Exploring the city with your phone

It may seem counterintuitive, but new smartphone games developed by Swinburne are helping to connect people with the places they live.

The Swinburne Urban Codemakers games combine art and digital technology in a smartphone app that allows game players to explore and enjoy public spaces, increasing people’s engagement and sense of belonging.

The games use a real mapped urban environment overlaid with digital images and information that enhances the player experience. Visual markers – in the form of street art – identify physical locations and environments, and objects are linked to related digital animation and data.

How it started

The first Urban Codemakers game was made for the City of Melbourne Laneway Commission as part of the City’s Public Arts Program, from October 2010 to February 2011.

Since this first event, several local governments, arts festivals and events have commissioned the games. This includes:

  • The ISEA Symposium in Istanbul (2011) Sydney (2013) and Hong Kong (2016)
  • St Kilda’s Pop-Up Playground festival for the City of Port Philip (2013)
  • Arts Incognita for Museums Victoria (2015).

In 2016, the City of Yarra Ranges also commissioned adaptations of the game for bushwalks in outer-eastern Melbourne.

And it keeps growing

The most recent version of the game is Wayfinder Live (2016), funded by Creative Victoria, which marks out a journey for urban exploration using street art markers that are scanned by players to access stages of the game. The game leads players through a narrative around cities and urban design, asks them to reflect on their experiences and builds community through multiplayer competitive play.

Wayfinder Live was part of the program for Melbourne International Games Week in 2016, which incorporated PAX Australia, one of the largest international gaming conventions in the southern hemisphere. The game was playable for the 10 days of the festival, and the Game Developers’ Association of Australia used Wayfinder Live to demonstrate the innovation and quality of Australian games to an international audience. 

A new way to explore your surroundings

These games provide a new way for people to engage with their surroundings and fellow citydwellers through play, and provide an incentive for light exercise.

[The game] makes the world more magical for the players; it gets them exercising their imaginations, their observational skills, looking twice at everything … [It] is a good way to get people feeling more confident and aware of their surroundings in urban environments and thereby [feeling] safer.

Robert Reid

Artistic Director Pop-Up Playground

We’d lived here four years and [thought], ‘Yeah, we’ve seen everything’. And then the game showed me that we had not seen even a fraction.

Player A

With multiple benefits

Festivals and industry partners also benefit from the app. Wayfinder Live featured embedded locations and information from Zomato, a social media app providing food and restaurant ratings. Zomato found the game made their listings more visible and encouraged healthy food choices.

The Urban Codemakers project has been carried out since 2010 in connection with the Swinburne games curriculum, which spans two university faculties blending design and technology. To support Swinburne’s games curriculum, the university became a founding member in 2013 of The Arcade, Australia’s first not-for-profit collaborative game development workspace. The Arcade has since been home to many of Melbourne’s leading game industry companies. Swinburne’s involvement with The Arcade has provided networking and collaboration opportunities for Swinburne researchers and students to meet leading game developers and potential partners. The research team has collaborated with civic, arts and commercial stakeholders.

Project lead: Dr Troy Innocent