Welcome to 50°S, 100°W

The narrative of pervasive game The Bloop.

Throughout the Summer of 1997, underwater microphones used by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration thousands of kilometres apart detected the anomalous sound known as The Bloop.

Extremely loud and low frequency, this noise defies explanation. Scientists have yet to identify its cause: we have no knowledge of a creature large enough to make a sound of this type.

Whatever it is, it’s still down there.

Welcome to 50°S, 100°W.

Whales traverse the deep waters off the coast of Chile on their seasonal migrations between breeding grounds and feeding grounds. Relying solely on their instincts and use of sonar to navigate these murky depths, the whales nonetheless perceive that something a little odd is going on around here.

The krill here – normally a tasty snack for the whales – seem motivated with a strong sense of purpose. When The Bloop calls to them they move in unison in a way the whales don’t quite understand and yet intuitively understand should be avoided…

Humpback Whales Feeding 1

More experimenting with the sonar goggles

Ant trying out the sonar goggles at fizzPOP yesterday. He said he had very good spatial awareness and could tell where he was in the room, this video was a little experiment with his awareness of where I was.

(If you listen carefully you can hear the different beep patterns the goggles make depending on how close things are to them.)

Sonar goggles

Following on from last week’s pervasive games lab, some or all of Hide&Seek, Fierce and/or Screen West Midlands awarded me a grant to develop the sonar stuff into a game to be played at the Sandpit event at Warwick Arts Centre this Saturday. (Not quite sure who to thank, but thanks!)

So, it’s been full steam ahead to turn the whale hat prototype into something that will survive a game. Several games. Maybe some of them outdoors in the British summer…

materials gathered

For various practical and arty reasons, the hat has been replaced by goggles. For financial and logistical reasons, the Arduino RBBB I used in the prototype has also been replaced by a bare bones equivalent on stripboard.

Here’s the finished circuit, the goggles and the first unit being user tested…

finished circuitry

sonar goggles

user test

You can see other photos in this Flickr set of the build process.

There’s still a lot of soldering, spraying and sticking to be done to get ready for the weekend, but several people have used the googles now and I’m really pleased with the result. Join me at Warwick Arts Centre from 6pm this Saturday to experience the game – which is undergoing a similar evolutionary process!

Prototyping games for the whale hat

At yesterday’s game lab (a team effort from Fierce, Screen West Midlands and Hide&Seek) I finally got a chance to try out the whale hat I’ve been making. By which I mean I got other people to try it out!

Andy gets to be whale for the first version of the game, unaware that krill Laura is trapped between him and the mirrored wall behind!

Andy gets to be whale for the first version of the game, unaware that krill Laura is trapped between him and the mirrored wall behind!

The whale hat was conceived in response to Hide&Seek’s call for games relating to the theme of ‘international‘. I wanted to develop a game based around the idea of epic whale migrations, where the person playing the whale navigates around the game space using echolocation.

The electronics that power the whale hat.

The electronics that power the whale hat.

Using a sonar range-finder commonly used in robotics, I hooked it up to a RBBB running Arduino code that generates different patterns of beeps depending on how close objects are in front of the hat-wearer: a continuous loop of 4 beeps when there’s something within 50cm; 3 beeps when there’s something within 1m, 2 beeps, 1.5 metres etc

During the game lab I first got a chance to try out the experience of wearing the hat (complete with headphones and blindfold) and then I roped in the other attendees to help me try out some simple game mechanics. The sorts of things I had written down in my notes as things to explore were “finding objects”, “avoiding objects”, “detecting stationary objects” and ” detecting moving objects”.

Game #1: Whale invaders

Prototyping games for the whale hat #1 from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

Kind of a slow-moving version of the arcade game space invaders: the whale (in the hat) can move from side to side and has to try and ‘catch’ the krill (other players) who are approaching steadily.

If I were to try this again, I might try and set the krill off on their journeys with bigger intervals between. As it was though, this was a beautiful visual spectacle with the gradual advance of the krill contrasting nicely with the clumsier movements of the whale!

Game #2: Seek the krill

Prototyping games for the whale hat #2 from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

This time the krill remained stationary and the whale had to move around trying to locate them.

We talked about what might be motivating the krill (we found ourselves using many phrases we hadn’t anticipated using that day!) and also identified that we kind of needed to justify the sonar more. For example, it would have been possible for the whale to have caught the krill just by walking up and down and waving their arms around at random. We also toyed with the idea of limiting the number of grabs per game.

Although the krill aren’t doing much during the game, I love how you can see all the different emotions they’re (silently) going through!

Game #3: Whale seeks krill seeking plankton

Prototyping games for the whale hat #3 from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

Trying to give the krill a role that couldn’t be performed equally well by a chair. Now the krill are allowed one step per click and have to gather as many plankton (small pieces of paper) as possible whilst avoiding being caught by the whale.

Game #4: Nuclear krill

Prototyping games for the whale hat #4 from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

A shift from object detection to object avoidance. Now we’re justifying the sonar and it’s starting to feel more game-like!

The whale has to avoid the er, the whatever they are. The other players are probably no longer krill, but in the absence of any other term we ended up calling them nuclear krill to signify that they were something not very nice.

The whale’s objective is to get from one end of the playing area to the other.

The nuclear krill are trying to block the whale’s progress. They are allowed one step per clap (approximately every ten seconds) and can move across the playing area, but not up and down it.

We also tried a variant of this where the nuclear krill could only move across, until the whale had passed them, at which point they became locked in to a ‘vertical’ line and could then only move up and down. This change was made to try and prevent redundant nuclear krill. Bad things happen when nuclear krill get bored…

If I can get to the stage where I can build a few more whale hats then the next thing I want to try is having multiple whales. We discussed how having one whale trying to get from A to B at the same time as another whale trying to get from B to A would make things more of a challenge for the nuclear krill and would also reduce the problem of redundancy.


Overall I’m happy with the experience of being the whale (another one of those unanticipated phrases!). I like the combination of vulnerability with the almost super-hero power of being able to see by sound.

I love the spectacle of the game as seen by an audience. All of the versions we tried worked well at this and I think slowness and silence could be a really nice contrast within a busy event environment where this could eventually end up.

That leaves the krill. How can I make life for the krill more interesting?


I’ll be spending today at mac workshopping some ideas for a pervasive game involving this prototype sonar whale hat I’ve made.

Prototype whale hat using a sonar range-finder and Arduino processor

Prototype whale hat using a sonar range-finder and Arduino processor

Doing a quick bit of online browsing about whale migration beforehand, I came across this and love the image:

Humpbacks Humpback

Winter: warm, low latitude tropical waters (breed and give birth)
Spring/Summer/Autumn: cooler, high latitude polar waters (feed)

Most humpback whales make mammoth journeys every year between their feeding and breeding sites. Because seasons are reversed either side of the equator, Northern and Southern Hemisphere populations of humpbacks probably never meet; those in the north travel towards their breeding grounds in tropical waters as those in the south are travelling towards the pole to feed, and vice versa. [source]

Hide&Seek 1: Emergent Game resonances

Yesterday I journeyed to London for the last day of this year’s Hide&Seek Festival. It was a packed day and there’s so much I want to get written down that I’ve decided rather than write an impossibly long post (impossible to read, let alone find the time to write) I’m going to break it down into chunks. That way I can prioritise stuff and hopefully keep the momentum going.

First up I’m going to tackle things that happened on Friday. When I wasn’t there. When things happened that I don’t know about!

Fixed to one of the pillars in the indoor space for Hide&Seek were two tantalising sheets of paper. Perhaps visual aids from a presentation? I don’t know what the topic of discussion was or who was doing the discussing…


Several of the phrases on them jumped out at me immediately so this post is going to be a bit of a Counsel for the Artist on them where I take them out of context and jot down some of the trains of thought they triggered. (Blog-as-notebook: more for me than for you!)

I had much the same reaction to several things mentioned in this recent post from Jane McGonigal, so, since there’s a high chance this panel might be where the visual aids came from, I’m going to bundle them in together…

ARGs for the (socially engaged) arts

Emergent Game! …or rather what I hope Emergent Game might become a few iterations down the line…

[I know it isn’t an ARG and, with hindsight, it didn’t really evolve into a game either. Perhaps in a parallel dimension I named it Emergent Play instead?]

It was reassuring to see Jane’s comments about extent of active participation

…more than 50% of ARGs fail to be good at either of this, not through any failures of the designer, but through the failure of players to show up and actively participate. Which, by the way, is the standard percentage of social media projects that fail to reach a community size of any viability and fold within the first year.

I don’t think the game format helped to overcome limited engagement (one of the problems with getting people involved in participatory art projects that we wanted to explore) but now we’re (nearly) the other side of Emergent Game I still think a game format has a massive potential as a tool to drive socially-engaged projects. I’m hugely proud of the way the Ludens consistently managed to floor me with their generosity of time, energy and creativity – not only in the physical/digital things they produced, but also the extent to which they developed the various narratives and characterisations within the project. How can that effort be harnessed to other goals?

My favorit things from Egor Beaver on Vimeo.

…the pyramid of participation. The power law curve. 80% of your “players” won’t DO anything except casually look at it or poke at it. That’s how ALL social media works. 1% of your players will do 90% of the active “gameplay”. Which isn’t really gameplay by the way, it’s social media creation (wikis, forums, videos, etc.) So when you imagine your great big player base, be realisit [sic]. Don’t try to make social media work like a game. Social media thrives on superusers, not the base, not the typical user.

Is it possible to regard all the Ludens as the Emergent Game power users? Maybe.

We had several players get enthused at the workshops only to never be heard of again. Some players we know dropped out because of work commitments, others because they were intimidated by Twitter, others probably lost interest or decided it wasn’t for them. Generally though, those that took part during the Game phase were very committed.

Power users and the value of spectatorship

Having spoken a lot with Markuz about modes of participation it was important to me that Emergent Game made official provision for an acknowledgement of those who wanted to participate just by watching. We tried to leave the barrier between Sapiens (spectator) and Ludens (player) as permeable as possible with opportunities for Sapiens to get involved although, this pretty much didn’t happen.

A phenomenal amount of my time was spent catering for the Sapiens by way of the daily commentary and @TheLudensShow. Although we didn’t have anyone comment on the website, web stats and secondary write-ups did justify this effort to an extent. By its nature, degree of engagement with Sapiens is a tricky one to judge.

At this point I’m still undecided about whether what grows out of Emergent Game should try to be all-inclusive and cater to the ‘typical user’ that Jane alludes to or embrace the power user and the ‘elitism’ that comes with that. I still stand by “Strive to achieve modest connections” from Counsel as a quality-rather-than-quantity approach but I suppose the final verdict depends on the particular context for which you are trying to use the game. Sometimes elitism can be good, right?

Collective Intelligence and real world problems

I now firmly believe the “game” needs to be about something real. Pick a real mystery or problem and do a real investigation and give players social platforms like ARG players use, and have puppet masters oversee the pacing/tempo of the investigation, giving feedback and showcasing excellent play/work.

Although we tried to foster a spirit of Collective Intelligence with some of the resource-mapping type missions within Emergent Game, the closest we got to dabbling in it was with the second reconnaissance mission to map free internet access.

We needed to do this in order to assess what options were open to us for the main game play later, but this rather rapidly became interpreted from outside as being a “free WiFi in Birmingham” challenge. We weren’t too happy with this, even though the mission did partially come from awareness of a particular context in Birmingham.

As it happens, a request came through from Sapiens Nick Booth:

I’d love it if the ludens could add anygeo tagged images to this flickr group set up a while back


This group map had three images on it before the Ludens came along and added a few. There was also a similar story for several other Brum WiFi mapping attempts we came across: there was obviously a need for this information to be pulled together, but when it came down to it no one had knuckled down to produce it.

Although Recon2 all but killed off our pre-game, in the end I think we did quite well, comparatively.


Is this just because we had an elite team of superusers, or down to working within the motivational framework of a game?


Other phrases from the post and posters I could go into in more detail – but I won’t right now – are:

  • “Engage people in public space”
  • “Player ownership”
  • “Entertainment” (- important because people are giving up their free time)
  • “Children and ARGs” (- more on that in the Lost Sport post I’ll write next)
  • “giving feedback and showcasing excellent play/work.”
  • “have an actual IP people care about” (- can you use a game to make people care about something?)
  • “but it’s ART” (- we had real problems with the art community not seeing Emergent Game as art – mostly it was the educationalists and the social media types who really got excited about it)
  • “I don’t want the core experience to be conversation, I want to it to be action and post-action storytelling.”

Probably I’ll be coming back to most of these later (in posts with rather more photos and videos, I promise!).

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