The ‘Smart City’ prophets love games and play and promote them hard because what you need to understand is that the ‘Smart City’ is a whole lot of fun. Harmless fun entirely for your benefit. It brings jobs, growth and innovation to make you wealthy and delivers entertainment, play and games to keep you happy.
Here in Bristol we have a publicly funded organisation dedicated to promoting what a load of harmless fun a ‘Smart City’ is – the Pervasive Media Studio at the Watershed. “It’s a world of amazingness and wonder. If Willy Wonka existed, he’d be jealous of it :)” Kieron Kirkland, their former Magician-in-residence uncritically assures us. Magically unaware that the manufacturing of confectionary doesn’t conjure huge amounts of behavioural data for tech firms to appropriate and monetise.
The Pervasive Media Studio’s big idea is the ‘Playable City’. “There were a lot of older people,” these ageists tell us, “who were totally terrified at the notion of a smart city and how cold and alienating it was. So we decided to reappropriate smart cities’ technology for play.”
But who’s playing what game and what is really being reappropriated in a ‘Smart/Playable City’? Are “older people” right to be alienated? On the face of it, Pervasive Media, once you get past its creepy name, is pretty harmless. ‘Playable City’ is little more than an annual international conference and accompanying prize for daft ideas such as creating smart phone enabled talking street furniture or randomly triggering projections of animals at unsuspecting pedestrians at night.
So far, so much municipally imposed fun courtesy of hipsters. However, the corporate Godfather of the outdoor digital play market, Pokémon GO, is taking digital play somewhere else entirely. Initially this ‘augmented reality mobile game’ involved finding and capturing, on your phone, virtual cartoon characters in your neighbourhood. Then Pokémon GO struck deals with the likes of McDonalds, Starbucks and other corporates who handed over hard cash in exchange for the behavioural and location data held by Pokémon GO.
These transactions transformed Pokémon GO. A cheap, harmless hour in the park with the kids hunting virtual characters became the completely different game of nudging you through the door of a corporate outlet to spend money.
Pokémon GO is a step forward in the use of your behavioural data by tech firms. They’re moving beyond storing and analysing data to predict your behaviour (say through promoting certain ads on the internet at you) to trying to directly manage and control your behaviour through your digital device. Behavioural control and management is the new frontier for big data firms in the ‘Smart City’ test bed and play and games are among the tools in their box.
When you pick up your phone to play, regardless of how old you are, be sure to know what game you’re playing.