I’ve just noticed that the Wikipedia page for “pervasive game” redirects to the page for “location-based game,” though I don’t believe the two are congruent. Location-based games leverage the player’s presence at a specific location in some way, while pervasive games don’t necessarily need to.

Humans vs. Zombies, for instance — in which college students hunt each other around a campus — takes place in the physical world around the players, without being dependent on particular locations. One could imagine a host of other gameplay possibilities that leverage mechanics that depend on interactions with other players or with categories of objects or locations (“coffee shops,” for instance) rather than interactions with particular locations (“the Starbucks at 2nd and Market”).

With that in mind, what’s the best definition for a class of games we could call “pervasive”? Here’s my current thinking:

A pervasive game is a game that takes place in the physical world, concurrently with the normal activities of players’ everyday lives.

Let’s pick that apart a little:

  • a game that takes place in the physical world
  • a game that takes place concurrently with the normal activities of players’ everyday lives

Explicated below:

Pervasive games take place in the physical world
This is only to say that there must be a component of gameplay that does not take place online, nor on a game board as in a traditional board game. This could be an interaction with another person, an interaction with a particular physical object, or an interaction with a place or category of place. You may need to tag the human who’s wearing the bandana around her arm (as in Humans vs. Zombies). You may need to take a photo of a coffee cup and later upload it in order to fulfill the requirements of a mission. You may need to meet another player in a coffee shop of your choosing (rather than a particular shop dictated by the game). You may need to pass an object to another player. Etc., the point being that the gameplay requires some kind of interaction with the physical world, even if only on the honor system, as in the case of the coffee cup photo above. (This doesn’t preclude location-based experiences that require the player to be present in specific locations, but it is broad enough to take in experiences with don’t have that requirement attached, which is part of the reason I feel pervasive gaming needs its own definition.)

Pervasive games take place concurrently with the normal activities of players’ everyday lives
This is in the nature of the word “pervasive.” These games should “pervade” the life of the player — i.e., they should “be perceived in every part of” and/or “be present and apparent throughout,” as the dictionary has it. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re always-on experiences. But it does mean that when they are active, they are active not in a constrained area, but throughout most or all of the activities and places of one’s day. Perhaps you don a badge or scarf during the hours you’re available for gameplay; others with the same indicator showing are valid targets / allies / etc. Or perhaps play happens from 9 to 5 in the financial district of your city; you pick out a likely-looking stranger and give him the code word — if he’s also a player and feels like participating at that moment, he gives you the right response. In any case, games and gameplay sessions do not occupy finite periods of time, but rather unfold in a continuous fashion, with the player either always being involved, or dipping in and out of the “world” of play as they would in an MMO like World of Warcraft; gameplay continues, even when a particular player is not actively involved in it.

As definitions go, this one is not too fine-grained, and could probably use some refinement. But it seems a good start, to me. Is such a definition needed? That’s a different question. But I do think it’s important to be able to talk about “pervasive games” as different from “location-based games,” since (to my eye) they entail a different set of conditions, resources, and best practices. All of which are perhaps topics for their own post(s).

All that said, I’m perfectly willing to be wrong about this, which is part of the reason I’m looking forward to reading this dissertation, from Stine Ejsing-Duun at Denmark’s Aarhus University, which appears on first glance to conflate the two terms. Doesn’t matter: as long as people are looking at, playing, and creating this kind of experience, it’s a win.