Mobile Entertainment: The Power of Play
By Justin Hall, Wed Jun 16 16:00:00 GMT 2004

Mobile entertainment these days is well past Snake -- and is constantly evolving and growing along with the mobile lifestyle.

Wireless is a critical part of the weekday; wireless is becoming an increasingly critical part of the weekend as well. What, then, is mobile entertainment? Mobile entertainment is downloadable ringtones and screensavers. Mobile entertainment is games that come with your phone. Mobile entertainment is also flirty text messages, secret pictures snapped with a cameraphone and reading the latest from Iraq or Hollywood on the small screen.

This broadening conception of mobile entertainment comes as phones are increasingly fulfilling functions performed by other devices. We can take pictures with cameraphones, we can post stories to the web and share them with friends. We can see where we are in the world with GPS units. We can communicate and amuse ourselves with friends and relatives around the globe.

The rich potential space created by these powerful tools is just now being explored by software designers and by the users themselves. The more powerful our phones, the more fun they are to play with. Mobile entertainment is sure to be a big business -- people upgrading their handsets, and spending lots of time online, using additional services. But more importantly, mobile entertainment serves a critical social function -- it will teach us how to be connected citizens.

Collaboration and Connection

We are the first generation of humans carrying powerful personal computers in our pockets. What kind of collaboration is possible? How can we find and organize our contacts and connections in an entire city? By playing together, we come to understand the shape of wireless living. It may seem as though we are connected now, with mobile phones ringing from Fargo to Falluja. But our phones today are only tangentially aware of where we are. Soon, mobile devices will have tangible context-sensitivity Ė knowing where you are, and juggling that with time of day and your activities to suggest information, or appropriate diversion.

What is mobile entertainment when youíve just left a movie theater? What is mobile entertainment when youíre touring Notre Dame in Paris? What is mobile entertainment when youíre visiting your parents? If you have a mobile device that is aware of all these places, timings and states of being, your mobile entertainment options are not going to be limited to Snake and screensavers.

There have been a number of experiments recently confirming the increasingly playful potential of mobile technology. These projects give us a sense of the contours of the mobile life to come, as handsets and game designs catch up to imagination and leading edge innovation.

Imagine being able to play a game with your friends at all times, whenever you feel like it. Friends out on the town with their mobile devices, or friends on desktop computers at work or home. Imagine virtual data objects scattered all over the real, physical world. You may have just walked over a digital pink umbrella you canít see, unless your friends tell you, or youíre gazing at your mobile phone screen. Why would you care for that umbrella? Because youíre collecting umbrellas. Or maybe your friend collects pink objects and this would make a great gift. French company Newt Games has created an intricate economy of virtual objects strewn across Tokyo. Players of their mobile game Mogi have the chance to work with players on PCs or phones, traveling the city, collecting and trading items they pick up on the way to work or out for an evening with friends.

Now imagine youíre in the city, looking for good stuff, but youíre being chased. Youíre playing a sort of game of tag with your friends, who are all cooperating together to find you according to GPS data and sightings from spies around downtown. Your virtual friends might reach out and touch you, through physical agents. This is the idea behind New York Universityís recent experimental game, PacManhattan. Players acted the part of PacMan and the four ghosts, the ghosts chasing the yellow dot-gobbler around lower Manhattan. Handlers in a remote location watching their respective team members, advising the lead character to stay take a quick turn on Broadway to stay alive, or advising the ghosts to surround him near Cooper Union.

Finally, imagine your phone beeps. You look down -- a friend has sent you a picture, showing a dalmatian she just photographed with her mobile device. You check the GPS statistics on the picture, and you see she was near home. Youíre psyched by this news: the dog is a symbol, a sign you recognize -- your friend has just scored a point by finding that species of dog in her particular location, at that time of day. Her dog-sighting means that your team will probably win the neighborhood for the week. Youíre playing a scavenger hunt game involving locations, pictures, media sharing. Your buddy list is the playspace: youíre collaborating with friends, and competing with neighbors. You play when you want, you keep up with the game as a way to maintain casual social relations.

Personal, Not Professional

This last scavenger hunt doesnít exist quite yet, but itís likely to have been played by the end of this year. Experiments are afoot in laboratories, universities and cities, to figure out how to use all this technology for games, for mobile entertainment.

Itís an awful lot of trouble to take for diversion! All that engineering and expense to rig up a game of tag with friends you canít see. But it makes sense -- itís hard to imagine what better use we might have for GPS-enabled mobile multimedia. There may be explicitly productive uses of these technologies, but business applications are not likely to inspire the widest range of people to experiment. One look at mobile messaging and its clear that its success lies not so much in its explicit professional potential so much as its usefulness for maintaining personal relations.

Mobile entertainment is the means with which we will adapt and evolve with these technologies. We work towards them; we prepare our fingers for readiness by playing when the stakes are not so high. With mobile entertainment, weíre practicing for the empowered mobile future by playing together.