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How one company hopes to transform physical space using video game principles

Nathan Mishler makes video games. But now he wants to make "non-games" that transform the physical world surrounding his audience.

"Game designers bring people together," Mishler told Polygon. "In real-world games, people have a lot of agency, and gaming is about agency, acting out and doing things. And in a game not ruled by a computer, we allow gamers to truly craft their own experiences."

Mishler and his small company, Studio Cypher, make games that are "non-games," games that aren't technically video games but will sometimes utilizing gaming technology, like Microsoft's Kinect motion control peripheral. The three-man team met while attending graduate school at Indiana University in Bloomington. They began working on a series of alternate reality games that utilized both computers and the physical space, sending participants on scavenger hunts through various locations and across websites.

After graduating in 2005, the trio began branching out, developing educational games and more real-world games. Indiana University's Bloomington branch has hosted a number of TEDx conferences, a series of talks focused on current technology and the spreading of ideas. This past March, Studio Cypher created a game for attendees that used sticker collection as an icebreaking technique.

"Game designers bring people together."

"The organizers of TEDx expressed interest in us making a game to help people icebreak, mix and talk to each other," Mishler explained. "So we created the conference version of our Stickers in Public game."

Stickers in Public uses stickers printed with different rules and directions to apply to the environment they are used in. Mishler explained the stickers are designed to transform spaces and people's experiences in them, at least in some small way, in order to encourage them to communicate with each other. Studio Cypher ran a successful Kickstarter campaign for Stickers in Public and debuted the game at E3, setting up boards in different areas of the convention center with rules meant to give attendees incentive to interact. The game can also be used to set up walking tours, guides and scavenger hunts without involving technology.

"We noticed that certain places, like in a doctor's waiting room, there's nothing to do and everyone is miserable, it's a very somber place," Mishler said. "It's not fun. One of the goals of Stickers in Public is to have a small game that people can play at any time, and you can peel off and stick it up someplace, have something for them to do to take their mind of things and communicate with each other, and all those other benefits of gaming we don't realize we get from it."

Attendees at the TEDx conference using Studio Cypher's sticker game kept stickers on the back of their lanyards where others couldn't see them. Each sticker had an interaction printed on it, such as high-fiving someone or finding something in common with another attendee. Successful completion of an action rewarded players with the sticker belonging to the person they interacted with, as well as one point. The person with the most points at the end of the conference won.

"There's a certain amount of training that has to happen with people who automatically make the connection between 'game' and 'video game.'"

"People really liked it," Mishler said. "And we took it to E3, and people had a lot of fun there too. But at E3, people were surprised it wasn't a video game. They kept asking if the stickers had QR codes, and how to interact with it using their smartphone.

"There's a certain amount of training that has to happen with people who automatically make the connection between 'game' and 'video game.'"

Studio Cypher has made video games for exhibits in the Chicago Natural History Museum, an interactive quiz game as part of a traveling exhibit for Volkswagon and a handful of web-based flash games. But the company's heart lies in non-traditional real-world games.

"We've always highly viewed non-technological games," Mishler said. "People have been playing games for hundreds of thousands of years, and we didn't have computers up until the last 50 or so. Our games are about transforming environments and empowering people.

"And in Bloomington, not everyone has that technology. We assume that all people are connected to the internet and have a smartphone, we assume people have access to these technologies, but our company works in a lot of spaces where people don't have them," he added. "When we work with a client who wants something to help people communicate or connect, we look at who they're audience is and ask ourselves, is a tech game right for this?"

Studio Cypher also helps medical institutions make and implement games for physical therapy patients using the Kinect. Currently the studio is working on two: one designed to help children with pain management following surgery and a game for patients recovering from a stroke, which is currently in development for local Bloomington group Wellplay Health. Mishler couldn't go into detail on either, stating Cypher's clients aren't ready to talk about these games publicly, but did share that he believes gamifying physical therapy can help make recovery more tolerable — and possibly easier.

"Physical therapy for stroke victims is painful, and it's a long and arduous process," he said. "The physicians might tell you they need you to raise your hand up 500 times in a row. That gets very dull and boring very quickly if you don't have any external reason for doing it other than the physician saying so.

"People have been playing games for hundreds of thousands of years."

"The Kinect is great for tracking moment-to-moment all the motions a patient does," he added, noting the peripheral's power to do more than just provide an alternate game controller. "Now we can really watch patients' entire body, and while the Kinect isn't 100 percent accurate, [doctors] can definitely watch more closely where people put their limbs and how far and how fast their movements are."

A major way Kinect-based physical therapy can benefit patients is tied to medical insurance. Games like the ones Studio Cypher is developing can be cheaply installed in homes, allowing people to play the games and work through therapy on their own without shelling out thousands of dollars for specialist visits. Doctors will still be able to monitor patients over time through the data collected by the Kinect.

"Hopefully with all that data they can see where people are succeeding or failing, and hopefully all this data will also let them see things they would not have noticed if they were just watching the patient move around," Mishler said. "There are lots of datamining capabilities there."

Studio Cypher is making games that alter the world around us without using a screen. The group is currently working on a card game, an educational world game to be used in schools and is preparing to launch Stickers in Public to consumers later this month.

"Our goal is really to find more projects that help us transform the lives of people in some way, that's really what we're looking for," Mishler said. "Positive games with positive impact, in a variety of places."

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