The stupid game and the stupid city: questioning efficiency, economic growth and depoliticisation as goals in a ‘smart’ world
Given the rhetoric around smart cities, smart games and the capture of intelligence by a larger project of neoliberal transformation of everyday life, we feel compelled to consider what alternative remains implied, unacknowledged and even rejected in these smart regimes. That is, what, exactly, would a ‘stupid’ city or a ‘stupid' game entail? This is not because ‘stupid' is better than ‘smart’ but because ‘stupid', ‘smart' and the gradations between them constitute what Theodor Adorno would term a ‘constellation’ (Adorno, 1981), a configuration of practices, discourses and ideologies that energise meaning making in different ways, depending on one's perspective.
If the smart city is defined by a strong pro-business state ethos, people- centredness and a network of aware, adaptive surveillance technologies, then the snipid city would be defined by a set of characteristics most notable for being less invasive, less responsive and less proprietary. The stupid city, in other words, would be one that advances no consistent agenda (save for hospitality and joy), has few ready-to-hand mechanisms for managing change (except those ensuring inclusion) and requires little more than a rudimentary information-sharing infrastructure for its common utilities, services (e.g. roadways, waste disposal and power grid) and social commitments.
And if the smart game is defined by adaptive storytelling, generative algorithms for audio, graphical and level design elements and a robust network of playerfacing sensors and metrics, then the stupid game would be narratively univocal; visually, acoustically and tactilely precomposed; and largely ignorant of the player's behaviour patterns, strategies and abilities. The stupid game, like the smpid city, would not be used to compel ‘players’ towards particular kinds of engagement (e.g. ‘maximally enjoy yourself in these ways’) but would instead serve as a phenomenological palette and platform through which inhabitants could work and play with any available resources.
‘Stupid’, then - whether in reference to urban spaces or games - signals an experiential framework that is either largely umnanaged (enabling considerable self-organising at the local level) or completely managed (enabling responses from adoration to rejection). Stupid games and smpid cities, in other words, depend on their users to be smart. Seen this way, smart cities and smart games do not occupy a space in some progressive sociotechnical vanguard but rather inhabit a mercurial space where technologies aim to guide consumers towards desired, idealised behaviours and experiences through a combination of suggestions and adaptations provided in response to inputs derived from consumers. ‘Smpid’ cities and games do not offer consumers ‘custom’, 'personalised' or 'unique-to- you' naturalised experiences and thus minimise the enthymematic mechanism in ‘smart’ cities and games that simulates variety in predigested, commodified and convenient packages.
Since the mid 1990s, a number of large-scale game projects were developed at the intersection of smart and smpid cities and games, often (though not always, as in the case of those expressly designed to market other products) refusing the rubric of instrumentalisation, practical output and progress, even as they repurpose urban and other spaces into gameboards and playgrounds (Garcia & Niemeyer, 2017). Typically called alternate reality games, these public-facing experiences rely on all maimer of technologies (including those deployed to smarten cities, such as webcams and municipal Wi-Fi networks) and generally begin with a fixed set of ludic prompts (e.g. solve five interconnected puzzles). However, alternate reality games unfold according to how the community of players - not to mention bystanders and the materiality of the city (including its technologies, smart or otherwise) - interact. An alternate reality game in Kansas City, Missouri, will thus play out differently from one in Tucson, Arizona, despite starting with precisely the same rules and objectives. The story of the game unspools in real time, principally created by the players as they interact with each other, the game’s prompts and the material and electronic environments around them.
The Jejune Institute alternate reality game (or ‘experience’, as initiator and cocreator Jeff Hull calls it), for example, took place over the course of three years (2008-2011) in San Francisco, involved more than 10,000 players and became so elaborate - plots, subplots, heroes and villains - that it inspired a documentary (Kiberd, 2015). At the same time but on the other side of the country, the Smithsonian American Ait Museum in Washington, DC, initiated Ghosts of Chance, an alternate reality game designed to familiarise the public with underappreciated elements of the museum's collection. This game attracted more than 6,000 players and routinely had them interacting with strangers and with new parts of the city over the course of three weeks. There have been a host of others: Reality Ends Here is an alternate reality game for incoming students at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts; DEMA involved thousands of fans of the band Twenty One Pilots and occurred mainly online; and The End of Days occupied numerous cities and more than half a million people in nearly two dozen countries. This kind of active engagement with the built environment and its inhabitants - that is, the remapping and reworking of the city, its technologies and its denizens through new and hybrid interactions and navigation - depends not on the remaking of cities by outside consultants and technology companies but on the playful and creative work of a city’s own inhabitants. While prompts are provided, the design work and management flow from the players' effecting a smart system. Indeed, the people swept up in alternate reality games often report that they have experienced their environs in new ways, seen locations they have never visited and encountered neighbours they would otherwise never have met (Smith, 2015; Conway & Innocent, 2016). They also fashion their own (albeit temporary) conceptions of city infrastructure, from spatial organisation to logistics to behavioural modification. Even something as narrative-less and purpose driven as geocaching (geocaching.com) can have similar effects simply by challenging players to find a hidden object through global positioning systems - one among millions of such objects in thousands of cities in countries all over the world that local people have secreted away near places they find interesting.
What these and related technologically enhanced geolocative experiences suggest to us is that the facets that make a city - and a game - truly smart are not the technologies and systems that monitor and adapt the urban or ludic space to match preconceived end point solutions such as marketing and promotion. Rather, smart cities and smart games are made so by the people who occupy and engage with them. Anything that stands in the way of people making their cities more liveable for all inhabitants - not just the wealthy ones - seems not smart so much as shortsighted or, worse, techno-fetishistic and exploitative.