The Dissertation




This Might Be a Game:

Ubiquitous Play and Performance at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century


Jane Evelyn McGonigal

Doctor of Philosophy in Performance Studies

University of California, Berkeley

     This Might Be a Game examines the historical intersection of ubiquitous computing and experimental game design, circa 2001 AD. Ubiquitous computing, or ubicomp, is the emerging field of computer science that seeks to augment everyday objects and physical environments with invisible and networked computing functionality. Experimental game design is the field of interactive arts that seeks to discover new platforms and contexts for digital play. The convergence of these two fields has produced a significant body of games that challenge and expand our notions of where, when, and with whom we can play. This dissertation explores how and to what ends these playful projects reconfigure the technical, formal and social limits of games in relation to everyday life.

     To mark the heterogeneity of this experimental design space at the turn of the twenty-first century, I propose three distinct categories of ubiquitous play and performance. They are: ubicomp games, research prototypes that advance the scientific agenda of ubiquitous computing through game design; pervasive games, performance-based interventions that use game imagery to disrupt the normative conventions of public spaces and private technologies; and ubiquitous games, commercial entertainment projects that replicate the interactive affordances of video and computer games in the real world.

     I examine seminal games from each of these three categories, including Can You See Me Now? (Blast Theory/Mixed Reality Lab, 2001); the Big Urban Game (The Design Institute, 2003); and The Beast (Microsoft, 2001) respectively. My discussion draws on original gameplay media, design statements, and first-person player accounts. My critical framework is based on close readings of the play and performance values expressed in the founding ubicomp manifestos of Rich Gold and Mark Weiser. I argue that the persistent responsiveness developed by players to potential ludic interaction represents a new kind of critical gaming literacy. The gamers grow to read the real world as rich with ludic opportunity, carefully testing everyday media, objects, sites, and social situations for the positive and negative consequences of inscribing each within the magic circle of play. I conclude by outlining a course for the future study of these categories that is based in the pre-digital games theory of Johann Huizinga, Roger Caillois, and Brian Sutton-Smith. I argue that as the perceived opportunities for digitally networked play become increasingly ubiquitous, game designers and researchers must attend more carefully to the insights of philosophers, anthropologists and psychologists who historically have explored play as an embodied, social and highly consequential ritual, always already grounded in the practices of everyday life.

I blogged six months worth of dissertation writing here.

To help you pace yourself through the 573-page text, I'll be posting chapters one at at time in the coming weeks here.

Download chapters:

1  Introduction: A Ubiquitous Computing Approach to Play and Performance

2  Three Kinds of Everywhere: The Multiple Genres of Ubiquitous Play and Performance

3  Colonizing Play: Citations Everywhere, or, The Ubicomp Games

4  Disruptive Play: Spectacle Everywhere, or, The Pervasive Games

Coming soon:

5  Activating Play: Affordances Everywhere, or, The Ubiquitous Games Part I

6   Dangerous Mimesis: Simulation and Dissimulation in Alternate Reality Games

7  Power and Superpowers: The Ubiquitous Games Part II

8  The Collective Play Values of Ubiquitous Games

9  Conclusions: Specifying Play


I dedicate this dissertation to the ubiquitous gamers.

Through their collective and playful performances, they have embodied and embraced a more intimate relationship between gameplay and everyday life.