Social policy issues of mobile games

Stephan Meyers,

Mobile gaming background

What is mobile gaming? Many of us are familiarwith the simple games available on mobile phones, PDA's, and personalgaming consoles. These systems are portable, but are a far cryfrom where mobile gaming will take us. Future games will trulytake advantage of mobile technology, directly integrating withthe player's lifestyle and sensing intimate data such as location,proximity to other players, and mood.

The removal of displacement

In our paper from last year,Neuropsychologyand Game Designmy coauthor and I discussed the importanceofdisplacementin traditional computer game design. Weintend the word to refer to the "ability of a person to projectthe mental model of his or her own identity into another physicalform, which represents the player in an alternative environment" [1]

The phenomenon is especially obvious when playinga third person videogame. The player feels like he is skiing,driving, or playing basketball, rather than sitting on a couch.Another example would be playing with a remote control car ­your sense of self is centered in the car, rather than in yourbody, at least when you have good control of the vehicle.

However, it is important to note that many ofthe trends in mobile gaming are taking this sense of displacementout of the equation. Rather than projecting yourself into a representationof a character, these games leave your ego right where it started,centered in your body. This promises a new form of play, withnew metaphors and experiences.


The clearest example of the new interaction styleof mobile gaming was seen atthisyear's SIGGRAPH conferencein Los Angeles. Researchers fromthe NokiaResearch Centerworked with the Play Research Studio of the Interactive Institutein Sweden to create a new mobile game called Pirates! [2]

Players each received a handheld computer witha radio link to a computer server and location sensors that coulddetermine the position of the players relative to various basestations and one another. Each computer represented a pirate ship,with the player taking on the role of captain.

As players wandered the play area in the conference,they encountered islands (the base stations) with treasure, aswell as other ships. When two ships (players) meet, a battle typicallyensues, with the victor receiving a reward.

The interaction style is significantly differentfrom traditional video games. Rather than focusing on moving alittle pirate ship around on a screen, the player physically walksaround playing. Future games may take a slightly more passivetone ­ the game may just sit in your pocket until you happento walk near an island or randomly bump into another player onthe street.


While it's not strictly a mobile game, Majesticprovides an excellent example of this coming form of "undisplaced"computer gaming. Players who sign up for Majestic will find cluesto uncovering the conspiracy-theory narrative coming to them intheir everyday life. They will receive unexpected phone callsand faxes from game characters, warning them of danger or askingthem for help. Players might find clues in web sites, their localnewspaper, or (if the game becomes popular and makes enough money)in television broadcasts.

Majestic represents a coming shift in the waycomputer games might be played. If you can imagine movie-stylecredits in a video game, Tomb Raider might say "You as LaraCroft," whereas in Majestic the credits would read "Youplaying yourself."


Local confrontation

Imagine a mobile game, similar to Pirates!, beingplayed out in an American city. What happens when two players,belonging to rival high schools or, dare I say, gangs, seek outthe same game resource in the same place at the same time? "Yousank my battleship" could end up with someone in the hospitalor the morgue.

Please note that today, some virtual game itemsin online roleplaying games can sell at auction for hundreds oreven thousands of dollars. Within the game there can be fiercecompetition to get those items. If valuable virtual items aredistributed at physical locations, even otherwise reasonable peoplemay come to fisticuffs. When the disappointment and loss is happeningtoyouand not to a character on a screen, emotions mayrun higher than ever

How can we deal with this? I don't suggest thatthere should be any limits on such gaming ­ such problemsare the price of freedom. But I think we can expect this to happen,and happen soon. How should we, as a society, deal with gamesthat are no longer affecting abstract characters on a screen,but rather affecting the player directly?

Flash crowds

In a 1974 science fiction story, "The LastDays of the Permanent Floating Riot Club," [3]Larry Niven describes the ideaof a flash crowd. In the story, people commonly use teleportationto travel instantly to any point in the world. With this technology,a sale at a department store might draw bargain hunters from allover the planet, followed by reporters, pickpockets, politicalactivists looking for a crowd, and just generally people who thinkit might be fun to show up to a riot.

Without teleportation, it's not much of a problem.But could a crowd of people be manipulated for some other gain?Imagine what sort of impact it could have on our political systemif a game designer, hacker, or government arranged for 10,000players of a mobile game to show up to a rally for an otherwiseunpopular political candidate. If those players were selected,based on their demographic criteria, to be mainly for or againstthe candidate, this might prove to destabilize the balance ofpower. Imagine 500 teenage boys showing up to try to be the firstto get one of only 50 powerful game elements.

In this context, a riot might be as easy to createas an air strike. A future terrorist may not need to bring a bombto a crowd ­ he can bring a crowd to the bomb.

What power do you have when you can make a fewhundreds or thousands of people show up where you want? What wouldbe an appropriate social policy response to this threat?


Ratings board

The existing ESRB (Entertainment Software RatingsBoard) system for rating videogames is performing a valuable servicefor the consumer and the parent. These ratings allow for a fullrange of expression without censorship. Indeed, if an adult desiresa violent game, the ratings can make it easier to find ­ howmany of us avoid a movie that carries a "PG" rating?Future mobile games should be similarly rated.

Some localized games might be played over a widearea which could encourage children to visit locations beyondwhere their parents permit them to wander, or at times later thantheir curfew. These games should be rated such that parents canbe informed of these risks and attempt to moderate their children'sappetite for such experiences. The phrase "location entertainment"might join "animated violence" and "brief nudity"in the list of possibly objectionable features.

Legal remedies

Game companies that use location based play mayfind themselves at risk of legal liability in the case of accidentsor riots. It would behoove them to post notices and obtain appropriatepermits, such as are required for a street fair or other publicevent, in advance of encouraging a crowd to gather. Players, presumably,will be held accountable for their own behavior, though no doubta smart lawyer might someday try to blame a drive-by shootingon a game company.

Of course, if a malicious agent causes such interactionor riots, police will need to identify the appropriate partiesand take traditional action against them. Game companies workingin this genre will be well advised to ensure that their systemsinclude appropriate log methods ­ you may need to generatea paper trail someday, showing who made what change and when.

Warning messages

On October 30, 1938, the radio broadcast of "Warof the Worlds" convinced an estimated 1.2 million listenersthat the world was coming to an end. "We have so much faithin broadcasting. In a crisis it has to reach all people. That'swhat radio is here for." [4]

Today, our wired and wireless information networkscarry the same importance, but thanks in part to this broadcast,we don't take any one individual medium so seriously. However,cross-media experiences such as Majestic have the potential tocreate a similar panic, if not in crowds, then in individuals.It is likely that future games will require warnings at the beginningof each phone call, or in the margins of each fax.

These warning messages could be mandated or expected,just as we occasionally see "sponsored advertising supplement"in the margins of magazine pages. Admittedly, this would be adisappointment ­ an impediment to the willing suspension ofdisbelief to protect a few people, but I think we can expect it.


Mobile gaming promises novel approaches to interactiveentertainment precisely because of its manipulation of a primarilysocial medium, e.g. personal communications. We must not legislateor try to prevent these new forms of self-expression ­ butas a culture, we are obligated to advise their creators of theirnew social responsibilities.

The author would like to send shout-outs to Jussi HolopainenJanine Fron, Ellen Sandor and Celia Pearce for all of their supportand assistance.


Mr Meyers is a consultant based in LosAngeles. He has worked for the Nokia Research Center, both inFinland and the US, exploring wearable computing, gaming, interactivetelevision, and media and entertainment applications. Prior tothat, he spent a decade as a member of Chicago-based art group(art)n, creatingworks that can be seen in museums and private collections worldwide. He holds 4 patents and has a dozen more pending.

[1]Holopainen,J.\&Meyers,S Neuropsychology and Game DesignConsciousnessReframed IIIAugust 2000

[2]Bjork, S., Falk, J., Hansson, R., & LjungstrandP.Pirates!­ Using the Physical World as a Game BoardInteract2001IFIP TV.13 Conference on Homan-Computer InteractionJuly 9-13, Tokyo, Japan.

[3]Niven, L.,A Hole in SpaceNew York:Ballantine Books, 1974

[4]Holmstein, B., & Lubertozzi, A., ed.TheComplete War of the Worlds: Mars' Invasion of Earth from H.G.Wells to Orson WellesNaperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2001

follow me
contact me

hire me?

love me?

hate me?

email me

qr to /mobile-social