The Scott Pilgrimage Project: Global Culture, Psychogeography and Gaming the City
At the peak of the Pokémon Go craze a magical thing happened: people started to connect with their cities. Packs of enthusiastic Pokémon hunters spread to every corner of the urban landscape and beyond in the hopes of catching that special virtual critter for their collection. The game tapped into our primal urge to hunt and gather and, for a time, completely altered and disrupted the tired patterns of how we interact with our cities and each other. Families spent time together in the great outdoors, people learned to walk again and, in an unexpected boon for citizenship, folks discovered public art, cafes, monuments, parks, and neighborhoods in their own cities.
Within about six months the craze died out and all but the diehard players returned to business as usual. But be warned: Pokémon Go is a brief and fleeting glimpse of the world that awaits us. Cities and the way we use them will undergo massive changes in the years to come, and if Guy Debord were alive today, he would feel vindicated...and horrified.
Wait. Guy who?
The Bored Guy
Guy Debord was the granddaddy of punk rock, culture jamming, urban exploration, flash mobs, and street artists like Banksy. Now, aren’t you embarrassed you’ve never heard of him? He was a Marxist artist and self-styled revolutionary who founded the Situationists International (SI) group and was highly suspicious of capitalism, mass media, advertising and popular culture. Basically, the foundations of our entertainment-driven Western society. It’s no wonder he liked to call himself Debord Guy (say it in a French accent for additional humor).
The thing is, this guy was far from bored, and was anything but boring. He was one of the most super-entertaining individuals in the annals of intellectual history, and his odd-ball masterpiece “Society of the Spectacle” may become one of the most important books written in the 20th Century. Or at least he thought so, anyway.
His unique and abrasive personality is best captured in Mémoires, his first published work. It was famous because its covers were bound in sandpaper so that it would damage any books placed next to it.
Mémoires is a work of psychogeography, a fancy name for a pretty simple concept. It has been defined in a few different ways, but I like Joseph Hart’s "a whole toy box full of playful, inventive strategies for exploring cities... just about anything that takes pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban landscape."
Woah! Pokémon Go, anybody?
In Debord’s dreamworld, he would creatively refashion cities to become massive art projects that favored pedestrians over cars. He wanted cities to be more playful, fun and interesting, and he envisioned urban designs where people would walk around and gamefully interact with all aspects of the urban landscape.
When he realized cities weren’t going to change anytime soon, he jumped to Plan B and created maps, visual manuals, and decks of card to help citizens engage with their cities in unexpected ways, a strategy he called a dérive. Today, there’s an app for that.
The Pilgrimage Project
This is where Scott Pilgrim enters the picture. He’s the protagonist of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s six-part series of graphic novels and of the hit movie called Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, starring the goofy but lovable Michael Cera. The film and the graphic novel riff on cinema, video games, manga, and the indie music scene to tell the story of a 20-something slacker musician who must battle his love interest Ramona Flower’s 7 exes so she will date him. The story is a weird but strangely alluring blend of hipster and Battle Royale.
It’s also exactly the kind of bestselling pop culture media spectacle Debord was supposed to hate, but something tells me that, deep down inside, Mr. Sandpaper would have loved it. And, whether he would like it or not, I was channeling Debord when I was inspired to create the Scott Pilgrimage Tour of Toronto with my high school Media Studies class.
Bryan Lee O’Malley is a Toronto boy and every major part of the story takes place in some pretty notable downtown Toronto landmarks, including punk rock bars and even a castle. And, as it so happens, all the locations are in the same neighbourhood as the school where I teach. I had Debord on the brain when it hit me: Why not get my students to create a location-based game that would take the player to all the Scott Pilgrim locations? They’re all walking distance from each other, so it would double up as a game and a tour of some interesting Toronto sites. I ran the idea by my students, and they were all over it.
I set up the class as a game development studio that played to my students’ strengths and interests. Roles included lead developers, artists, level designers, and coders/platform managers. Also, two film enthusiasts were tasked to captured the experience in a short documentary. The game was designed on ARIS, an easy to use and accessible open source platform that allows for the creation of location-based games and interactive tours.
My students read the graphic novels, watched the film, pinned a shared Google map with all the locations, and decided on how to structure the experience. Not only would the cast of Scott Pilgrim characters lead the player through the various locations while echoing events in the story, but every stop included historical information about the specific location. It would be a fun way to explore a historical city neighborhood through the lens of a locally produced but globally consumed cultural product.
I think Debord would have been Onboard.
The City as Classroom
The Scott Pilgrimage project was Debord inspired, but it was also a small step towards media guru’s Marshall McLuhan’s vision of the city as classroom, and urban planner extraordinaire Jane Jacobs’ deep belief that a metropolis should be built for people and not cars. Smart cities, self-driving cars, AI, augmented reality, and the internet of things will soon converge to tie these eclectic visions together and invite people to have more meaningful interactions with their urban contexts. One day soon, the legacy of games like Pokémon Go will utterly transform our civic interactions.
In an odd but significant coincidence, the globally influential McLuhan and Jacobs were neighborhood locals who both lived within a few blocks of our school.
While the class created the game they gained an appreciation for their neighborhood, dug into its history, practiced design thinking and visual literacy, learned to work as a team, solved problems, resolved conflicts, and used a variety of resources ranging from Photoshop to the online city archives. Every class buzzed with students involved in unique and specialized tasks as they connected with their city to create a free service that would invite deeper civic engagement. Ultimately, they were motivated because their celebration of local culture was designed for the real world...and it was fun.
I’ll leave the last word to Mr. Debord: “Boredom is always counter-revolutionary. Always.”
Paul Darvasi is an English and Media Studies teacher at Royal St. George's school in Toronto. He's a UBC MET graduate and a Ph.D candidate at York University. He's a game designer, writer, and speaker on games-based learning. Visit Paul's website http://www.ludiclearning.org/