Tel Aviv’s Tetris test

The Myanmar Times - - The Pulse -

EV­ERY Thurs­day evening, Tel Aviv’s city hall is trans­formed. The win­dows light up, each be­com­ing a “pixel” on a gi­ant screen mea­sur­ing 3000 square me­tres (32,292 square feet). A pair of 1.5-me­tre (5-foot) joy­sticks is in­stalled out­side in Rabin Square; who­ever gets there first can play what is prob­a­bly the world’s big­gest game of Tetris.

The stunt is de­signed to draw attention to the up­com­ing DLD Tel Aviv In­no­va­tion Fes­ti­val, which starts later this month.

While ad­mit­tedly fun, and a good ad­ver­tise­ment for the in­no­va­tion fes­ti­val, the gi­ant game – which also be­comes Snake or Pong at dif­fer­ent times – is (some­what iron­i­cally) not par­tic­u­larly in­no­va­tive. Back in 2001, Project Blinken­lights lit up Haus des Lehrers in Ber­lin’s Alexan­der­platz, al­low­ing peo­ple to use their Nokia hand­sets to play Pong.

Since them, stu­dents at Brown, MIT and Kiel have pulled sim­i­lar stunts. You can even play Snake on the foun­tains in London’s Gra­nary Square.

Nor, it must be said, does Tel Aviv’s Tetris in­ter­ven­tion do much for the city.

Turn­ing city hall into a video game prob­a­bly isn’t an ef­fec­tive way to get peo­ple in­ter­ested in what hap­pens within. And with room for only two play­ers at a time, it hardly en­cour­ages broader in­ter­ac­tion.

Even 2004’s Pac-Man­hat­tan (which was surely an in­evitabil­ity, given the strength of that word­play), which saw five play­ers in a con­trol room guide five play­ers dressed as Pac-Man char­ac­ters through the New York City streets, got more peo­ple and places in­volved.

So is there more to these stunts than PR?

De­spite what this year’s Poke­ma­nia might sug­gest, games have long been cen­tral to pub­lic spa­ces.

A few years af­ter World War I, the Italian town of Maros­tica hosted the first of what would be­come a bi­en­nial game of chess played with hu­man pieces, reen­act­ing the (po­ten­tially fic­tional) story of a me­dieval lord who or­dered his daugh­ter’s two suit­ors to play for her hand.

Ear­lier this year, the Boris John­son-en­dorsed Games London tem­po­rar­ily in­stalled a gi­ant Mo­nop­oly board in Trafal­gar Square, with the fa­mil­iar lo­ca­tions re­placed with no­table years in the history of UK video game de­vel­op­ment.

“It was a bit of a gim­mick to get attention from some of the press and from passersby,” ad­mits Michael French, Games London’s se­nior games pro­gram ex­ec­u­tive. Sim­i­lar to the Tetris tour­na­ment in Tel Aviv, Games London was part of the London Games fes­ti­val, which aims to drive in­vest­ment into games com­pa­nies in the city.

For Holly Gra­mazio, whose com­pany Mathe­son Mar­cault (co­founded with Sophie Samp­son) spe­cialises in us­ing game de­sign “to en­gage peo­ple with places and ideas”, the chief prob­lem here is lazy think­ing: Cities are whole new en­vi­ron­ments in which to game, and the pos­si­bil­i­ties ex­tend far be­yond re­hash­ing Mo­nop­oly, Pac-Man and Tetris.

“Get­ting peo­ple to play Tetris is, from a game de­sign perspective, a rel­a­tively straight­for­ward thing,” she says. “What you do is: You put Tetris there. It’s not as in­ter­est­ing to me as a game de­sign chal­lenge.”

Mathe­son Mar­cault’s con­tri­bu­tion to the London Games Fes­ti­val was a three-day event called Now Play This.

Two teams of chil­dren faced off across the river Thames in a game of Mas­sive Bat­tle­ships, mak­ing their moves by hold­ing up signs at which their op­po­nents, on the other side of the river, peered through binoc­u­lars.

In the court­yard of Som­er­set House, mean­while, Just Add Peo­ple saw groups of play­ers con­struct imag­i­na­tive build­ings out of sticks and balls.

“Build­ing your own pre­tend build­ing within the con­text of the real build­ings that are sit­ting there im­pos­ingly and have been there for hun­dreds of years, for me made me feel like part of the city,” says Gra­mazio.

As well as en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to pay more attention to the chal­lenges fac­ing their city, Gra­mazio thinks that games can get us to pay more attention to each other.

Cit­i­zens of Hildesheim and Ober­hausen, Ger­many, can play games with strangers on the op­po­site side of a pedes­trian cross­ing via pro­to­types of a new kind of traf­fic-light but­ton called Ac­tiWait, though the prom­ise to “con­vert bor­ing wait­ing times into pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ences” smacks of dystopian sci­ence fiction.

One morn­ing in July 2010, out­side the Na­tional Theatre, Lon­don­ers played a game called Pass the Im­pos­si­bly Large Par­cel.

Each layer of the par­cel, when un­wrapped, re­vealed “prizes” in the form of cos­tume items. Play­ers wore them be­fore they went about their day – a kind of tribal iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, mark­ing you on the tube or the of­fice as a mem­ber of a se­cret club.

Those who took part in the early days of Poke­mon Go phe­nom­e­non will recog­nise that feel­ing of ca­ma­raderie.

The game’s sense of com­mu­nity has man­i­fested in 9000-strong gath­er­ings, and char­i­ta­ble play such as drop­ping lures out­side hos­pi­tals so that sick kids can catch Poke­mon from their beds.

One of the most com­mon com­plaints about cities is that the crowds can leave one feel­ing lost and lonely. Games counter that by con­nect­ing us to each other and the spa­ces in which we play.

Tetris in Tel Aviv might be a bit of a damp squib, but only be­cause it had a deeper po­ten­tial. “Play­ing is a thing that we usu­ally do in places that feel like they’re ours – like we’re safe there,” says Gra­mazio.

“Hav­ing that hap­pen in a city, where peo­ple are wan­der­ing through, can make me as a player feel more at home.”

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