Trinity College Dublin, one of Europe’s most prestigious universities and situated in the Irish capital’s city center, is used to a steady stream of tourists. Recently, however, these have started to show some odd behaviors. Instead of exploring the grounds, inspecting the college’s venerable old halls, peering into guide books, or discussing famed alumni like Oscar Wilde or Bram Stoker in hushed tones, they have started to scan the eminent college through their smartphone screens.

This other world, visible through the phone’s digital layer, comes courtesy of the latter author: It was inspired by his famous creature Dracula. Roaming the old campus with baited breath, thrill-seekers now search the grounds for three vampire sisters haunting the halls – and, of course, the infamous count himself. Truly lucky explorers might even enjoy a close encounter of the third kind with the spooky vampire’s creator. Naturally, these cellphone wielding adventurers have not lost their minds, but only their undivided attention to the augmented reality game “Bram Stoker’s Vampires,” a location-based app for smartphones by Dublin-based studio Haunted Planet.

Driven by the idea that “the world is full of ghosts and earth is a haunted planet,” the game provides players with virtual tools that allow them to explore their environment and find out more about the histories of haunted urban spaces. This particular game is playable in a site-specific mode (i.e. at Trinity College Dublin) where it serves as an ideal gateway for players to explore the city’s cultural heritage, history, and the life of Bram Stoker, as Trinity College professor Mads Haahr, who conceived the idea and led the team that developed the game, likes to point out. In random mode, when players interact within their own environment anywhere in the world, the game loses some of its historical significance and becomes, as Haahr argues, “more of an urban exploration game,” one that uses streets and buildings in the player’s surroundings to generate the game’s events.

Along similar site-specific lines, Berlin-based game studio Tripventure designs location-based augmented reality adventure games set in the city centers of European (mostly German) metropolises. And while the action veers between comic-style adventures and historic storytelling, two of their main products, Tod an der Mauer (death at the wall) and Mission Mauerfall (mission: fall of the wall) are deeply entrenched in Berlin’s history as a divided city. Firmly embedded in the changing historical urban landscape, the games force players to simultaneously explore present-day Berlin and a virtual version of the 1980s; a time when Berlin was still surrounded – or part of – Soviet Europe and the focus of many political struggles.

At the same time, augmented reality games not only connect past and present to immerse players in local history. They also engage them in vibrant, everyday city life; in the spaces and details that make up the world around us. Google’s own augmented reality game, Ingress, is a great example of such an approach. The game takes our surroundings and forces us to reinvestigate them, to relive them through a different, alien perspective. The premise of Ingress is the existence of “exotic matter,” left by an alien race known as the Shapers, which has become the subject of an embittered battle between two warring factions. Against this background, the game encourages players to explore their environment, collect exotic matter, and gain control of local portals. The latter tend to be linked to popular public spaces like public art, parks, memorials, government buildings, or transportation hubs. Through in-game mechanics, Ingress supplies gamers with information via a Google Maps-style app or lets groups of players interact with the space around them and with each other.

What makes Ingress so unique, and uniquely addictive, however, is not only its global reach, but the way that it groups players into factions; only those who cooperate can hope to gain control over larger areas or to open portals beyond regional confines. Essentially, this game can be played anywhere within reach of Google services. And the game offers plenty of flexibility, too: Players can propose new sites for portals, thus opening up their specific region to further or more exciting gameplay. Here, virtual gaming and the physical realm meet and mingle in real-time.

As we can see, augmented reality gaming allows players to engage with their cities, essentially transforming urban public space into a stage for performative interaction. To this end, they challenge our concept of the place we live in, whether through exploration of historic dimensions or by alienating us from “normal” use scenarios, thus creating a virtual layer of meaning beyond the simple and sober “realism” of our everyday surroundings.

Text: Lars Schmeink
Header Image:  Map of Ingress US © Google Ingress