philosopher Bruno Latour, addressed the climate crisis, overpopulation and urbanisation. In comparing the conflicting world views of Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg, Latour observes that they ‘inhabit different planets—Trump’s is without limits, and Greta’s is trembling and terribly finite; we realise we hardly know it, and it is changing out of control.’ Using a photograph of their encounter at the UN for dramatic effect, he shows them on the same planet but inhabiting vastly different social imaginaries.

In their book Seeing Like a City, academics Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift are also interested in mapping different social imaginaries. Each city relies on a hinterland one hundred times its size to support it, consuming massive amounts of resources. Each city is embedded, situated, and interconnected with the world.

How we relate to the cities we live in shapes our perception of these imaginaries and our relationships with them. Seeing a city as a closed system means seeing a monolithic megastructure, unknowable and unchangeable. Seeing it as an open system—seeing it like a city—means being embedded in its processes of becoming, able to be contested and reimagined.

Being in the lived experience of the city offers a different perspective through an ongoing, situated occupation of the codes and layers of its sociotechnical assemblage.

Seeing the city in this way opens it up to exploration and play. While ‘play’ is largely associated with children’s play or games as entertainment, children and adults clearly enjoy being at play. For children it is actually experiential learning, a way of learning modes of being in the world, understanding social rules and systems.

For adults, play is associated with recreation, entertainment, enjoyment and fun—game design capitalises on this to capture people’s attention. However, play can also be serious and critical, provocative and persuasive, personal and political. Adults too can learn from play. Culturally we are not accustomed to thinking about play in this way; it seems counterintuitive.


Reconnecting with place

The pandemic encourages walkers to be more aware of their surroundings as they break up their day immersed in rediscovery of local neighbourhoods. At the same time, the mobile phone can remain a source of distraction as it competes for people’s attention. However, the phone also offers new opportunities to promote play, relaxation and wellbeing. While not a solution, urban play using mobiles invite potential forms of resistance for reshaping the world from within.

Urban play often starts with familiar, everyday behaviour and reframes it in relation to the world and player experience. For example, the simple act of walking is being explored through audiowalks, live art, augmented reality and alternative cartographies. These playful strategies explore the mobile as a site of resistance by working with the speculative and imaginative qualities of urban play. The ubiquitous mobile becomes another platform for counterculture, a way back in, to shift people’s perceptions and experiences of cities.

Play within the mobile world as a site for social change is a strategy for resisting dominant urban codes. For example, N’arweet Carolyn Briggs lives and works in Melbourne, a coastal city that sits upon Boon Wurrung country stretching from one side of Port Phillip Bay to the other—and beyond. However, in the dominant codes of this place, currently known as Melbourne, she does not see herself in the city.

Working with digital storyteller Olivia Guntarik, she recorded Boon Wurrung stories of land, river and sky. These stories are featured in an app playable while walking through the Melbourne campus of RMIT University. The stories are situated directly in relation to these places as they are now, placing Indigenous knowledge within our lived experience of the city, not something displaced or in the past, but here, happening right now.

Urban play asks us to explore and connect with the lived experience of the city by blending physical objects with digital interfaces in imaginative and playful ways. Players are asked to put their phone away, during encounters with abstracted wayfinding markers, performed through augmented reality Wayfinder Live. This reframes and draws attention to reading codes within everyday urban environments.

The game has been performed in Melbourne, Bristol, Aarhus, Barcelona, Tampere, Dublin, and Singapore. In each city a walkable, playable map that works with the city, as the main material of the work, offers a way to be lost and immersed in an experience of the city, a heightened sense of place. Through this experience players are invited into a speculative relationship with their urban environments, into processes of decoding that draw attention to the highly coded and constructed nature of cities. Dominant codes present within their material and digital layers are contested.

Playful ways of connecting to ‘open data’ change our relationships to cities through an increased awareness of datafication. Many urban datasets focus on built infrastructure, traffic and parking. In Melbourne, this data also includes its trees, allowing data visualisation expert Greg More to map this urban forest—and give people an opportunity to talk to the trees.

An initiative of the City of Melbourne, each tree in the city has a unique code, a number used as an email address for each of the 70,000 trees identified in the dataset. Bringing trees into the realm of communication usually reserved for humans resituates them in relation to the city. Nature is acknowledged and seen in a new light.

The original intent of the trees’ email address was for the reporting of broken branches or other issues. However, people quickly became playful and wrote love letters, shared their feelings or imagined the lives of the trees. This experience suggests alternate sets of relations with the other-than-human in our cities. Imaginative interactions with urban environments, and an increased awareness of the value of green spaces in urban planning, are activated.


Urban play and social change

When play happens in cities it can enhance collective world building projects, shaping social imaginaries through its speculative, imaginative, generative qualities. Urban play situated within public space often appropriates and defamiliarises its codes and rules through the lens of a game world.

Rather than offering escape or entertainment, it can offer another, different experience or perspective on existing places in a diverse range of urban environments. Streets and laneways, walking trails and rivers, public squares and parks all become sites for playful interaction. Thus, urban play can be a catalyst for practical and desirable social change.

Urban play is a complex and transdisciplinary practice. It traverses a varied terrain comprising public art, game development, landscape architecture, live art, town planning and community activism. Its origins lie in playgrounds that emerged in post-war cities of the twentieth century.

Strategic deployments of play were central to the strategies of the Situationist International who played a role in May ’68 riots in Paris. Led by Debord, a French Marxist, filmmaker and philosopher, they developed playful strategies that challenged the instrumentality of the modern city, such as the dérive that invites free, personal urban exploration.

In the 1970s, Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed challenged existing social relations and roles in public space through participatory theatre situated within Argentinian cities. He did this through theatre that was invisible. The audience was simply people who happened to be on the street at the time. Participants were given roles to guide their performance but there was no script, and dramatic events arose through improvisation with each other and the public.

In the same period, De Koven and collaborators of the New Games Movement established forms of public play that were creative rather than competitive in American and Australian cities. Known for games such as Earthball, in which scores of people work together to keep a giant globe afloat, they worked with game design principles based on collaboration and cooperation. Similar to sports such as basketball and football, these games took place in public space but focused on creating connection and community rather than separating players into teams and setting them against one another.

More recently, urban play has taken a technological turn as it appropriates and reconfigures pervasive media platforms in public space, ranging from mobile phones to public infrastructure. It resists the utilitarian roles of cities and reimagines them as playgrounds, challenging our transactional relationships within cities with other ways of being. It provides a frame to linger, explore, amble, waste time, get lost, drift—to play with public space without any purpose or intent.

Urban play reveals potential sites of soft activism, sites of resistance that show the city as it could be, or once was, rather than how it is now.


Resist, reimagine, reconnect

If this sounds optimistic, it is. First of all, not all neighbourhoods are created equal. Pervasive racism is highly visible in public space, limiting behaviour or access through codes that signal different sets of permissions from belonging to exclusion. There is a hierarchy of freedoms. Not everyone is able to freely drift through the city lost in their own imagination.

By way of example, when it seemed that the entire world was playing Pokémon GO, racial profiling created vastly different experiences for players, as reported in the experiences of marginalised groups when the game swept the nation in 2016.

And, urban play can often be misused as spectacle, as a distraction from social issues through ‘playwashing’—temporary, loud and often brightly coloured moments of fun in problematic neighbourhoods ‘to make everyone’s problems go away’. Of course, they don’t. Funded by corporate or government interests, urban play is exploited to simply increase social capital in neighbourhoods losing value, because they are perceived as unsafe, in decline or otherwise problematic.

Likewise, authentic urban play is not gamification—literally turning public spaces into games through the application of game design such as competition and point scoring. Using games to reinforce and reward civic rules and regulations too easily resembles systems of social credit. These systems would track public behaviour of individuals using a range of technologies—facial recognition, data tracking, sensors and networks—to calculate a score for each citizen, in order to lock out of selected public services those who score poorly. In this way, games could be used as a punishment for undesirable behaviour in technologically determined cities of surveillance and control.

This approach needs to be resisted at all costs. Not only does instrumentalising urban play take the fun out of it, but it also fails to recognise intrinsic values of urban play, such as its capacity to create community connection and social wellbeing. Free forms of social play without useful or material interest bring players into ways of being that are imaginative and creative rather than reductive and controlling.


Serious urban play

Serious urban play is a form of alternate world-building, a positive, participatory public practice that is situated in deeper connections to place. If this sounds optimistic, it is. If this sounds hopeful, it is. There is a need for social, urban imaginaries that present alternatives to technological smart city utopias and dystopian modern ruins.

The pandemic questions our current ways of urban life altogether—perhaps we don’t need cities at all or at the very least, reimagine our collective ways of living together to prioritise community connection and social wellbeing. Urban play is one way to engage in these conversations about place.

Before the pandemic, people were already seeking other ways of being in cities. Global disruptions to urban life have given people pause to think, shifted perspectives, allowed for time to reflect and try new approaches to work and life, although often by necessity.

Community-driven approaches play a role in shaping urban environments and these have been part of our collective response to change. A renewed focus on the hyperlocal has filled usually empty suburban neighbourhoods with people walking, cycling, playing outdoors and sourcing things locally.

Tactical urbanism has responded to changes in people’s needs and behaviour, with car parking spaces being converted to makeshift bike lanes and low-cost, temporary infrastructure. This shows a flexibility and resilience to urban environments which we often don’t recognise, often seeing them as fixed, bound by rules not able to be changed.

Urban play is a way into alternate social imaginaries, a way to explore and socialise possible futures. What emerges through play is other stories, ideas and experiences. In this way the city becomes a material for play with possibility.


Image: A code from Wayfinder Live

Troy Innocent

Troy Innocent is an urban play scholar and artist gamemaker, and VC Senior Research Fellow at RMIT University. Through his creative practice research he has played on the streets of Melbourne, Bristol, Barcelona, Istanbul, Ogaki, Sydney and Hong Kong. Innocent is the creator of 64 Ways of Being, a free-to-play app making cities playable through augmented reality.

More by Troy Innocent ›

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