Travel Guides that Tell Tales：Learning About Local Issues Through Games
Tina Xie /photo byKent Chuang /tr. byGeof Aberhart
The founders of Clubon: Ansley Wu (right) and Lin Chih-yu. (photo by Kent Chuang)
Since around 2015, when the notion of the “flipped classroom” was gaining traction in Taiwanese education, games have begun to gain increased focus in Taiwan as a new means of communicating knowledge. This trend has now come to extend into society more broadly, with both online and tabletop games that address all manner of topics and issues hitting the market. But compared with these other kinds of game, outdoor augmented reality games bring an added level of sensory input, giving players a deeper gaming experience.
Taiwan Panorama visited the organizations Clubon and Homeless Taiwan to experience their games “Through the Photo Studio” and “Hitting the Streets of Bangka,” observing how their game designs pique players’ curiosity and help them better understand urban history. Through a one-day experience of life on the streets, players can understand the stories of the homeless and the issues involved.
In front of Zhenfu Temple in Taoyuan, the temple attendant—a character in the story—asks if the players recognize the deities on the pogs they are looking at.
Starting with urban history
“Through the Photo Studio” is set against the backdrop of the area around Taoyuan’s Jingfu Temple. The main characters are a boy in senior high school and a strange old man who is always wandering the streets. The two go missing, with only the boy’s diary left behind. In it, the boy mentions how the old man had a camera that could let people travel into the past, and that five of his friends who have lived in the old part of town for years also know about it. The players’ mission is to find these five and get some leads that will help them piece together the truth and find out what happened to the pair.
A group of players in their twenties head for the rarely visited Yonghe Retail Market. In the afternoons the market is closed, and with all the lights off, it provides a dark backdrop for the game. Amid this, a woman in a dress and thick makeup leans against the escalator, hawking a variety of snacks. “What are you doing here?” she asks, sizing up these outsiders. With nothing to go on, the players lob questions at her about the story, eventually accomplishing their task of getting into the market basement.
As they walk down the stopped escalator, their nostrils are bombarded with the various smells of the market. Looking for an ad on the wall, the players walk around the market, gingerly making their way across the wet floor as they inspect every nook and cranny. They split up and quickly collect their clues, and with some hints from the woman, they get a lead on their next destination: “The stream flows without end.”
Players “paddle” around the Dongmen Creek pedestrian area to get a taste of a time when the locals would cross the creek here by boat. (photo by Kent Chuang)
Inside Yonghe Market, a character from the story recounts the history of Taoyuan’s Tiantian Department Store.
Listening and looking
Looking at the clues they’ve gathered, the woman slowly tells her story. In the 1980s, the nine-story Tiantian Department Store opened up not far from there. Inside was a movie theater where she would go on dates. Today, though, it has lost its luster, and now the ground floor is a parking lot, with the rest in ruins. The players start asking her more questions, constantly butting in and interrupting as she talks about Yonghe Market. “Anyway this place will get demolished soon and you all still won’t care,” she spits coldly, noticing the players’ interest lies only in the clues and not at all in the local history. In fact, her words aren’t just for the sake of the game, but are also a reflection of the changes Taoyuan is undergoing.
Taking with them an old photo she gives them, the players head off for Chaoyang Forest Park, on the bank of Dongmen Creek, to look for “Granny Nakashi.” Surrounded by older people walking their dogs and taking strolls, Granny Nakashi blends in with the locals as she sits on her chair playing an accordion. The players greet her and, remembering the previous admonition to respect the locals, listen attentively to Granny Nakashi’s story instead of peppering her with questions.
Later on, as the game continues, they meet the attendant of the Zhenfu Temple, a “sea princess” in the Dongmen Creek pedestrian area, and a poet on Xinmin Old Street. Each character has vivid and rich memories, and in their dialogues with them, the players get a glimpse into the simpler life of early Taoyuan and a taste of the local hospitality.
Dongmen Creek was the cradle of history and culture for the area around Zhenfu Temple, giving rise to a community that lived alongside the water.
Creating understanding through experience
When the game is over, the players assemble and the organizers reveal the answers. But it seems like the players no longer care about that, and instead are more interested in talking about their interactions with the characters from the story. Over the course of the game, they have had conversations with the characters and their teammates, heard parts of Taoyuan’s history they never heard before, and visited rarely noticed buildings; this is their real takeaway. Thanks to the game, the Jingfu Temple area is no longer such an unfamiliar place to them, but a part of the city that has grown from and with Dongmen Creek. Having seen how the city has evolved and developed, the players are also reminded of the need to think about what we want the city to look like as it continues to change.
Founder Lin Chih-yu explains that a wealth of field data and personal experience rather than simply the written word helps people really understand the issues and history involved in the game, giving players a feeling distinctly different from just reading. The players need to take specific actions, leading them to discover corners of the area that are normally overlooked.
“We want to take a different approach to discussing the issues,” says co-founder Ansley Wu. When the two started the operation, they wanted to make tough issues more relatable while also getting everyone involved to discover the stories hidden inside familiar environs. Asked if they have any ideas about what they want to do next, they both laugh, “So many!” On the wall of their studio they have written the words “Our City, Our Duty,” and that dedication is nourishing a wellspring of passion for the issues that occur in places around Taiwan.
In the game “Hitting the Streets of Bangka,” players get a real-world insight into the ways homeless people eke out a living. (photo by Tina Xie)
The idea behind “Hitting the Streets of Bangka” is similarly one of trying to address a public issue, this time the sense of distance between the public and the homeless. Game creator Cyndi Tseng originally proposed a plan to train local homeless people as tour guides, using their experiences living on the streets to show the public another side of Taipei. However, in the end she found that while there were people who wanted to take part in these tours and had an interest in the issue of homelessness, when listening to their guides they couldn’t disguise the boredom they were feeling. Tseng began to reflect on the lack of interaction over the course of the long tours and how this not only led to some people feeling tired of the issue, but also didn’t really help anyone empathize with homeless people and their lives. She turned to game designers Taipei Legend Studio, working with them to develop “Hitting the Streets of Bangka” and give the public a taste of life on the streets.
The game features 11 characters adapted from real people—nine homeless people and two social workers. The mission is to earn a certain sum of money through the goals of each character.
Tasks are many and varied, including holding promotional signs, cleaning, collecting recycling, and doing heavy manual labor. Each of them has its own physical demands and conditions, as well as its own pay. During the game, players get information cards with life-changing information on things like free dinners, charitable giveaways, and under-the-table work opportunities, prompting them to make decisions that will influence the direction of their lives. In addition to these personal choices, there are also “fate cards” which the players cannot refuse and which can dramatically change their lives. Maybe they’ll strike it lucky and a good samaritan will give them some clothes or food, or maybe things will take a turn for the worse as cold weather, a work accident, or just a random assault will lead to injury.
Players perform a lion dance in front of Longshan Temple and experience how homeless people sometimes work for processional performance troupes to earn some money. (photo by Tina Xie)
Changing attitudes through games
The game’s tasks may be straightforward and symbolic, not requiring the players to actually do them, but along the way they will still experience the anxiety of being out of work, the exhaustion of always being on the move, and the feeling of being susceptible to the whims of fate. Such things can leave them feeling helpless, but they are also part of the everyday lives of homeless people, lives they didn’t choose for themselves. Before the game begins, the players must first understand the stories of the homeless, their lives having fallen apart around them because of an accident, losing their job in middle age, or family misfortune, leaving them struggling to recover. Understanding is the first step in the game, as well as being the game’s core value.
At the end of the game, the players need to tally up the money they’ve made. Some people will have achieved their goal, while others will need to keep living on the streets. Not everyone gets a happy ending. Such is the reality of homeless life.
“These are cracks in our social safety net, cracks that leave those who have fallen sliding all the way down to the gutter.” So says one of the social workers in the game, and this is a reflection of the thoughts of many of those who work on the front lines of homelessness. Only by understanding the roots of these problems can we begin to find ways to ensure more people don’t end up in the same predicament.
Xinmin Old Street in Taoyuan becomes a bit more historical and fun for players of “Through the Photo Studio.”
Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama